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Archive for January, 2019


Mary, Queen of Scots: Ismael Cruz Cordova, Maria Dragus, Izuka Hoyle, and Saoirse Ronan in intimate flirting friendship scene

Don’t miss the latest Mary Queen of Scots: while it has its flaws, it is very much worth the watching. This is a must-see to gauge the sharp changes in the depiction of this icon once again. What makes the film intelligently different and interesting is it more or less follows the outline of a serious good biography of Mary by John Guy. … Each phase of Mary’s career is dramatized. Elizabeth as icon is also traced. After being initially all pageant, the stories are effectively dramatized. I disagree with some of Guy’s interpretation (especially over Bothwell) and say why. Moray’s importance emerges. There are fine performances, wonderful color palates.

Friends and readers,

Quite a number of women, even queen-centered films this winter: two on Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG, On the basis of sex), two on nannies, one poor and absurd, the other a masterpiece (Mary Poppins, Roma), the courageous reporter (A Private War), and the big budget costume drama variety updated to include what might seem to be uninhibited sex scenes: The Favourite, and Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve been nearly alone in calling out The Favourite for its repulsive, gut-level anti-feminism and have mentioned only in passing what makes Cauron’s Roma a compelling masterpiece. Josie Rourke’s Mary, Queen of Scots (the screenplay has as little complicated language as one could get away with so as to keep the film popular) shows some of the same obsessive masculinizing violence in women as The Favourite: Ronan as Mary is depicted on horse wherever possible; she’s as eager to shoot something as any of the crowd of men that crowd in, dominate the movie-screen. Still, I recommend going to see it, even if you are not fascinated and interested in this Tudor-Stuart Matter. If you are, this is a must-see to gauge the sharp changes in the depiction of these icon queens once again.

Mary is still or once again the victim; her downfall is once again (made explicit in this film) her erotic engagement with men, marrying, bedding, thinking she can rely on law and custom (towards divine rulers) to control rivals. Elizabeth has returned to her 19th century role as perhaps Machiavellian, and ghastly dried-up old maid by film’s end (because she must be this way since she never married, never had children).


Elizabeth with Dudley (also called Leicester)

During the film punctuating Mary’s story are swift suggestive moments of Elizabeth, now with Leicester (Joe Alwyn called Dudley), now Cecil (Guy Pearce); she gets small pox and looks just hideous for a time. Staring down at flowers because she hasn’t had children:

The scenes with Elizabeth are too stilted — popular depictions just don’t want to give Elizabeth I credit — in literary studies we have gone beyond choosing sides … but it is very rare for anyone to present her as the brilliant political success story. If people really wanted a heroine who made a success out of grim beginnings (including as a teenager harassment by her step-mother Catherine Parr’s husband, Thomas Howard, and accusations by Mary Tudor of plotting against her), it’s Elizabeth Boleyn Tudor.


Margot Robbie as the aging Elizabeth: a clown-face of grief (very similar to the way Elizabeth appeared in a recent Metropolitan opera production of Donizetti’s trio)

What has changed to make this pair once again palatable to the 21st century female film-goer? Make no mistake this is a film intended for women: when I went the audience was all women, except the husbands who came along: it was playing alternatively in the same auditorium as On the Basis of Her Sex (even in local art cinemas women’s art ghettoized). Nothing much for Elizabeth. For a while it seemed she was becoming the sentimental queen, first in love with Leicester and then Essex (Helen Mirren’s film with first Jeremy Irons and then Hugh Dancy as Essex); but here we revert without even giving Elizabeth any Machiavellian traits. Mary has changed; she is now ceaselessly pro-active, aggressive, and free of conventional restraining conventions and beliefs (see anibundel’s accurate assessment for NBC), at moments fierce.

This is the new type heroine from Offred/June in the second season of Handmaid’s Tale, to Demelza Poldark in the rebooted version, to Brianna Fraser in Outlander. Feminism turns out to be doing what you want, and complaining when you can’t.


First impression

What makes the film intelligently different and interesting is it more or less follows the outline of a serious good biography of Mary by John Guy. So you can learn where the icon has moved now. Each phase of Mary’s career is dramatized: however briefly, her time in France and first husband, Francois. The nature of her relationship with Darnley (Jack Lowden, he was central to Dunkirk and can be seen in good BBC serial dramas), her second husband: at first she did fall in love with him, but when she saw what a dullard he was, and felt his attempts to domineer and control her, she turned to her musician, David Rizzio. Apparently nowadays Darnley is “accused” (the word is accused) of homosexuality and in this film has sex with Rizzio. That was not part of the narrative in the older books and the way it’s presented here shows homophobia is by no means gone from movie audiences. We have the two murders, first Rizzio, horrifically violent with Mary pregnant there. Time for touching scenes of her with a baby boy, and (much later) a poignant effective scene of her being forced to part from an older child and him crying for her.

and then Darnley in the courtyard. In this version Mary is not at all guilty of Darnley’s murder, not even complicit.

