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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Not So Mythical Anne Sharpe's Escape from Godmersham....Aided and Abetted by Jane Austen!

In Jane Austen's Letters 43 and 44, respectively, dated two weeks apart in April 1805, we read the following two passages about a governess/teacher named "Anne Sharpe":

"What honour I come to!-I was interrupted by the arrival of a Lady to enquire the character of Anne, who is returned from Wales & ready for service.-And I hope I have acquitted myself pretty well; but having a very reasonable Lady to deal with, one who only required a tolerable temper, my office was not difficult. -Were I going to send a girl to school I would send her to this person; to be rational in anything is great praise, especially in the ignorant class of school mistresses-& she keeps the School in the upper crescent.-"


"...They go with their Masters & Mistresses, & are now to have a Miss: Amelia is to take lessons of Miss Sharpe."

What makes these passages noteworthy, aside from my interpretation of them as Jane Austen providing a work reference, and injecting a bit of characteristic faux snobbery for comic effect, is the name of that woman---why? because Janeites familiar with JA's biography know that "Anne Sharpe" was for a period of a few years the name of the governess at Godmersham, for the children of Edward Austen Knight, JA's rich brother, and, more important, became such a good friend of Jane Austen that JA corresponded with her regularly, and made a gift to her of one of the precious first editions of Emma in 1816.

And yet, Deirdre Le Faye, the doyenne of Austen biographers and editor of the definitive edition of JA's letters, emphatically states in her Bio Index entry for "Anne Sharpe" that she is _not_ the same person as the "Anne Sharpe" of Letters 43 & 44.

That has led to some interesting discussion in Austen L, as follows:

Diana Birchall: Nothing else makes much sense, except equally wild and baseless suppositions, i.e. Anne gets sick during her two-year tenure at Godmersham; goes to Wales to recover, and on her return joins the Austens in Bath and looks for other employment, with some help from the Austens, until deciding to take up her job at Godmersham again after all. Hm, come to think of it, that doesn't sound half bad, does it!"

Ellen Moody: "It depends what Diana means by "spurious."LeFaye turns every bit of obvious evidence that Eliza was Hastings's biological daughter with crass misreadings, erasures &c. It'd be par for the course if she wanted to distance her heroine, Jane, this way.In other cases, she's equally ruthless, such as numbering how many errors a said text is said to have in her estimation; her attack on Nokes's book because he suggests the aunt stole that lace.And in our looking at the notes there is a lot of skullduggery. Even the length of this note makes me suspicious at this point. My suggestion was that Anne Sharpe was quietly looking for another position.We don't write everything down; all time is not accounted for in LeFaye's pinpointing of where Sharpe was said to be and working. One can send a letter quietly without it making any record or you physically doing it. One can get a reply. One can have a friend offer testimony. I don't believe it was "ill health." Rather she couldn't stand the position - not uncommon I should think, especially in a house with so many children where also the firmness of ownership was in question. All the more would the owners be exacting. I don't see that people would ask an outsider who never had a woman as her servant for information. The Austens did not have that many servants at all. As far as their names go, they seem often to be villagers; the Austen in other words tended to take people who were low on the totem pole for their servants, not people of gentry or high status fallen or declined. I assume they obeyed more readily, were more deferent, maybe took less money. I agreed that the passage could be a servant but argued that it doesn't make sense that way. I have no investment here. I wouldn't have gone on about it this way myself.I do find it another instance of closeness for Austen and Anne Sharpe; that's why I wrote about it. Also how Austen was eager even in her own mind to put down that headmistress. She is acutely aware of her own loss of status. Interviewing is even now a come down no matter what people aver -- everyone endures them it's said. Well not people super-high in a profession or who have some "in" where it's a formality.In that level --Austen herself being gauged -- it's a scene of real searing if quiet."

