This year, I’m looking at female friendships under oppression as an aspect of a literary criticism assignment for my Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University. There aren’t very many literary books with positive female friendships forming a primary narrative. Female friendship, whether positive or negative, is an altogether unlikely subject matter in literature. I had to scour the internet to piece together a reading list, and once I’d gathered all of the books, I really had mixed feelings about those books I’d sourced and went on to read. Depictions of female friendships and female peer relationships penned by women authors are very often a landscape of jealousy, competitiveness, and betrayal. Hey, I get it. Readers want intrigue, drama, crisis. But it seems as though the conflict in novels dealing with female friendship always arises from within the friendship. Comparatively, male friendships fare rather well in literature, and the conflict comes from forces outside the friendship. Consider Frodo and Sam, Theo and Boris, Harry and Ron (okay so that’s not literature so much), Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, amongst many others. Hm.
I’m not sure that the female friendship has ever been honoured very effectively in the fiction novel. The closest I’ve come to a good and satisfying portrayal of female friendship is in the book My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. And I did not love that novel.
Vera Brittain wrote, “From the days of Homer the friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women, in spite of Ruth and Naomi, have usually been not merely unsung, but mocked, belittled and falsely interpreted. I hope that Winifred’s story may do something to destroy these tarnished reputations and show its readers that loyalty and affection between women is a noble relationship which far from impoverishing, actually enhances the love of a girl for her lover, of a wife for her husband, of a mother for her children.” (Hence, Testament of Friendship, all about a great and long-lasting friendship with the writer Winifred Holtby. More details in the Reading List below.)
Introductory Reading List of Books about Women’s Friendships
TLDR? Here’s the Goodreads List I’ve compiled featuring all the books (and please add your own.)
(Note: I don’t really do Classics)
First up is a non-fiction book that’s rather archaic, yet exceedingly poignant. Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby by Vera Brittain. The book was first published in 1940. Winifred passed away of Bright’s Disease when she was just thirty seven, and Vera had admired her friend so very much that she composed this book in her memory. Brittain lost her fiancé and her brother in the First World War, and her friendship with Winifred helped her to cope with the overwhelming loss. Brittain writes so eloquently on the subject of her friendship with Winifred. [Sidenote: Do we ever reflect on our friendships until they are gone from us? It is often in its absence that we come to recognise the glory of a friendship and see it as being significant, life-changing, a high point of one’s life.] Their friendship becomes romanticised in the novel, but not in a saccharine way. [And why shouldn’t friendship be romanticised, as an acknowledgement of its beauty and importance?] Here’s a lovely rendering of Winifred’s personality as depicted by Brittain:
“Winifred had an infallible consciousness of the other person’s standpoint; usually she put her friends’ wishes first and her own second. When she wrote letters she invariably began by referring to her correspondents’ interests and problems. If she answered the telephone she always replied, however disastrously the call had interrupted her, as though the speaker at the other end were the one person whom she wanted to hear. In conversation she seldom discussed her own troubles; she encouraged other people to talk about theirs. She was never offended; she seemed to be quite without the apparatus of sensitive pride and vulnerable dignity used by the person who lacks confidence to defend his ego against a world of which he is deeply suspicious…She never committed the deadly sin of undermining another person’s self confidence, for she knew that self-confidence takes half a lifetime to build up but can be destroyed in half an hour…The result was a gracious magnanimity, a never-failing charity, which evoked love by the warmth and generosity of the love that it gave.”
What’s particularly special about the book is that much of the friendship is catalogued through letters to-and-fro, a practise we’ve abandoned in the modern age. It was a time when people were careful about their communications with friends, noting the intricacies of their lives with consideration, and relaying complex feelings to one another in letters. It happens that both of the women were important writers themselves, heightening the readability of the book. I wonder how many women would relate to the following sentiment, as composed by Winifred to Brittain:
“‘Babies are a nuisance, of course,’ she wrote me at the end of 1926 when I was making up my mind to embark on a family. ‘But so does everything seem to be that is worth while – husbands and books and committees and being loved and everything. We have to choose between barren ease and rich unrest – or rather, one does not choose. If I were you, I would be rich. Even if it ultimately kills you, you’ll have been alive and we all have to die, even those who have never lived.’”
