A Secret Sisterhood explores four literary friendships: between Jane Austen and her brother's playwriting employee Anne Sharp; between Charlotte Brontë and her strong-minded schoolmate, feminist writer Mary Taylor; between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, American author of Uncle Tom's Cabin; and between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, whose complicated friendship other biographers have reduced to rivalry.
The book grew out of the blog Something Rhymed, which also explores the relationships between famous women writers. The blog grew out of the longstanding friendship between writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney.
"We met 16 years ago when we were both young graduates from university," Midorikawa told Spine. "We were 21 years old, living in rural Japan working as English teachers." The two quickly grew close, traveling across the Japanese countryside to visit one another. But only after a year of friendship did each admit they were harboring a secret desire: to be a writer. "It seemed quite an audacious ambition, and neither of us had any idea how you'd go about it."
Years later, back home in the UK, the friendship thrived as each worked towards her goal. They each met with many hurdles along the way, but their writing careers eventually progressed — they secured agents, and between the two of them published articles, short stories, and books. Reflecting on their hard-won successes, they felt thankful. "We talked about how much harder it would have been if we hadn't had the other person in our life," Midorikawa said.
Wondering what other writers benefited from the particular genre of friendship shared between word people, they immediately thought of men: Hemingway-Fitzgerald, Byron-Shelley. But what about women?
Challenging themselves to discover a female literary friendship every month for a year, they set up Something Rhymed. The year came and went, and still they found more friendships to explore. Readers responded enthusiastically, and demanded a book.
"When we first started off with the book, we were focused on as many as 14 pairs," Sweeney said. "The more research we did, the more we realized just how much more there was to tell." But how to choose between Jean Rhys and Jane Austen? Agatha Christie and Elizabeth Barrett Browning?
Sweeney wrote her PhD thesis on Virginia Woolf, and calls the 20th century modernist "the greatest influence on me as a fiction writer." Woolf was in!
Midorikawa's mother was a great fan of the Brontë sisters, and like the Brontës, Midorikawa grew up in Yorkshire. "I was very keen to have one of the Brontë sisters in the book." Charlotte, in.
As for George Eliot, blog readers loved her. Jane Austen, first in time, influenced the writing of the other three and made for an obvious fourth.
Biographers and critics alike have examined and re-examined the lives of all four of these canonic writers, and so Midorikawa and Sweeney were astounded to discover new or overlooked material, especially on Eliot and Austen.
George Eliot achieved literary renown during her own lifetime. In the same era, American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe was both well known and well read. The two, though they never met, sent letters back and forth for many years. Despite this fact, though both were literary legends, the epistolary friendship between the two superstars hadn't been explored at any length.
"Several biographies about the women don't really mention the other woman at all," Midorikawa said. "If the other name does come up, they tend to refer to them as correspondents rather than friends. We really wanted to find out about that. Until we had had a chance to read their letters, we weren't really able to get a sense of how close they were."
Before they first dove into Jane Austen, on their blog, the two writers assumed nothing new could be found. Thanks in part to well-preserved leather-bound pocket diaries kept by Austen's niece Fanny, they discovered Austen's friendship with Fanny's governess Anne Sharp, drawing-room playwright who created scripts for Austen's family to perform.
Midorikawa and Sweeney spent hours, days, weeks, months researching not only the relationships between these women, but also the worlds — domestic, personal, political, intellectual — through which each travelled. Such details, Sweeney explained, were crucial to writing a strong piece of narrative nonfiction. "Our skills at characterization and setting, which we developed as fiction writers, we used in our nonfiction. We very much wanted to interweave our documents and discoveries with a story that would capture the readers' imagination and their interest."
Unlike the women in a Secret Sisterhood, who wrote alone, Midorikawa and Sweeney set out to write their book in tandem. "We started off writing together, literally sitting at the same desk. One of us would have their fingers on the keyboard, but we were constructing sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, together," Sweeney recalled. "This was quite a laborious process, but overall it was very, helpful because it helped us create a consistent, joint voice that is quite different from the voice we use when we're writing separately."
Their hard work meant their publishing houses, Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US, suggested little in the way of major structural edits. Primarily, their editors helped them figure out how best to segue between abstract reflections and descriptive scenes. The book was published last summer in the UK, and this fall in the US.
Midorikawa and Sweeney share a strong relationship, grown even deeper through the process of co-authoring a book. But each is eager to return to days of more friendship, less co-work, and to reconnecting not only with their own voices through separate writing projects, but also with the writing voices of each other.
"I love discovering aspects of Emily's work that are totally unexpected," Sweeney said.
Midorikawa responded in kind. "I feel exactly the same."
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Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.