A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf

Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Coauthors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, thanks to their discovery of a wealth of surprising collaborations: th...

Title:A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf
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A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf Reviews

  • Jo

    A Secret Sisterhood was an absolute treat to read. I must just mention the stunning cover, which for me, sums up the beauty of this book. A Secret Sisterhood eloquently and succinctly describes in much detail, four female literary collaborations: those of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. I was absolutely staggered at the sheer amount of research that was undertaken in order to write this book. It is packed with so much information, hidden gems and beautiful descrip

    A Secret Sisterhood was an absolute treat to read. I must just mention the stunning cover, which for me, sums up the beauty of this book. A Secret Sisterhood eloquently and succinctly describes in much detail, four female literary collaborations: those of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. I was absolutely staggered at the sheer amount of research that was undertaken in order to write this book. It is packed with so much information, hidden gems and beautiful descriptions of female solidarity from long, long ago.

    This book is a treasure trove of hidden secrets. Very little is known about the friendships that these women had with other women writers, as during their lifetimes their achievements and literary accomplishments were very much downplayed, with male writers receiving much of the recognition. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney have created a book that highlights these achievements, the strength of women, and how women seek and give strength to other women in the writing profession. This is very much in evidence today, so it is so very refreshing to find that our female literally heroines were doing the very same.

    We learn about these much loved writers' private lives and their close friendships, that were often seen as scandalous, from the information that has been painstakingly gathered from lost letters and diaries. In doing so, what happened in the past is made incredibly relevant for today's audience. These women writers had such a close support system. We learn that feminism is not such a new concept, as these women were feminists well before the term was even used.

    This is such an uplifting book and one that I enjoyed immensely. If you love to read novels by these four literary heroines, and are interested in literary history, then this book will really appeal to you. In fact, for anyone interested in literature, or for those who just fancy an absorbing non-fiction read, then you really will enjoy this wonderful treat of a book.

    With thanks to the publisher who sent me a hardback copy for review purposes.

  • Roman Clodia

    Comprising brief dual-biographies of 8 women, the premise of this book is that female literary friendships have been written out, submerged or forgotten from the lives of four women authors: Austen, Eliot, Charlotte Bronte and Woolf.

    Reading the book, I'm not especially convinced by this argument: the relationship between Bronte and Mary Taylor is well covered in the standard biographies, as is the sometimes conflicted relationship between Woolf and Katherine Mansfield and, indeed, other Bloomsb

    Comprising brief dual-biographies of 8 women, the premise of this book is that female literary friendships have been written out, submerged or forgotten from the lives of four women authors: Austen, Eliot, Charlotte Bronte and Woolf.

    Reading the book, I'm not especially convinced by this argument: the relationship between Bronte and Mary Taylor is well covered in the standard biographies, as is the sometimes conflicted relationship between Woolf and Katherine Mansfield and, indeed, other Bloomsbury women. While I didn't know about the connections between Eliot and Harriet Beecher-Stowe, or the friendship between Austen and Anne Sharp, the governess of her niece, Fanny, I'm not sure that knowing that they were friends changes anything.

    women have friends, whether they're writers or not and, while it's true that there is some continued mythologising about masculine literary friendships (Byron and Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Fitzgerald and Hemingway), it tends to be because of the

    connections being made in their writing, not just the fact that they are friends. The only possible literary cross-fertilisation here is that between Woolf and Mansfield, already part of literary history via the interconnections of the Bloomsbury Group.

    Having said that, this is a lively and well-researched read that offers up compact 'friendship' biographies in just 3 chapters each. I, however, expected something more than the mere fact of these friendships to be the subject of the book: a more probing interrogation of the impact of these friendships and their effect on the writings of these women. To be fair, this isn't claiming to be an academic book or to be making intellectual interventions in the histories of gender and writing. So an interesting read but also a bit of a wasted opportunity that might have done something more radical with the material.

    Thanks to the publisher for an ARC via NetGalley

  • Genna

    I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Full review to come closer to the publication date.

    A delightful look at female literary friendships that have been too-long overlooked. Featuring Jane Austen and governess playwright Anne Sharp; the pioneering feminist author Mary Taylor and her influence on the work of Charlotte Brontë; the transatlantic correspondence of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and the oft misunderstood relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfie

    I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. Full review to come closer to the publication date.

    A delightful look at female literary friendships that have been too-long overlooked. Featuring Jane Austen and governess playwright Anne Sharp; the pioneering feminist author Mary Taylor and her influence on the work of Charlotte Brontë; the transatlantic correspondence of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and the oft misunderstood relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.

