From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
If friends are family that we choose, then what do our friendships reveal about us? And what might the literary friendships of women tell us about their lives and their work? Authors and friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney examine the relationships of iconic literary women in A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to uncover “a treasure-trove of hidden alliances.” (xvi)
The Myth of Creative Isolation
A Secret Sisterhood questions the premise that most women writers have worked as isolated geniuses.
Following a foreword by celebrated author Margaret Atwood, Midorikawa and Sweeney write in their introduction:
“The Jane Austen of popular imagination is a genteel spinster modestly covering her manuscript with blotting paper when anyone enters the room. Charlotte Brontë is cast as one of three long-suffering sisters, scribbling away in a drafty parsonage on the edge of the wind-swept moors. George Eliot is remembered as an aloof intellectual who shunned conventional Victorian ladies. And Virginia Woolf haunts the collective memory as a depressive, loading her pockets with stones before stepping into the River Ouse.” (xii)
But as A Secret Sisterhood reveals, these women did not work in isolation. They had friends who were also writers. Friends who supported, inspired, and challenged them to overcome the many obstacles in their paths.
Subtle Clues to Relationships
The book is divided into four major sections, each comprising three chapters per author: Jane Austen & Anne Sharpe, Charlotte Brontë & Mary Taylor, George Eliot & Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Katherine Mansfield & Virginia Woolf. Letters and diaries make up much of the biographic material. For example, Austen’s friendship with Anne Sharpe was actively whitewashed from accounts of her life by the Austen family. However, clues to their friendship survive. For example, Jane chose to gift Anne a presentation copy of Emma upon its publication, indicating that Austen considered Anne a person of consequence, whether her relatives did or not.
“Unlike the presentation copy sent to [Maria] Edgeworth, the one Jane set aside for Anne would be given without any self-serving designs. The governess and amateur playwright, whom she’d favored over her brother Edward when choosing her twelve recipients, clearly couldn’t help her achieve the fame and fortune she so desired. Here was a gesture that spoke simply of Jane’s gratitude for Anne’s consolation during those long years when she too had been unpublished, as well as the celebrations they’d since enjoyed.” (56)
Like the Austen & Sharp friendship, the other literary friendships profiled in A Secret Sisterhood are filled with detail and insight. Each literary friendship is given equal weight—none are sketched or glossed, but rather carefully considered and explored.
Warts and All Portraiture
Thankfully, Midorikawa and Sweeney do not ignore the complicated nature of the friendships they portray. For example, Jane is also found complaining to Cassandra about Anne having sent “quite one of her Letters.”
“She sarcastically summarized the governess’s suffering to Cassandra: “she has been again obliged to exert herself more than ever—in a more distressing, more harassed state—& has met with another excellent old Physician & his wife with every virtue under Heaven, who takes to her & cures her from pure Love & Benevolence.” (56–57)
There are petty quarrels, snarky comments, and outright betrayals. But rather than diminishing the friendships between these women, they demonstrate their power to withstand trials and challenges, from both within and without.
As Margaret Atwood eloquently points out in the forward:
“Once people become famous their images tend to congeal. They become engravings of themselves, and we think of them as always having been grown-up and respectable…These four women, however iconic they have now become, were not two-dimensional icons, nor were they plaster angels: they were real people, with all the neediness, anxiety, ardor, and complexity that come with the territory.” (xii)
A Web of Literary Connections
Eight pages of black and white illustrations add visual dimension to the lives and friendships revealed in A Secret Sisterhood. A select bibliography section and over 250 detailed notes provide references for any reader interested in learning more about these literary friendships. I especially enjoyed the epilogue subtitled “A Web of Literary Connections” that touches on additional literary friendships between women writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, and other pairs of women writers. These numerous examples of literary friendships between women demonstrate undermine the myth of the solitary woman writer.
“And so, misleading myths of isolation have long attached themselves to women who write: a cottage-dwelling spinster; an impassioned roamer of the moors; a fallen woman, shunned; a melancholic genius. Over the years, a conspiracy of silence has obscured the friendships of female authors, past and present. But now it is time to break the silence and celebrate this literary sisterhood—a glimmering web of interwoven threads that still has the power to unsettle, to challenge, to inspire.” (263)
A Secret Sisterhood combines literary research with engaging narrative. While some readers may question authors who draw parallels between their own lives and those that they research, I think that Midorikawa and Sweeney’s interpretations are no less likely than others that might be posited. The long-distance friendship between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, conducted mainly by correspondence, was one of my favorites, especially as I knew very little about Harriet Beecher Stowe. In A Secret Sisterhood, Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney convincing argue that the lives of famous women writers were enriched by literary friendships in ways that have been overlooked or discounted for far too long. Readers with an interest in biography and women’s literature will want to add this book to their TBR lists.
5 out of 5 Stars
- A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
- Mariner Books; Reprint edition (October 16, 2018)
- Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (368) pages
- ISBN: 978-1328532381
- Genre: Nonfiction, Literary Criticism, Literary Biographies
We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Mariner Books © 2018; text Tracy Hickman © 2022, austenprose.com.