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Female friends are special. I often wonder what I would do without them. So I like to take note of stories about longtime women friends.

This was particularly true during the past week. Knowing that today I was on the blog tour schedule to publish a review of A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, stories of women’s friendships kept popping out at me.

I’ll share just two of them before adding the promised review.

Akron Beacon Journal article featuring the lifelong friendship of two women, now 94 and 100.

Women friends on a local level

Yesterday, the front page of my local newspaper featured such a close friendship.  It told the story of two women — one black, one white — who led a Girl Scout troop in an all-white community back in 1954 and became fast friends, as did their daughters.

Women friends on a national level

Last week, a lecture I attended by Rebecca Traister, author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (2016) spoke of the importance of women’s friendships throughout U.S. history. She also emphasized how those intimate friendships sustained and supported women when their marriage relationships, often entered into solely for financial reasons, did not.

Women’s literary friendships

Women writers had sustaining friendships with female friends, too. But as  Margaret Atwood says in her foreward to A Secret Sisterhood, female literary friendships have often been overlooked.

Midorikawa and Sweeney bring them into the limelight in their 2017 book, A Secret Sisterhood. Now out in paperback in the UK, it explores the “secret sisterhoods” entered into by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. My focus will be on the book’s final section, whose three chapters explore the ambivalent friendship between Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

Woolf and Mansfield: friends or foes, cat or mouse?

Anyone who studies Woolf knows that there is much discussion of the love-hate relationship between Woolf and Mansfield. In Secret Sisters, Midorikawa and Sweeney bring it into clear focus.

They are careful to describe the complicated relationship between the two, showing us how and why Woolf considered Mansfield both her “bitter opponent and beloved friend — unrivaled by any other” (260). They use excerpts from letters, diaries and more to compile a detailed timeline that clarifies the relationship without oversimplifying its nuances.

The authors follow the relationship between the two writers from its spring 1917 beginnings in Mansfield’s humble Chelsea flat, where Woolf offered Mansfield the opportunity to have her work published with the newly formed Hogarth Press, to the news, delivered by Woolf’s maid Nellie Boxall in January 1923, that Mansfield had died.

In between, Midorikawa and Sweeney document the ups and downs of their professional alliance, as well as their personal relationship. Among them are Garsington gossip, the rivalry between the two to use the Garsington garden as the setting for a short story, and the ways they supported each other’s literary careers while engaging in creative competition.

We also get an inside view of Mansfield’s ill health and financial challenges, Woolf’s mixed feelings about Mansfield’s work, and the insecurities each woman had about the other as both a trusted friend and literary sounding board.

A Secret Sisterhood lays out the intimate inner workings of the friendship and competition between Woolf and Mansfield, setting theories and rumors to rest and illuminating a relationship characterized by a “rare sense of communion” (250) that has interested their readers for decades.

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A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, is out in paperback in the UK today.

In the U.S. we have to wait until Oct. 16 for the paperback version of the hardcover book that debuted last October. But that doesn’t mean we must wait to read about it.

Touring the blogs

The authors have arranged a blog tour to celebrate the paperback release as well as Women’s History Month. The tour started today, March 1, and runs through March 19, with a variety of bloggers publishing reviews of the book.

The first stop on the tour is A View from the Balcony. Last, but not least is Blogging Woolf. If you have read the book — or read about it — you’ll know BW will focus on the three chapters and 63 pages of “Part 4: Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.” But I’m also eager to read the forward by Margaret Atwood.

Thanks to Emily and Emma for the invitation to participate in the blog tour. The hardcover version of their book has been front and center on my bookshelf for months now, so I’m glad to have a deadline to spur my reading.

Thoughts from an author

“My PhD. was on Woolf, so the Mansfield and Woolf section was a particular joy to research,” wrote Emma in an email.

“As for Margaret Atwood — what an act of literary sisterhood. We approached her after a public lecture (something we share in the book’s epilogue), and could hardly believe it when she agreed to take a look.”

Catching the eye of a 12-year-old

It’s title even caught the interest of my 12-year-old grandson, Michael, who was home sick from school with a tummy bug this week. Camped out on my home office sofa while his mom was at work, his eyes lit on the cover of Secret Sisterhood. It must have sounded mysteriously intriguing because he asked what the book was about. I gave him a two-sentence synopsis.

That may have burst the mystery bubble for a bright boy whose main interests are math, science, history, PlayStation, fishing, and baseball (not necessarily in that order). But I just might send him the link to my March 19 review anyway. After all, one is never too young to start appreciating Woolf.

Get the full tour

The full tour schedule is listed below, and was announced on the authors’ blog, Something Rhymed.

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Vanessa & Her SisterNearly everyone has reviewed Priya Parmar’s novel, Vanessa and Her Sister. But I haven’t read much about Lea Rachel’s The Other Shakespeare.