  • Linda Hill

    I have to confess that it has taken me some time to read A Secret Sisterhood as there is so much information to absorb I needed time to reflect and consider what I’d read. The style of the book is very accessible and balances quotation and research with original writing perfectly. At times this is more like reading a narrative than an academic study and it just goes to show what wonderful writers both authors are. Their own friendship shines through the pages.

    The quality of research that has gon

    I have to confess that it has taken me some time to read A Secret Sisterhood as there is so much information to absorb I needed time to reflect and consider what I’d read. The style of the book is very accessible and balances quotation and research with original writing perfectly. At times this is more like reading a narrative than an academic study and it just goes to show what wonderful writers both authors are. Their own friendship shines through the pages.

    The quality of research that has gone in to A Secret Sisterhood is impeccable. Whilst several facts are already well documented, Midorikawa and Sweeney present them with a fresh eye. They also include new material and occasionally some conjecture so that the reader is left to form their own opinion too. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book and the details of quotidian life really bring the text alive. I also really appreciated the understanding of feminism that underpins much of the book and the debunking of so many stereotyped views of these women. They come to life between the pages of A Secret Sisterhood so that they are no longer the conventional creatures we have known for so long.

    A Secret Sisterhood is a must read for any fan of Austen, Bronte, Eliot and Woolf, but equally for anyone interested in history, society and literature. The bibliography and footnotes make for fascinating reading and again, it took me ages to read the book because I found myself following up some of these independently. A passing reference to Roger Fry had me looking up his paintings, for example. I think A Secret Sisterhood is a book to be savoured and returned to frequently over the years.

  • Nancy

    Writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney were teaching in Japan when they met. They immediately connected and soon were regularly meeting and critiquing each other's writing.

    As they collaborated on writing A Secret Sisterhood, they found happiness in spite of the stress. Their unfounded feared was that their 'bond between equals' would be threatened if one achieved success before the other.

    When Margaret Atwood offered to write the forward for the book, it was proof that women writers do

    Writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney were teaching in Japan when they met. They immediately connected and soon were regularly meeting and critiquing each other's writing.

    As they collaborated on writing A Secret Sisterhood, they found happiness in spite of the stress. Their unfounded feared was that their 'bond between equals' would be threatened if one achieved success before the other.

    When Margaret Atwood offered to write the forward for the book, it was proof that women writers do forge friendships of encouragement and support, in spite of historic stereotypes.

    Jane Austen was mythologized into a happy spinster who hid her writing and relied only on her sister for support. Suppressed was her friendship with her rich brother's impoverished governess Anne Sharp, an amateur playwright.

    Charlotte Bronte's friendship with boarding school friend Mary Taylor had its ups and downs, but it was Taylor who inspired Charlotte to travel abroad to continue her education. The intrepid Taylor became a feminist writer.

    George Eliot, living 'in sin' with a married man, corresponded with clergyman's daughter and literary sensation Harriet Beecher Stowe. Over years, their closeness was stressed by life events, yet their regard for each other as artists prevailed.

    Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are remembered as rivals, their mutual regard and friendship overshadowed.

    A Secret Sisterhood was an interesting book about the "rare sense of communion" between literary friends. One does not need to be well informed about the writers discussed for enough biographical information is included to understand the friendships in context of the authors' personal and professional lives.

    I enjoyed the book and learned something about writers I am quite familiar with and a great deal about those I knew little.

    I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

  • Cynthia

    I live for books such as these, books discussing how, why, and where excellent writers began and "A Secret Sisterhood" is one of the best I've come across. As you can see from the subtitle Midorikawa and Sweeney focus on Austen, Bronte, Eliot, and, Woolf. Eliot and Woolf have friends who were also well known writers Respectively Harriet Beecher Stowe and Katherine Mansfield. Because of the time periods involved and given that much, or all in Stowe and Eliot's case, these friendships often relied

    I live for books such as these, books discussing how, why, and where excellent writers began and "A Secret Sisterhood" is one of the best I've come across. As you can see from the subtitle Midorikawa and Sweeney focus on Austen, Bronte, Eliot, and, Woolf. Eliot and Woolf have friends who were also well known writers Respectively Harriet Beecher Stowe and Katherine Mansfield. Because of the time periods involved and given that much, or all in Stowe and Eliot's case, these friendships often relied on the mails to encourage one another. Unfortunately a lot of their correspondence was purposely destroyed by the writers or their families.

    Midorikawa and Sweeney were able to turn up some snippets of new original documents that shed light on these relationships. You can feel how desperate and also joyful they were to find a like minded person with similar problems of honing out time and place to write as well as someone to help hash out technical problems or to simply share the joys and sorrows of writing. Women are so often inaccurately portrayed as catty and/or competitive that it's nice to read about the devotion of these pairs. It's also difficult to have a sense of how isolated some of their lives were. This book was a joy to read.

    Thank you to the publisher for providing an advance reading copy.

