Female Friendships in Fiction (part 1)

Hi, kids. Writer Stevie Carroll joins us again from across the pond, with a post about what appears to be a dearth of female friendships in fiction — at least friendships that don’t end badly. So here’s Stevie to explore more of that.

Female Friendships in Fiction (Part One)
By Stevie Carroll

Is it me, or is there a lack of stories these days about women being friends? Back when I was a very young person, my parents drove us most of the way across the US on a family holiday, and I read at least one Nancy Drew story per day. They were all about girls being friends, as were the British boarding school stories I also read a fair few of. Now, though, I’m hard pressed to think of more than half a dozen memorable stories in which two or more women are friends, and nothing tragic happens to ruin that friendship.

Keep on reading. WHERE ARE THE BFFs?

You know the sort of thing: one half of a pair of friends suffers some tragic disease or illness and the other rushes to her side. They relive old memories and at the end of the story one or both dies. Or a group of friends are reunited after years apart, and then a series of terrible murders take place because of something they did in their past. Where are all the stories in which friends get together for a cup of tea, or a good long walk, and manage to have an adventure that they all survive? In films, we had Thelma and Louise, I suppose, but that was a long time ago, and didn’t exactly end well.

Some friendships between women on the printed page that weren’t exactly central to the plot, but which I found memorable:

Verity and Demelza Poldark in Winston Graham‘s wonderful saga of Cornwall (another from the depths of my past). Demelza had a lot of female friends as I remember, but then we’re talking historical novels and some of Jane Austen’s heroines had good female friends, too.

Lavinia Broad and Ariadne Sheridan in Charlie Cochrane‘s Cambridge Fellows series. Historicals again, but written this century. Although the books are mostly about men and the two women don’t meet up often on the page, they do have a most engaging discussion in Lessons in Trust all about sex (or possibly all about lemurs; there’s a lot of coyness going on there).

Mainstream women’s fiction and category romance don’t do well at friendships in my limited experience, but I did just finish Fiona Harper’s Swept off her Stilettos, in which the heroine interacts with several other women as friends-cum-business contacts and very little rivalry ensues compared to what I’d expect in the standard heterosexual romance.

Lesfic does do better on the whole, of course, but it’s still not perfect, although that may be a reflection of the number of mysteries I read. Once you’ve got the primary romantic relationship and the murder plot going on, there’s maybe not much space left for exploring our heroines’ outside relationships with friends and flatmates. But in the world of crime novels generally, there seem to be very few female buddy-cop partnerships (and I don’t necessarily mean literal police officer investigation teams alone), whether you look at the mainstream or the more focussed areas of crime novels.

British TV has a smattering of paired female investigators, and also gives us some good friendship stories in the world of daytime soaps, but looking over the crime series on my bookshelves the dynamic duos all seem to be either male buddies or male/female partnerships with or without some level of unresolved sexual tension. Even ensemble pieces tend to have more men than women on any given team, and if there are two women present for the majority of scenes, there usually seems to be some reason why they don’t actually get on.

Is female friendship really so scary that it doesn’t reach the page more often? Or am I just reading in all the wrong places? Give me some recommendations, and then next time (or the time after, because I’ll have a convention to tell you all about next time) we can talk about different ways that I’ve written about women friends and the ways in which they connect.

As a teaser, here’s a short excerpt from my story ‘What Katy Did on Holiday’, which was published last year in the Tea and Crumpet anthology in which Katy encounters two women with a rather unlikely friendship:

***

“Katy Parker!” Miss Jones recognised her the moment she reached the front of the queue. “What brings you here? What are you doing with yourself these days?”

“I’m a teacher.” Katy was suddenly very proud of her career choice. “At a village primary school on the other side of Abergavenny. I fell in love with the area when you took us there on those class hiking trips, and I was so pleased when the chance came up to work there.” She took the three books from their bag, and laid them out on the table.

“My pupils love your stories,” she continued. “They like Mrs Murgatroyd and Bunny, but they also like looking at all the different people in the illustrations. Was it your idea to make the characters so diverse?” Not only did the scenes in the books feature characters of all ages and ethnicities, there were also people with disabilities, children with only one parent, children with two mothers or two fathers, children who lived with their grandparents. And so the list went on.

“I suppose I can take part of the credit,” Miss Jones said. “Having worked in such a mixed school all those years, it seemed natural to include everyone in the stories. Most of the credit for the crowd scenes, though, belongs to Helena.”

