It is a commonly held grudge of female readers that the history of literature largely remains to be not only seen, but defined, through the lens of the male writer. Chaucer, Milton, Donne, Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson (trust me, I could continue on for a while) are deemed to be some of the most respected and appreciated Grandfathers of Literature.
Literature does not find itself in a vacuum; whether it be conscious or not, literary texts are enriched by the awe and fascination captured in our previous readings. We’ve heard of the working relationships, what some may choose to describe as a literary brotherhood, between Shakespeare and Jonson, or, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Yet, by comparison, we fail to pay credit to, or even acknowledge, the untold stories of sisterhood in literature. There remains a distinct failure to recognise the influence one female writer had on another.
In Virginia Woolf’s book-length essay: A Room of One’s Own, she insists on recognising the importance of looking back to the history of literature. In particular, I recall her dedicating thanks to Aphra Behn, a writer who I, as a self-confessed literature nerd during high school, had never previously heard of or come across. I was familiar with other Restoration era writers such as Rochester or Dryden, but never Behn.
When reflecting on this absence of sisterhood in my reading, my mind suddenly shifted to the Brontë sisters. Having been brought up not too far from Howarth, where the Brontë sisters had lived, I recalled a visit with a friend, in which I learnt about their collaboratively written collection of adventure stories: ‘Angria and Gondal’.
Following further enquiry, I learnt that this childhood collection amounted to more words than all of Charlotte, Anne and Emily’s published works put together. Considering this early shared literary mentality, it would be difficult to claim that the sisters wrote their later works solely in isolation, without any shared ideas or influence on one another’s writing.
However, the sisters remain to be repeatedly and ruthlessly pitted against one another. The question as to which of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre or Emily’s Wuthering Heights is superior remains dominant, while Anne’s work is largely disregarded and ignored in its entirety. Society, and literary criticism, must no longer accept that to appreciate the work of one sister is to ultimately put another down.
We’ve been lucky enough to witness the evolution of sisterhood, however. Sisterhood extends itself beyond familial ties and has grown to encompass shared ideas, a sense of community and the beauty of solidarity.
The sisterhood of Victorian, female writers in fact extends beyond The Brontës.
Elizabeth Barrett-Browning Sonnets From The Portuguese is known for its subversion of the masculine Petrarchan sonnet form. She insists on devising a stronger female voice within a male-dominated poetical form. We see this sentiment mirrored in Christina Rossetti’s Monna Innominata (translating to “Unknown Lady”) whereby she discusses the male literary tradition through preceding her sonnets with epigraphs belonging to Dante or Petrarch.
Both strive to address the lack of female voice in the sonnet form, both push towards creating sister figures for the next generation of female writers, and both do not receive enough respect for it.
Emily Dickinson’s admiration of Barrett-Browning, choosing to hang a framed portrait of her in her bedroom, is one of the earlier examples we can look towards in terms of actively
valuing the role of inspirational writers within a literary sisterhood.
I’m grateful to say that increasingly we hear of writers recognising and praising their literary icons, or, their literary sisters. When talking to The Guardian, Tayari Jones (author of An American Marriage) discussed how her life could be divided up into before and after reading Beloved by Toni Morrison. The work was so powerful that she felt her experiences as a black, female author feel ‘contextualized’.
Literature is destined to be shared. The strong women engaging in literature, whether it be writers, critics, the people I choose to swap books with, or talk about my ideas to, are all vital elements in building a more secure and established literary sisterhood.
Female writers of the past have and will continue to shape the voices of women writers and readers within literature. It is now time to not only recognise, but to openly credit and pay thanks to the power of sisterhood within the classics of the past and the classics of the future.
Written by Issie Levin