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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, June 3, 2017

“Sharpe with an e”--another sharp blow to the tottering edifice of Le Faye’s bogus Myth of Jane Austen

Today I bring you a true story of both collaborative and convergent literary scholarship, which loosens still further the stranglehold of the “old guard” on Austen studies, which has deliberately stifled the truth about Jane Austen, especially her own decidedly unconventional romantic preferences, for far too long.

Six years ago, in my blog post  entitled “The “Not So Mythical Anne Sharpe's Escape from Godmersham....Aided and Abetted by Jane Austen!”, I summarized a Sept. 2011 thread in Austen-L, in which Ellen Moody, Diana Birchall, and I collectively delivered a “sharp” blow (pun intended!) to the Myth of Jane Austen. We collectively identified, and called out as deliberately misleading, the Biographical Index entry for Anne Sharp, the Godmersham governess, written by Deirdre Le Faye for her edition of Jane Austen’s letters. Specifically, Le Faye claimed that “the Miss Sharp whom JA mentions as being in Bath in 1805 is clearly not the same as this Miss Anne Sharp”. As you’ll see if you read all the way through my post today, a later, independent discovery recently published by two other academic scholars provides crucial additional support for Diana’s, Ellen’s and my collective September 2011 discovery.

First, here’s that summary of our trio’s original claim, written by me in my above-linked 2011 blog post:

“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."  (Letter 43, April 8-11, 1805)
&  "...They go with their Masters & Mistresses, & are now to have a Miss: Amelia is to take lessons of MISS SHARPE." (April 23, 1805)

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 Biographical Index entry for "Anne Sharp" 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." Le Faye 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 Le Faye'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."

Me: “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 Sharpe" (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 Sharp in JA's surviving letters, which begins a steady stream of references to Anne Sharp 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!”   END QUOTE

So ended my Sept. 2011 post regarding April 1805 references, in JA’s letters, to Anne Sharp(e). Apropos the spelling of that surname, Jane Austen, who was as poor a speller as she was great as a writer, spelled that surname “Sharpe” half the time, and “Sharp” the other half, so in this instance spelling is not determinative of identity. And Le Faye can hardly argue that point, because Le Faye’s own Chronology of Jane Austen includes an entry for a January 1804 letter written by the 11-year old Fanny Austen (later Knight), which spelled that surname “Sharpe”, a fact which could certainly account for why Jane Austen spelled it that way in her 1805 letters, as well as a few others later on.

Now, since September 2011, my understanding of how significant a role Anne Sharp(e) played in Jane Austen’ s life has steadily grown, to the extent that I became convinced a few years ago, from close imaginative interpretation of JA’s letters and late fiction, that the former governess of Godmersham was actually the object of passionate, long-lasting romantic feelings from JA, regardless of whether they were ever consummated physically. And I believe Le Faye’s editorial suppression of Anne Sharp(e) from those two April 1805 letters was intended not only to conceal Jane Austen’s seeming disloyalty to brother Edward, but the far more “scandalous” evidence that JA and Anne Sharp(e) loved each other for the last half of Jane Austen’s all-too-brief adult lifespan.

In that vein, Anne Sharp(e) will be a key figure in the talk I’ll be giving in the first round of breakout sessions at the upcoming JASNA AGM to be held October 6-8, 2017 in Huntington Beach, as I outlined four months ago: : “I’ve come to know a different Jane [than Le Faye’s]; a proud, ambitious artist; and, ironically, I find the best evidence of her proud (but well-regulated) ambition, not in her six novels, but, when physical death loomed large, in her 1817 writings, in which she thrice asserted her power and her will to survive…at least, on paper!: 
(1) in her late letter to old friend Anne Sharp (“Galigai for ever and ever, the influence of strength over weakness indeed”)
(2) in her last fiction, the Sanditon fragment (“The world is pretty much divided between the weak of mind and the strong; between those who can act and those who cannot; and it is the bounden duty of the capable to let no opportunity of being useful escape them. My…complaints…are happily not often of a nature to threaten existence immediately. And as long as we can exert ourselves to be of use to others,...the body is the better for the refreshment the mind receives in doing its duty"); AND 
(3) in her deathbed testament, the “fanciful” “When Winchester Races” (“When once we are buried you think we are gone But behold me immortal!...Set off for your course, I'll pursue with my rain.… Henceforward I'll triumph in shewing my powers…”).”  END QUOTE