I’m someone who has been reading biographies of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots since I was 18, and I know in the older biographies Mary was either accused of plotting to kill Darnley (pretending just collusion) as revenge and also simply to get rid of a nuisance; or she allowed it to happen. So the film whitewashes her here. More importantly, it denies she was in love with Bothwell. I remember being thrilled by Stefan Zweig’s, and then disagreeing with Antonia Fraser’s first revisionist story. It was she who began the idea that the letters Mary is said to have written Bothwell, her third husband: these first surfaced, suspiciously enough in a casket after her death, and were used to damn her as a “harlot.” Alison Weir’s best-selling biography makes the case for them as basically false and forged, conceding only there seems enough reality in them from Mary that they might be a set of letters tampered with and re-written.

Here is one of Mary’s poems, whose provenance no one has doubted:

Que suis-je hélas? Et de quoi sert ma vie?
Je ne suis fors qu’un corps privé de coeur,
Une ombre vaine, un objet de malheur
Qui n’a plus rien que de mourir en vie.
Plus ne me portez, O ennemis, d’envie
A qui n’a plus l’esprit à la grandeur.
J’ai consommé d’excessive douleur
Votre ire en bref de voir assouvie.
Et vous, amis, qui m’avez tenue chère,
Souvenez-vous que sans coeur et sans santé
Je ne saurais aucune bonne oeuvre faire,
Souhaitez donc fin de calamité
Et que, ici-bas étant assez punie,
J’aie ma part en la joie infinie.

Then a good modern English translation:

Alas what am I? What use has my life?
I am but a body whose heart’s torn away,
A vain shadow, an object of misery
Who has nothing left but death-in-life.
O my enemies, set your envy all aside;
I’ve no more eagerness for high domain;
I’ve borne too long the burden of my pain
To see your anger swiftly satisfied.
And you, my friends who have loved me so true,
Remember, lacking health and heart and peace,
There is nothing worthwhile that I can do;
Ask only that my misery should cease
And that, being punished in a world like this,
I have my portion in eternal bliss
— from an excellent Mary Stuart site.

The denial of the letters depends on ignoring Mary’s poetry, a whole body of lyrics and sonnets in French, a number to a lover-husband who could be Darnley but it more likely Bothwell. The Casket letters come from the same mindset of self-doubt, self-berating, depression behind the French sonnets, both religious and of of enthralled love. Yet a third infatuation (the first Darnley, the second Rizzio) does fit Mary’s character and makes sense of events after the murder of Darnley — some time elapsed — and Mary’s flight to England. One of the sites (dungeon tower fort) I saw in the border country of England and Scotland (debatable land) is presented as famous for Mary coming there to meet with Bothwell. She probably did. Many feminists just don’t want to believe in the casket letters. Sophia Lee’s powerful Recess (early gothic novel, 1782) about Mary’s unacknowledged twins by Bothwell doesn’t help increase belief since this romance is as fantasy and erotically driven as Outlander.

Nonetheless, there is credible evidence of a late miscarriage (or some illness) — from Bothwell (Martin Compston here), because who else? She was not promiscuous. In the time after Darnley’s murder, and Mary’s imprisonment, Mary did enter into the civil wars that her presence and poor (non-)diplomatic acts (like trying to get Catholicism accepted by showing herself tolerant of protestantism) engendered. She did fight with Bothwell too. In the film she is forced to marry him. But who would do that? it was not in her step-brother, James Moray’s interest (yes that’s James McArdle inside all that hair and beard). In the film she is (confusedly forced) and we see Bothwell rape her; this moves rapidly and the man we remember (rightly too) is Moray.

The film moves rapidly into Mary and Bothwell’s defeat by Moray. All along we’ve seen Knox inveigh against her: she is not legitimately the monarch because no woman can rule, because she’s Catholic (Mary tried to use the “toleration” card — she would tolerate all Protestanism but as this did not work for James Stuart II more than a hundred years later, it did not work for her) and anyway is a “harlot.” David Tennant offers a fierce old man (he too almost unrecognizable because of flowing hair and beard). Now the two sets of armies converge, and we fast forward to a council which in effect de-thrones her, gives her son to Murray, and leaves her isolated.

Next her on the shore with what ladies are left; cross to England and incarceration awaits her. Montage takes us through uncounted years (during which we see the aging Elizabeth grieve over her lack of child, writhe over the demands she execute Mary) and we have the confrontation, which never took place, first invented by Schiller. It is done at length in this film, and Mary (somewhat improbably) is driven at last to insult Elizabeth by telling her she Mary is the rightful queen. I agree that Mary Stuart thought Elizabeth a worthless bastard when it came to rank or illegitimacy but even she never would have thrown this idea in Elizabeth’s face.

The film opened up with the execution scene, and we revert back, re-see some of it, but this time are taken through the beheading and gruesome carrying of a head. Saoirse Ronan is accurately dressed: Mary did get herself up in black with white lace, pull the outer gown to reveal a martyr’s red shift. And so it ends with Elizabeth sitting there hollowly: this icon goes back to Scott, but in the 20th century was first realized by Bette Davies her film of Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex (recently re-done with Helen Mirren in the parts as a sympathetic sentimental queen first loving Leicester and then the treacherous Essex).

