Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel Skylarking is about the ferocity of young female friendship: teenagers Kate and Harriet live on remote cape in 1880s NSW and are inseparable until a mysterious, older fisherman arrives and disrupts their world. Skylarking has been compared to Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and has received praise for its evocative illustration of the intense bond between young women. In this piece, Kate shares the literary friendships that inspired her, both as a writer and when she was growing up.
It is not the most endearing friendships that loom large in my literary memory, rather those that most viscerally evoke love, devotion, obsession, jealousy. Those friendships that seem to be made of two individuals who together form a whole.
Here are the top five friendships that most inspired me, while writing Kate and Harriet’s friendship in Skylarking.
1. Anne and Diana in L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables: When Anne met a ‘kindred spirit’ in the dark-haired beauty Diana Barry, her ‘cup of happiness was full’. I adored this book as a child, and read it over and over again. Just like Anne and Diana did, I also swore oaths of friendship – twining my cut hair with that of a friend so that we might always be as one. Dramatic, romantic – the dye was cast for me early with this friendship based on mutual adoration.
2. Elaine and Cordelia in Margaret Attwood’s Cat’s Eye: The definition of frenemies – Elaine and Cordelia become friends in primary school and ultimately each other’s tormentors. The novel is Elaine’s rumination on how her life has been impacted by the horrendous treatment she received at the hands of her ‘friends’, and how she also came to treat others with callous cruelty. Now an eminent artist, Elaine reflects on the possibility of meeting her friend and tormentor again: ‘I’m not afraid of seeing Cordelia. I’m afraid of being Cordelia. Because in some way we changed places, and I’ve forgotten when.’
3. Lily and Eva in Emily Bitto’s The Strays: I read this book much later in my life, but recognised immediately the wide-eyed devotion that Lily feels for the entrancing Eva and the world she inhabits:
‘I once read that the heart’s magnetic field radiates up to five metres from the body, so that whenever we are within this range of another person our hearts are interacting.
Eva’s mother believed in past life connections, that two souls can be twinned over and over, playing out different roles so that in one life they may be mother and daughter, in another husband and wife, in a third dear friends. I only know that throughout my life I have felt an instinctive attraction to particular people, male and female, romantic and platonic; attraction inexplicable at the time but for a certain mutual recognition. It was this way with Eva, although we were only eight years old.’
4. Pauline and Juliet in Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures: I’m cheating a little as this is a filmic friendship; one that has its basis in real life. Passion, obsession, the creation of magical worlds, murder ... this film spooked and transfixed me when I first saw it. Power constantly shifts between Pauline and Juliet, each obsessed with the other, and willing to do whatever it takes to be together.
5. Elena and Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels: Oh Lenu and Lila, you have obsessed us all from the first of Ferrante’s four novels. Ferocious and intense, this friendship has hit a chord with millions of readers around the world, telling the story of two women who only seem to fully exist in relation to the other. In the first in the series, My Brilliant Friend, Lenu recalls: ‘We were twelve years old, but we walked along the hot streets of the neighborhood, amid the dust and flies that the occasional old trucks stirred up as they passed, like two old ladies taking the measure of lives of disappointment, clinging tightly to each other. No one understood us, only we two—I thought—understood one another.’
Kate Mildenhall is a writer and education project officer, who currently works at the State Library Victoria and is studying part-time at RMIT University in the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing. As a teacher, she has worked in schools, at RMIT University and has volunteered with Teachers Across Borders, delivering professional development to Khmer teachers in Cambodia. Skylarking is her debut novel. She lives with her husband and two young daughters in Hurstbridge, …