Dangerous Liberty over Peaceful Slavery

Dangerous Liberty over Peaceful Slavery

Tue 30 Jan

A SECRET SISTERHOOD: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf by EMILY MIDORIKAWA and EMMA CLAIRE SWEENEY.
London: Aurum Press, 2017

London: Amberley Books, 2017

My dear, you are on a wrong track altogether. A woman never gains anything by going out of the beaten road. She must get rid of such ideas.
(Miss Miles, London 1890)

Strong women hold communities together; they prop up failing families; they occasionally have films made about them – Erin Brockovich, Joy, The Hidden Figures, etc. Strong women are a Good Thing and we celebrate them. Subversive women, however, are something else.

Of the two books under review we find a feminist novelist who poured oil on the flames of a young Charlotte Brontë and a putative playwright who encouraged Jane Austen to undermine class boundaries. Their stories appear in A Secret Sisterhood. In Margaret Pole, Susan Higginbotham tells the terrible story of a woman defined by the men in her life and put to death at the age of 67 by Henry VIII. In both books the authors overcome a lack of source material that has obscured these women’s lives. It is almost as though they left the world with no trace of their existence or achievements. As women, they had no voice. In the case of the governess and nascent feminist they had no money. Historically their lives didn’t matter.[1]

In the first biography of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell delves into Brontë’s correspondence with her closest friend, whom she calls “Dear M”. Gaskell never spells out her real name. Midorikawa and Sweeney, who are friends themselves, give us the story of “M”. Her name was Mary Taylor. Brontë met Taylor when they were children at boarding school (the school used as the model for Lowood in Jane Eyre). It was Taylor who inspired Brontë to leave her oppressive parsonage home and go off to school in Brussels and, again, who came to her rescue when Charlotte was paralysed by her unrequited love for her (married) teacher. They remained friends for life.

Mary herself was a risk-taker. She shook off the cautions of family and friends to go and teach at a boys’ school in Germany. She then set off for New Zealand in order to earn her own living. England could not give her her independence, but the colonies could. Taylor eventually returned to her native Yorkshire having become a self-made woman. She was also a feminist and essayist who urged women to work in order to support themselves as their “first duty”.

Midorikawa and Sweeney make fresh inroads into Brontë studies by reproducing letters from Taylor in which she chides her friend for not being more outspoken about the debilitating effects of economic dependency for women. On the publication of Jane Eyre, Taylor asked Brontë where the radical political content was. Hadn’t they both been oppressed by patriarchal and capitalist forces? Brontë listened and Shirley, with its story of industrial depression, followed. Even so, Patrick Brontë’s influence on his daughter was considerable. Patrick had lived through the Luddite riots that his daughter depicted in Shirley. When Brontë confided that she could never condone “convulsive revolutions” that “bring the dregs of society to the surface,” it is easy to hear his views pouring forth in the parlour of Haworth Parsonage. As a footnote to Brontë's story it would be enough to say that Mary Taylor pushed her friend towards greater freedom but that Brontë was unable to leave her home.

But Midorikawa and Sweeney do more than that. They reclaim Mary Taylor in her own right. In Miss Miles, her only novel, she produced a work that breaks with tradition. In it, she depicts women’s friendships as sustaining financial and emotional well-being. This goes against the usual narrative arc of the heroine finding marriage. Taylor was the radical, subversive woman Brontë could not be – locked as she was into caring for her ageing parent. The authors take a provocative view on Patrick as well, echoing Taylor’s suspicions that the old man was a tyrant. They also conclude that the biographies of Brontë that came out after her death did her a disservice. In portraying her as the saintly, self-sacrificing angel of the hearth so beloved by Victorian readers they glossed over the difficulties she faced.

Taylor was well aware of the easy acceptance of domestic tyranny that helped sustain the Brontë myth. She let whoever cared to listen know it. Not many did. Certainly not Elizabeth Gaskell. Luckily for Taylor, Midorikawa and Sweeney are listening. It is a shame they don’t tell us more about Miss Miles. But they do stress the message Taylor delivers:

There exists an alternative path in life for women … at least for those willing to reject the expectations of society and fight instead for their own happiness.