All that said the movie is worth it. The music is good, the color palates fascinating and effective.  Grey and blue for Mary except when happy, then warm reds, oranges, golden light; garish red and greens for Elizabeth, cool white light. (Too much computer enhancement on Scottish scenery.) We see how Mary as a young woman could not realize all the pretense of respect when she first arrived in Scotland was fragile veneer. We see how Knox’s fierce anti-feminism was her first obstacle, which she failed even to address. The film however indirectly and as a sort of bye-blow of what’s happening that it was James Moray, her step-brother, who played the pivotal role at important moments and ends up inheriting the throne as regent and the boy as his ward. The film begins as grim and then luxurious pageant and progresses to dramatic effectiveness, with many effecive performances, e.g., Brendan Coyle as Darnley’s father; a couple of the actresses as one of the four Marys. The two queens are juxtaposed repeatedly, twinned

I would like now to read John Guy.

Ellen

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Angharad Rees as Demelza (1975 Poldark, Jack Pulman’s adapted script the basis for the first four episodes)

Friends,

In early November of this year I began steadily reading the fiction of Winston Graham in chronological order, trying to gather salient points about each still extant text he wrote, beginning with the first The House with the Stained Glass Windows (published 1934), and ending on 17th/18th Take My Life (1947, first a screenplay, which unsurprisingly became a striking WW2 type film noir, then a tightly woven novel). I’ve read many of his novels before but not in order and in this scrutinizing way. This early phase of his career is made up of nineteen texts and one movie, all of the male fantasy suspense, thriller, mystery, spy kind.

I stopped with Take My Life for around that time Graham became absorbed in a second historical novel set in Cornwall, Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787 (published 1945), which lead to a long series of Poldark novels. (Graham’s first historical fiction, later recognized as signaling a change, The Forgotten Story, with its thoughtful reverie premise, and young boy narrator, is basically also another suspense-murder novel, with lurid elements, set in Cornwall in 1898.) With or in the unabridged Ross Poldark, much longer than any previous book and written over a much longer time, he made this astonishing and unexpected leap in quality — depth and thoroughness, thick realization of imagined world, truly suggestive and non-stereotypical characterization, and real subversity of theme. RP was begun just after Strangers Meeting (1939) and took five years to compose. After RP, I read the uncut Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-90 (1946) written just after or around the time of Take My Life (like many working novelists he’d be writing more than one novel at a time); now known as the second Poldark, Demelza adds true complexity of many interacting characters, and a deeper more maturing of themes begun in the first


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (2015 Poldark, Debbie Horsfield’s adapted scripts the basis for the whole series)

Strangers Meeting itself is one of the four early novels which show some real fineness and rich creativity; it’s no coincidence that it, and two of the others, Dangerous Pawn (1937) and Merciless Ladies (1944) are set either in Cornwall or partly a marginalized edge area of Britain (Cumberland); also that the fourth, set on the day Hitler’s armies invaded Prague, No Exit (1940), uses the technique of historical fictive accuracy. I’m coming to believe that Graham transcended his conscious gifts when he turned to the genre of historical fiction and set his books in Cornwall. But there is more to it than that.


Snapshot of painting I saw in a local museum in Cornwall in the summer of 2015

Walk Where They Fought. Battle of Waterloo. June 18, 1815. (Petho Cartography)

Since I have a paper due on the Poldark novels for an 18th century conference in March (ASECS, in Denver), and soon teaching will begin I put down my march through Graham time for the moment, and have fast forwarded to the second of the three Poldark fictions I’m going to write about: The Black Moon: A Novel of Cornwall, 1794-1795 (1973), the first of the second set of Poldark novels Graham wrote, what can be called the first of two trilogies. I couldn’t make up my mind which of these closely-intertwined and plotted three books to cover, so I read half-way through the second of this second set, The Four Swans: A Novel of Cornwall, 1795-1797 (1976) and looked into the dark conclusion, The Angry Tide: A Novel of Cornwall, 1798-1799 (1977), which I re-read two summers ago. Soon I’ll move on to the first of the two final singletons, The Twisted Sword: A Novel of Cornwall, 1815 (1990, or the eleventh Poldark of twelve), the third novel I’ve chosen for this paper. I suppose I’m immersing myself. Oh, the first of the three for the paper is Demelza.

For the interested reader, a fuller context: I now see the Poldarks as consisting of five phases, each of which has some distinctive features because each reflects the different era it was written in.

World War II and aftermath: RP, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791 (a much better title would be Francis Poldark) and Warleggan, A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-93, published 1950 and 1953 respectively.

The 1970s, which seem to explore themes of individual liberty and social responsibility: The Black Moon, The Four Swans and The Angry Tide

The 1980s, a turn to look at Thatcherism (capitalism as piracy, colonialism versus community): The Stranger from the Sea: A Novel of Cornwall, 1810-1811 (1981); The Miller’s Dance: A Novel of Cornwall, 1812-13 (1982); The Loving Cup: A Novel of Cornwall, 1813-15 (1984).

1990: anti-war, with a global or Eurocentric perspective: The Twisted Sword, A Novel of Cornwall, 1815 (published 1990)

2003: the pathologies of alienation, disability, culmination of pro-non-human animal themes: Bella Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1818-1820 (utterly mistitled, it ought to be signposted Valentine Warleggan)


From the most recent adaptation, an opera by Muhly, Marnie (2017) — we see the villain-heroine and her psychologically twisted antagonist

I said there is more to this great leap than Cornwall and deep past dreaming and research. First let’s look at the results of Graham’s compulsive drive to produce and then re-write as a form of hiding or making (he thinks) more sellable masculinist fantasy material:

Three more suspense novels, one of which, Cordelia (1949) is another historical fiction (this time 19th century Manchester, the city in which Graham grew up) between Demelza and Warleggan. Two poor, Night Without Stars (1950) and Fortune Is a Woman (1952), both made into feeble film noirs.

