Friendship is one of a series of articles I wrote for various newspapers around the time of the publication of my novel, A Woman’s Life, which is about the friendship between three women over forty years. In the article I was trying to make the point that romantic love, sex and even marriage, dominates our understanding of loving relationships whereas friendship can be at least as important and sometimes, in a lasting sense, more so.
It can start in all sorts of strange places: in a pram, up a climbing frame, over a desk, in hospital, under water, up a mountain, at a baby party, on a roof. It positively eschews low lights and seductive music and doesn’t expect roses on Saint Valentine’s Day. It’s not so much the love that dare not speak its name but the love that no-one bothers to mention.
This is friendship, that long-lasting love affair between two consenting adults that has no ring, no anniversaries and usually outlives every other tie. Despite its importance, no magazines are sold on its name, few books, no operas, few plays and the one television programme which might give it a boost, actually called Friends, reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s cheerful adage: A true friend stabs you in the front.
When I started writing A Woman’s Life, I didn’t plan it to be about friendship. I knew it was about three women, American, English and Irishwoman who were all born in 1940 and whose lives would become intertwined. They might have hated each other. They might have crossed continents to avoid each other. But it didn’t turn out that way. They had too much to offer each other and couldn’t resist the pull of friendship. To my surprise, that was what the book became about, a kind of holding theme against the love affairs, wars, marriages and deaths.
A hundred years ago, women became friends for life and even set up home together in a kind of fraternal intimacy which had everything to do with marriage – and nothing. The everything was the commitment, the home, the respect, the understanding, the love. The nothing is sex. And even if there was the possibility of sex – as for example in the famous Irish writing partnership of those great ladies, Somerville and Ross, it was considered perfectly sensible to keep its nature under wraps. Friendship was what counted. But now everything has changed.
In an era when sex is big business, it easily wipes away any understanding of the importance of friendship. We’ve just been through Saint Valentine’s Day whose farago of high price love-affirming opportunities must have made the good saint turn in his hallowed grave. He was martyred, incidentally by the Emperor Claudius in 270 AD by being beaten with clubs and then beheaded. Not much to do with romantic love.
At a time when the majority of young persons pass through serial love experiences before they opt for the ring on the finger, it seems ironic that the least lasting relationship should get the big boost of this kind of shopping spree.
Friendship, the Cinderella of love stories, soldiers on without any high profile performance art. What friendship lives off is attention, attention to detail, attention to mood, attention to need. Trust is high on friendship’s agenda. Not the sort that is breathed in Hollywood movies or advocated in rosy-tinged magazines, but the sort that leads you to cut a romantic date in favour of a truth session with an old mate, almost certainly of the same sex.
An old friend, or a close friend, (often the same thing) would never betray a secret because they’re on for a life-time engagement. The marriage may fail or have its downs (ups too, but the friends not so important in them) but the friend is there forever. How many friends hold secrets that the partner never knows? Too many to count. Sex is confusing. Confusion leads to a sense of insecurity. Exciting yes; secure no. Friendship is about confidence – the confidence to confide.
Many many people are far better understood by their best friend than by their partner/spouse. Which is an unsettling idea for the partner/spouse. And here we move on to gender issues. Are these really all women, these friendship warriors who stand shoulder to shoulder in whatever fight comes their way? It seems so. At least on the face – or, to be more precise, the mouth – of it. Because, to a woman, a friend is all about communication, about explanation, discussions, understandings, about throwing light on something previously dark. Rewarding for one side and interesting for the other.
Famously, the ancient Greeks were good at friendship – Greek men, that is since the women were not considered worthy of such an elevated status. Greek writers came up with all sorts of grandiloquent definitions and admonitions: Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies – Cicero; Without friends no-one would choose to live, though he had all other goods – Aristotle; It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us – Epicurus. No-one could deny the truth of it and maybe in 300 BC men were really like that. But, once again, times have changed.
As we women know (and I guess men have just about admitted it) modern man’s communication skills are best achieved with a ball, a bottle of beer or even a gun, if he lives in that sort of country. Edith Wharton had a better idea of the true nature of friendship. She recommended, The only thing to do is to hug one’s friends tight and do one’s job.
It’s tough admitting you’re in a mess. You have to be strong to ask for help when you’re at your weakest. Women are good at that. When a woman’s down and heading out, her friend won’t despise her for it and count the points lost, she’ll talk it through. She’ll take it on as a project and never give up however much time or trouble it takes. She feels responsible.
