Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own laments the fact that female relationships in literature are primarily explored in the context of men and their relationship to men. "And how small a part of women's life is that," she says.
Almost a hundred years after Woolf wrote this, it is still true of the representation of female friendship in literature. Very few books manage to describe the complexities of a female friendship.
Women are taught to judge other women right from home and school, and it's a difficult lesson to shed in adulthood. Women are taught to judge sexual activity in other women and also to judge others for being single and not getting married. Women judge others for being bad mothers and also for choosing not to have kids. Women often feel insecure with other women because they know they're constantly being judged. After all, they're doing it themselves. Women also compete with each other in every aspect of life: looks, promotions, men.
Women are not taught to be friends with each other.
That's why female friendships are more than just about care and comfort. It's more than just about having a confidant to call during moments of heartbreak or while walking alone on a dimly-lit road.
They are a deep, complicated, but integral part of adult female life. And women want to see this represented in the pages of a book. Sure, there are books dedicated solely to exploring female friendships, but it's a relationship not often not acknowledged in other genres. Female protagonists need to have female friends even as they solve mysteries or fight legal battles.
Anne of Green Gables series, by L. M. Montgomery, 1908-1921
The first description of a strong friendship most teenage girls are introduced to is in L. M. Montgomery's world of Prince Edward Island. For over a century now, the book (and the protagonist, Anne Shirley) has captured the attention of young girls everywhere. Anne is a naturally friendly and kindhearted person who makes friends wherever she goes. Her friends include Diana, Phil, Priscilla, Stella, Katherine, Miss Cornelia, and Leslie. None of these relationships are easy – there are misunderstandings or strict parents. Leslie grudges Anne's perfect life and even her motherhood. Katherine resents her happiness and that she's placed in the role Katherine was vying for. Yet, Anne's ability to empathise with just about anyone and her blunt charm wins over even the toughest obstacles and the hardest of hearts. When Anne and Diana solemnly vow to be "bosom friends" forever, most readers wish they too had someone they could be friends with for life.
In Lisa Kleypas' Wallflower series, four young girls become friends at the margins of the ton's events. They're all young; they're all unmarried. The basis of the friendship is to keep each other company during the tedious balls they have to attend to find husbands. Through the four books, not only do they find their respective husbands, but they also overcome personal challenges, society's judgement, and even kidnapping attempts. The girls are misfits, and this draws them to each other. The setting of Regency Romances is not perfect for friendships to develop: most girls meet each other at balls where they should be more focused on attracting husbands. Yet, within the constraints, some manage to build lasting friendships. In fact, most Regency authors get this relationship right. Penelope and Eloise in the Bridgerton series by Julia Quinn are one example. So is The League of Extraordinary Women series by Evie Dunmore, which is set a few decades later and focuses on four members of Oxford's inaugural class of women, who are also working for women's rights.
Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters, 2021
Recent bestseller, Detransition, Baby has been making the rounds for its sensitive portrayal of relationships and identity. It is an excellent portrayal of adult relationships: accurate, in a way that few books have managed to describe. Reese, Katrina, and Ames/Amy bring their own feelings into this story, along with the trappings of their sexuality, gender, and motherhood. Further, there is the exploration of the relationship that trans-women build within their community. They look to each other for protection and empathy. Trans-women 'mother' each other during the transitioning process and this is placed as a parallel to the physical process of giving birth and parenting that the protagonists are looking to do. The book explores the struggles and hopelessness of living as a trans-person in this world (at the funeral of someone who has died in a suicide, the book says, "If you are a trans girl who knows many other trans girls, you go to church a lot, because church is where they hold the funerals."). Yet it also shows how the community derives comfort from each other.
Meyeli Addar Halchal, by Bani Basu, 1998
Five women gather every few days for their "addas" – rambling conversations about anything under the sun, common amongst Bengalis, is a great premise for a book on adult female friendships. Malabika, Sumita, Kajalrekha, Shilpi, and Ranjana are women of different ages and professions; what brings them together is their friendship and ability to talk about anything that comes up. Men aren't allowed to enter these spaces, at least physically, though the women often talk about their husbands. Sometimes they discuss how to write a novel, other times, they talk about the food they ate for dinner. Each of the characters has their own opinions and beliefs, and they have strong personalities. The story is told mainly through the events of the adda sessions or their conversations on phone calls. It's reminiscent of your friends' groups – the ones you get on group Whatsapp calls with to give each other life updates, whether it is the latest match on Tinder or how much you liked the movie everyone else hated.
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, by Ann Patchett, 2004
Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy met in the early 80s at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and stayed friends for about two decades till Grealy passed away in 2002. Patchett writes about the beautiful along with the really ugly parts of the friendship- the letters of love along with moments of hate, dance parties, along with drug addiction, depression, and (many, many) visits to the hospital for surgeries. The entire book is a fascinating study of the friendship of two very different people. A hare/ grasshopper with a tortoise/ant, Patchett says. But these opposites need each other to function. Indeed, this friendship truly allows them to grow into their own. Patchett talks of the guilt and helplessness of the friendship. Sometimes, there is judgement, often there is envy, yet the love always remains. Patchett says, "Whenever I saw her, I felt like I had been living in another country, doing moderately well in another language, and suddenly I could speak with all the complexity and nuance I'd even realized was gone. With Lucy I was a native speaker." This feeling of comfort is at the core of most female friendships.
Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education, and relationships. She is based in Mumbai, and posts as @weepli on Instagram and Twitter.