About The Author
Emily Midorikawa (left) and Emma Claire Sweeney (right) became friends sixteen years ago, when they were both teaching in rural Japan and drafting their first stories. They have both written for a wide range of publications, including The Times, the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, and both teach at New York University London. Emily won the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize in 2015, and, in 2016, Emma’s first novel, Owl Song at Dawn, was voted book of the year in Nudge Books literary fiction category.
They are the co-founders of the Something Rhymed website, which came about when they realised that friendships between male writers - such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, or F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway - are much mythologised, but that women writers are more usually presumed to work in isolation. Realising that this wasn't true at all, they began to document pairs of female authors whose writing, like their own, benefited from each other's advice and support.
A Secret Sisterhood is the book that has come out of that project, revealing the one female writer friend without whom Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf would never have become the illustrious writers we know today. The foreword is written by Margaret Atwood, who notes that 'In digging up the forgotten friendships chronicled in A Secret Sisterhood, Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney have done much service to literary history.'
Almost nothing has previously been written about Jane Austen's closeness with family governess Anne Sharpe. Charlotte Bronte was encouraged to be considerably bolder and more radical in her writing by her friend Mary Taylor. George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, at one point the most celebrated writers on either side of the Atlantic, maintained a close relationship through their extensive correspondence. And Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield shared a bond that is often overlooked by biographers who prefer to portray them as bitter rivals.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles by Jonathan Ruppin, Emma and Emily talk about how they found a whole new perspective on Jane Austen’s writing, how they persuaded Margaret Atwood to contribute and how to write together and stay friends.
Questions & Answers
What prompted the idea of a book on female literary friendship?
The two of us met right at the beginning of our writing journeys, during a time when we were still secretive about our fledgling work. In fact, it took us a year before we admitted to each other that we were writing in our spare time. Since then we have helped each other with the many uphill struggles and shared every moment of celebration. This got us to wondering whether our favourite writers of the past had enjoyed the same kind of support. Lots of male duos came to mind: William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald. But we struggled to come up with many examples of female literary friendship because women who write are often cast as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses: Jane Austen cooped away in her country cottage, Charlotte Brontë roaming the moors, George Eliot too aloof to need the advice of another woman who wrote, and Virginia Woolf protecting her space at the top. Our own friendship taught us to question these portrayals, and so we set out to discover whether behind each of these great women was another great woman.
How did you uncover the evidence that family servant Anne Sharp, the governess to Jane’s niece, was such an invaluable ally to Jane Austen in her writing?
The trail began with a passing reference to the governess of Austen’s niece in a biography. We were fascinated by the fleeting mention of a play that Sharp had penned. Although the footnotes didn’t make it entirely clear where the biographer had discovered this information, we narrowed it down to the diaries and letters of Sharp’s pupil. These private writings have never been published so we spent days on end deciphering the script for clues. Fortunately, we found umpteen references and we even discovered some additional documents tucked into the pockets of the diaries, which had been hidden for two hundred years.
It’s long been known that Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield were well-acquainted, but why do you think they’ve usually been portrayed simply as bitter rivals, rather than the close friends you reveal in the book?
It’s long been accepted that a sense of competition might fuel a friendship between two talented men. All the most legendary male writing pairs had their bust-ups but they are still remembered as friends. Even today, popular ideals of female friendship don’t really accommodate rivalry. But Woolf and Mansfield understood that they were both friends and rivals, and that their creative competition pushed them to improve their work.
How did you come to have Margaret Atwood writing the foreword to A Secret Sisterhood?
When our UK publishers, Aurum Press, asked us to find a major contemporary author to write the foreword to A Secret Sisterhood, Margaret Atwood immediately sprung to mind since she has so often been sisterly towards younger writers, and is also a longstanding friend of Nobel Prize-winner and fellow Canadian Alice Munro. But we didn’t think that agents or publicists would be likely to pass on a request from us. Emma was attending one of Atwood’s public lectures and Emily persuaded her to slip Atwood a handwritten note. Soon afterwards she surprised us by asking to see our draft and then she got back in touch to let us know that she would write the foreword.
What were the practical implications of writing a book together? Are you still friends?
We first met just after graduating from different universities, so when we embarked on this book we really enjoyed the second stab at studenthood. We shared the research, passing bulging folders of notes back and forth and sharing our findings between library stacks. We divvied up chapters, assigning half each to work on separately. Once we had composed the first drafts, we would send them off to each other to revise. During this intensive drafting period, we were in touch several times every day. But, ironically, we were so immersed in our joint work that we hardly had time to see each other, scarcely finding the time to share news from other aspects of our lives. That all changed during the editorial process. For months, we spent most days (and more nights than we care to remember) cooped up together in one of our studies, debating the structure of a paragraph or the credibility of a particular claim. The disagreements became so heated at times that an onlooker might well have assumed we were falling out. But the fiery exchanges never spread from the study, and we quickly learnt to apologise when we went too far. Gradually we came to a realization. Usually neither of us was right during these arguments; by firing ideas back and forth, we came to new understandings that often incorporated the best of each of our thoughts. Co-writing ultimately helped us to slough off each other’s flaws and benefit from each other’s strengths, an experience that ultimately drew us even closer than we’d been before.
What contemporary female literary friendships would you cite as particularly inspiring to your writing partnership?
We have long seen novelists Jill Dawson and Louise Doughty as offering a good model for a fruitful literary friendship. Their conversations about their works in progress help them to develop the thematic and political aspects of their work. And they both generously offer their time and expertise to younger writers too. Jill once told us that envy is not something to fear. It can be energising and motivating, containing messages that might help us to identify our goals. It’s a piece of advice we’ve taken to heart. Both Jill and Louise wear their wisdom lightly – an evening with them is always full of laughter.