Midorikawa and Sweeney’s book, A secret sisterhood, published this month, is subtitled The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, by which you might guess why a copy came my way! And so, as homework for my Jane Austen group meeting this month, I’ve just read the first part, which is about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp. If this part is representative of the whole, then I’m going to enjoy the book – but will probably read (and post on it) part-by-part. Not only will that spread my enjoyment, but it will enable me to slip the reading of it in between other books.
The impetus for the book, as Midorikawa and Sweeney (M&S from now on) explain in their Introduction, was to suss out literary friendships among female writers. They argue that literary male friendships, such as between Byron and Shelley, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, are well-known and documented, but not so much those of women writers. They say, in fact, that “the world’s most celebrated female authors are mythologised as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses.” Jane Austen, for example, is seen as “a genteel spinster”, but there is more to her story than that – and M&S set about researching it.
Now, Anne Sharp is not unknown in Austen scholarship, so after reading M&S’s section, I decided to remind myself of what I already knew about this woman. She appears in several of Austen’s extant letters (Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen’s letters) and in many biographies, such as those by Claire Tomalin and Carol Shields. Where she doesn’t appear, however, is in the first official Memoir of Austen written by her nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh in 1869. Why is this?
Well, as Austen scholars and aficionados know, the Austen family worked hard to create what they thought was a suitable image of their famous relation. Letters were destroyed, for a start, and Jane Austen’s romances were not mentioned in the first edition. M&S argue that the family wanted to emphasise her neat handwriting, the precise way “she dropped sealing wax on her letters”, her matchless needlework. This is perhaps a little exaggerated, but the Memoir, we know, needs to be treated with some caution.
Anyhow, the real question is: was Austen-Leigh’s omission of Anne Sharp from his memoir justified, or are M&S drawing a long bow? Well, as with all research, it depends a little on your perspective and/or goals. M&S want to argue a literary friendship for Austen, and Anne Sharp would be the closest candidate for this role.
One of the features of Austen section (as I haven’t read the rest) is the insight they give into the challenges of literary research. There is, we know, a dearth of primary sources about Austen’s life. We have her letters – but their value is limited by two main factors. First, sister Cassandra destroyed any she thought were not conducive to the image of Jane that she wanted to leave, but also, Austen’s most revealing letters would have been to Cassandra, and of course she would only have written to Cassandra when they were apart. Consequently, events which occurred when they were together were less likely to have been recorded and would not have been recorded with the same openness. (Austen did write to other people, but we have even fewer of those letters. Hands up who keeps letters!)
However, as M&S found, there are other sources and these have not always been fully researched (or perhaps not even known about). For example, Austen’s niece Fanny, for whom Anne Sharp was governess, kept diaries from the age of 10. M&S write that Fanny’s “unpublished notebooks and letters” have been “largely unmined” by scholars but her writings show what must have underpinned the “deep affection” between Jane and Anne, which is the fact that Anne was a writer.
So, there in Fanny’s diaries are references to Anne Sharp’s playwriting, and M&S spend some time developing their thesis from these diaries, as well as from other sources including sister-in-law Mary Lloyd’s “pocketbook” and references to Anne in Austen’s letters. Along the way, they also research some of Sharp’s own story. M&S argue that although biographers have generally ignored the rapport between the two, Sharp was in fact a “trusted literary friend”. They cite evidence for this, including that Austen asked Sharp for her opinion on some of her novels and that Sharp responded with some writerly commentary.
Also, Sharp was one of the very few non-family members to whom Austen gave one of her 12 presentation copies of the first edition of Emma. Two others went to the Prince Regent (who’d asked for a dedication) and the established author Maria Edgeworth. M&S cite this act as indicative of the esteem in which Austen held Sharp. They also argue that her sending a copy to Edgeworth demonstrates her desire to establish some kind of literary alliance or friendship. Was it that, or did she just want the endorsement of an established author? We don’t know but M&S could be right. Whatever she wanted, however, she didn’t get it from Edgeworth.
More evidence they cite for the importance of Sharp to Austen is that Sharp was, as far as records show anyhow, one of the last people to whom Austen wrote before her death. And, she was one of the people to whom Cassandra sent not only a lock of Austen’s hair after her death, but a couple of other mementoes as well.
Have M&S convinced me of this friendship? Yes, I think so, though I’m not sure they’ve completely proved Austen’s desire for “a literary friendship”. However, this first part of A secret sisterhood is a good read, not just because I love all things Jane but because of the open way they share the process and challenge of literary research. I expect each part will be different because the sources and existing knowledge will be different, but I’m looking forward to reading them and will share my thoughts with you (eventually).
Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney
A secret sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf
London: Aurum Press, 2017
(Review copy received from publisher’s rep)