'The Life and Letters of William Sharp and "Fiona Macleod", Volume 1: 1855-1894' by William F Halloran (Open University Press, Cambridge)
Before discussing this important volume, I have two admissions to make. First, I am an old friend of Bill Halloran. We met as long ago as 1959 at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. I was there teaching freshman English while finishing my Princeton PhD. Bill, a Princeton undergraduate, was a graduate student in the Duke English department. We met through the good offices of Willard Thorp, then the head of English at Princeton, and have been friends ever since.
However, my involvement in Bill's work on William Sharp was limited to helping him establish that Sharp had studied under Professor John Nichol in the Glasgow University English department in the years 1871-73. William Sharp and I also have something in common. Born in Paisley in 1855, Sharp moved with his family to Glasgow in 1867, taking up residence at 16 Rosslyn Terrace in the Dowanhill area of Glasgow's West End. I also happen to live on that street.
After moving to London to pursue a literary career, Sharp frequently returned to Scotland, and sometimes stayed with a sister in number 16. Thus on pages 59-61 of Bill's book, I find him writing letters to the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, on 22 and 23 September 1881, headed '16 Rosslyn Terrace'. I admit to being oddly moved by these letters and the image of Sharp writing to Rossetti in a room so close to home.
Sharp excelled as a student under Professor Nichol, and the two would remain close friends. Sharp's father, however, could not see the study of English literature as leading to a profitable career, and insisted that his son leave the university and enter a Glasgow law office. Rather than a lawyer, Sharp's own vision of his future was as a writer. In due course that is what he became.
Shocked by his father's sudden death in 1876, Sharp's own health became a concern. A short recovery visit to Australia followed, but within a year he was back in London determined to pursue a literary career. His letters show just how successful he was. Introduced to such figures as Rossetti and Swinburne, and beginning to have some success as a writer in his own right, in the 1880s and 1890s he became an increasingly familiar figure in London's literary world.
What the great mass of his letters reveal is his professional life as a writer. The range of his writing is quite extraordinary. Over the years he seems to try his hand at almost every form of literary activity. He becomes a poet, a novelist, a short story writer, a dramatist, a biographer, a critic of both literature and art, an essayist, an anthologist, and an editor. He is constantly in touch with publishers, journal and magazine editors, and a wide range of contemporary authors.
As art critic of the Glasgow Herald, he becomes a regular visitor to the salons of Paris. After several trips to the USA, he becomes an equally familiar figure in the literary worlds of New York and Boston. (A moving letter describes a brief visit to Walt Whitman a few months prior to the poet's death.) He gains something of a reputation as an expert in American literature, and he regards himself as equally expert in contemporary French, Belgian and Italian literature.
What I am calling the 'professional' letters here do not tell us much about Sharp the man – other than his absolute determination to make his way and earn his living as a writer. But there are other letters here. As early as 1875, Sharp had become engaged to a cousin of his own – Elizabeth A Sharp – and in 1884 the couple were finally married in London. (Among those who welcomed and celebrated their marriage were Walter Pater, Robert Browning, Ford Madox Ford, William Morris, and Mr and Mrs Oscar Wilde.)
In the letters to his wife – and perhaps even more in those he writes to Edith Wingate Rinder, whom he met and fell in love with in Rome in 1891 – we learn a great deal more about the kind of man he was. And it is only in these letters that we get any sense of Sharp's own quality as a writer. Writing to Elizabeth about his overwhelming responsiveness to the landscapes and natural world of Scotland or Italy, the words seem to flow from Sharp's pen in a kind of torrent. He tells her how he hates large cities – like London – and how much he prefers Florence or Venice or Stuttgart, but above all it is the beauty and colour and life of the natural world that he embraces.
Even more extraordinary are the letters he writes to Edith Rinder describing a trip he made to north Africa: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, the Sahara. The evocation of the life he encounters there is quite extraordinary – it seems to release in him – no doubt helped by drink and drugs – a sense of life totally unrecognisable in that of the distinguished man of letters in London.
