Sunday, 13 February 2011

William Sharp and his Seeress

William Sharp was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1855 and was a writer and editor who played a vital, if unorthodox, role in the Celtic Revival of the 1890's.
Having studied Literature, Sharp left University without a degree in 1872.
He initially took a position in a lawyers office in Glasgow and was employed there from 1874 to 1875. Poor health forced him to travel to Australia for a year in 1876 and on returning he found work in a bank in London.
Once in London his literary life began to flourish. Introduced to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sharp became a noted member of Rossetti’s literary circle and began to find work as a poet, journalist and editor. His cousin Elizabeth had been a childhood companion that shared many of his interests and they married in 1884. With Elizabeth’s support Sharp found that his literary work became more and more popular and eventually he devoted himself fully to writing from 1891 and took the flexibility of this new employment to travel widely.
On a journey to Italy in 1891 the Sharps met Edith Wingate Rinder, the niece of one of one of Elizabeth’s childhood friends. Although William and Edith were acquainted in London they had never spent any real time in one another’s company. In Italy they did and eventually fell in love.
There is nothing to suggest that the relationship was consumated but for William the experience was life-changing. In Italy he wrote and privately printed a slim volume of love poems, ‘Sospiri di Roma’ that was of significantly greater quality than anything he had previously produced.
He also began work on a novel called ‘Pharais, A Romance of the Isles.’
Set in the Western Isles of Scotland, it was the tale of a doomed romance with the inspiration seemingly being his own situation with Edith.
William had some concerns about the new direction his work was taking though.
Firstly he was sure that critics would not take a work of romantic fiction by William Sharp seriously and, more importantly, he felt sure that anyone who read the novel and knew of his friendship with Edith would be able to trace the roots of the story.
William decided the safest route would be to publish under a pseudonym and named his literary alter ego ‘Fiona Macleod’. He felt using a woman’s name would throw people of the scent a little more and would confuse even further the aliases of the characters in the book from their real-life counterparts.
There is also a possibility that Sharp was working with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at this point. The Order, a gathering of practising magicians largely drawn from literary and theatrical circles, were doing a great deal of work on the concept of the ‘divine feminine’ during this time and it would have been seen as a major magical working to produce such successful novels with a mystical element under the guise of a woman.
In his own writings Sharp described Macleod as an ‘ancestral seeress’.
‘Pharais’ was published in 1894 and in 1895 Fiona Macleod produced ‘The Mountain Lovers’ another West of Scotland romance. Both books attracted an enthusiastic readership and no little critical acclaim.
Fiona Macleod became a minor literary phenomenon.
Sharp began to live a literary double life. He continued to write and edit and helped to produce significant works on Ossian and Walter Scott that were key to the Celtic Revival.
This served to confuse matters somewhat when W.B. Yeats, another important figure in the movement, declared that he didn’t enjoy Sharp’s work but did like Macleod’s.
The more Sharp became immersed in the Macleod deception the more complex it became.
He acted as her agent and declined meetings and public appearances on the grounds of Fiona’s desire for privacy and a quiet life in the Highlands.
When it was necessary for Fiona to correspond with someone Sharp would dictate the letters to his sister so that it would be written in a feminine hand.
Later in life Sharp even refused to reveal the subterfuge to the Prime Minister.
When Lord Salisbury offered Fiona Macleod a Civil List pension Sharp had to regretfully decline, fearing that it would reveal his deception.
Poor William Sharp would never be considered for such an honour...

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