With that lengthy but necessary preface, for which I thank those still with me for your patience, now I will at last turn to the recent exciting news I read today regarding the above:

Here is the press release in elite Austen scholar Sarah Emsley’s blog, for a new book which in significant part apparently focuses on the intense relationship between Jane Austen and (you guessed it!) Anne Sharpe. Note that the authors, Midorikawa and Sweeney, apparently independently of the Austen-L discussion thread I reported in my above-quoted Sept. 2011 blog post, six years later arrived at virtually the identical conclusions about the “Anne Sharpe” in Letter 44 being one and the same person as the Godmersham governess; and they also speculated, just as I did, that Le Faye wished to conceal that Jane Austen had apparently gone to bat for her intimate female friend, in seeming disregard for her rich elder brother’s wishes:

“Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually portrayed as isolated eccentrics. Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney seek to dispel this myth with a wealth of hidden yet startling collaborations.
A Secret Sisterhood looks at Jane Austen’s bond with a family servant.…a governess friend named ‘Miss Sharpe’ first crops up in Jane’s correspondence in the spring of that year (21–3 April 1805).
Surprisingly, an annotation tucked away at the back of the authoritative edition [i.e., Le Faye’s] of Jane Austen’s letters insists that this Miss Sharpe could not possibly be the same woman who taught Jane’s niece – a Miss Sharpe who would feature in Jane’s next surviving letter (24 August 1805), and whose name would litter the rest of Jane’s missives. [Per Le Faye, t]he first governess friend of the name “Miss Sharpe” cannot be Anne Sharpe, apparently, because she and Jane could not yet have met. There’s no evidence that Jane had paid a visit to her Kentish relatives during the fifteen months of Anne’s employment. And Anne must have been holed away in Godmersham throughout that time.
But this, in fact, was not the case. The metal-clasped diaries and wax-sealed letters of Jane’s niece Fanny reveal that, during the spring of 1805, her teacher was away from home. These unpublished manuscripts show that Anne’s month-long absence coincides with a time when Jane was moving house.
This was a period ridden with trepidation for the Austen women. The death of Reverend Austen had not only robbed them of an affectionate husband and father, they’d also lost a major source of income. Unable to continue to afford their tenancy of Green Park Buildings, Mrs. Austen and her two daughters removed themselves to poky rented rooms in a busy part of town.
Since Fanny waved off her governess during the week commencing 18 March and Anne didn’t return for almost a month, it seems possible that Edward sent her to assist the Austen women with their move, and that Jane and Anne grew fond of each other far from the watchful eyes of the owners of Godmersham.
If so, this would not have been the first time that Anne had been told to cancel lessons and fit herself around the family’s other plans. She was regularly instructed to work outside the schoolroom: sent to drop off the boys at their boarding schools at the beginning of term and pick them up at its close, and called on at times to chaperone her employer’s guests on their journeys too.
To have been a fly on the wall when Jane and Anne first met, to watch as their relationship transformed from that of employer and employee to a deep bond between two women who wrote.
Both were enduring difficult times during the spring of 1805. Anne suffered persistent headaches and eye problems that must have hampered her attempts at devising plays, and Jane – still unpublished at this stage – had not been able to concentrate on her new novel during the months since her father died.
It’s tempting to imagine that the pair’s shared love of literature sustained them through such difficult times and that their first flicker of friendship brightened each other’s lives.
In the years to come, these women would find all sorts of ways to support each other’s endeavours – Anne offered Jane astute critiques of her novels and Jane acted in one of Anne’s household plays – but, on this occasion, the pair could no sooner have become acquainted than they would have been forced to part ways. Anne had to return to her post at Godmersham and Jane had to endure her shrunken circumstances in Bath.
Jane did see some opportunities in her newfound impoverishment. It offered the perfect excuse to invite her childhood friend Martha Lloyd to join the new household – a plan Jane and her sister had plotted behind the backs of their relatives. Martha’s meagre finances could supplement the Austen women’s funds and her skills as an amateur cook and apothecary would come as welcome indeed. But, more than anything, it was her friendship they held dear.
Friendship was also at the heart of another of Jane’s schemes. That first mention in the surviving letters of a governess called “Miss Sharpe” gives the impression that Jane had been looking for teaching work in Bath on the woman’s behalf. If this governess friend was indeed the Anne Sharpe who taught Jane’s niece, such an endeavour would surely have involved Jane going behind her brother’s back.
This version of events exposes the myth of Jane as a conservative maiden aunt, devoted above all else to kith and kin. Here was a much more rebellious woman, someone prepared to flout social conventions by treating a family servant as an equal; someone ready to show disloyalty to her brother by prioritising the needs of a female friend.”  END QUOTE