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. A formative friendship helps us to understand ourselves and to forge a sense of identity. It is through the feedback of these formative friendships that we come to understand ourselves. Our sense of identity may evolve and shift, and so the friend relationship may fulfil its need, and so dissolves. In Cat’s Eye, Elaine is haunted by a painful formative friendship she had with a girl called Cordelia, a friendship that became idolatrous, sycophantic.
As children, friendships help us to feel belonging and acceptance:
I want some friends, friends who will be girls. Girl friends. I know that these exist, having read about them in books, but I’ve never had any girl friends because I’ve never been in one place long enough.
These early friendships can also bring to light any of our apparent defects, as in this excerpt from a scene where Carol, another friend, comes to visit:
Carol comes to my house and takes it all in—the unpainted walls, the wires dangling from the ceilings, the unfinished floors, the army cots—with incredulous glee. “This is where you sleep? ” she says. “This is where you eat? These are your clothes? ” Most of my clothes, which are not many in number, are pants and jersey tops. I have two dresses, one for summer and one for winter, and a tunic and a wool skirt, for school. I begin to suspect that more may be required.
The book is an unsettling series of painful recollections that could well resonate with women who’ve experienced cruelty in their early friendships. It’s not the easiest of reads, but is painted with an unfortunate accuracy.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. This book has been a literary sensation for its profound portrayal of the friendship of two young girls living in Naples in the 1950’s. It is a place where women are belittled and sidelined as the norm – their husbands, fathers and brothers wielding a great deal of influence over their destinies. Even mothers have little faith in their daughters, occasionally jealous of their achievements. Status is conferred through right marriage, church attendance, conformity, and behaving ‘as a woman should’. Elena and Lila struggle to improve their circumstances, facing a battle to be acknowledged for their precocity, and to satisfy their ambitions. These struggles introduce competition into the friendship, adding to the usual stressors of a girl’s adolescence. [I think Ferrante did a really good job with this one and she got a lot of things right. However, the writing style really irked me, and it seemed jagged and unfocused in parts. This could be down to the translation – the work was originally composed in Italian.] The book is one of a foursome known as the Neapolitan Quartet.
Sula by Toni Morrison. In Sula, Sula Peace is the charismatic friend, and Nel Wright is the observer/admirer. Sula is an escapist, more worldly and daring, whereas Nel has conformist tendencies. The friendship is magnetic and transcendent in childhood and adolescence, but becomes toxic in adulthood. As children, Sula and Nel were virtually interchangeable, save for Sula’s birthmark. The birthmark may have triggered in Sula a sense of differentiation, a feeling that she did not fit in, that shaped her personality. This is a very strange and powerful book about female friendship under oppression (racial prejudice, poverty). The novel demonstrates that the social constraints and unjust expectations placed upon females force them to deny their own personhood, and that of their friends, leading to friendship crises.
Here are some more books dealing with female friendships, groups of women, and collaboration between women:
The Girls by Emma Cline. 2016’s hit novel inspired by the The Family, the name given to Charles Manson’s followers, made up of a high percentage of impressionable female teenagers and young women. The book is a first person narrative from the perspective of a young girl, Evie, who becomes involved in a similar type of set-up, after becoming entranced by one of the older girls in the group, named Suzanne. (Suzanne has echoes of Cordelia in Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood).
Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore.The book is a lot of fun, but is relatively superficial in addressing the theme of friendship, the author preferring to entertain than illuminate. [I ♥ Lorrie Moore’s short story collection Birds of America! She’s fantastic.]
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. The book reminds me more of a theatre script, as ‘ol Sparkie doesn’t delve very deeply into character. It does, however, feature a dramatic climax that is quite shocking.
On My To Read Shelf
I’ll update this post once I’ve completed them:
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
NW by Zadie Smith, and Swing Time by Zadie Smith
How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti
The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey
The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien
[Comment below if you’ve come across a proper friendship literary novel featuring women, that isn’t Sex and the City. It would be really useful for my thesis! Thanks.]
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