Then after Warleggan, and before Graham resumed the Poldarks 20 years on with The Black Moon: eight suspense novels, another historical novel set in Cornwall (this time Elizabethan, The Grove of Eagles, 1963), one book of short stories and one non-fiction set in Cornwall (about The Spanish Armadas — there was more than one). And again these are highly uneven, though for among those few people who still read Graham’s suspense books, they contain his best in the kind (e.g., The Little Walls, 1955, with its Golden Dagger award; The Tumbled House, 1959; After the Act, 1965 and Graham’s favorite; The Walking Stick, 1967, made into a sensitive remarkable film, well written, featuring David Hemminges; and Angell, Pearl and Little God (1970, offered to Marlon Brando and interesting Dustin Hoffman as type actors this novel could project). They also contain the highly problematic Marnie (1961), fodder for Hitchcock misogyny, and two homosexual sensibility texts, Sean O’Connor’s play (2001), Muhly’s opera (2015).

And finally an autobiographical topographical Poldark’s Cornwall (1982), yet four more of these potboiler suspense, e.g., Tremor (1995), one a partly historical in Cornwall, The Ugly Sister (1998), and between TS and (or around the time of) Bella Poldark, a posthumously published memoir, A Private Man (2003),

I omit as hard to catalogue, and sudden, the short stories, a few of which have the sensitive merit of Cornish ghost and gothic fiction, e.g, his very last piece of writing, “Meeting Demelza” (2003), where near his death he meets her still grieving for the deaths of her children and as she invites him back to meet Ross and Dwight once more, the vision dissolves (podcasts have been made of three of this kind); attempts at screenplays, occasional journalism. He was involved in radio adaptations of some of his novels, but he wrote no literary criticism — though there are signs he did read it — as in his admiration for Frank Swinnerton’s The Georgian Literary Scene (Everyman, 1938).

I also omit another and crucial aspect of his writing: continual revisions of his work. Above I have listed only the first versions of his novels; several he thoroughly revised, usually by cutting, sometimes to the point he re-titled them. He also was continually making small changes. I’ve now read enough of this compulsion to be able to state categorically while some of the revised work has felicitous sentences, fresh ideas setting the book in its new time frame (for publication), mostly he ruins his work. He seems to have no conscious understanding of what makes his gifts valuable. This is not uncommon, but he goes further in trying to please the mass taste or some editor who wants to save money or have something this year’s fashions and shorter. Tellingly he is embarrassed and gets rid of what shows his own personal sensibility at play.


The whole of this little known film noir (includes Margaret Kennedy as one of the script writers): Take My Life

So what is the something more that makes eight of these Poldark books (the first seven and The Twisted Sword) stand out as one another level of creativity from his other work, and the weaker four and brief Cornish gothics far far more humane or rounded than the several better male genre books, which do come near them at moments. I’m going to suggest that they belong to what my friend, Diane Reynolds, named l’ecriture-humaine and (out of French sources mostly) I’ve been calling l’ecriture-femme. A love of animals and concerned for the disabled, important currents and providing touching images and incidents symbolic throughout Graham’s oeuvre are typically found in women’s writing. Insofar as the suspense novels have some of this (Strangers Meeting, Dangerous Pawn, Walking Stick) they participate and have this stronger level of open vulnerability to life’s griefs, a (not quite Proustian, more Anthony Powell) feel for the personal knives of hurt and memory seeping in — and probably Graham’s private life experience as he tells us in his last page of his autobiography. In his masculinist fantasies, such impulses early on come out luridly, and later are counteracted by ironies, and severe control by a superego in the form of hard mean & dense characters. That’s why Graham said he learned to become a novelist with Demelza. He wrote his first true l’ecriture-femme then. I’ve no doubt he is Demelza and Dwight, with Ross playing the deeply pained and renegade male forcing himself to participate in the world to protect who he can.


A cover illustration for the 1970s editions of Ross Poldark, to precede and accompany the first serial drama – note the centrality of the mining building, a central image for the second 2015 serial drama too


Typical opening shot for Horsfield’s new Poldark

Who he was influenced by and what he read is of great interest then and will constitute one half of my source materials and research base. Graham knows he was influenced by all that is imaginatively associated with Cornwall (he wrote about this again and again); Graham Greene’s disillusioned suspense entertainments (especially in his novels leading into WW2); and various lesser known Cornish writers e.g., Denys Val Baker (The Face in the Mirror). I have read some of the best criticism of these suspense novels e.g. Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder: most of these keep us only on the surface of what Graham writes, the literal least important parts of it albeit these were what enabled him to structure and work out as coherent rationales his dream material

Aligning his work also with writers like Daphne DuMaurier (also a writer of Cornish 18th century fiction), will be helpful because there is a critical tradition for some of these as well as Cornish culture and landscape, and for historical fiction that can be applied to Graham.  There is much to be learned about Graham’s work & attitudes from non-fiction books like John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (read assiduously by Ross) and Wendy Hille’s George Canning. And also his Memoir of a Private Man.

