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Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves

How two close friends uncovered the most important female friendships in literature

No, I’m not talking Annie Lennox –  we’re gonna ramp it up here on Muddy and check out some high-end literary magic (not that Annie isn’t high end, or magical, but you know what I mean.) Two close friends, Emma Claire Sweeney (an old writing mucker of mine) and her bestie Emily Midorikawa publish their first joint literary tome this month, exploring the hidden friendships of Austen, Brontё, Eliot and Woolf and how female friendships can be not only fruitful but necessary for some of the great writers of our time.

Virgina Woolf

Some of the deepest female friendships between writers have been overlooked and ignored in the past but authors Emma and Emily are determined to change this. While we know all about some male literary friendships – Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, often the stuff of legend – some of the world’s best-loved female authors are portrayed as isolated and solitary, as odd eccentric spinsters. Emily and Emma’s experiences as female writers led them to question these accounts of extreme seclusion and, through letters and diaries which have never been published before, A Secret Sisterhood resurrects some previously forgotten, unknown even, stories of female friendships that were sometimes pretty scandalous.

“You don’t think you can find out anything new about Jane Austen, or any writer of such stature,” says Emma and yet, two centuries after Austen’s death, she did just that. I’m not kidding! The authors have uncovered brand-new pieces of evidence from these female writer’s lives, including wonderfully secret notes hidden away in the diaries of Jane Austen’s family governess Anne Sharp, unpublished letters written between George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and secrets details behind the friendship of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. Their research led them to bundles of ageing letters, neglected diary entries, personal mementos stored in locked library archives – even scribbled notes that had lain undiscovered for 200 years, tucked inside the back of old journals. Pretty blooming impressive!


It is strange but sadly not surprising that history has hidden from us the friendships between these much-loved female writers. At the time both writing and friendship were dangerous acts for a woman – women authors were viewed as threats to their male counterparts and therefore dismissed only too often as mad old spinsters or lonely outcasts. In their book, Emma and Emily relate these wonderful female friendships directly to their own. “Without our friendship, I don’t know if we would’ve given up on writing, but it certainly would have felt like something was missing,” says Midorikawa.  Their blog, Something Rhymed, charts female literary bonds and has been covered in the media and promoted by Margaret Atwood, Sheila Hancock and Kate Mosse, showing that the literary sisterhood is still alive today.


Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Emma and Emily first met in their early twenties, straight out of university, so shy about their literary ambitions that it took them almost a year to even share them with each other. But having ‘come out’ as aspiring authors, over the years that followed they trod a joint path, together labouring over drafts of novels and learning about the vagaries of the publishing industry – sharing both struggles and moments of celebration. As we know, the publishing world is pretty hard to crack these days – maybe having a strong female friendship to share, support and critique you is the way forward.

Anyone wanna be my bestie? Come on, let’s get that bestseller published!


A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney will be published by Aurum Press on 1 June 2017 (£20).

Writer friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney are the authors of A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf. They also co-run, a website that celebrates female literary friendship. They have written for the likes of the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and The Times. Emily is a winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, Emma is author of the award-winning novel Owl Song at Dawn, and they both teach at New York University London.

You can follow them on Twitter via @emilymidorikawa and @emmacsweeney, and Emma has an author page on Facebook.


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