STARRED REVIEW
October 2017

No woman is an island

By Emily Midorikawa & Emma Claire Sweeney

When we think of the writing lives of iconic female authors Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, we imagine them going it alone, Austen at her tiny table, her sister and mother bustling around her, and Brontë stuck in her father’s spare parsonage, with siblings for company. But those images tell only part of the story, write Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, who detail the writerly friendships that sustained Austen and Brontë, as well as George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, in A Secret Sisterhood.

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When we think of the writing lives of iconic female authors Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, we imagine them going it alone, Austen at her tiny table, her sister and mother bustling around her, and Brontë stuck in her father’s spare parsonage, with siblings for company. But those images tell only part of the story, write Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, who detail the writerly friendships that sustained Austen and Brontë, as well as George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, in A Secret Sisterhood.

Drawing on a wealth of letters, Midorikawa and Sweeney reveal long friendships that were glossed over or even suppressed by descendants and biographers. For Austen, that friend was Anne Sharp, governess to Austen’s niece and an amateur playwright. Brontë first encountered lifelong friends Mary Taylor (who later wrote a feminist novel) and Ellen Nussey in boarding school, creating a middle school friendship triangle. Later, Brontë and Taylor studied French in Belgium, a transformative experience. Eliot grew an epistolary friendship with blockbuster author Harriet Beecher Stowe; the two never met, but they corresponded intermittently for decades after Stowe wrote an admiring letter to Eliot. And as for Woolf, a friendship with short-story writer Katherine Mansfield was fraught, but lasted until Mansfield’s untimely death.

In their approachable style, Midorikawa and Sweeney illuminate these novelists as each struggles to write and publish in an era hostile to women and cope with both anonymity and fame. We also get a sense of the relationships among these four: Brontë complained about Austen to Eliot’s partner, while Eliot herself was a great admirer of Austen. Woolf, in turn, revered Eliot. A Secret Sisterhood is bookended by a lovely foreword from Margaret Atwood and an epilogue noting other female literary friendships.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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A Secret Sisterhood

A Secret Sisterhood

By Emily Midorikawa & Emma Claire Sweeney
HMH
ISBN 9780544883734

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