A friend of mine used to joke that women writers discovered friendship in 2015, when the last volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet came out. I laughed, but I knew what he meant. It is easy to think of men who navigated the literary world together: Jonson and Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Johnson and Boswell, Shelley and Byron, Marx and Engels, Sartre and Camus, Bellow and Roth, Hughes and Heaney, Amis and Barnes. In Weimar for a day in summer 2014, bitter laughter rose in me when I emerged into Theaterplatz to find a monument to literary bro-dom: Goethe and Schiller in bronze, each with a hand on a shared crown of laurels. With stout folds in Goethe’s breeches and pupils missing from Schiller’s eyes, the unlovely statue had been cast in 1857, twenty-five years after Goethe died, and had stood for more than a century facing the stage where Goethe had directed many of Schiller’s plays. In the early twentieth century, copies of the monument were made for San Francisco, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Syracuse and erected in parks in those cities. I laughed some more when I found that out. Is there such a thing as jealous laughter?
I was lonely back then. Sure, I was married to another writer, but he loved me, so he couldn’t not love my writing. Spouses are so implicated in each other’s success that support is de rigueur and unremarkable. And in any case men hadn’t forgone friendship when they’d been married to writers. Women writers had sisters, as Charlotte Brontё did in Emily and Anne, and rivals, as Virginia Woolf did in Katherine Mansfield. Or they were solitary because they were first, like Mary Wollstonecraft, or because they were modest, like Jane Austen. Woolf said that to write a woman needs a room of her own with a lock on the door and a sustaining income, but she also said that women need to be more confident, aware of their own traditions, willing to write in new forms – all things that are hard to do on one’s own, and nearly impossible to address for long without friends to advise, remind and encourage.
Of course, the friends existed. Charlotte Brontё had Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote the novelist’s biography after she died at the age of 41, of hyperemesis gravidarum; Wollstonecraft was introduced to her future husband by her friend, the novelist Mary Hays and Austen’s best friend Martha Lloyd was one of the first to read an early draft of Pride and Prejudice.
I had always thought of Sylvia Plath as being uninterested in female friendship. She knew Anne Sexton from attending Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar at Boston University, but saw being paired with her as ‘an honor, I suppose’. (Sexton wrote a poem for Sylvia a week after Plath died by suicide, remembering afternoons of ‘three extra dry martinis’ and the way death talked through them ‘like brides with plots’.) But Plath seemed to grow into literary friendship. She became close to the poet Ruth Fainlight at a steadier time in her life, when she was older, married, mother to a girl, and had just brought out her first collection, The Colossus. Ruth’s first impression was of ‘a burningly ambitious and intelligent young woman trying to look like a conventional, devoted wife and not quite succeeding’. She also registered the ways Sylvia was ‘ahead’ of her: a baby born and a book published and well-received. (Perhaps one of the reasons that literary friendship is harder for women is that the playing fields multiply, like the fig tree branches in The Bell Jar.)
In 1961 the Hugheses were about to move to Devon, and so Sylvia and Ruth planned visits: Sylvia went to pick up a prize cheque in London and go to a play at the Royal Court; Ruth came to Devon pregnant to be fed on apples and fat cream. On one of those visits Ruth helped Sylvia cut daffodils in bud from the teeming bank for a local wholesaler and Sylvia read Ruth new poems as she nursed her son. ‘Could I dedicate my tree poem to Ruth Fainlight?’ Sylvia wrote when the visit was over. It was a rare dedication. In ‘Elm’, the tree is the best kind of friend, someone who has been through it and stands as evidence that you will too. ‘I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root: / It is what you fear. / I do not fear it: I have been there.’ One of the great comforts of literary friendship isn’t the introductions that can be made, the sharing of editors to approach or avoid, it is being accompanied. It is being with someone who has a parallel knowledge of wrestling unruly events into limpid prose. Two hands holding the same laurelled tiara.
Ruth had noticed tension between Sylvia and Ted on the daffodil visit, her last before she moved to Tangier. By autumn, the New Yorker had accepted ‘Elm’ but Ted had left. ‘The muse has come to live here,’ Sylvia wrote, and she was writing as she had not for years. In her next letters, Sylvia told Ruth of finding a flat in Primrose Hill where Yeats once lived, and asked her to plan on spending the April of 1963 with her in Devon. Ruth learned to drive and brought her nanny to England in preparation for the first divorcée summer: she imagined them on long drives talking about their poetry while Fatima took care of the children. Breaking up the journey to England with a stop in Gibraltar, Ruth’s husband, Alan Sillitoe, bought a week-old copy of the Observer and at first Ruth couldn’t understand why there was a picture of Sylvia on the books pages inside a bold black border.
‘I have wondered whether,’ Ruth wrote later, ‘if I had been there when Sylvia moved back to London, everything might have been different.’ That cannot be known, and as Heather Clark’s recent biography of Plath, Red Comet, movingly shows, Plath was surrounded by friends in the days before she died. But I know how vital friends are to a person in their darkest moments: I spent the night I took my first sertraline tablet in a best friend’s spare room, after eating pizza on the sofa in front of an old episode of Doctor Foster, a plot-twisty take on the Medea myth we were addicted to then. She could not make me see my best qualities, but she could sit with me. Another friend, a poet, reminded me that I needed to keep talking with the people I loved, and on the days that I couldn’t face that, I could have recourse to ‘a fresh piece of paper, nobody to show it to, no requirement except to be honest’. Others talked to me on the phone, swam with me, walked with me, cooked me dinner. Inside their care, I recovered. Ruth is not wrong to think about the effect her presence might have had.
Since 2015, the year female friendship was discovered, book after book about it has been published. I read one last week, Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, on the recommendation of a friend with whom I spent this morning walking around Prospect Park in the sun. At the end of our walk, we picked softly burred seeds out of each other’s hair as we said goodbye. If that sounds romantic, then I barely repent – without my friends, I would be hollow, hardly worth knowing. They have stood like Sylvia’s Wych elm as I triumphed some and stumbled more in making a life after leaving my husband. They annotated drafts and asked me if I was writing, and was I done yet, and could they read it? We pass the sororal books between each other not only because we like them but because they are honest about the types of friendship that do not – in some cases, must not – last. Ones all of us have known, and some of us are haunted by. (Relationships are for ‘a reason, a season or a lifetime’, as bumper stickers say.) It is because some friendships are revealed as shallow, instrumental, or just fleeting that there are bronze statues to others. I have my faults as a friend, god knows, but I am better for being with them. They taught me friendship, and I am their devotee.
The men might not like it, but in 2023 women are overwhelmingly the ones who write, read, edit and buy books, particularly fiction. Female friendships, rather than literary marriages or bros with quills, are a force for the creation and continuation of literary culture in a way that simply hasn’t been true before. I was envious of bookish bros when I was younger because I thought I had discovered another advantage men refused to share. Now that I have the type of friendships I envied I realise how shallow that view was. When Schiller died, Goethe said he had lost ‘the half of my existence’. I completely missed the point. To have fine minds and true hearts around you in the middle of life’s journey! What astonishing luck.
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A Life of One’s Own by Joanna Biggs is published by W&N in May 2023.