I discovered this book while searching for a good biography of George Eliot, and because it also included Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, it becameI discovered this book while searching for a good biography of George Eliot, and because it also included Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, it became an instant "must read." The subtitle seems to imply that the four featured authoresses were friends, but as any fan can tell you, Jane Austen lived some fifty years before Bronte and Eliot, and Virginia Woolf lived some fifty years after them. Rather, the book traces a close friendship each of the authoresses had with another woman writer. Woolf is the only one of the four whose work I haven't read, but I had read the work of her literary friend, Katherine Mansfield, so I felt I was almost as informed for that section as I was for the others.
Jane Austen’s friend was her brother’s daughter’s governess, Anne Sharp. She had less wealth and status than Jane, so she lacked the freedom to pursue her literary ambitions the way Jane did. Because she was of a lower social class (and really, not that much lower, as Jane was living at her brother’s largess), her family essentially hid the friendship from her biographers, even destroying some of their correspondence.
Charlotte Bronte’s friendship with the more radically feminist Mary Taylor was not hidden so much as it was discounted by biographers more interested in her relationships with her sisters. But it was because of Mary Taylor that Charlotte ventured to Belgium to study French. Thanks to her, we have the setting and romantic lead of Villette, and the book also gives the origin of the confession scene. Because of this, the Charlotte Bronte section was my favorite, even though learning more about George Eliot was my initial reason for starting the book.
George Eliot’s literary friend was Harriet Beecher Stowe, so theirs was the first friendship covered in which both friends were more or less equally famous. Unlike any of the others, though, this pair never met in person; their entire friendship was by letter. Though I did like the Charlotte Bronte section better, this one was my second-favorite. It included a few tidbits that are right up my alley: that Stowe called her husband “rabbi” because of his long white beard and that Marian (as George Eliot was called in her personal life) saw Daniel Deronda as her attempt to stand up against anti-Semitism much like Stowe’s book was a statement against slavery. From what I gather, Jews view Eliot’s book more favorably. I don’t think Uncle Tom is well-thought of now. Because of my lack of familiarity with the work of Virginia Woolf, this section didn’t quite send me into raptures, but it was still interesting because Woolf and Mansfield’s relationship was the most fraught with professional rivalry. As an aspiring writer myself, I know how inevitable jealousy is when befriending another writer. The two stuck it out anyway, and this book accentuates the positive, stating that previous biographers have overfocused on the negative.
The main purpose of the book is to celebrate female friendships, and since it was about some of the smartest and most talented women who ever graced this earth, it was both an intellectual journey and an absolutely delicious treat....more