The key new evidence provided by Midorikawa and Sweeney, which was unknown to our trio in Austen-L in Sept. 2011, was the following:
“The metal-clasped diaries and wax-sealed letters of Jane’s niece Fanny reveal that, during the spring of 1805, her teacher was away from home. These unpublished manuscripts show that Anne’s month-long absence coincides with a time when Jane was moving house.”

I didn’t believe in random coincidence regarding the name “Anne Sharpe” in those April 1805 letters, and so I doubly disbelieve in the additional coincidence of geography that Fanny’s letters reveal. We can only wonder how much more evidence of this kind lies gathering dust in archives, waiting for other diligent scholars to excavate the proofs, so long ignored, that the Myth of Jane Austen is just that—a fable made up by members of the Austen family and their “protectors” (most of all Le Faye). Don’t you agree with me that, after two centuries, that Myth ought to finally give way to honest and open-minded evaluation by scholars whose only “modern” agenda is to actively seek out, and honestly and open-mindedly evaluate, the evidence of startlingly modern aspects of the prescient and fearless genius, Jane Austen, which coincide, as in my above account, with the clues which have been hiding in plain sight for those two centuries, but which could not be seen for what they really are, because Austen scholars and ordinary Janeites alike have been reading them through the wrong “spectacles”!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: For more of what Midorikawa and Sweeney themselves have written online about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp(e), follow this link:
“How Jane Austen's mystery woman was edited out of history”

“…Two hundred years ago this month, an ailing Jane Austen gathered the energy to pen the last letter she would ever send from her cottage in rural Kent. She professed her “tender” feelings for the recipient, her dear friend and fellow writer Anne Sharp, proclaiming herself forever “attached”. But the extraordinary woman who Austen singled out for this prolonged and affectionate farewell of May 1817 is little known today. Historian Lucy Worsley suggested this week that although Austen almost certainly never slept with a man, she may instead have slept with a woman. We know not if her relations with Sharp were anything more than platonic, but either way, the obscurity of the latter is just as Austen’s relatives would have wished it. While the great novelist considered her correspondent a most treasured confidante, Austen’s family took a very different view of Anne. For this woman was a member of the servant class. Indeed, she’d worked for the Austens themselves – as a governess to Jane’s niece.
Such a friendship flouted the social norms of the time. By keeping it out of official versions of Austen’s life, the family could create a false image of the famous author as a conservative maiden aunt, devoted above all else to kith and kin. As a result, the close bond she shared with Anne, who wrote plays in between teaching lessons, has become one of literature’s most enduring secrets. To this day, we rarely hear about Anne’s valuable critiques of Austen’s novels Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma, nor of Austen’s support for Anne’s own plays. Austen even acted a role in one of these household theatricals – walking a mile in her friend’s shoes by playing the part of a teacher.

This kind of whitewashing is all too common. While male literary friendships have become the stuff of legend, mystery too often shrouds the relations that history’s most celebrated female authors sought with other creative, intelligent women….”

1 comment:

Diane Reynolds said...

Very interesting. And we can't forget the rather patronizing letter Cassandra sent to Anne after Jane!s death, including some trinkets Jane particularly wanted Anne to have. All of this smacks of Emma, and for the first time, I am wondering if Emma is an amalgamation of Fanny Knight and a snobbish Cassandra, who disapproved of and was jealous of her friendship with the down market governess. It's not hard to see Anne in Jane Fairfax's aniticpation of having to usher children hither and thither unprotected once she becomes a governess. Or to see Anne in Mrs. Weston, having to put up with Fanny/Emma.
It's always wonderful to see corroborating evidence of a hunch too!