It’s not that men haven’t the same good instincts or even the same good intentions. They just haven’t learnt how to use them. It’s back to the old truth: girls play with dolls, learning how to to deal with other people, boys play with guns. Just last Sunday I passed a shop selling computer war-games which was entirely filled with twenty or thirty boys aged between eight and eleven, all in a high state of excitement. Not a little girl in sight, of course. You can see it any shopping mall, any day.
In the so-called Band of Brothers, the young medic approaching a nervous breakdown has no-one he dares talk to – until he finds a girl among the bombed out ruins. The scientists call this male preoccupation the testosterone factor so you have to feel sorry for them. What can it be like, when a disaster strikes, to find you haven’t got a therapist on the touch-line? No wonder men like being married. Marriage gives them a ready made friend. Sometimes.
Of course marriage should be the answer for men. They get love, sex, children who might want to play with a ball, a fridge full of bottles of beer, possibly guns - though hopefully not - plus friendship. It can be done. With a bit of training from the woman and good will from the man, a long-lasting marriage can turn into the very best sort of friendship. Which is not to say women won’t slip away for a bit on the side too. Well, women are just naturally better at it. Look at Cleopatra. Antony may have been the great love of her life but it was Iris who helped her into the next world.
Another of those clever ancient Greeks, Euripides, commented One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives. To which I answer: it depends on the relatives. Some of the closest friendships in history or literature are between sisters. Jane Austen’s love for her sister, Cassandra, is documented in the hundreds of letters to her. After Jane’s death, Cassandra wrote to her niece, Fanny, I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. Jane Austen herself left her own kind of tribute with the novel, Sense and Sensibility which tells the story of Elinor and Marianne, two sisters whose utterly different approaches to life provide the novel’s theme. Despite these differences and what would, objectively, seem like extraordinary selfishness on Marianne’s side, their devotion to each other never wavers.
The other principle female relationship within a family has collected a very bad press over the last few decades. When feminism got into its stride in the Seventies, it looked for a scapegoat to explain just why women had allowed themselves to be subservient to men for so long. There was an obvious one very near to hand: the mother. Lo and behold the mother was seen as the greatest enemy to her daughter’s future independence - far worse than the father because, as a women she should know better, and far more dangerous because more wound into the fabric of her child’s life.
Of course this is sometimes true. There are mothers who blight their daughters’ lives – usually because their own lives were similarly blighted – but, in far more cases, the mother and daughter form an extraordinarily close kind of friendship which will last to the mother’s death. I discovered the strength of this bond when I was researching for my book, The Great Umbilical – Mother, daughter, mother. Even in cases where the daughter had genuine grievances against her mother, it was most unusual for her to totally give up and sever all contact. Happily, it seems likely that, in these days when mother and daughter will have been brought up to the same worldly aspirations, this particular pressure will be removed. This not to say that the ties between two generations are the same as between those of the same generation.
Yet inside or out of the family, many people do find an important friendship beyond their own age group. I know women in middle age who tell me that some of their best friends are well over the four score years and ten. Age has become more fluid as health has improved and the young at heart can prove it more easily. When I’m in my nineties, I sincerely trust I will have gathered enough lively young friends to cheer up the darker hours.
A Woman’s Life isn’t about this sort of friendship. The book covers thirty-five years of Connie, Nina and Fay’s lives. They are twenty five when it opens and sixty when it closes. By making them the same age I could put them in parallel, which allowed me to contrast their different backgrounds and experiences of the world. As I wrote I gradually heard a faint echo of that wonderful but now little read book, The Group by Mary McCarthy. It was published in 1963 and probably was the first successful attempt to make women’s lives the centre of a story. Her group of Vassar graduates were also close in age but very much closer in background. All the same they were able to shock each other. There is a glorious line when one girl says to another: “Did you hear that Dottie got a diaphragm? At the Margaret Sanger clinic? And used her own name.” The italics say more about the changing perception of women than reams of dreary lectures.
In my story I look at friendship through the decades. In the 1970s Connie’s illegitimate child is adopted in America and she rushes to stay with Nina in her house in the healing English country-side. In the 1980s Fay feels she’s ready to confront her family’s tragic history in Poland and she asks Nina to accompany her. In the 1990s Nina thinks she’s going crazy with a husband who wants to separate her from what she considers most important and it is Fay and Connie who are there to point to the future.
Show me a man’s life that could be written in the same way.