And finally, though perhaps I should have cited these first:  Graham’s Poldark’s Cornwall, DuMaurier’s Vanishing Cornwall, Claude Berry’s Portrait of Cornwall, Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground and nature-writing books like Jacquenetta Hawkes’s The Land and Philip Paytan’s Cornwall. And historical research books into specifics of 17th through 18th century Cornwall:  Graham himself says this material enabled him to fill his books with content, A. l. Rowse’s and (the contemporary update), John Chynoweth’s Tudor Cornwall and many many individual (long) 18th century books on medicine, prisons and mining. The one topic Graham left out was china clay.

But the key, the core, that which made the difference between these other books and the 12 Poldark when when he began to write l’ecriture-femme.  The leap is from Strangers Meeting to Forgotten Story to Demelza; the content filler Cornwall and history.


Winston Graham with his dog, Garrick — beloved also by Demelza

Ellen

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19th century drawing of imagined woman writer

Friends,

I’ve not created a chronology for an Austen relative or friend for quite a while, but I have one for you today: of the life of Anne Sharp (or Ann Sharpe — the names appear with and without the “e’s” in various sources). I’ve been reading Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, & Virginia Woolf. The goal of their book is to ferret out and present as deeply meaningful friendships of famed women writers with other women, which have been neglected, strongly downplayed, or presented in a distorted manner, or not known at all. For Austen they did not choose Martha Lloyd, who might seem the more natural candidate (a lot more known, many more letters, the two lived together on and off for years, traveled together), but the more obscured Anne Sharp, for about two years, a too brief a time for our purposes (but not necessarily her comfort) governess to Fanny Austen Knight, Austen’s niece, at Godmersham. For Charlotte Bronte, not Ellen Nussey whose correspondence and friendship with Charlotte provides the lifeblood of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte, but Mary Taylor; for George Eliot Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote each other extensively and intimately but never met, and for Virginia Woolf her “frenemy” and colleague for a short while, Katherine Mansfield.

Midorikawa and Sweeney’s book grates on anyone not used to fluff, a sort of “women’s magazine style,” which provides a distorted upbeat tone and often falsifying perspective for many events; worse yet the stories are not told chronologically, and the notes are inadequate or not there. Such as it is, however, they have made a contribution, which may be built upon. There is no implicit sub-textual suggestion these are lesbian friendships (whether overtly sexualized in private or not); unlike Emma Donoghue and others (see also Suzanne Juhasz on Emma in her Romance from the Heart), M&S steer clear of any larger patterns or political statements.  Sometimes they go on and on just about Austen’s activities familiar to anyone who knows anything about her — say in London when she went to picture galleries and spotted her “Jane” but could not find “Elizabeth:” sheer sillyness and a waste of space.  . You might say they aim at the equivalent marketplace niche as Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B Stern did with their ground-breaking Speaking of Austen so many years ago.

So I’ve unraveled their confusing story, corrected a couple of errors (or different interpretations now and again) and added references of my own from Deirdre LeFaye’s works, books I’ve read (among others) on Fanny Austen Knight, Maggie Lane’s JA’s Family, Caroline and Anna Lefroy’s short biographical papers, Lucy Worsley’s JA At Home. What one discovers is strong evidence for an at times close friendship between Sharp and Austen from 1804 until Austen’s death, a friendship thwarted by Austen’s family and then covered up from posterity because they saw Sharp as too low in status for their prestige and the whole relationship as subversive of their conservative heteronormative familial centered way of life.

What is most telling is the lack of evidence for Miss Sharp’s early life, the destruction of both women’s letters, and the obscuring of Austen’s desire to create a female community of like-minded spinster friends. I cannot believe they do not realize that Martha Lloyd was part of the inner sanctum: they dismiss her as kept around because she was so “cheerful!” The text which may be said to explicate what we have of Anne Sharpe’s life and friendship with Jane Austen is Virginia Woolf’s poignantly ironic “The Mysterious Case of Miss M,” from her Memoirs of a Novelist, the “life” story of a spinster before the 20th century about whom the biographer deliberately manages to say nothing at all lest the least whiff of unconventional thought or behavior be attributed to her.

************************************


Godmersham mansion in its park setting today

In February 1773 the only baby to be called Anne Sharp christened in London ecclesiastical records is born; her father is listed as a gardener in Deptford; no street address given just WH. M&S suggest WH is an abbreviation for workhouse.

Sometime late in 1803 Anne Sharp hired to be Fanny Austen Knight’s governess; she is described as “having suffered a bereavement.” M&S found record of woman named Elizabeth Sharp buried in London in April 1803. Could this woman have been Anne’s mother? a sister?

Meanwhile, in spring of 1803 Austen sent a novel called Susan (a version of Northanger Abbey) to Richard Crosby, a publisher, who paid her £10, and she assumed he would publish it

January 23, 1804 Anne Sharp, arrives at Godmersham, this is a Monday, Fanny’s 11th birthday and Anne joins in the family party, which includes an elegant sumptuous breakfast. There are then four young children in this family home: William 6; Lizzy (remarks about her suggest she was seen as “bright” or smart early on); Marianne a toddler, Charles, curly haired carrying a doll around whom he called his wife; and Louisa, a dark eyed very young baby. At school were Henry, Edward and George, all younger than Fanny.

