Book Review: A Secret Sisterhood

by | Blog Post, Book Review

This insightful biography explores the lives of four renowned female authors and their relationships with fellow literary women. Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf all had uncredited support which this book eagerly intends to celebrate. Piecing remnants of information left over time, from library archives to unpublished journals, this book creates a detailed retelling of how these friendships influenced them as writers.

Jane Austen’s friendship with Anne Sharp is the most speculative as there were few documents describing their relationship, likely due to their differences in class. Yet the book sheds a light on their long-standing friendship through the diary entries of Austen’s niece to discover Sharp’s ambition as a playwright. Defying social status, the friendship came to be a great source of helpful criticism for Austen in her journey to becoming published.

Charlotte Brontë met Mary Taylor when they were boarding school students. Taylor was outspoken and often defied convention, usually forcing Brontë to question women’s position in society. Taylor often critiqued Brontë’s work, pushing her to make a statement in her writing. Taylor’s influence can be seen in Brontë’s most political novel Shirley, with Taylor inspiring the progressive Rose Yorke.

George Eliot’s friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe was purely developed through correspondence, their fame as authors and admiration for each other unifying them. Their remaining letters were extensive, discussing topics from their work to family grievances to ideologies. It is clear that Stowe’s previous work on anti-slavery inspired Eliot as her final novel focuses heavily on racial prejudices.

Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield had quite a complex relationship within high society, their friendship often being met with jealousy and disagreement. Yet it was their love for literature that kept them close. The creative competition had them pushing to be better writers and ultimately had Woolf producing her most acclaimed work.

The authors let the book flow like a story, writing the scenes to such detail and creating a narration around small amounts of evidence. This novel is written with absolute care and meticulous dedication to emphasise the important part friendships plays within our lives. Whether it’s a helpful critic, a boost of confidence or a new way of thinking, small bricks still build to success.

It felt important to look beyond the author, to gain an understanding of their art in a wider context. Reading this book was an inspiration and I revelled in the idea that the great women I admire within literature were influenced by other great women. We must appreciate how our literary landscape has shaped us today, knowing it was nurtured by talented women before us.

Words and photo by Hannah Walker.

You can buy the book from Blackwells here.

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