In fact, Sharp's was a profoundly split personality. Despite the visibility that the Sharps enjoyed in London's literary and intellectual world, it is telling that at least up to 1894 they seem never to have owned a house. Sharp's was a restless spirit – hence the constant travelling to Scotland, across Europe, to the USA, to Africa. Writing to another woman friend, describing the beauties he sees in the vinelands of southern Germany, he says he 'felt electrified in mind and body. The sunflood intoxicated me. But the beauty of the world is always bracing – all beauty is. I seem to inhale it – to drink it in – to absorb it at every pore – to become it'. 'I suppose I was a gypsy once', he goes on, 'and before that "a wild man o' the woods"'. (When he was 18, Sharp did spend some weeks wandering with a band of gypsies without acknowledging his whereabouts.)
There is plentiful additional evidence of Sharp's divided self. The impression his presence created was always one of exuberance and robust good health. In his reminiscences of London in the 1890s, the poet Richard Le Gallienne, a long-time friend of Sharp, enthused about the importance of his personality: 'He was probably the handsomest man in London, a large flamboyant "sun-god" sort of creature...'.
The reality was different. As a result of scarlet fever as a boy, and rheumatic fever as young man, Sharp had a damaged heart which led to frequent periods of work-denying collapse. In his 40s he also developed diabetes. But these physical characteristics mirror a deeper psychological divide. As early as 1880, when he was only 25, in a letter to a friend he said: 'Don't despise me when I say that in some things I am more a woman than a man'.
So Sharp was what we now call a feminist. In an 1887 letter to an unknown poet, who had sent him his work, he dismisses the 'absolute lies and absurdities' about women that it contains. In a second letter to the same man, he insists that 'the equality of the sexes' has become 'one of my cardinal faiths'. In his own writing, seeing experience from a woman's point of view was a regular feature, and over the years his wife Elizabeth became increasingly aware of her husband's divided nature and how it might affect his wellbeing.
This is the context of the remarkable decision he made in late 1893. He had been working on a tale called 'Pharais' (Gaelic for 'Paradise') which he saw as contributing to the emerging vogue for 'Celtic' writing. He called the book his 'Celtic Romance', and said it came out 'of my inmost heart and brain'. He thought 'the book will attract a good deal of notice, on account of the remarkable Celtic renaissance which has set in and will inevitably gather weight'.
What was truly remarkable about the book was its authorship: it was published as the work of a young woman author Fiona Macleod. Sharp's adoption of this pseudonym remained a closely guarded secret. He went to extraordinary lengths to maintain it – everything he wrote as Fiona Macleod he sent to one of his sisters to copy before passing the manuscript to a publisher.
He described Fiona as a married cousin of his own, whose career as a writer he had agreed to help in any way he could while respecting her desire for privacy. He began corresponding and signing letters as Fiona Macleod. The deception worked. Only a handful of people knew the truth – and they kept quiet. Soon Fiona Macleod was becoming a more successful and popular writer than William Sharp had ever been. Perhaps 'Volume 2' of his life and letters will throw more light on Fiona Macleod.
A final point. What is striking about Sharp's letters is their exclusive focus on the 19th-century fin de siècle literary world and his own personal life. The Scottish home rule movement had its origins in the period this volume covers, but politics of any kind have no place here. Yet, particularly when he began to write as Fiona Macleod, it becomes clear that Sharp always had a deep commitment to a vision of a Scotland with its living and popular tradition of Celtic myths and legends. Hence the inevitable identification of Fiona Macleod with the so-called Celtic twilight movement. However, despite the immense worldwide popularity of Macpherson's Ossian in the Romantic period, the Scottish literary establishment has never been comfortable over the Celtic dimension of Scottish culture.
Perhaps these are factors in explaining Sharp's virtual disappearance from contemporary accounts of the history of Scottish literature. Given the current cultural climate and its focus on issues of gender, however, 'Fiona Macleod' is crying out for re-evaluation. Bill Halloran's work may well provide its starting point.