Inspiring Male Literary Friendships

6 min read

The old adage “birds of a feather, stick together” is no different in the exclusive world of great writers and poets. Your book-loving friends at Country House Library have found a clutch of some of the most famous male literary chums:-


Pre-eminent Scottish essayist and literary critic Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) met legendary English author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) for the first time in 1840, describing the younger man as "a fine little fellow... a face of most extreme mobility, which he shuttles about - eyebrows, eyes, mouth and all - in a very singular manner while speaking... a quiet, shrewd-looking, little fellow, who seems to guess pretty well what he is and what others are." The two men became close friends. Dickens told one of his sons that Carlyle was the man "who had influenced him most" and his sister-in-law, that "there was no one for whom he had a higher reverence and admiration".


In Ernest Hemingway’s (1899 – 1961) memoir A Moveable Feast  (1964), he recounts the moment he and his co-American writing friend F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940) were both enjoying cherry tart and a glass of wine in a Parisian café. Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda had told her husband that the size of his manhood could never satisfy any woman. Hemingway told Fitzgerald to meet him in “Le Water”or French slang for “bathroom”. Hemingway had Fitzgerald drop his trousers and upon closer inspection gave him his diagnosis… “You’re perfectly fine.”What surer sign of true friendship?


Imagine the scene. May 11th 1926. Oxford, England, the world renowned University city of ‘dreaming spires’. A balmy, spring day with the ancient college gardens and gentle Christ Church meadows of the river Cherwell in full bloom. An English faculty meeting at Merton College. The 34 year old professor of medieval language and literature, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and the 26 year old Fellow in English literature, Clive Staples Lewis, meet for the first time. Two of history’s most influential writers-to-be in the literary genre of fantasy – occupying the same time and place. Sounds like a meeting of ‘wizards’ from one of their seminal novels doesn’t it? Magic was certainly in the air. Although there were periods of rivalry between Tolkien and Lewis, for the most part they held each other in high regard. Tolkien said of Lewis “The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not influence but sheer encouragement […] He was for long my only audience.” Lewis said of The Fellowship of the Ring when it appeared in 1954, “This book is like lightning from a clear sky.”


J. M. Barrie (1860 – 1937), Scottish author and playwright best remembered as the author of Peter Pan,however during the writer’s life he was also celebrated for captaining his own amateur cricket team of writers and other notable personalities of the time, “The Allahakbarries”. Active from 1890 to 1913, the Allahakbarries name was a portmanteau of Barrie’s name and the Arabic “Allah akba” which the author thought meant “Heaven help us”. (It actually means “God is great”). Notable writing friends who donned cricket pads for the Allahakbarries includedArthur Conan Doyle,Rudyard Kipling,P. G. Wodehouse,G. K. Chesterton,Jerome K. Jerome, andA. A. Milne, to name but a few. Barrie’s love of the game ofcricket however, far exceeded his talent. When asked about his bowling he replied that after delivering the ball he would “go and sit at mid-off to wait for it to arrive at the other end, which it sometimes did”!


In a chance meeting that would change the course of English poetry, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) first met William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) and his sister Dorothy, in Somerset in 1795. The two became immediate friends and in 1800 Coleridge moved to Keswick in the English Lake District to be closer to Wordsworth at Grasmere. During their shared time in Cumbria, Wordsworth and Coleridge greatly influenced, criticized and inspired each other’s poetry. The two poets published the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems that is considered by many to be the definitive starting point of the Romantic Era.

In 1816, following domestic scandal and ever-increasing debts, Lord George Gordon Byron (1788 -1824), left England never to return, (although his body was returned to Italy despite his dying wishes). He initially settled at the Villa Diodata near Lake Geneva in Switzerland and it was there that he first befriended the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Shelley wife to be, Mary (who went on to write her gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein). In times of inclement weather, the three of them would read published fantasy stories to each other and then devise some of their own – hence the birth of Frankenstein. Shelley documented some aspects of Byron’s household in a letter, “ Lord B.'s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it… . [P.S.] I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective … . I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane”!

Although they were both fully integrated members of the literary elite by the time they met on their tax haven island of choice, Jamaica, creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming (1908 -64) and playwright, actor, composer, singer and wit Noël Coward’s (1899 -1973) friendship was born out of very non-literary pursuits, namely basking in the tropical sun, drinking, smoking, dining, loving, but above all gossiping and pitting their verbal wits against each other and anyone else who would listen. Coward renamed Fleming’s house ‘Goldeneye’ as ‘Golden Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat’ as a barbed dig at its medical demeanour (in Coward’s opinion), and although Coward was a gay man, the pair related to each other free from the bonds of political correctness. Indeed, Coward was drawn to his neighbours wild, romantic life. Other occasional guests of Fleming and Coward’s included American writer Truman Capote, the English actor Lawrence Olivier, and American stars of the silver screen, Catherine Hepburn and Errol Flynn. In later years, Fleming’s wife Ann said of her husband’s friend “(he) should be used as a cabaret and not as a guest, he does not understand the give-and-take of talk and the deserts of pomposity between the oases of wit are too vast.”


Difficult to imagine a more fascinating meeting of minds as that of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930) and Irish born playwright, poet, novelist and wit, Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900), although meet they did for the first time one summer evening in 1889, at a dinner table in the Langham Hotel, London. An American publishing agent was on a visit to England to commission new works of fiction, and the two literary greats of their time, were his guests. The two writers engaged in mutual flattery of each other’s work with Doyle later recounting in his memoirs that it was “indeed a golden evening” and ''His conversation left an indelible impression upon my mind… [Wilde] towered above us all and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we could say. He had delicacy of feeling and tact, for the monologue man, however clever, can never be a gentleman at heart.'' During the dinner, the two writers promised a short piece of fiction each. Doyle wrote his second Sherlock Holmes mystery ‘The Sign of Four’ and Wilde wrote ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.



As fellow book-lovers, we hope you’ll enjoy this astonishing list of male literary friendships, and their combined pantheon of literary masterpieces. If nothing else, these common bonds between artists demonstrate how their creativity is enhanced in the company of like-minded individuals. Browse the shelves of Country House Library for vintage, antique and new copies of work from our chosen fraternity of writing friends

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