Non-fiction reads, for me, have a heavy burden from the get-go. Though biography tends to be a little more promising, it still has much work to do to rival the pleasure and escapism which a good novel offers.
A Secret Sisterhood, though, does its genre a great service. And it doesn’t stop there, as Margaret Atwood asserts in her foreword: it does the whole of literary history this service. It blows it wide open, in fact, and revolutionises our thinking about and conception of the greatest female writers in the English canon.
Whilst the regurgitated anecdotes about Jane Austen stowing away her manuscript upon hearing the creak of the floorboard, or Charlotte Brontë pining over her Belgian schoolmaster at a lonely Haworth parsonage, provoke a little smile or sympathetic eyebrow-furrow, fans of female writers throughout the 19th and 20th century are craving something new. And yet it’s difficult to illuminate the lives of women who have been celebrated for the best part of 200 years – new biographical details can end up feeling dry, obscure, or minor.
But the unearthing of pivotal authorial friendships largely forgotten by literary and larger society, the tracking of a pattern which seems to suppress the writerly companionship of our most lauded authoresses, is fruitful, relevant, and pretty gosh darn major.
This book – I almost write this novel – imagines lives; it paints pictures, it tells stories, it connects its reader with a series of remarkable women living in different centuries (from one another and from us), and it does so with the charm and finesse of great fiction.
Though the narratorial voice is never intrusive, the experience and common feeling, as well as the expertise, of its female authors pulsates through A Secret Sisterhood. Central to its voice and charisma are two literary women who are, evidently, deeply personally engaged with their subjects. Narrators who understand the feelings which they detail sympathetically, who have experienced the struggles and successes of both writing and friendship, and who are themselves the product of these women’s literary legacy. The authors’ faith in the power of female literary friendship, which they assert through their attention to detail and admiring, sympathetic commentary, enlivens and enriches biographical detail because it gives a strong (if implicit) relevance for today’s readers: the value of friendship between women writers endures, it says, and fostering it today is just as important as discovering its past concealment.
Above all, I love the intimacy of A Secret Sisterhood. The great ‘George Eliot’, who we know as the grand, philosophising, omniscient narrator of the likes of Middlemarch, is here simply Marian: the reader, like her new-found friend Harriet Beecher-Stowe, is on first name terms. We’re afforded an insight into the wobbles and insecurities of these women of legend which turn out to be incredibly relatable. Focussing on the journey of friendship linked to, but not wholly engrossed by, literary concerns seems the perfect means by which to explore and emphasise the humanity, the normality, of these women who have been painted as solitary genii – because who hasn’t tried to interpret, or been upset by, the ambivalent or inconsistent behaviour of those they’re closest to, and question their self- (and sometimes professional) worth in the process?
This intimacy is furthered by the lack of intrusive quotations, and the confidence with which events and details are related which breezily evidences extensive research, hours in libraries not only deciphering but absorbing and evaluating hand-written letters and journals. Occasional, small details, like the fact that Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s script is more slanted than George Eliot’s, involve and intrigue us in this fascinating but arduous process.
Knowing least about the life of Virginia Woolf, I found the fourth and final section which deals with her friendship – often misrepresented as a rivalry – with Katherine Mansfield particularly interesting, especially as its poignant ending seemed to capture an essential sense of the whole book: gone, but not forgotten (anymore).
Its final conclusion, too, provokes a sad though satisfied smile. Much like the understated summary of each section, it laments – but doesn’t chastise afresh – literary society’s neglect and oversight of what we’ve been made to feel were four very delightful, very significant, and very real friendships.
A Secret Sisterhood details the literary friendships of four great female writers: Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Eliot, and Woolf. It’s available to buy on Amazon here (go and do that now) and the blog which inspired it, Something Rhymed, is definitely worth a read.