In her next instalment on the Library’s Victorian past Helen O’Neill takes a look at the double literary life of William Sharp, a Victorian London Library member who had two successful literary careers: one as the author and critic William Sharp and the second as the pre-eminent Scottish writer of the 19th century Celtic Renaissance, Fiona Macleod.
Over Christmas the Victorians did well in the TV ratings. A Christmas Carol was brought up to date by ITV and the BBC showed the literary biopic To Walk Invisible which traced the story of the Brontë family, up to the point that the sisters disclosed their true identities. It was Anne Brontë’s birthday this week (born 17th January 1820) and to mark the moment I thought I’d take a look at another Victorian literary figure who walked invisible, the Scottish novelist and mystic William Sharp (1855-1904).
Sharp had a distinguished literary career as a poet, novelist, biographer, essayist, and dramatist. Between 1884 and 1894 he wrote or edited almost forty books in his own name, including several literary biographies on Rossetti, Shelley, Browning and Heinrich Heine. He also published several literary geographies considering the impact of place on the works of Charles Dickens, George Meredith, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters and Thomas Carlyle. He was the London art critic of the Glasgow Herald and the Art Journal and was a familiar figure in London’s literary and artistic circles.
The emergence of his second literary life as Fiona Macleod was triggered in the early 1890s by meeting Edith Wingate Rinder, with whom Sharp had an intense relationship. According to Sharp’s wife, Elizabeth Amelia Sharp (1856-1932), a writer and critic in her own right, “the life of William Sharp divides itself naturally into two halves … the second begins with Pharais, the first book signed by Fiona Macleod.” Pharais, a Celtic romance set in the western isles of Scotland, was first published in 1894 and was the inaugural work by Sharp’s female alter ego. He went on to write many other works in this name (some 20 titles still available in the Library’s collections) establishing a successful career for his female pseudonym, whose literary reputation eclipsed his own. Fiona Macleod attracted fame for her mystical Celtic legends, folklore, and mythological writings which first appeared in print the year after William Sharp joined the Library.
Fiona Macleod was more than a simple pseudonym however. In his correspondence with W.B. Yeats and others, Sharp elaborated on her creating a backstory to this elusive female Scottish-Celtic writer, whom he claimed was his cousin to whom he was closely attached. This fictional relationship was modeled on Sharp’s actual relationship with, what his wife called his “dear friend”, Edith Wingate Rinder. Rinder is credited with providing the inspirational spark that triggered the Fiona Macleod creation. Sharp corresponded as Fiona Macleod, his sister providing the handwriting to disguise his own.
Some have claimed that Fiona Macleod was a vehicle for Sharp to write creatively without damaging his established literary reputation; others that Sharp capitalised on the mystery surrounding Macleod’s identity as an effective marketing strategy; and yet others that writing as a woman allowed Sharp to express an inner life which the social mores of the time made difficult under his own name. There is some evidence to support this. In a letter to Catherine Janvier in September 1894 Sharp claimed ownership of Pharais and asked that his identity be kept secret:
“Yes, Pharais is mine. It is a book out of my heart, out of the core of my heart … I can write out my heart in a way I could not do as William Sharp … This rapt sense of oneness with nature, this cosmic ecstasy and elation, this wayfaring along the extreme verges of the common world, all this is so wrought up with the romance of life that I could not bring myself to expression by my outer self, insistent and tyrannical as that need is. . . . My truest self, the self who is below all other selves, and my most intimate life and joys and sufferings, thoughts, emotions and dreams, must find expression, yet I cannot save in this hidden way… Sometimes I am tempted to believe I am half a woman.”
The stress of maintaining two literary identities came at a cost however. In 1898 Sharp suffered a nervous breakdown. Keeping his second identity secret involved denying a claim in 1899 in the press that he and Fiona Macleod were the same person and having to intervene to prevent Fiona MacLeod’s name being put forward for a civil-list pension. The real identity of Fiona Macleod was kept secret, except from a few, until after William Sharp’s death in 1905, at the age of fifty. He left a letter to friends revealing his double identity and his wife published a memoir in 1910 which covered both sides of her husband’s literary life.
Opportunist, mystic or free spirit William Sharp’s life provides a fascinating glimpse into the Victorian world. W.B. Yeats, who had been duped by Sharp before 1897 about the identity of Fiona Macleod, retained his respect for Sharp writing to his widow in 1906:
“….Your husband was a man of great genius, who brought something wholly new into letters….To me he was that, & a strange mystery too & also a dear friend. To talk with him was to feel the presence of that mystery, he was very near always to the world where he now is…”
Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian
The Victorians & The London Library