From sisterly love to frenemies: the best female friendships in books

Whether it is Vera Brittain or Elena Ferrante, women’s relationships have provided succour in troubled times, writes Lucy Jago

What I miss most about pre-lockdown life is not festivals, or even foreign travel, but time with my female friends. The malaise, I believe, is widespread, so here are some books in which to immerse yourself in complex, occasionally wounding, but always irreplaceable female friendships.

In Sula, by Toni Morrison, Nel and Sula are best friends in a poor, black Ohio community, where women can take many roles but not that which Sula chooses, free from social and sexual restraint. She is shunned by everyone, even Nel, whose marriage crumbles in the face of Sula’s seductive presence. Nel mourns for years but comes to understand, as Sula does before her, that it was not her husband she was missing but the relationship with her best friend. Morrison says that it was the women around her, all struggling, all poor, who inspired the book. “The things we traded! Time, food, money, clothes, laughter, memory – and daring. Daring especially …”

In her Neapolitan quartet Elena Ferrante analyses the ebb and flow of love and loathing between Lila and Lenù, in the violent, repressive culture of a district of Naples, after they meet in the 1950s. “Lila pushed me to do things that I would never have had the courage to do for myself,” says Lenù, her friend providing the grist that allows Lenù to escape and become a writer. Ferrante does not flinch from the destructive side of their powerfully catalytic friendship.

‘A frenemy element’ … Vera Brittain’s best friend, Winifred Holtby.
‘A frenemy element’ … Vera Brittain’s best friend, Winifred Holtby. Photograph: PR

A frenemy element also seeps into Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship. At first glance it is a glowing portrait of her best friend, the writer and activist Winifred Holtby, who died at 37. The two were inseparable, even living together after Brittain married, Holtby neglecting her own writing to help with domestic chores while Brittain finished Testament of Youth. In the epilogue, Brittain admits that she exploited Holtby’s generous nature to pursue her own talents, an honest recognition of the fact that, for women to create, they often require the sacrifice of other women’s time. Profound friendships survive periods of neglect or imbalance, but Holtby died before Brittain could repay the debt.

In Sebastian Barry’s Annie Dunne, such interdependency gently and movingly unfolds. Annie and her cousin Sarah live and work on a small farm in a remote part of Wicklow, Ireland, in the 50s. Both spinsters, Annie had been ejected or rejected by all her other relatives, before Sarah took her in. Over the course of a summer, during which Annie is terrified that she will again be thrown out, the two women come to realise that only they truly see the other’s qualities. Their friendship is what makes their lives matter. “I see there is something in Sarah that no one can gainsay, the unremarked quality of her courage, the beauty of her considerable soul.”

This witnessing and acknowledging, that women do so well for each other, is at the heart of Bernardine Evaristo’s delicious verse novel, The Emperor’s Babe. Zuleika, a third-century, first-generation immigrant to Londinium, is spotted aged 11 in the Cheapside baths by a Roman nobleman thrice her age and girth to whom she is quickly married. His absences and unwelcome presences are made bearable by Alba, who encourages Zuleika to fulfil her dream of becoming a poet and experiencing love. As is often the case, in life as in art, such daring must be paid for.

In these sad, perplexing days, explorations of female friendships provide wisdom and nourishment without escaping political reality. In Morrison’s words, “snatching liberty seemed compelling. Some of us thrived; some of us died. All of us had a taste.”

Lucy Jago’s A Net for Small Fishes is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Lucy Jago

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