Together, they make up a tale of two sisters–Virginia Woolf’s and William Shakespeare’s.

Parmar’s novel drops us down into the middle of the Bloomsbury Group, as seen by Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell. Rachel’s fictional work creates a life for Judith Shakespeare, the character Woolf imagined for us in A Room of One’s Own (1929).

I read both novels recently. And while I would not want to miss Parmar’s, I enjoyed Rachel’s more. The reason? It was easier for me to suspend my disbelief about the life of a young woman in the sixteenth century who is Shakespeare’s sister than it was for me to do the same for Woolf, Vanessa and their friends.

Vanessa and Her Sister

Because I know a bit more about the Bloomsberries than I do about Shakespeare and his family, I felt uncomfortable while I read Vanessa and Her Sister. At first, I read with a hyper-critical eye, trying to separate truth from fiction, on the alert for any misstep, any word or phrase, action or tone that didn’t ring true. I wondered whether the telegrams and letters Parmar includes in the novel were copies of actual documents. Then, when I did some online research, I wondered why they weren’t.

By the middle of the novel, I relaxed a bit, enjoying the story Parmar spins so expertly — and happy to feel as though I was privy to the inner workings of this famous group of friends, thanks to Parmar’s thorough research. The diary entries from Vanessa and the letters and telegrams from other Bloomsbury Group members — all created by Parmar — made Vanessa’s perspective on this group of friends within which she played a central role seem mostly believable to me.

But my anxiety returned when the author covers the twisted relationship between Virginia and Vanessa’s husband Clive Bell and delves into Vanessa’s tortured reaction to it. It was just too difficult for me to focus that much of my attention on such a one-sided view of Virginia’s very bad behavior as she woos Clive’s affection and attention away from Vanessa, who has so recently given birth to the couple’s first child, Julian. After that, I couldn’t wait for the book to end.

Critical reaction

Lesley McDowell, the author of The Independent’s review of Vanessa and Her Sister, had the opposite reaction. She wished the book “would never end” and praised its delicious gossip, beautiful writing and the near-perfect portrayal of the sibling rivalry between sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

Other reviews of the book and interviews with the author include an NPR interview, reviews in the New York Times and Wilton Bulletin, and mentions in USA Today, the New York Daily News, The Missoulian, and on the Glamour blog

The Other Shakespeare

The Other Shakespeare, which I read next, is much lighter fare, despite its tragic ending. Rachel’s tale of Judith, The Other Shakespearethe imagined elder sister of William Shakespeare who creates little dramas and organizes her siblings to stage them in the woods near their family home, was entertaining.

Rachel’s novel kept my interest and attention as it follows Judith from her small village to London, exploring her life as well as the gender politics that her role as daughter, sister, servant, lover and writer entail. The author does a nice job of detailing the ways Judith is denied opportunity and fulfillment simply because she is female. She works them into the story quite neatly, thus developing Woolf’s original premise about Judith in A Room of One’s Own.

And the novel includes references to Woolf and her writing, the identification of which entitle the reader to enter a contest for an Amazon.com gift card giveaway. You can even try out the first chapter of the novel for free by downloading the first chapter as a PDF.

Both books are worth a read. Read Vanessa and Her Sister if you are a true Woolf devotee and don’t want to be left out of the discussion about the novel. And read The Other Shakespeare for fun as well as insights into a woman’s life in 16th-century England.

Then stay tuned for Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent.

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white gardenMany people consider mystery novels the perfect escape. Whether you dip into the genre regularly or infrequently, Woolfians may find it hard to resist a literary “whodunit” with Virginia Woolf at its center.

Stephanie Barron preceded this novel with a series of Jane Austen mysteries; she professes to enjoy making things up about real people, knowing they might not approve of her embellishments on their lives.

The White Garden revolves around the discovery of a new diary, believed to be in Woolf’s hand, but started the day after she was supposed to have drowned herself in the River Ouse. Intending to commit suicide that day, she goes instead to Sissinghurst, where she is comforted and cared for by Vita Sackville-West.

And there’s more, much more, including Woolf’s discovery of some nefarious wartime activities involving Maynard Keynes and others in the Bloomsbury circle, but it’s all too convoluted, and I wouldn’t want to give anything away.

And of course there’s the contemporary angle. The diary is found by an American garden designer, who is at Sissinghurst in order to duplicate the White Garden for her wealthy New York employer, while at the same time trying to uncover a hidden secret in her own family. A number of people become involved in the intrigue and with each other, including the Head Gardener at Sissinghurst, manuscript specialists at Sotheby’s, and a Woolf scholar at Oxford.

Barron reminds her readers that this is fiction, hoping that they will enjoy exploring the possibilities and forgive the license that she takes. There’s plenty of that, from the bald facts of Woolf’s death and the implausibility of the plot to some manipulation of the topography, so one has to suspend disbelief and just go with it. And in the process, you can soak up the atmosphere of Sissinghurst, Monks House and Charleston Farmhouse along with Oxford and Cambridge. You could do worse!

