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The books that understand female friendship 

Elizabeth Bennet had Charlotte Lucas; Anne of Green Gables had Diana. Sinéad Gleeson explores female friendship in literature

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By Sinead Gleeson on

Every couple of years, a particular kind of article is trotted out, aimed strictly at book obsessives and literary nerds (*holds up hand*). It’s the clickbait-y kind that asks readers for their hottest/most marriageable literary hero. I don’t get these articles, mainly because I’ve never wanted to run off with Mr Darcy (an egotistical arse, let’s face it) or hook up with an enigmatic Mittel-European-hero-in-translation. 

No thanks, not for me.

The characters in books that I fell hard for were women. Brilliant, smart, funny, sometimes troubled women, who I was sure that off the page I’d become friends with. French writer Anaïs Nin wrote that “each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born”. We’ve all been lucky enough to find these people in life, but many lurk between the pages of books. Imaginary, fictive pals they may be, but it’s hard not to feel inextricably bonded to them. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are rightly hailed for their exquisite prose, but the representation of female friendship ranks as one of the best in all of literature. 

In the first book, My Brilliant Friend, Elena and Lila are young girls growing up in Naples. Ferrante shows us the complex ebb and flow of friendship: the intense closeness that runs parallel to the need to break away and become your own person. The women they eventually become owes a lot to the mutual respect they have for each other. But Ferrante is realistic about friendship: encouragement is a benchmark of their connection, but there are occasional flashes of rivalry too. It also captures that quintessential hallmark of all lasting friendships: even if you don’t see each other all the time, you can pick up the same companionable pace as soon as you plonk down on the other’s couch, glass of wine in hand. 

Ferrante captures that quintessential hallmark of all lasting friendships: even if you don’t see each other all the time, you can pick up the same companionable pace as soon as you plonk down on the other’s couch, glass of wine in hand

I’m in a bookclub (sidenote: bookclubs are a brilliant way of avoiding Ferrante-esque exile from fabulous women you want to see more of) and years ago, we read Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. As well as being a feminist classic, it brilliantly examines the idea that there are friends that we need at certain points in our life. Friends who arrive in our orbit unannounced and teach us things – often when we need them most. Protagonist Mira feels trapped as a suburban wife and mother, and her friend Martha is in a similar situation. They lament their thankless roles and wonder if there’s more to life. Mira eventually escapes her marriage and goes to Harvard where she befriends Val, an outspoken activist who introduces her to second-wave feminism. What’s most striking about the story is that Mira’s way of looking at the world – and her development as a person – is intrinsically linked to nurturing, supportive friends. 

Historical context is a crucial aspect of many literary friendships, whether it’s a personal timeline (Mira and the explosion of feminism) or the broader arc of history. Women’s lives were more cloistered and constrained, and many things – bodies, sex, childbirth, desire – were not spoken of. Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women and the Bennett sisters of Pride and Prejudice had each other to talk to, but many historical women were anchored to a confidante: Elizabeth Bennet had her sisters AND Charlotte Lucas. Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables are “bosom friends”, and what would Kate in Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls have done without Baba? In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie experiences the world while her married pal Pheoby stays at home. When she recounts the ups and downs of her life, Pheoby is inspired, not jealous of her friend. “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus' listenin' tuh you, Janie.” 

This is the kind of friendship everyone aspires to. The friend that won’t judge, will support you unfailingly, is thrilled when your life goes well, and offers a shoulder/wine/hankies when it doesn’t. In Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Berie spends her entire life missing the ache of a friendship that once was, so take note: if you find that kind of pal, in life, or in books, cherish them.

The Best Female Friendships In Literature 
 

Elena Ferrante

Read ALL of four of her Neapolitan novels for one the greatest contemporary friendships. Elena and Lila in My Brilliant Friend are unforgettable characters. 

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

Berie endures a complicated marriage and looks back to the best friendship of her life as a teenager with Sils when they worked at an amusement park. A book I read in my twenties that I wish I’d known about in my teens.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud 

What happens when a friendship is one-sided and one person (seems to) betray the other? An astute, murky examination of the flipside of being BFFs.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

On the surface, this is the story of Janie’s self-actualisation, and coming to terms with race, but it’s also about the strong and supportive friendship between Janie and Phoeby, who have chosen different lives.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark 

Told in flashbacks and set in war-torn London in 1945, the girls of the title are members of the “The May of Teck Club”, a household club for women under 30 who don’t live with their families. Funny, sad and sharp. Contains a brilliant sub-plot about one gorgeous dress that is shared for dates/important occasions.

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

Not only do Anne and Diana have their own sketchy version of Morse Code, Anne accidentally gets Diana drunk for the first time. What more could a girl want?

@sineadgleeson

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