For 6 months Anne Sharp is reading with and teaching Fanny; they go for walks; Miss Sharp is said (from Fanny’s diaries) to secretly work on a play June 19 the children revving up for some festivity with strawberries and cream, but Anne said to be “not quite well.” Next day she loses track of lesson, is grey in color, her legs give way and she faints. She cannot eat the syllabub and cream Fanny brings to her

Anne Sharp has intermittent spells of ill health; M&S say Elizabeth the mother dismissed staff who took to their beds citing illness.

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Green Park Buildings, Bath, it’s thought the Austens lived at the end of the row

January 19, 1805 George Austen dies. Austen brothers offer tiny sums of money compared with what they spend on themselves (James, Henry and Edward), by contrast Frank gives as much as he can afford (numbers in Clery, JA, Banker’s Sister and elsewhere); they move to 25 Gay Street, and Mrs Austen pays a rate on lease for Green Park Buildings. These Buildings were rejected when the family first came to Bath as damp and low. I’ve walked by them and they are on the western fringe, and on a slop going down near the river. When people visit Gay Street, Austen is embarrassed by its “dark” “pokey” rooms.

Fanny’s diary now shows Miss Sharp has gone away from from Godmersham in 1805 during the time the Austens lived in Gay Street. Miss Sharpe leaves March 18th. In April 1805, there are several “mentions” in Austen’s letters of “Miss Sharpe.” Here M&S tell of Le Faye’s note buried in annotations where LeFaye says “clearly” there must be two Anne Sharps because 1) no proof Austen had met Miss Sharpe, and on the grounds Miss Sharp is a sick frail woman (as LeFaye characterizes her disdainfully who could not even care for a 6 year old a couple of months after she left Godmersham; this is a distortion of what happened after Anne Sharp left Godmersham; see below) and “horridly affected” (JEAL’s word).

There are problems: it’s not clear that Miss Sharp was living in Bath itself at the time, and the references to her in Austen’s April 1805 letters don’t quite tell the story M & S want them to tell. They claim Miss Sharp came to stay with the Austens and Jane tried to find her another position.


Gay Street, Bath, today — where Austen lived around the time she knew and Anne Sharp may have visited her

April 9, Gay Street (Letter No 43). Jane Austen records as an apparently intrusive unwelcome visit a Miss Colbourne who owned a girls school in Lansdowne Crescent.” Miss Colbourne has come to check a reference on a servant named “Anne” – that is, this snobbish woman whom Austen says looks around at their house with disdain wants to know if Austen will confirm an Austen letter of recommendation that this servant was good servant. Why would Austen lie to Cassandra? Was the Miss Colbourne actually lured there to see Miss Sharpe in the hope she’d hire her? That is not what is written down.

Then April 23, Gay Street (Letter 44) Austen writes that an “Amelia” is to “take lessons of Miss Sharpe.” Amelia belonged to a genteel Bickerton family. In the same passage Austen records Miss Blachford has come, and that “among so many friends, it will be well if I do not get into a scrape.” We don’t know that Austen was the one who actuated this job, nor why she thinks she could get into a scrape or what Miss Blachford has to do with this. Perhaps Austen fears she will be seen as too friendly with these women? and scolded by her family. Was Miss Sharp living nearby and Miss Blachford a friend living with or near Miss Sharp in a lodging house too.

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On June 19, 1805 began a series of events in the nursery at Godmersham that have often been retold—found in Fanny’s diary and first retold (as far as I know (in Margaret Wilson’s A Third Sister.) That evening Mrs Austen, Jane, Cassandra and two favorite cousins of Fanny, Anna Austen and Fanny Cage arrive at Godmersham. M&S say the Austens intend to look for a cheaper place than Gay Street, which their allowance will not cover.

The governess cancels lessons and all six women are in Fanny’s diary shown catering to her every desire — to the point of a grand ceremony of baptizing one of her dolls. They do go to Canterbury, gather around the family pianoforte, pony rides, inspections of chickens and fresh eggs. M&S tell this story as fun events that “must have bolstered” the Austens’ spirits.

June 26, 1805, five days later, a group of children’s didactic dramas are put on — some of this written by Anne Sharp. Anne Sharp plays the “sergeant,” Jane is Miss Popham a teacher, Cassandra a Miss Teachum (this could be an allusion to to a dour didactic and book on a grim disciplinarian girls’ schools by Sarah Fielding). Mrs Austen is “piewoman” and M&S imagine her with a rolling pin just having the time of her life. Elizabeth, the mother, played a sea-side bathing attendant. Dancing was included – “scotch reels.” So music is played. Later in the day a play known to be by Miss Sharp, Virtue Rewarded is performed. Fanny Cage (an orphan) is Duchess of St Albans, Anna Austen (M&S remind us “the black sheep of the family,” which is unfair, and they don’t say that the stepmother would eventually forbid any more such visits) is “Shepherdess Flora” and Fanny “Fairy Serena.” The scripts were not saved.

The Austen women and cousins stayed another two weeks. One day Miss Sharp has the three young girls chose a gothic novel each and go into the estate grounds to its Folly to read their books. Another day they are sent off with basket of books, papers, and pencils, encouraged to pretend to be gypsies. It’s for a chunk of the day (freeing these adults) as they are given a bottle of water, hunk of bread and cheese.

