In honour of Galentine’s Day (what’s Galentine’s Day? Oh, it’s only the best day of the year!), I decided to focus on a topic that is overlooked far too often in fiction: friendship between women. We all know about the Bechdel test, but try putting together a list of books where female friendship is the focus of the story, I dare you. Bonus points if the women in question are not related. It is practically impossible! That said, here are some of my favourite fictional examples of female friendship – the good and the bad. Some of these duos are attached at the hip for life, whereas other relationships go sour in the worst possible way.
If you can think of more titles, please leave a comment below!
After my reviews of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (here) and On Beauty by Zadie Smith (here), I decided to dedicate a full post to postcolonial rewritings and reworkings of the Western literary canon.
These are some works that I could think of off the top of my head, but if there are any more out there that I should know about, please let me know in the comments!
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys tells the story of a young Creole woman, Antoinette Cosway, growing up on the island of Jamaica. However, you probably know her as Jane Eyre‘s Bertha Mason, the iconic “mad woman in the attic.” We follow Antoinette as she tries to navigate racial tensions, her ultimately doomed marriage to Rochester, and the many problems in her family. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is a furious spectre, barely more than a grunting animal trying to scratch our heroine’s eyes out. Wide Sargasso Sea, on the other hand, gives Antoinette a voice, her own story to tell, and even her own name (I’ll get back to this).
If you have ever taken any class that touched on postcolonial literature in your life, you already know this title. Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the ultimate must-read titles in the field, a work that other postcolonial rewritings of classic literature are measured by; this is how it’s done. As a fan of both Jane Eyre and reworkings/reimaginings of well-known stories, it is downright embarrassing that I have not read this novel until now. However, when I came across a copy in a second-hand bookstore, I decided that it was finally time to correct this oversight. So did it live up to the hype?
Jane Eyre (2011).
If you were an unmarried young woman in the Victorian age and you didn’t have a fortune of your own, working as a governess would be one of the few ways you could earn your living. They would be hired by a wealthy family to live in a house that wasn’t theirs and look after other people’s children, with no leisure time and few possessions to call their own. It was hard and often thankless work – and many of these women found themselves wishing for a way out, for something more.
[Cue Belle singing about the "great wide somewhere."]
Brontë in a portrait painted circa 1840.
Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell first met in August 1850, after Gaskell had already been intrigued by Jane Eyre and its mysterious author for some time. Gaskell writes: “She and I quarrelled & differed about almost everything , – she calls me a democrat, & can not bear Tennyson – but… I hope we shall ripen into friends.” And they did: despite their frequent disagreements, they would exchange letters and ideas and pay each other visits until Brontë passed away in 1855, Gaskell, who had not heard anything from her for four months, did not even know that she had been ill. A few months later, she started working on the story of Brontë’s life; Gaskell spoke to many of Brontë’s friends and collected as much written material as she could get her hands on, including a great number of letters. The resulting book, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, was the first successful biography of a woman and written by a woman.
“La Miseria” (1886) by Cristobal Rojas.
Remember how Victorians thought tuberculosis was the ultimate Romantic disease?
In the 1800s, TB (or “consumption” as it was known then) was considered to be a desirable way to die because it was the sign of a delicate, sophisticated soul. Looking like a TB patient even became the height of Victorian fashion; women would paint little veins on the side of their face and drink vinegar in an attempt to bleach their skin and become as pale as possible (as immortalised in this Horrible Histories sketch). In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that our current obsession with skinny models is a trend rooted in this consumption craze.
TB was a particularly popular way to kill off characters in nineteenth-century literature. Authors delighted in glorified descriptions of trembling men and women with gigantic dark eyes who had somehow become wiser and even saint-like through their condition (usually glossing over the less attractive aspects like the excruciating pain and the smell).
“Penny Dreadful” still.
“It would not be too much to say that Anglo-American feminist criticism barely existed before [Gilbert and Gubar] rocked literary studies.”
Deborah D. Rogers, The Times Higher Education.
In 1979, Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert published The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a hallmark of second-wave feminist criticism. Over 700 pages long, The Madwoman in the Attic presents an analysis of a trope found in 19th-century literature. Gilbert and Gubar proposed that all female characters in male-authored novels can be categorised as either an angel or a monster; women in fiction were either pure and submissive or sensual, rebellious, and uncontrollable (very undesirable qualities in a Victorian daughter/mother/wife).