Images of literary friendship have become the stuff of legend, often because of their very public natures: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth trekking through the Lakeland Fells; Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens visiting risqué music halls; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway surviving riotous drinking sprees. But who were the friends of the English-speaking world’s most famous female authors?

Longstanding writer friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney have uncovered a treasure trove of hidden alliances between literary women on their blog Here, they reveal five especially surprising pairs:

1. Jane Austen and Anne Sharp: the Employer and the Servant

Jane Austen’s family was keen to memorialise her as a modest lady who wrote in the parlour in between chores. But Austen’s friendship with Anne Sharp turns this conformist image on its head. An amateur playwright with a keen wit, Sharp was also one of the family’s servants. As governess to the author’s niece, her financial situation was even more precarious than that of her famous friend. In those particularly class-bound times, this relationship between servant and employer verged on the outrageous. Austen, however, valued her bond with Sharp enormously. She engaged with Sharp’s writing, acting a part in one of her friend’s plays as a governess in an interesting reversal of roles.

One can easily imagine that Sharp’s theatrical, Pride Punished or Innocence Rewarded, had perhaps influenced Austen when she changed the title of one of her novels to Pride and Prejudice. Certainly, she trusted Sharp’s critical faculties, eliciting from her friend frank appraisals of her books. Sharp was singled out to inherit the late author’s bodkin and a lock of her hair—mementoes of a radical bond that transgressed class lines.

2. George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe: the Rationalist and the Spiritualist

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe were, for a time, the most famous female authors each side of the Atlantic. Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was America’s first international bestseller and Eliot became the richest self-made woman in England. The pair maintained an intimate eleven-year correspondence that ended only with Eliot’s death. Despite their shared celebrity, it was an unlikely alliance. Stowe was a fervent Christian with a strong interest in spiritualism, whereas Eliot had turned her back on organised religion. When the American author claimed to have been visited by the ghost of Charlotte Brontë—a forebear whom both authors deeply admired—Eliot made her skepticism clear: ‘Whether rightly or not’, she told her friend, the episode struck her as ‘enormously improbable’. Stowe could be just as candid, once teasing Eliot about her lack of ‘jollitude’, and inviting her to ‘this house where, with closed doors, we sometimes make the rafters ring with fun’. Far from the caricatured image of Eliot as standoffish and Stowe as batty, their friendship reveals two lively, intelligent women who were never afraid to speak their minds.

3. Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt Jackson: the Myth and the Explorer

The predominant image of Emily Dickinson is that of a reclusive woman dressed all in white and nicknamed ‘the Myth’. Who knew that one of her life-long friends was the widely travelled and extroverted Helen Hunt Jackson? One of the most well-known poets of their generation, Jackson is still remembered as a campaigner for the rights of Native Americans; her novel Ramona has never been out of print. Jackson was instrumental in setting Dickinson on the road to the eventual literary renown that would succeed her death, pushing her friend to publish her private poems. Dickinson once claimed that—with the exception of George Eliot—she considered Jackson’s poems stronger than those of any woman since Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The pair was not just friends but collaborators. On occasion Jackson acted as muse, commissioner, and recipient of poems by Dickinson. And, for her part, Dickinson likely inspired the central character in Jackson’s first novel: a woman who wears only white, and who writes strange and dazzling poems!

4. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: Friends or Foes?

Virginia Woolf’s scathing first impression of Katherine Mansfield as stinking like ‘a civet cat that had taken to street-walking’ reinforces the public perception of the Modernist writers as bitter foes. And yet they exchanged dozens of letters and sent each other gifts of columbine plants and Belgian cigarettes. For a time, Woolf even made the long weekly trip from Richmond to Hampstead to take tea with her friend. Their relationship progressed far beyond the initial mockery as each woman became instrumental to the other’s success. Woolf recognised Mansfield’s talent from early on, acquiring Prelude on behalf of her publishing house, the Hogarth Press; Mansfield’s biting critiques of her friend’s early work spurred on Woolf to write her later more experimental novels.

With all this evidence to the contrary, why are these two still mythologized as embittered adversaries? After all, Wordsworth and Coleridge fell out, as did Byron and Shelley. Perhaps competition between men is seen as natural, and even healthy, whereas popular perceptions of female friendship still struggle to accommodate rivalry.

5Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: the Daughter of a Former Slave and the Wife of a White-Only Hotelier

When Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings first were introduced, racism almost prevented their fledgling friendship from taking flight. When the pair got so tipsy that neither was in a fit state to drive, Rawlings sent Hurston to sleep in the black servants’ quarters—although there were plenty of spare bedrooms in the main house. Rawlings did subject herself to some tough questions afterwards and Hurston forgave her friend’s cowardice. On a second overnight visit, Rawlings insisted that this time Hurston sleep in the house. She later convinced her editor, who also published Fitzgerald and Hemingway, to take on Hurston too. Both women aimed to overcome sexual discrimination and achieve the same status as their male peers but, sadly, this was a ditch they never did hurdle. Rawlings’s reputation dwindled when her editor failed to recognise the quality of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s later experimental stories, and Hurston—the once celebrated author of Their Eyes Were Watching Godended up dying a pauper, buried in an unmarked grave.

Further Reading:

  • More details about each of these friendships can be found on Something Rhymed.
  • One of the last letters Jane Austen ever wrote was to her dear friend, Anne Sharp.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe enclosed a letter to Eliot along with a copy of the new edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
  • Mercy Philbrick’s Choice by Helen Hunt Jackson is thought to have been inspired by Emily Dickinson; and ‘The Oriole’ by Emily Dickinson was written for Helen Hunt Jackson.
  • A letter from Virginia Woolf to Katherine Mansfield.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Image credit:  Boston Public Library via flickr

About the Authors

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Creative Writing Teacher and Co-founder of Something Rhymed

Emily Midorikawa grew up in Yorkshire. She is a half-English, half-Japanese writer of novels, short stories and non-fiction. She has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia and her work has been published in, amongst others, the Daily Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday, The Times, Aesthetica and Mslexia. Emily has been teaching creative writing for several years. She is currently based at City University London and New York University in London. With her writer friend Emma Claire Sweeney, Emily runs the website Something Rhymed, which profiles the literary friendships of famous female authors. Emily’s first novel A Tiny Speck of Black and then Nothing placed her as a runner-up in the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2012, judged by Margaret Busby, and the Yeovil Literary Prize 2013, judged by Tracy Chevalier. It was also long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition 2013. She is represented by Ariella Feiner at United Agents.

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Writer, Lecturer and Co-Founder of SomethingRhymed

Writer & NYU lecturer. Winner of Arts Council & Royal Literary Fund awards; published in The Times, Mslexia, & The Indy; runs .