They also reconstruct the story of Jane Austen’s best literary friend, Anne Sharp. Austen is another example of a female writer whose image relatives sanitised after her death. Anne Sharp was the woman who of all Austen's female acquaintance shared with her a true understanding of their subjugation. Austen’s siblings destroyed her correspondence with Sharp and erased all reference to her from their accounts of another self-sacrificing domestic goddess. Nothing would be known of Sharp were it not for the diligent research of Midorikawa and Sweeney.

Our reconstruction of Anne’s life must largely rely on Austen family papers, most notably the account of Fanny, a privileged child born into the landed gentry, trained to regard household staff with kindly condescension.

It is through this child’s eyes that we learn about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp and their growing trust and enjoyment of each other’s company. Unlike Austen, Sharp received no financial support whatsoever. She was a woman on her own in the early 19th century. The demands of earning a living and her ensuing poor health left little time or energy for writing. Her plays – which influenced Austen’s scenes of theatricals in Mansfield Park – were never put on outside the schoolroom where Sharp worked as a governess. Her employers were Austen’s wealthy brother and parsimonious wife, whose stinginess influenced the opening chapters of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

Austen was acutely aware of Sharp’s perilous position. Against the wishes of her family she invited her friend the governess to stay at their home. When staying with her brother – as an unpaid nanny to his children – Austen made it clear that she respected the opinion of the family governess over that of the brother who did little to support his mother and unmarried sisters.

The crux of Sharp’s story is this:

History has shown such scant interest in Anne that, until we discovered her name in an old baptismal ledger, even the year of her birth was unknown. And, as with most working women of her generation, no portrait nor direct record of her words has ever been unearthed.

Midorikawa and Sweeney’s work marks a milestone in literary biography. They give us back Anne Sharp and Mary Taylor, and show the potentially radical nature of female friendships.

The same can be said of Susan Higginbotham’s account of the life of Margaret Pole. She was the niece of Edward IV, daughter of the Duke of Clarence, who was famously drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. Margaret was also the sister of the young Earl of Warwick, famously imprisoned in the tower for most of his short life and then executed in 1499. Margaret was married off to Richard Pole, who was related to Henry VIII. She was governess to Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, Princess Mary. She was executed after three years’ imprisonment in 1541. This is the official account. Again the documentation is scant. But through reading between the lines of court documents, receipts, accounts and invoices, Higginbotham recreates Pole’s life from the inside.

Pole fell out of favour with Henry over her alleged involvement in the “Exeter Plot”. Before that point he restored her hereditary lands and title to her. Thus we learn that, in her own right, Margaret Pole was a highly successful magnate, which is to say she managed a great estate without recourse to a man. Henry’s accusations against her were specious. No one, including Margaret, understood the charges that had been brought against her. Her execution was particularly horrific. The axeman was inexperienced. Margaret was 67 years old and she was hacked to death before a crowd of 150 bewildered onlookers.

There is a feeling throughout the book that this dignified woman who survived so much horror and tragedy and extended a subtle influence on those around her threatened Henry in some way. The tyrant king was growing increasingly paranoid and capricious. In a time when allegiances were risky business it is easy to see that her friendship with Catherine of Aragon did her no favours. Then she took the young Princess Mary under her wing. These three women – Catherine, Mary and Margaret – shared a common religion, high principles and social standing. They were loyal friends to each other. Female friendships make for a dangerous freedom. This perhaps was Margaret’s undoing.

[1] Another story waiting to be told is that of Johanna Ferrour. In 1381, Ferrour led a group of rebels from Kent into ransacking the Tower of London in search of the king’s chancellor and treasurer. Ferrour and her cohorts considered these two men responsible for the poll tax of 1380, which sparked their revolt. The tax was tougher on married women as they were taxed separately from their husbands, regardless of their income or employment status. On the capture of the two government officials, Ferrour ordered their decapitation. She herself was never captured. In court documents she was described as “chief perpetrator and leader of rebellious evildoers from Kent”. As well as leading the rebels into London, she was charged with burning the Savoy Palace - the grandest townhouse in the capital at the time - and stealing a chest of gold from John of Gaunt. Although women were at the heart of the Peasants’ Revolt, and charged with many of the same crimes as men, there are no records of women being executed. Invisibility was their best defence. We can assume that Johanna Ferrour melted back into her role as wife and mother in a Kentish village. Her comrade at arms, Wat Tyler instead became the hero of the Peasants' Revolt. But he ended up with his head on a pike.

Review by Lilian Pizzichini, editor of The Revisionist.



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