  • Laurie

    “A Secret Sisterhood” examines the relationships that early female writers had with friends. Most that is written about Austen and Charlotte Bronte shows them working in isolation (aside from the Bronte siblings); in fact they both had active friendships with other women both through correspondence and face to face, where they talked about their work. Eliot and Woolf have less of a reputation for loneliness, but still aren’t considered to be extroverts. But they, too, had their special friends w

    “A Secret Sisterhood” examines the relationships that early female writers had with friends. Most that is written about Austen and Charlotte Bronte shows them working in isolation (aside from the Bronte siblings); in fact they both had active friendships with other women both through correspondence and face to face, where they talked about their work. Eliot and Woolf have less of a reputation for loneliness, but still aren’t considered to be extroverts. But they, too, had their special friends with whom they could talk shop.

    Jane Austen was friends with her brother’s nanny (which was not looked upon well), who was a playwright when not wrangling kids; author Mary Taylor helped Charlotte Bronte; the outcast George Eliot (outcast for cohabiting with a married man for years) had a long correspondence with Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf had a relationship both friendly and very competitive with author Katherine Mansfield. These friendships helped sustain the writers in their solitary work (even with people around them, a writer works alone) and provided sounding boards for their new writings.

    The authors, themselves friends since the beginnings of their writing careers and who first found success at almost the same time as each other, have done meticulous research and found previously unread documents on or by their subjects. It’s an interesting read, so see how these friendships affected their writing. Much has been made of the friendships of certain male authors- Byron and Shelley, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins- and now at last we have the feminine side of that coin – and a foreword by Margaret Atwood. Four and a half stars.

  • BookBully

    Who could resist this title/subtitle? Not I for one. A SECRET SISTERHOOD: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf delivers, for the most part. Co-authors and good friends, Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, obviously researched their subjects well digging deep into the lives of these four authors.

    In some cases a friendship was ignored by early biographers, as was the case with Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, a struggling playwright who was pr

    Who could resist this title/subtitle? Not I for one. A SECRET SISTERHOOD: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf delivers, for the most part. Co-authors and good friends, Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, obviously researched their subjects well digging deep into the lives of these four authors.

    In some cases a friendship was ignored by early biographers, as was the case with Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, a struggling playwright who was primarily known as a governess. Charlotte Brontë's longtime friend, Mary Taylor, had a greater influence over the author than was previously acknowledged. The friendships between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe's and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield often toggled between encouragement and jealousy.

    The authors start slowly - Jane Austen's section is the weakest of the four - but gather speed and confidence as the book goes on. I was particularly interested in the Eliot/Stowe friendship which was based entirely on letters. Also, watching the interplay between Woolf and Mansfield was fascinating.

    Recommended especially for fans of these four authors and readers who enjoyed A CHANCE MEETING by Rachel Cohen.

  • Gwen

    Having seen it this as a hardback in the shops, I immediately snapped it up when I saw an audiobook version. As with all non-fiction, there were downsides to 'reading' this as an audiobook - I missed being able to check references (once a History student, always a History student), particularly at points when I found myself raising an eyebrow at the large amounts of speculation.

    And this is perhaps my biggest frustration with the book - particularly in the chapters about Austen and Brontë - there

    Having seen it this as a hardback in the shops, I immediately snapped it up when I saw an audiobook version. As with all non-fiction, there were downsides to 'reading' this as an audiobook - I missed being able to check references (once a History student, always a History student), particularly at points when I found myself raising an eyebrow at the large amounts of speculation.

    And this is perhaps my biggest frustration with the book - particularly in the chapters about Austen and Brontë - there are a lot of gaps in surviving correspondence, which inevitably means that in order to keep up the narrative the authors add in embellishments. There are suppositions that frankly don't need to be there, and which are a little irritating at points.

    However, as an introduction to biography, and the authors, it's a nice easy read. The overwhelming theme seemed to me - authors and their friendships aside - how difficult and frustrating life as a middle class unmarried woman was. All of our authors have this in common for the majority of their biographies, and for several, teetering on the brink of poverty made their abilities to write particularly difficult. Having never read anything by any of those profiled except Austen, I really enjoyed the social history element covered (I can't comment on the accuracy of the assertions about the friendships being hidden, although I would perhaps query whether George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe were indeed friends, given that they seemed to have very little in common and were decidedly at odds on a number of their values. Ditto Virginia Woolf and Katharine Mansfield, who definitely fit into the 'with friends like these, who needs enemies?' camp...) I will certainly be looking to pick up books by some of the authors featured, and reading their works with a greater insight into the context in which they were written.

  • Jennifer Muldowney

    Interesting,albeit difficult friendships between famous literary women. I’m so glad that my 3 daughters and I live in the modern age!

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