Next day though Fanny ill, cold, fever, and couldn’t recite her lessons, Elizabeth, the mother catches the complaint and goes to bed for two weeks. M&S think maybe Miss Sharp was blamed.

We can imagine Jane and Anne – and don’t forget Cassandra left to themselves with just two cousins. At least some of the time Jane and Anne might talk, go into the big library (which Austen mentions she loves staying in in later letters and visits to Godmersham). Upon rising from her bed, sister-in-law, who calls the shots, takes Jane to balls, visits, and leaves Jane to stay at Goodnestone with her ailing mother and her paid companion.


Goodnestone Park mansion today

A reference to Miss Sharp occurs in a letter of August 24 (No 45) when Jane is still at Goodnestone Park taking care of Elizabeth’s mother, and writes to Cassandra in Godmersham, that Fanny has been walking with Miss Sharp & Miss Milles, “the happiest being in the world.” It’s not clear who is this happy being. Fanny? Miss Milles. Anne Sharpe came into Goodnestone briefly and impressed the two women favorably: Mrs Knight said Miss Sharp had beauty and Miss Milles found her “judicious” (it seems).

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We may assume that the Austen women had nonetheless had had a good time, one preferable to returning to Bath. They had no place to go which they wanted to live in. So a plan was concocted that they and Edward, Elizabeth, Fanny, Miss Sharp, now with Martha Lloyd to to Worthing later in the summer: a seacoast place “on the other side of the Downs”. Fanny Cage and Anna Austen are now out of the picture (from Fanny’s diaries, later Anna Lefroy remembering and Caroline Austen’s reminiscences). They set off after August 30 when Jane still at Goodnestone (is she being kept away from Anne Sharp or just disliked by Elizabeth) writes Cassandra that “We shall not be at Worthing so soon as we used to talk of, shall we? There will be no evil to us, we are sure of my mother and Martha being happy together.” I suspect that’s ironic and Mrs Austen and Martha did not get along. The note resembles Elizabeth Bennet’s longing to go with her uncle and aunt and having to wait longer than she wanted. Austen did want this time at Worthing – though not Anne Sharpe but Martha is mentioned as coming. It’s here M&S justify Martha’s presence by quoting someone who described Martha as this “cheery” woman.

M&S tell a story for which they have no documentary evidence that the actuating spirit of the trip to Worthing was Jane Austen, that she successfully argued for the inclusion of Anne Sharp on the grounds of Miss Sharp’s illness and migraines. Is this probable? Had Jane ever been listened to before?   Less than six months later, in January 1806 Elizabeth Austen fired Anne Sharp suddenly in the dead of winter, leaving Fanny distraught and shocked in her diary. As with other trips where Martha Lloyd is omitted, JEAL telling of this trip omits Miss Sharp. Martha who was there also omitted.


Worthing Town center today — a holiday beach town


The beach and pier today

They came slowly over the Downs, stayed at Horsebridge for the night, the next day saw Brighton – and M&S imagine what they saw by looking at contemporary tour guides, next day they rent a property and all walk on the sands in the evening. Still five days later Elizabeth and Edward Austen and Fanny leave.

M&S imagine an idyllic time (using contemporary tour guide) for Jane, Anne, Martha, Cassandra — and Mrs Austen too — on the beach, reading, writing and so on together. There is a record Jane won 17 shillings at a raffle one night. 1805 was a year Austen was at work on The Watsons, perhaps rewriting or writing in the first place Lady Susan (Deborah Kaplan, among women has these as mid-career novels). And M&S speculate that at the same time perhaps Anne Sharp produced a revised version of her play — which will be used when she returns to Godmersham in the next December – remember no manuscripts have survived. None of these details in any writing.

They all stay to the first of November. But during this time, Fanny invites a previous governess to come and stay at Godmersham, Dorothy Chapman (surely with her mother’s permission, maybe encouragement). Chapman stays in Anne’s room and there is no record of hours in library or having headaches and taking to her bed the way Miss Sharp did, instead Fanny records in her diaries that Chapman goes gardening with the children. How convenient. They do needlework. Meanwhile Edward had been scaring up a regiment of troops and Trafalgar won in October 1805.

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Looking at the set of letters in Bath 1804-1805, spring 1805 (Bath and Godmersham to Worthing), fall 1805 have repeated references to Martha Lloyd. An especially important comment is Jane’s to Cassandra in April 1805 “I am quite of your opinion of the folly of concealing any longer our partnership with Martha.” When I went through the letters it seemed to me now the brothers were pitching in their little bits, Jane wanted to make a circle of women minus her mother – she wanted to include the Bigg sisters maybe and a couple of other single women. In a later she reports this was utterly squashed; no money unless they lived with the mother.

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Miss Sharp returns, and Fanny and she return to their previous routine. Fanny records that when Miss Sharp returned, she looked “uncommonly well.” To the house 3 days later came a Miss Crowe, a professional “paintress” said to have painted pictures of Fanny and her governess, which have not survived. Fanny didn’t like them. “We are all quite sick of Miss Crowe’s pictures.” They are all “detestable,” Fanny says the one of herself is most like her, but the one of Miss Sharp makes her look “silly,” with “sleepy eyes, a “mumped up mouth.” These are pictures “fit for nothing but to be thrown in the fire”

The diaries record that just then – a few days after her return — Miss Sharp’s migraines reached a peak; when the painter left, the family actually called for a specialist doctor, Mr Lascelles and he advised measures requiring his presence (and payment) for 7 days. He was a quack; there were men in the 1790s who knew much better than these torturous techniques and useless compounds. e made her much worse – absolute torture techniques, she did get to have a room to herself as Fanny moved into her mother’s downstairs’ closet.

