Female friendship, a trending theme in contemporary fiction, is ripe for fresh nonfiction attention. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney—two young writers who are, yes, also friends—have just the book (and they got Margaret Atwood to write a foreword). They probe the lives of four literary giants, exploring formative experiences of literary sisterhood that have gone unsung.
For Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, the support of actual sisters was essential, of course. But A Secret Sisterhood is curious about the creative impetus each novelist got from a woman writer beyond her immediate family. Obstacles to intimacy for every pair proved constant—sporadic letters, foiled rendezvous, painful illnesses, misunderstandings. So did an urgent feeling of connection, as this medley of vivid narratives reveals.
If Austen’s obscure literary friend (Anne Sharp, the playwriting governess of Austen’s niece) remains elusive, the famous friends supply rich grist. Who would have guessed that George Eliot, in replying to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s very first letter to her, frankly confessed her “paralyzing despondency” about her own work? Virginia Woolf, so different from Katherine Mansfield in so many ways, marveled at “the queerest sense of echo coming back to me from her mind the second after I’ve spoken” as the two talked about writing. Soul mates isn’t the right term for any of these friends. Crucial to the spark were the fascinating contrasts between them.