A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf

By Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $27.)


We picture them writing alone in their sitting rooms, but those famous female authors were not as isolated as their biographies made them seem.

A pair of emerging authors fleshes out the friendships that helped propel Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Virginia Woolf.

For Austen there was a playwriting governess, Anne Sharp. For Charlotte Brontë, there was a feisty friend, Mary Taylor. George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the most famous female authors of their day, compared notes across the ocean. For Virginia Woolf, there was Katherine Mansfield, a full-service friend/foe/muse.

These relationships weren’t all sweetness. They were fraught with the frustrations facing women of their days, with a little competition — and perhaps jealousy — thrown in.

For Austen and Brontë, the authors combed the scant surviving records for evidence, and some imagination was required to fill gaps. For Eliot and Woolf, they pored over letters from them and articles about them — and interpretations that they want to set straight. The typical Woolf/Mansfield narrative dwells too much on their moments of friction, they argue.

The result is a window into the role that literary colleagues played in the work of these women, and an intriguing study of the interplay between inspiration and envy.


Unruly Creatures By Jennifer Caloyeras. (Vandalia/West Virginia University Press, 180 pages, $17.95.)

Somewhere in an alternate universe, an animal trainer falls awkwardly in love with her captive gorilla, dolphins with human names form curious relationships with humans, and a young, bratty boy on a crappy family vacation bullies an older, lonely taxidermist. Elsewhere, a transgender woman who is imprisoned behind cold concrete walls in the desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles meets the man who saved her. But not in the way you’d think.

In Los Angeles-based writer Jennifer Caloyeras’ short story collection, “Unruly Creatures,” all of these situations are entirely plausible, if not commonplace. Caloyeras guides us through her characters’ states of mind, traversing the conscious and subconscious. Call it magical realism, or just refer to it as “weird stuff, dude.” Either way, all of the unbelievable-yet-somehow-believable worlds that Caloyeras creates feel easy for readers to fall into in an Alice down-the-rabbit-hole kind of way.

Caloyeras’ stories reminded me of another L.A. writer, Analisa Raya-Flores, whose short story “The Boys Like Bones” appeared in a recent issue of Glimmer Train Stories. In it, a father takes his two sons to the La Brea Tar Pits, and together they witness a crow slowly becoming part of the bubbly molten goo. Both of these writers magnify events, employing razor-sharp details and an impeccable sense of narrative timing, making sure that these images and coincidences and visceral experiences will stick with you, like tar on a bird that landed in the wrong spot.