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Finding MyselfI just finished reading something wild and wicked, wonderful and Woolfian. Knowing that I’m always looking for fiction with Woolf references, Beth Hicks (an Australian friend and Woolfophile) told me about Toby Litt’s Finding Myself, a 2003 novel about a novelist who is writing a novel called From the Lighthouse.

Victoria plans to invite a group of acquaintances to spend a month together, all expenses paid, during which she will observe them, with their consent, and write about them. This book is her manuscript, her “docu-novel,” with handwritten comments and deletions from her editor.

She finds a house on the Suffolk coast with not just a lighthouse, but “all the atmosphere one could desire. I kept expecting Virginia Woolf herself to waft round the corner, silk gloves in hand.”

She buys copies of To the Lighthouse for everyone to read for what she envisions as “an extended discussion of Virginia’s masterpiece, all secretly examining the parallels with our own relationships.” And she will, on their last evening, serve boeuf en daube.

She notes in her diary that if it comes out right, it will be “just the best beach book in the world, ever: naughty, gossipy—with just the right ratio of tittle to tattle. Virginia Woolf’s letters are all very well, but they don’t exactly make one throb, do they?”

Woolf is Victoria’s muse and is never far from her mind. When the guests decide to go to church, she is dismayed: “We’re meant to be the Bloomsbury set—who would never have been caught engaging in Anglicanism.”

Writing her notes by hand “seems more fitting to the spirit of Virginia” when necessitated by a computer malfunction. But from the start, the experiment fails to live up to Victoria’s expectations, and a hilarious romp ensues.

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Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s terrifying picture of the future run amok, starts with an epigraph from To the Lighthouse: “Was there no safety? No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air?”

Woolf appears in two seemingly inconsequential instances of name-dropping that nevertheless help establish and substantiate Jimmy/Snowman’s literary background. Recalling great human achievements, all of which were relegated to the distant past, he recites a list to help commit them to memory: “The Divine Comedy. Greek statuary. Aqueducts. Paradise Lost. Mozart’s music. Shakespeare, complete works. The Brontes. Tolstoy. The Pearl Mosque. Chartres Cathedral. Bach. Rembrandt. Verdi. Joyce. Penicillin. Keats. Turner. Heart transplants. Polio vaccine. Berlioz. Baudelaire. Bartok. Yeats. Woolf” (79).

Recalling his university days at The Martha Graham Academy, “named after some gory old dance goddess of the twentieth century” (186), he explains that there was no longer a need for film-making and video arts, as anyone could splice together or digitally alter whatever they wanted. “Jimmy himself had put together a naked Pride and Prejudice and a naked To the Lighthouse, just for laughs” (187).

Also notable is a passage that evokes the interludes that begin each section of The Waves: “The sun is above the horizon, lifting steadily as if on a pulley; flattish clouds, pink and purple on top and golden underneath, stand still in the sky around it. The waves are waving, up down up down” (147).

In an essay written not long before Oryx and Crake, Atwood describes rereading To the Lighthouse in her early sixties, appreciating it in ways that she couldn’t when she first read it at the age of 19. She remarks on the patterns, the artistry, the resonance, “the way time passes over everything like a cloud, and solid objects flicker and dissolve” (Writing with Intent, 241-242). Little wonder that it left an impression that showed up in her next and perhaps most ambitious novel.

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women writers at workI love to read writers talking about their lives, their work, their influences.

A 1989 Paris Review collection, Women Writers at Work, includes interviews from the 1960s to the mid-1980s with Isak Dineson, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Nadine Gordimer, Joan Didion, and others. Not surprisingly, Virginia Woolf pops up a few times.

Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) cites three “almost perfect novels:” A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, A Passage to India by E.M. Forster and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. “Every one of them begins with an apparently insoluble problem, and every one of them works out of confusion into order. The material is all used so that you are going toward a goal. And that goal is the clearing up of disorder and confusion and wrong, to a logical and human end.”

Eudora Welty (1909-2001) says of Woolf: “She was the one who opened the door. When I read To the Lighthouse, I felt, Heavens, what is this? I was so excited by the experience I couldn’t sleep or eat. I’ve read it many times since, though more often these days I go back to her diary. Any day you open it to will be tragic, and yet all the marvelous things she says about her work, about working, leave you filled with joy that’s stronger than your misery for her.”

Several interviews discuss the troublesome label of “woman writer.” The always acerbic Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) names Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen as what she calls “a certain kind of woman writer who’s a capital W, capital W.” These signify “sensibility,” whereas she advocates for “sense,” represented by Katherine Anne Porter, George Eliot and possibly Eudora Welty.

Katherine Anne Porter, by the way, calls McCarthy “one of the wittiest and most acute and in some ways the worst-tempered woman in American letters.”

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