Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Five From the Archive (no.7)

I was thinking about doing a FFTA about unmarried women, because I've read a lot of those in the past year or so, and I imagine that one day I will - but I thought it might be more interesting, and more unusual, to select books about pairs of women.  Because there turned out to be a few in my reviews archive.  None of these are about romantic pairings (well... one could be, but it's not overtly) but instead female friendships (and, er, unfriendships.)  It's a surprisingly rich and varied vein of the books I've read - well, five of them at least! - and I'd be interested to hear your suggestions.  As always, the books don't have to be novels - one of mine is not, for starters.  On with the show!

Five... Books About Pairs of Women

1.) Two Serious Ladies (1943) by Jane Bowles

In short: A dry, barbed, wonderfully strange account of Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, whose eccentric lives only overlap for a few moments.

From my review: "In many ways the novel doesn't follow any progression at all - the ladies merely experience a great deal, whether grasping at it enthusiastically or raising an ambivalent eyebrow at life.  Bowles' astonishing talent is creating a dynamic that, if not unique, is highly unusual - strange, surreal, and yet grounded to the mundane.  Her ear for dialogue is astonishing - dialogue which is almost never realistic, but always striking."

2.) Fair Play (1989) by Tove Jansson

In short: Two artists live on an island together, in this set of calm vignettes.

From my review: "Each chapter has a small incident occur, and Jansson wraps her delicious prose around it. By the end she has provided a beautiful portrait of an unconventional couple, co-dependent and close rather than affectionate."

3.) Keeping Up Appearances (1928) by Rose Macaulay

In short: Half-sisters Daisy (30, shy, secretly a popular novelist under a pseudonym) and Daphne (25, self-assured intellectual) try to mingle in the same social circles, with mixed success.

From my review: "Though Keeping Up Appearances isn't as funny as Crewe Train, nor quite as memorable, it does present a clever idea. Because, dear reader, I haven't told you the central concept which surprises the reader and twists the interpretation completely, which comes about halfway through the novel."

4.) Sex Education (2002) by Janni Visman

In short: Two women grow up together, but their friendship turns to rivalry...

From my review: "It's a presentation of the rivalry between friends, and the damaging effects of jealousy - but a quirkier edge would have catapaulted the novel into a higher league. I've no idea how the quirkiness could have been added - but obviously Visman did, because she delivered it in Yellow."

5.) Joyce & Ginnie: the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham (1997)

In short: well, it's the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham!

From my review: "The exchange of letters between the two women spans many, many years, and offers a unique perspective upon the lives of each - life as they wished to convey it to their closest friend. Without the modesty (assumed or otherwise) requisite for autobiography, or the idolatry of biography, reading letters may feel a little like encroaching upon a friendship, but also allows closer and more genuine understanding of the women than available elsewhere."

And.... over to you!


  1. What a brilliant idea! Hmmm. What about Cecelia and Emmeline in To the North (Bowen)?

    If sisters count, then there are Madeline and Dinah in The Echoing Grove (Lehmann) (oh and sisters in Austen novels), and if children count, Bonnie and Sylvia in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Aiken). Or is this cheating ;)

    1. I've read none of them, so thank you for the suggestions! And for the appreciation of the idea :) I thought it rather an interesting one when it struck me.

  2. The Friendly Young Ladies, Mary Renault. Two bohemian types living on a houseboat. Review here.

    1. Oh, and I have it! I remember being struck by the blurb, but hadn't remembered what it was about - how wonderfully enticing!

  3. I'm not sure I can come up with five, but what about 'Notes on a Scandal' by Zoe Heller? The older woman - I forget her name just now - is really chilling.

    1. Oh, yes, good idea - definitely not a nice friendship, but a fascinating example of two women's relationship!

  4. Hello, Simon. Funny Rose Macaulay should crop up again as I first discovered your blog a couple of months ago while looking for impressions of 'The World My Wilderness'. I admire your erudition and your work.

    For its forensic and almost vivisectional ruthlessness, I would vote for the portrayal of Miss Roach and Vicki Kugelmann in one of your own favourites, 'The Slaves of Solitude', as the most memorable female 'unfriendship'.


    1. Thank you for your kind words, Bruce!
      The Slaves of Solitude is a fantastic example, of course - I should have thought of it. Such a good book.

  5. This provided more of a challenge than I thought it would at first glance. I can think of loads of children's and YA titles that fit, but not nearly as many adult. I can also think of lots that deal with the friendships between three or four women, but not as many with the pair. I can also think of books with strong friendships between pairs of women, but they're not really books about the pair or about the friendship in the same way that the group friendship books tend to be. I wonder if it's just what I read (or my fallible memory) or if writers, at least contemporary writers, are more interested in exploring friendships that involve more than two people.

    1. That's definitely the tricky bit! There are lots of books which features pairs of women, but not that many where that relationship is the focal part of the novel (or whatever the book might be.) I was rather pleased to find five in my archive, but now there are lots of other ideas for me to pursue!

  6. How about Mary Smith and Matilda Jenkyns in 'Cranford'? A 'compare and contrast' pairing if ever there was one - but so successful - and kind!

  7. Hmm...not sure about "friendship" but I'd definitely consider Mapp & Lucia an interesting pair!

  8. Have you read Cold Light yet? That's another about a pair/trio of girls and their intense friendship... extremely well portrayed, having been a teenage girl!


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