Friendships written between the lines of literary classics

Authoress Winifred Holtby
Authoress Winifred Holtby
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Even the greatest authors need someone to turn to for help, as a new literary website for female writers goes to show. Jack Blanchard reports.

NOVEL-WRITING, by its very nature, is a solitary activity. The romantic image of the writer hunched over a desk all day, alone in a dark and poky garret, persists in the popular imagination.

But a new project, set up by a young author from York and her close friend, reveals that just like the rest of us, writers are often hugely reliant on someone – typically a fellow writer – for support and to help spur them on.

“Most people can probably name one or two famous writing friendships,” says Emily Midorikawa, one half of the duo behind Something Rhymed. “Byron and Shelley, for example, or Wordsworth and Coleridge. But they almost always seem to be men.”

Midorikawa and her friend, fellow author Emma Claire Sweeney, have long relied on one another to exchange ideas and proof-read the other’s work. “We relied on each others so much as friends,” Midorikawa says. “We started to wonder – did other female writers of the past have similar relationships?”

As they began to research the subject, it became clear that many other female writers, both past and present, have been equally reliant on similarly close friendships. “More writers need this sort of relationship than is generally perceived,” Sweeney says.

Intrigued, they set up a website to explore their findings. The name Something Rhymed comes from the title of a poem by Jackie Kay, in which she celebrates her friendship with the novelist Ali Smith, and each month the website profiles different pairs of female writing friendships from down the years.

Readers are encouraged to submit their own suggestions and since launching in January the site has attracted thousands of readers from across the world, along with guest posts from well-known authors like Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman.

Profiles so far have included Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield – often remembered as fierce rivals, but in fact close friends – and in May the focus will switch to Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell.

This month the website looks at Vera Brittain, best known for Testament of Youth, and Winifred Holtby.

They provide a fascinating example of how two women from markedly different backgrounds could help one another to literary success.

Holtby, a farmer’s daughter from Rudston, near Bridlington, is best known for South Riding, the tale of her mother’s life in Yorkshire before the war. She met Brittain, the daughter of wealthy mill owners, at university and they moved into a flat together in London to pursue their literary careers.

For Midorikawa and Sweeney, the dynamic between the pair offers a fascinating insight into how a literary friendship can help both be a success. “Vera Brittain seemed to be the one who had the more serious literary ambitions at the start. But it was actually Holtby who made the breakthrough first, which came as a big surprise.

“Brittain very quickly got on board with being Holtby’s biggest champion,” Midorikawa says. “And it was what Brittain did with Testament of Friendship, and then with Holtby’s last book – which was left unfinished – which really cemented her reputation.”

Holtby had been editing South Riding on her deathbed, but passed away before it was complete. The grieving Brittain finished the editing for her friend and then put a huge amount of energy into the posthumous marketing of her book.

“I do think for most writers there will still be someone – a friend or partner, even if they’re not a writer themselves – who fulfills that role,” Midorikawa says.

“In reality there probably aren’t that many writers working in total isolation in the way that people think.”

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