I’m thrilled for The Good Professor – Vanderbilt’s Roger Moore – to return to Bacon today!
The Good Professor is super-smart but not self-serious. He has an openness of spirit and delight in the world that is entirely appealing.
Today, Roger shares his thoughts on a recent great read, A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.
In an age when most of us purchase our books from online retailers like Amazon, it is gratifying to discover the occasional bricks-and-mortar bookstore that still offers the old-fashioned pleasure and thrill of discovering a book that you did not know you wanted to read. Heywood Hill, located on Curzon Street in Mayfair, is such a shop. To enter is to walk back into a London that many of us considered long gone. Its tall, glass-doored bookcases, antique tables piled high with recent editions, and worn carpet suggest the drawing room of a well-loved and venerable private house rather than a business establishment.
Heywood Hill’s carefully curated collection favors British fiction, history, and biography, which is not surprising considering its deep associations with some of the greatest twentieth-century British authors—Nancy Mitford worked here during World War II, and Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, and John Betjeman were frequent visitors. The shop also locates used and rare books. The staff found me an out-of-print copy of Thomas Traherne’s Centuries as well as a fine edition of Archbishop John Tillotson’s sermons from 1720. As with all good bookshops, the staff is attentive and knowledgeable. On one visit, on remarking to a member of staff that I could not find a particular volume of Betjeman’s poetry, the manager emerged from another part of the building to express his regret and to offer his suggestions as to similar books I might like. On another, when I commented approvingly about a display of book recommendations by some of Heywood Hill’s frequent customers, an employee offered me the chance to make my own recommendation. As the other customers included Salman Rushdie and Hilary Mantel, I humbly declined.
It was with great excitement last December that I received my Christmas gift from my husband, Brian: “A Year in Books” subscription from Heywood Hill, specially curated for my personal tastes! Brian wisely chose the six- rather than twelve-book subscription—my bookshelves are literally groaning, and I already have a long list of books to read this year. The beautiful announcement of the gift instructed me to submit an online questionnaire about my reading tastes. Now, my tastes are eccentric—anybody else out there also enjoy a good evening with Tillotson’s sermons?—but I figured that, if anyone could find books to please me, it would be the wonderful staff at this shop.
They did not disappoint. The first selection arrived in early February—Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Bronte, Eliot, and Woolf (Aurum Press, 2017).
The book explores the significance of four female friendships on the life and work of these canonical women writers. Some of these friendships have received more attention than the others, but this book’s authors go into greater detail on the genesis and development of each friendship and claim that, in each case, they exerted a previously unremarked or underestimated influence on each writer’s work. Literary critics and historians frequently focus on the importance of friendships for male authors—Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, for example—but women writers are too often “mythologised as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses”. The authors attempt to combat these myths—Austen hiding her manuscripts whenever she heard the outer door creak or Bronte wandering the Yorkshire moors—and give us a deep, nuanced view of the creative process for women writers. Midorikawa and Sweeney write from experience: as they relate in the introduction, they met seventeen years ago while training to be English-language teachers in Japan and have since supported each other’s writing lives, culminating in this jointly-authored book.
Women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries consistently teetered on the edge of financial ruin, as The Secret Sisterhood amply testifies. Following the death of her father, Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister moved from one unsalubrious location to another, first in Bath and then in Southampton, as they were almost entirely dependent on her much richer brothers’ often-stingy charity. Even after her brother Edward gave the trio a small cottage of their own in the picturesque village of Chawton, where he and his family lived in great splendor at the manor house, the ladies still often relied on long visits with other family members in order to save money. Austen’s economic vulnerability cemented her friendship with Anne Sharp, a budding author hired as a governess to teach some of Austen’s nieces. The role of governess was an unenviable one—she was neither servant nor member of the family, despite often hailing from a genteel background—and Austen could see in her friend’s awkward position something of her own. The two women encouraged each other’s writing lives, and Austen seems to have desired to make Anne a part of her all-female household. Unlike Austen, however, Sharp did not have wealthy relatives, and she was forced into several stultifying teaching positions without ever publishing any of her work. A Secret Sisterhood is particularly valuable for the eloquent way it describes the power of female friendships in sustaining Austen, Bronte and the others through the financial and personal challenges they faced. It does so, however, without sugarcoating them. Like all friendships, these wounded as well as nourished. Woolf caused a breach in her relationship with Katherine Mansfield by ridiculing her to her Bloomsbury friends, Bronte never quite got over her friend Mary Taylor’s youthful judgement of her as “ugly,” and Austen made light of Anne Sharp’s tiresome medical complaints.
Midorikawa and Sweeney emphasize the importance of each friendship for honing and sharpening the work of these authors. Anne Sharp’s praise for Pride and Prejudice cheered Austen, but she also valued her friend’s opinion that “I confess I prefer P & P” to Mansfield Park (a preference with which many Janeites have agreed over the years!). Mary Taylor was pleased with Jane Eyre but pushed Bronte to be more socially conscious in her fiction. Katherine Mansfield criticized Woolf for “suppressing” the First World War in her novel Night and Day, an omission Woolf later addressed in Jacob’s Room.
The authors of A Secret Sisterhood see their work as a first step toward eliminating “the conspiracy of silence [that] has obscured the friendships of female authors,” and in this they offer a valuable service to those who love Austen, Bronte, and the others. I hope others follow in their footsteps. But more important than this service is their simple reminder of the enduring power of friendship. Each of us knows that the best friends alternately irritate and inspire us; they push us forward while not being afraid to remind us subtly of our clay feet. It is good to learn more about how some of our greatest writers were shaped by these deep, complicated connections.
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Roger E. Moore is Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science and Principal Senior Lecturer in English at Vanderbilt, where he has taught since 1995. A specialist in early-modern English literature and religion, he is the author of scholarly articles on Christopher Marlowe, Sir Philip Sidney, and Geoffrey Chaucer, among others, in SEL, Religion and Literature and Studies in Philology. His most recent work explores nostalgia for monasteries and the monastic life in England from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, work that has inspired two articles on Jane Austen and his book, Jane Austen and the Reformation: Remembering the Sacred Landscape (Ashgate, January 2016).
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