As soon as I brought my signed copy of A Secret Sisterhood home, I did exactly what you would expect—read the last chapter, about the friendship of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, of course.
When I was researching the ‘such friends’ of early 20th century writers’ salons, I had to draw lines somewhere. A lot of really interesting characters just outside the groups, like Mansfield, had to be left behind. Now I had a great chance to build on what I already knew about Virginia.
With excellent primary research, Midorikawa and Sweeney do a great job of dispelling the myth that ‘there could only have been room for one woman at the top. And so Katherine Mansfield was branded Virginia’s enemy.’
It was interesting to discover that Mansfield had her own version of Gertrude Stein’s Alice B. Toklas: the ever-loyal Ida Constance Baker who stuck by her ‘Star.’ Unlike Toklas, who learned about their paintings by dusting them, Ida was a terrible housekeeper.
In front of Hogarth House in Richmond, where Virginia and Leonard hosted Katherine Mansfield
Now that I have been writing and editing for the authors’ blog, Something Rhymed, I decided it was time to go back and read about the other literary friendships they chronicled: Jane Austen and her niece’s governess, the amateur playwright Anne Sharp; Charlotte Bronte and the amazing Mary Taylor, the early feminist author who taught piano to young, single German men; and George Eliot and the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
They did not disappoint.
Midorikawa and Sweeney justify their exploration of these four pairs by pointing out that there has been plenty written about male literary friendships, including by me in this blog—the poets W B Yeats and George ‘AE’ Russell of the Irish Literary Renaissance, playwrights Marc Connelly and George S Kaufman of the Algonquin Round Table, and, of course, the ubiquitous novelists Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald of the Americans in Paris.
The authors contrast the Hemingway-Fitzgerald pairing mostly being characterized as ‘combative friends,’ but Woolf and Mansfield are identified as ‘bitter foes.’
I’m a big fan of primary research, and this book shows how it pays off. The descriptions of the homes and hangouts of the writers, particularly Austen’s brother’s Godmersham Park, ring true, reflecting the first-hand experience of the writers.
Aerial view of Godmersham Park
They also made a point of investigating all available correspondence between friends and family, ‘reading between the lines’ of handwritten letters to build a more accurate picture of the relationships, rather than falling back on the ‘bitter foes’ theory often ascribed to women writers.
You can feel their excitement when they describe finding important notes tucked away in a diary and pointing out nuggets that later show up in the writers’ novels.
Midorikawa and Sweeney also do what I always try to do—stick to the facts. Phrases such as ‘It seems possible that…,’ and ‘It’s tempting to imagine…’ are much preferable to invented conversation or blatant assumptions presented as real. Words such as ‘if,’ ‘may,’ ‘would’ allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.
They also face the same problem that I have had—too many characters! Sometimes the extended family relationships distract from the focus on a specific friendship. It’s hard enough keeping track of my husband’s relatives, let alone Eliot’s.
The excellent background and social history in each section is reminiscent of Who Do You Think You Are? with its abandoned single mothers and children relegated to the workhouse. And cliff-hangers at the end of chapters make the reader eager to find out what happens next.
A Secret Sisterhood leaves you wanting more—so buy it, read it, and then sign up to follow the blog, Something Rhymed!
To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.
To read about American writers, Manager as Muse explores Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.
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Fascinating as always.