The Guardian

Sister act: female friendship in fiction from Woolf to Ferrante and Zadie Smith

by Alex Clark

Illustration Lucy Macleod

In 1926, the novelist Rose Macaulay found herself bothered by the attentions of enthusiastic readers, and one in particular who visited, bringing lilies of the valley. When Macaulay went out to lunch to try to get rid of her she simply tagged along. “Writing books is a terrible magnet for such as her,” confided Macaulay in a letter to her sister Jeanie. “They are so very boring, as a rule.” Being polite in such circumstances only made it worse, and protestations of busyness had no effect. “Anyhow,” concluded the letter, “I have enough friends already, and I do resent people thinking that they can become friends merely by pushing their way in. As a matter of fact, I select my friends with great care, and only have those who please me a great deal. There must be a way out of these problems, I wish I could hit on it. I must ask other novelists what they do.”

Jeanie was a district nurse, and – alongside sisterly love and interesting conversation – provided a rather more pleasant sort of companionship for the hard-pressed writer. How lovely it was, wrote Macaulay in a thank you letter in 1940, to spend a night at her “perfectly appointed house”, where the visitor was “a pampered drone lying on a soft warm couch and waking to news and breakfast, and everything found but beer, as one used to say to servants”.

Macaulay wasn’t by custom much of a pampered drone, and neither was she in flight from society; doggedly prolific, she wrote not only novels but biographies and travel books, and maintained active conversations about politics, religion and feminism throughout her life. But her attitudes towards “friends” – even when that term is enlarged to encompass troublesome fans – is interesting; they must be carefully selected, winnowed according to pleasure. Who might be able to give advice? “Other novelists.”

Novelists, in the popular imagination as well as by self-description, often ping between the solitude of the writing desk and the rivalrous frenzy of the literary circuit. Naturally, most find themselves still able to have human relationships beyond those with their editor and agent, and to describe the complex phenomenon of personal interaction in their work. But recently, there has been a growth in the literary depiction of a particular type of friendship, one that has in the past found itself vulnerable to dilution and deflection by the ostensibly more powerful imperatives of heterosexuality and motherhood. Fictional female friends are suddenly all around us, from Elena Ferrante’s Lila and Elena to Emma Cline’s group of murderous California adolescents in The Girls and Ottessa Moshfegh’s prison employees in the Man Booker longlisted Eileen; they span the strange, creatively fruitful gap between fiction and memoir, such as in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?; they sit in a mysterious zone of desire and conflict, as in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, also Booker longlisted; they act as conduits to unleash repressed creativity and personal ambition, as in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.

We increasingly seek more complex and subtle imaginative explorations of identity than societal expectations of gender – and a “realist” elaboration of personality – have often allowed; if we have long accepted that identity is fluid and shifting, it has perhaps taken more time to appreciate that it deserves a similarly sophisticated expression in art. Consequently, that sense of the forced compartmentalisation of a woman’s life – given such powerful structural form in Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, in which Anna Wulf chronicles her life in four separate notebooks and tries to merge them in an eponymous fifth – is under extreme pressure.

In Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, it begins to crack. So much goes on over the course of the four novels – the depiction of the postwar Naples in which the two girls grow up, their dramatically diverging educational, occupational and romantic lives, radical politics and gangsterism, their experiences of motherhood – that readers can be forgiven for getting caught up in the material and straightforwardly accessible emotional reality of what they describe. But from its prologue, the first novel in the quartet, My Brilliant Friend, signals itself as a work preoccupied with the assertion and effacement of identity. As it opens, Lila (also known as Raffaella and Lina), now in her 60s, has disappeared without a trace, leaving Elena (also Lenuccia or Lenu) to muse not on her shock, but on her lack of surprise. Elena realises that what Lila means by disappearing is not beginning a new life, nor suicide:

She meant something different: she wanted to vanish, she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world.

Lila’s absence is what enables Elena to write their lives, but not from a neutral, or even commemorative, standpoint. “We’ll see who wins this time,” she says, as she turns her computer on; her recreation of the pair’s history is, from the outset, spurred by competitiveness, and a touch of anger. But it is not merely that what follows is sometimes unflattering or damning to Lila, or that at some level, it enacts Lila’s desire to be erased by taking over the telling of her story; it is also that it presents friendship as a complex psychological dance. Their decades-long relationship is punctuated by periods of antagonism, envy and repudiation; at times, they appear not as separate entities but as projections of estranged yet dependent aspects of the same personality. The books’ recurrent theme of boundaries – Lila is visited by traumatic episodes of dissociation, sensations of the borders between objects and people dissolving – is linked to the idea of female identity, and particularly to women as potential generators; of meaning, language, children, history.

