We consider ourselves fortunate to have become friends during our early twenties, back when we were at the very start of our literary journeys. We were both English teachers living in rural Japan, and we had both been writing in secret in between lessons, but it took us almost a year to pluck up the courage to “come out” to each other as aspiring authors. We made our mutual confession over bowls of spaghetti in an eccentric, garlic-themed restaurant. Our delight at discovering a friend with the same dream eclipsed any prospect of possible rivalry.
From that moment on, although our lives took us geographically in different directions, we trod a joint path as writers. After returning home to the UK, we lived many miles apart but helped each other from afar, reassured by the knowledge that our friend was also eschewing a well-paid profession and making do in the pokiest of apartments to buy some time to write. We shared and critiqued drafts of stories, passed on news of writing courses and contests, and soon confided in each other about our ideas for books.
Sweetest to us during these years were what we termed our “writing weekends.” On these occasions, we’d travel across country by train to hole ourselves away in one another’s homes. We spent hours engrossed in our separate worlds on the page but came together to discuss our chapters in cramped kitchenettes—one of us slicing vegetables, the other toasting spices, both of us sipping from large glasses of wine. Together, we’d celebrate any successes: an acceptance on a master’s program, a place on a competition shortlist, signing with a literary agent. As time wore on, however, we’d more frequently find ourselves commiserating over the receipt of yet another publisher’s rejection slip.
But neither of us ever gave up hope of seeing our books in print, and, during one of our writing weekends, we confided a fear that had been nagging away at each of us for some time: could the success of one before the other drive us apart? We predicted the pride and pleasure we would surely feel when our friend achieved her long-standing dream of publication, but we each admitted to having imagined an inevitable—and perhaps insurmountable—envy, too.
Fears such as these are nothing new, of course. Writer friends have always had to navigate the tricky terrain of one cresting the peak of achievement while the other remained stuck in the literary wilderness. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf—whose books we have long passed between us—enjoyed an influential friendship beset, nonetheless, by underlying resentment.
When the pair first met, in 1916, Woolf, at thirty-four, was the author of just one novel to date, whereas—despite being six years younger—Mansfield had carved out more of a name for herself.
Putting aside any simmering jealousy, however, Woolf would soon approach Mansfield with a professional proposition that had the potential to deepen their personal relationship. In the spring of 1917, Woolf and her husband had recently set up their own publishing house, the Hogarth Press. And, as an admirer of her friend’s writing, Woolf convinced Mansfield to provide the imprint’s very first commission.
During that rain-sodden summer, while hailstones the size of pigeon eggs hammered against the windowpanes, Woolf devoted her afternoons to working on the publication of Mansfield’s book-length story, Prelude, laboriously setting the type by placing each and every letter on a composing stick, face up and upside down, then tightly packing each line with blocks of spacing. Later, she folded, stapled and glued sheet upon sheet of her friend’s words, binding them within Persian-blue covers. The more immersed she became in typesetting the story, the more sisterly she felt toward its author.
When Prelude finally winged its way into the world, in July 1918, Woolf championed Mansfield’s story, undeterred by its lack of popularity among some of her friends. When one friend sneered that it “doesn’t set the Thames on fire,” Woolf defended the novel. She assured another that “Katherine is the very best of women writers—always of course passing over one fine but very modest example.” But buried in Virginia’s droll aside was the knowledge that shared artistic aspirations could easily descend into dangerous rivalry.
For a while at least, it seemed that the strength of their literary bond would assuage any such demons. Mansfield’s recurrent attacks of rheumatism during the two years following the publication of Prelude often kept her housebound, and Woolf regularly broke off work on her second novel to make the long journey across London to visit her ailing friend. She’d arrive laden with gifts: a freshly baked loaf; sprays of flowers to brighten the mantelpiece; a columbine plant, its purple petals aflame. But more prized still were the words they exchanged. In Mansfield’s study, high above Hampstead Heath, the afternoon light streaming in, each woman would speak with animation and ease about her own work, fighting her corner at times and, at others, backing down.
These visits were terminated only when Mansfield, following doctor’s orders, headed off to the Italian Riviera in September 1919. Over the next six months, Mansfield did not send her friend a single letter, and Woolf was left to agonize over what could have gone wrong.
It was surely no coincidence that the tables had recently turned on the two authors’ fortunes. Mansfield’s new collection of short stories, Bliss, had been rejected by Heinemann at around the same time Woolf was preparing for the publication of her second novel, Night and Day.
The book came out to much fanfare, but, in the midst of replying to fan letters and reveling in good reviews, Woolf came across a hurtful article in the November 1919 issue of the Athenaeum, which partially explained her friend’s withdrawal.
Surrounded by piles of typeface letters—with which, just a year and a half earlier, she had arranged each word of Prelude—Woolf read Mansfield’s review of Night and Day. Mansfield had compared it to a ship returning from “a perilous voyage” with a curious “absence of any scars.” Writers are under an obligation, she’d insisted, to incorporate the new world order into their work, finding “new expressions new moulds for our new thoughts & feelings.” Ultimately, Mansfield concluded, the novel makes “us feel old and chill”—a comment that caused Woolf herself to feel like “a decorous elderly dullard.”
She kept turning the review over in her mind, its words continuing to gnaw. Perhaps Mansfield had been right, Woolf began to suspect, about the book’s failings. And so in May 1920, when she got wind of Mansfield’s return from the Italian Riviera, she paid her estranged friend a visit.
Despite an acute awareness of their rivalry, Woolf was soon reminded, too, of the “common certain understanding between us—a queer sense of being ‘like’.”
Although she had not meant to speak of it, Woolf heard herself ask Mansfield about the review of Night and Day. Mansfield initially skirted around the subject, but she knew she owed her fellow writer an explanation.
Over lunch together the following week, Mansfield would allude to the novel’s omission of World War I. Woolf found such an appraisal refreshing, giving her license, too, to talk without altering her thoughts—a kind of uncensored conversation she had experienced with almost no one else.
Although their mutual literary envy would continue to threaten their friendship over the years to come, Woolf would forever benefit from Mansfield’s rich critical insight—however unpalatable it might at first have seemed. In the months following Mansfield’s critique of Night and Day’s muteness on the terrifying repercussions of military action, Woolf began to write the first of three war novels. Jacob’s Room would mark Woolf’s transition to the Modernist style for which she has become best known. And she followed it up with two of her most celebrated books: Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.
By the time we finally reached that long-feared moment when one of us was first bringing out her first book while the other remained an unpublished writer, we had learned from the example of Mansfield and Woolf that the name on a novel’s cover only tells part of the story. We had exchanged so many drafts by this stage and discussed the intricacies of so many scenes that this hard-won achievement marked a moment of celebration not simply for one but for us both as writer friends.
Soon afterward, our research into the rivalrous bond between Mansfield and Woolf led us in another unforeseen direction when we were jointly commissioned to write a book about female literary friendship. As it turned out, it was working together intensely on our shared project that would lead to those explosive moments of friction that we had once so feared. But, by then, we had learned from Mansfield and Woolf that ruthless honesty might sometimes prove invaluable—and that a writer should reach out to grasp such a gift from an important competitor and true friend.
Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney are the coauthors of A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Emma is author of the novel Owl Song at Dawn, Emily is a winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, and they both teach at New York University in London.