A Secret Sisterhood

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Auram Press, £20

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Review by Dani Garavelli

THE annals of literature are packed with stormy, but inspirational male friendships. The relationships between Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and Ernest Hemmingway and F Scott Fitzgerald – sparked by admiration and spiked with envy – are celebrated as catalysts for creativity.

But what about famous women writers? Marginalised by their gender and the tendency to have their work dismissed as inferior, their need for like-minded allies was surely greater. Yet how many female friendships have been similarly lionised? More often it's the influence of their menfolk that history obsesses over. The dynamics between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Iris Murdoch and John Bayley and Virgina and Leonard Woolf are all intriguing, but don't literary women feed off each other's genius too?

Friends and fellow writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney decided to investigate. Their book, A Secret Sisterhood, delves into four "hidden" friendships – Jane Austen and unpublished playwright Ann Sharp; Charlotte Bronte and writer and feminist Mary Taylor; George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield – and discovers they were indeed enriching.

Of the four, the section on Austen and Sharp is the least successful. As Sharp was a governess employed by Austen's much wealthier brother, Edward, their rapport was frowned upon. Unfortunately, a dearth of source material means it is presented largely through the eyes of Austen's teenage niece (who was Sharp's charge) and never really comes alive. The other three, however, provide glorious insights into female rivalry and female solidarity and the delicate balancing act required to ensure one doesn't override the other.

Midorikawa and Sweeney are particularly interested in the extent to which friendships can weather criticism and withstand markedly different degrees of public acclaim. Bronte and Taylor first met at Roe Head School and spent time together in Belgium before Taylor emigrated to New Zealand and Bronte returned to the parsonage at Haworth. When Bronte sent her friend a copy of Jane Eyre, Taylor's response was not to congratulate her, but to chide her for "not having a greater political purpose". One can only imagine Bronte's disappointment, but she took the criticism on board, going on to write Shirley – a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars – which dealt more explicitly with social issues.

Similarly, Mansfield's harsh judgement that Woolf's novel Night and Day failed to acknowledge the changes wrought by the First World War may have influenced the more experimental novel Jacob's Room, whose eponymous hero dies on the Western Front.

The robustness of the friendship between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe is all the more remarkable because they came from different continents and never met. Even their epistolary relationship was difficult and fragmented; there were often large gaps between their letters, as one or other of them sulked over a perceived slight. Eliot was hurt when Beecher Stowe failed to adequately express sympathy over the death of her stepson and Beecher Stowe was hurt by Eliot's failure to endorse her decision to write an essay exposing Byron's alleged incestuous relationship with his half-sister.

But the two also had much in common; the pre-eminent female novelists of their generation, they nonetheless knew what it was like to face public opprobrium – Eliot because she was "living in sin" with George Lewes, and Beecher Stowe because some people disapproved of her exposes of the evils of slavery (and Byron).

Such was their mutual affection, they worked hard to understand and thole each other's foibles. So, Eliot learned Beecher Stowe's detachment was a consequence of own bereavements, and Beecher Stowe learned Eliot's anguish over her unmarried status made her hyper-sensitive to teasing.

The most compelling friendship, however, is that between Woolf and Mansfield. Because of the back-biting of the Bloomsbury set (to which Woolf belonged and Mansfield didn't) the pair have often been portrayed as enemies, but Midorikawa and Sweeney suggest a more complex dynamic.

Although Mansfield and Woolf were consumed by professional jealousy – and were merciless critics of each other's output – they were also irresistibly attracted. Even at the height of their feuding, they kept seeking each other out, partly because they loved to talk about writing, but also because they had come to define themselves in relation to one another. When Mansfield died, Woolf was distraught, not only because she missed her, but because her friend's success gave her something to kick against. "'There's no competitor,' [Wolf] lamented, feeling, as she put it, like a lonely cock of the walk," the authors write.

Midorikawa and Sweeney finish by musing about their own friendship and the pressure recently placed on it by only one of them being shortlisted for a competition they had both entered. The positive way they deal with this potential source of friction suggests they too understand the value of sisterly support.