It takes a writer of significant qualities to avoid such a story becoming schematic, its characters reduced to representations of positions and outcomes. Ferrante’s ability to animate Lila and Elena’s lives derives partly from the way she merges the specificity of time and setting with the uncanny immateriality of fairytale (the story of the little girls’ dolls that opens the quartet, the dramatis personae – “the shoemaker’s family”, “the mad widow’s family” – that sit at the front of each book). A similar achievement characterises Zadie Smith’s NW, which also tells the story of two friends, their push-pull attachment to the neighbourhood they grew up in, and their contrasting paths through life. (Smith’s forthcoming novel, Swing Time, to be published in November, returns to female friendship and divergent lives in its story of two girls who grow up wanting to be dancers.)

In NW, concrete observations are made strange by the novel’s switches between modes, by Smith’s painstaking focus on the construction of identity; again there are name changes, abrupt volte-face, dramatic renunciations of the status quo. Again, there is the crucial difference in approach between the two characters, as here, when Leah visits Keisha-become-Natalie at university:

“Really good to see you,” said Leah. “You’re the only person I can be all of myself with.” Which comment made Natalie begin to cry, not really at the sentiment but rather out of a fearful knowledge that if reversed the statement would be rendered practically meaningless, Ms Blake having no self to be, not with Leah, or anyone.

Smith has talked about how Virginia Woolf inspired the writing of NW, and modernism’s influence on the creation of such fluid characters as Ferrante’s and those in NW is clear (Woolf’s Orlando, her celebration of her love for and friendship with Vita Sackville-West, is dependent on the idea of identity shifts). But key in these depictions of women’s relationships is how much the warp and weft of their individual lives, thoughts and feelings, are a subject in themselves. This hasn’t always been – and still, frequently, isn’t – the case; fictional women are frequently positioned in relation to men, their interactions seen through the prism of their need for male approval, or their subjugation to men’s desires. Often, of course, this is the point. In Margaret Forster’s Georgy Girl, for example, the plot revolves around the difference between two young women, and in particular their relative sense of self-esteem in the sexual and romantic arena, personified by the dashing Jos:

“Why don’t you say what you’re thinking?”
“Which was?”
“Which was how could Meredith, such a pretty gay little girl, share a flat with a great clodhopper like me.”
“Heh, this isn’t like you, George,” said Jos.
“No it isn’t, is it? Jolly back-slapping hockey stick George.”
“Oh come on, George,” said Jos.
“My name is Georgina.”
“Georgina then. What’s eating you? Don’t you feel well?”
George threw the carrot she was peeling at him. It hit his spectacles and they fell onto the floor and broke and she sat on the floor beside them and cried. Blindly, Jos squatted down beside her and they both stared at the smashed lenses. Eventually, George stopped crying and started apologising.

Jos responds by telling her to shut up, although he revises his feelings about Georgy as Meredith proves herself a pretty useless wife and mother, and indeed eventually cedes her daughter to Georgy. As Jos and Georgy pick a name for the baby, Meredith goes “at a gallop” around the square outside:

She didn’t know why she hadn’t smacked both their smug faces. She should have put her foot down and stopped them getting the baby, instead of being so idle and short-sighted to see that it mattered … She didn’t care about the baby, she really didn’t, it was those two she hated. They behaved as though they were in some private world, all sugar and spice and all things nice. She despised them and their cosiness.

Her next thought is that she won’t be able to get her job back – she is a violinist in an orchestra – and the message about women’s choices between motherhood and work, rapaciousness and “niceness” is complete.

Often, too, the subject of men is more subtly managed; their existence, or rather women’s feelings for them, is a matter of discretion and delicacy, as if they might disrupt proceedings. It’s unsurprising that one of the masters of portraying these situation is Anita Brookner, in whose 1982 novel Look at Me, narrated by librarian Frances (who doesn’t like to be called Fanny; the issue of women and their names is clearly an abiding one), two friends simply skirt around the whole topic. “We have never discussed this,” writes Frances, of her friend Olivia’s dislike of another woman, Alix, and fondness for Alix’s husband Nick, “because on some matters reticence is preferable, particularly when feelings are liable to change. We are both rather old-fashioned, I suppose, and although our friendship is deep and sincere, we do not really subscribe to the women’s guerrilla movement. I think we like to maintain a certain loyalty to the men who have, or have had, our love and affection; we regard ourselves in some way as being concerned with their honour. Ridiculous, really, when you come to think of it. I have learned that there is no reciprocity in these matters.”