The woman with pink hair took a small step forward. She had silver studs all the way up one earlobe, and halfway up the other. Katy’s hand darted to the labrys stud in her own ear, wondering whether Helena had spotted it, and recognised its significance. Feeling her cheeks heat up a little, Katy forced her hand back down to her side.

“My niece,” Miss Jones continued. “I used to tell stories to all my nieces and nephews when they were growing up, but she was the one who encouraged me to write them down.”

“You illustrate the stories?” Katy hoped she wasn’t staring too obviously at Helena’s pale skin, freckled cheeks and tiny button nose.

“I do,” Helena said. “I work with several authors, and take on commissions for other projects, but Aunt Viv is my favourite person to draw for.”

“And you really live in a camper van?”

“Not for much longer,” Miss Jones said. “My knees can’t take another winter.” She indicated the people waiting behind Katy. “We’re holding them up with our chatter. Do you want to meet us for dinner tonight? I always like to hear how my favourite pupils have been getting on since school.”

***

Helena and Miss Jones are related, but their friendship goes beyond a simple blood-tie, and Katy is about to learn a lot more about making new friends.
—-

Got you wanting more? Check out the link to the anthology above and chime in here with your thoughts about female friendships in fiction. Thanks, Stevie!

Here’s more about Stevie:

Stevie Carroll was born in Sheffield, England’s Steel City, and raised in a village on the boundary of the White and Dark Peaks. She was nourished by a diet of drama and science fiction from the BBC and ITV, and a diverse range of books, most notably Diane Wynne-Jones and The Women’s Press, from the only library in the valley. After this came a university education in Scotland, while writing mostly non-fiction for underground bisexual publications under various aliases, before creativity was stifled by a decade of day-jobs.

Currently based in Hampshire, Stevie has rediscovered the joys of writing fiction, managing to combine thoughts of science fiction, fantasy and mysteries with a day-job writing for the pharmaceuticals industry and far too many voluntary posts working with young people, with animals and in local politics. Stevie’s short story, ‘The Monitors’, in Noble Romance’s Echoes of Possibilities, was longlisted by the 2010 Tiptree Awards jury. Other short stories have appeared in the anthologies British Flash and Tea and Crumpet, with Stevie’s first solo collection A Series of Ordinary Adventures due to be published by Candlemark and Gleam in May.

You can find Stevie at Livejournal.

8 comments

  1. Thanks for hosting me again, Andi.

    I’m back from the EasterCon SF&F convention now, and there was a whole host of amazing feminist panels that I’m going to have to tell you all about.

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  2. Sure thing! This is a great topic, and I started thinking about great female friendships in literature. Maybe I’ll come up with a list…hmmm. Y’all? Help me out?

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  3. Freya North’s books have some fabulous female friendships from all ends of the scale – those who’ve been friends since childhood, or since teenage years, and also women who meet during the course of the story and become really supportive friends. It’s not all lovely though – one tale also encompasses a group of women who interact via competitive parenting!

    In fact, having written this, I’m coming to realise I read Ms. North’s books more for the friendships between the women than for the m/f romantic relationships they’re supposed to be about!

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  4. You’re right, there is such a dearth of these friendships in fiction. If something does have more than one woman in it, then all too often they have to be portrayed as rivals, usually for one of the men. The old divide and conquer mentality. The last thing men want is women teaming up!

    One of my favourite things I’ve written, before I went pro, was my NaNoWriMo 2007 novel, where the hero was a woman, and her sidekick was a woman and the villain was a woman…there were so many women in that story the guys could barely get a look in. The hero and the sidekick met at the start of the story, went into business together and became friends as the story went on, which was a lot of fun to explore. They had their disagreements along the way, but were certainly never rivals for the same man. There was a bit of an age gap between them, which made for an interesting dynamic.

    (Remarkably that book also had a close male friendship that didn’t make anyone ask me “Are those two guys sleeping together?” Kind of a first for me. ;D)

    It’s something I’d like to do again. Writing m/m it can be tough, but I’m starting working on a series with more of an ensemble cast that would give some of the supporting characters more of a chance than they might get in a standalone novel.

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  5. […] Female Friendships in Fiction (part 1) Stevie Caroll discusses how rare female friendships are in literature these days. Now, though, I’m hard pressed to think of more than half a dozen memorable stories in which two or more women are friends, and nothing tragic happens to ruin that friendship. […]

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