Picture: George Eliot and Jane Austen (Getty Images)
George Eliot and Jane Austen (Picture: Getty Images)

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How two close friends uncovered the most important female friendships in literature

Some of the most fruitful female friendships between writers have been overlooked and ignored. Kate Leaver meets the women changing that

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By Kate Leaver on

“You don’t think you can find out anything new about Jane Austen, or any writer of such stature,” says author Emma Claire Sweeney.

And yet, 200 years after Austen’s death, Sweeney did exactly that. During her research for the new book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf, which she co-wrote with her dear friend Emily Midorikawa, Sweeney uncovered a brand-new piece of evidence from Austen’s life. She was studying diary entries from Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny Austen Knight, that described Jane Austen’s friendship with Fanny’s governess, Anne Sharp. Anne Sharp, as they would find out, was an amateur playwright who staged and directed plays with the children she looked after.

“It was extraordinary, really. I had initially taken photocopies of Fanny’s diary home with me and transcribed them, and I came across these references to slips of paper that she kept in the back of the diary. So when I got back to the library, the archivist warned me that they were not going to be there, but grudgingly she agreed to get the diaries back out and look through them and… she was astounded as I was when we discovered that the slips of paper were still there, 200 years on.’

Fanny’s diaries are made of delicate red calf-skin with a big metal clasp on the front – they’re extremely precious and delicate, obviously. Sweeney wasn’t actually allowed to touch or handle the books; they’re too fragile for that. The archivist was the one who gently foraged around in the back cover of these books and located the slips of paper, which had been missing two centuries. As it happened, what Fanny has written on these slips of paper was directly relevant to Sweeney and Midorikawa’s research on female literary friendship: it was all about the plays that her governess Anne Sharp put on with the children. It added beautifully to the picture of a friendship Sweeney and Midorikawa were starting to envisage: the impoverished, gifted writer Jane Austen befriending the governess of her selfish, wealthy brother’s daughter. It would have been a difficult friendship, given the difference in class, but Sweeney and Midorikawa have found enough evidence to suggest it was genuine and deeply affected both women.  

This wasn’t the only time these two researchers uncovered genuinely new material from the life of a legendary female author. When they were in the New York Public Library, in a locked archive room, Midorikawa found letters written between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe that had never been published. She frantically called Sweeney over, whispering of course because it was a library, and they pored over these unseen documents with the excitement of children.

During the lifetimes of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, both writing and friendship were dangerous acts for a woman

“George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe had this kind of epistolary friendship and it has been briefly mentioned in biographies before but if it has appeared, it’s been sort of ‘these two women corresponded’ with nothing more said about it,” says Midorikawa.

“People are very reluctant to call them friends, even though they refer to themselves as friends and it was a lifelong friendship that lasted from the moment they exchanged letters to when George Eliot died,” adds Sweeney.

“I’d seen extracts of these letters before but there are stacks of pages with this warmth that bubbles out of them,” says Midorikawa. “It just amazes me that not all of these letters had ever appeared in print – these two extraordinary writers, writing to each other! It is strange that it’s been overlooked.”

Strange but, sadly, not surprising that history should choose to hide the friendships between these remarkable female writers. Sweeney and Midorikawa believe that during the lifetimes of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, both writing and friendship were dangerous acts for a woman. Female writers were a threat to a very male pursuit and as such they were always depicted as mad spinsters, lonely hermits or social outcasts. It was only because Sweeney and Midorikawa have enjoyed their friendship as writers so much that they even thought to look into the friendships of literary legends.

“Without our friendship, I don’t know if we would’ve given up on writing, but it certainly would have felt like something was missing,” says Midorikawa. “It got us thinking whether other writers had friendships like ours, writers from the past.”

“We kept coming up with examples of male pairs,” says Sweeney. “Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. At the beginning we were struggling to come up with any female pairs so we started to wonder why, why do we seem to know less about these female writers and their friendships when they’re amongst our favourite authors? We decided to start to look into it to see if they did have friends that supported them and we discovered that almost all of them do.”

A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf is published by Aurum Press on June 1

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George Eliot and Jane Austen (Picture: Getty Images)
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