Here we see women as the protectors of men, and male honour; and as the victims of their betrayal. In Look at Me, Frances is “taken up” by Nick and Alix, and given access to a far more glamorous and racy life; there are, naturally, consequences, and an insight into what it is to be proprietorially befriended by another woman. Female friendship does not always imply one’s best interests being served, and can lead into extremely dark waters, as in Moshfegh’s Eileen. Here, a familiar story of faltering self-confidence and the allure of poise and polish comes into play, as the novel’s eponymous narrator meets Rebecca Saint John:

Perhaps only young women of my same conniving and tragic nature will understand that there could be something in such an exchange as mine with Rebecca that day which could unite two people in conspiracy. After years of secrecy and shame, in this one moment with her, all my frustrations were condoned and my body, my very being, was justified. Such solidarity and awe I felt, you’d think I’d never had a friend before.

Illustration Lucy Macleod
Illustration by Lucy Macleod

Narratives that detail such transformations are compelling. This is perhaps why Cline’s The Girls has captured the imagination of so many readers. Beyond the grisly allure of its subject matter – it is based on the young women who were part of Charles Manson’s “Family”, and who committed brutal murders in his name – it probes the nature of charisma not merely in a cult leader, but among a group of adolescent girls. Its narrator, Evie, is in freefall, and fed up with it; her parents are divorcing, she’s being shipped off to a boarding school, and her current best friend is simply not cutting the mustard any more. Evie’s obeisance to Suzanne, the leader of the “girls”, is made gripping by the way that she sloughs off her childhood friend, Connie, and especially Connie’s inept mimicry of adult female behaviour: “I remember noticing for the first time how loud she was, her voice hard with silly aggressiveness. Connie with her whines and feints, the grating laugh that sounded, and was, practised. A space opened up between us as soon as I started noticing these things, to catalogue her shortcomings the way a boy would. I regret how ungenerous I was. As if by putting distance between us, I could cure myself of the same disease.”

Suzanne, briefly, “cures” Evie of a certain type of femininity, although not of arranging her life around the expectations of a man; in this case, one whose apparent toxicity – he is, at bottom, weak and vain – finds its expression through the manipulation of women. Connie, incidentally, gets her own back.

But The Girls is not as much about friends as bad influences; it is about a surrender to the enablement of transgressive behaviour, while simultaneously being able to pretend that it is at a distance. “I can’t account for my own savagery,” thinks Elaine, the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s powerful exploration of group dynamics and bullying, Cat’s Eye (1989). She spends much of her life trying to understand how Cordelia, her tormentor, accrues so much power. When she reflects on her own daughters, she remembers wishing that they had been sons. “I must have been afraid of hating them,” she thinks, and “I didn’t want to pass anything on to them, anything of mine they would be better without.” Her capitulation to Cordelia’s will is one of those things; her fear of resembling her another. “There I am in her mirror eyes,” she notices, as Cordelia puts sunglasses on, “in duplicate and monochrome, and a great deal smaller than life size.”

The erotic runs through many of these novels, more or less overtly; in Hot Milkthe narrator Sofie (also known as Sophia and Zoffie) begins a romantic and sexual relationship with Ingrid, whom she has at first mistaken for a man and, indeed, tried to eject from a women-only bathroom, and who embroiders a blouse for her. At first, Sofie believes that it reads “Beloved”; later, she realises it is “Beheaded”. The erotic has become mythological, and the everyday – a blouse, a jellyfish sting, a barking dog – irrevocably portentous. It is a cunning way to situate and examine desire; one that also runs through the work of Ali Smith, who – like Levy – is alive to the thrilling possibilities of the dangerous and ambiguous stranger, often a woman, who pitches up out of nowhere.

Friendship, in literature as in life, is a dizzyingly various prospect; and it tells us things about ourselves that we may not want to know. Female friendship, with its additional charge of possible subversion – a world free from male control – is densely suggestive, whether it appears to be (the girls and women in Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) or whether it masquerades as something more straightforward. It encompasses love, fear, dislike, insecurity, dependency, affection, sexuality, jealousy, altruism, cruelty, sameness and difference; it raises knotty questions of the individual’s ability to disrupt gender norms as well as her often unconscious adherence to them. No wonder writers of fiction are inspired by its boundless potentiality.