And here is _my_ addition to the discussion:

Well, I am no longer agnostic on the question of whether this really was _the_ Anne Sharpe or not--although I continue to believe that Ellen misreads JA's ironic mock-snobbery about the school mistress on the upper crescent, I think that Ellen has gotten the much more important point 100% correct, about this really being the same Anne Sharpe! -----and Diana, I think you were already 75% of the way there yourself after you wrote the above-you just have to stifle your inner "Jane Bennet" to go the remaining 25% of the distance! ;)

Le Faye seems determined (as I have documented she has done in a dozen or more other instances in these letters, although the Nokes example is still the most egregious of Le Faye's unjust and unjustified hatchet jobs) that this Anne Sharpe _not_ be _the_ Anne Sharpe.

I arrive at that conclusion from thinking about Le Faye's possible motivation--what is it about this being the same Anne Sharpe that Le Faye would find too disturbing to allow to stand unchallenged? Ellen has hit the nail squarely on the head, but left out the final crucial point ---if this is the same Anne Sharpe, it means that JA is aiding and abetting Anne Sharpe who is attempting to make her _escape_ from what must be an awful situation for her at Godmersham ---probably she is being overworked, breaking down her health, and perhaps she is also underpaid to boot. And of course Anne cannot give Edward and Elizabeth Knight as references, if she is escaping from their mistreatment---but who better than the sister of those employers, who conveniently happens to be in Bath (not far from Wales, hmmm), and so can vouch for Anne herself--and wouldn't YOU believe Jane Austen if she spoke highly about someone? ;) And Edward and Elizabeth need never know that JA performed this delicate bit of benevolent skullduggery.

I would like to see Le Faye's backup for her Bio info on Anne Sharpe---is it clear from independent sources that she only began working there in 1804? Is it clear that she was only governess to Fanny? I'd bet that the evidence is much murkier than she has presented, but I can't say for sure till I see the actual evidence.

So, that "betrayal" is what is anathema to Le Faye--the idea that JA might support a female friend in defiance of the will of Edward Austen Knight and his wife---that "disloyalty" would not fit the tidy image of JA the dutiful daughter and sister, humbly acceding to the wishes of the Austen males, even if they impact harshly on powerless women like Anne Sharpe.

And if you look at the Index to the Letters, you'll notice a striking "coincidence"----we read about the mysterious "Anne" in Letter 43, written on April 11, 1805, and then about the mysterious "Miss Sharp" (who must be the same person as "Anne") in Letter 44, written only two weeks later, and then we have what Le Faye presents as the first mention of Anne Sharpe in JA's surviving letters, which begins a steady stream of references to Anne Sharpe thereafter---it begins with two of the three next surviving letters after Letter 44 ---Letters 45 & 47, both written in August 1805. I don't believe in that kind of coincidence, I think that we start hearing about Anne Sharpe in Letter 43, not Letter 45! (and by the way, it's sad that Anne did _not_ make her final escape until 1806)

And Ellen is also exactly right, the length and detail of Le Faye's footnote on this very question of Anne Sharpe's working life and why she left Godmersham is all "protesting too much". It is characteristic of Le Faye that she does not write "Some might argue that this is the same "Anne Sharpe", she would rather put the kibosh on that idea without giving that alternative interpretation the dignity of explicit mention. (She only mentioned the Eliza Hancock-Hastings illegitimacy meme because it was already out there in print!). last point I find very telling, on the subject of JA working within her female network to accomplish goals that might not be to the liking of family powers-that-be. Read the following passage in Letter 44, barely half a page after the factoid about Miss Sharpe giving lessons to little Amelia:

"I am quite of your opinion as to the folly of concealing any longer our intended Partnership with Martha, & whenever there has of late been an enquiry on the subject, I have always been sincere; & I have sent word of it to the Mediterranean in a letter to Frank. None of OUR nearest connections I think will be unprepared for it, & I do not know how to suppose that Martha's have not foreseen it."

The key words there are "any longer"--they make it clear that the strategy of JA, CEA and Martha up till that time _has_ been to actively conceal it from their respective families! Why? For exactly the same sort of reason that the covert operation on behalf of Anne Sharpe would be concealed from Edward and Elizabeth--i.e. so nobody would put the kibosh on these plans until it was too late to stop them!

And don't think that Le Faye did not notice that resonance--she is very shrewd, and she sees these "unseemly" connections--she just does not want anyone else to notice them!

Cheers, ARNIE

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