November 1805: the quack doctor Lascelles actually sews a blister onto the poor woman’s neck, this seems to have lasted until December. M&S says the most recent baby’s birthday (without naming which one, Louisa born May 1805) and that cannot be since Anne Sharp was abruptly fired in January 1806, but also the most recent baby making noise and walking so that would be the 8th to 9th month baby, Louisa. Before December Anne Sharp’s treatment is over and she is expected to resume sleeping with Fanny and teaching.

In December Anne Sharp with the children put on a series of “theatricals’, there are these Christmas style games, Fanny enjoys acting these plays, but says in her diary that they are “too long to be detailed,” but she had “given an account of them as a piece of paper to be found in the pocket of this book.” M&S says there is no manuscript catalogued but hidden within Fanny’s “tiny calfskin books” is a glued document that contains a detailed account of these theatricals.

Alas M&S do not describe these secreted-away plays at all.

They also acted a short play called Alfred (printed in Evenings at Home), a patriotic drama about Alfred the Great, then a scene from John Home’s Douglas (as the Bertram family in MP did). Recitations from poetry annals and then tea and then lottery. Fanny goes to bed happy thinking all well “pieces were performed uncommonly well as we were afterwards told.”

Another theatrical by Anne Sharp planned for January 4, 1806, this one still extant glued by Fanny inside a Daily Lady’s Companion. Anne now called “Anny” by Fanny told the girl not to show the play to her parents. Anne embroidered the costumes, the mother and her sisters agreed to play musical accompaniments; servants invited, and again more recitations from Christmas. Play now renamed Pride Punished or Innocence Rewarded.

A week later (!) Miss Sharp is fired. Fanny distraught. She was told to regard this as “a disagreeable ceremony” but wrote to former governess, Miss Chapman, she could “I hardly know how I shall bear it, she has been so long with us & uncommonly kind to me.” LeFaye disdainfully attributes this firing to Anne Sharp’s ill health, saying she could not last caring for a single 6 year old for her next job, but in fact what happened was she was switched to care for a very frail ill older woman, a much harder continuous task. Kentish Austen simply cite “ill health.”

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Mid-20th century photo of Trim Street

By March 1806 Miss Sharp was a governess for a 6 year old daughter of a Mrs Raikes. January 1806 our Austens reduced to Trim Street, so small Martha Lloyd is not living with them, so they cannot help Anne Sharp. M&S do not repeat LeFaye’s sneer but just say by spring 1806 Miss Sharp is required to work as paid companion to Mrs Raike’s unmarried sister (called “frail”), one Miss Bailey, living in Hinckley in midlands, a market town.

In July (2nd) Austens leave Trim Street for Clifton, and she writes a poem to Martha Lloyd who is now off to Harrogate (so she had stayed in Trim Street some of the time) – it’s about how a Mr Best has disappointed Martha in not even flirting with her; and then one of her most felicitous performances in verse upon Frank and Mary marrying. Then the women, Mrs Austen and her two daughters travel about relative to relative, at one point without Martha going to Adlestrop arriving in early August 1806, the 5th, because frantically aggrandizing relative, Thomas Leigh, trying to stake a claim to Stoneleigh. Mrs Austen writes a letter whose details anticipate Northanger Abbey.

1806 December or 1807 January the three Austen women and Martha Lloyd and Frank’s first wife, Mary are living in Castle Square, Southampton – rescued by Frank.

Now during this time Anne Sharp and Austen write to one another. Very very irritating is that M&S don’t tell of each and every reference. Instead we are told that Austen wrote Anne when Elizabeth died, October 10, 1808, but no specific letter cited, no date, nothing of how they know this. looked into Austen’s 1808 letters and found several references to Miss Sharp showing an on-going correspondence. For example, this, a longer one, showing Austen concerned about her friend’s employment.

2 October 1808, from Castle Hill, Southampton Austen writes to Cassandra. “I have heard today from Miss Sharpe, & find that she returns with Miss B to Hinckley & will continue there until Christmas, when she thinks they may both travel southward. – Miss B however is probably to make only a temporary absence from Mr Chessrye, & I shd not wonder if Miss Sharpe were to continue with her; — unless anything more eligible offer, she certainly will. She describes Miss B as very anxious she should do so” (p 141, 3rd edition)

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Chawton cottage, recent photo

Less than 2 weeks after Elizabeth dies, Edward offers to find a lifelong residence on one of many properties to his mother and sisters; they chose former bailiff’s cottage at Chawton, in Hampshire, big enough for Martha Lloyd to join them.

We are told by M&S about continuing correspondence but again no dates, no pages, no years. While Austen at long last writing and publishing S&S (M&S call this a novel about a neglectful brother and sister-in-law), October 1811, Miss Sharp told Austen about how Miss Bailey requires her full time ministrations, her terrible headaches continue, also eyestrain. Sounds like Austen’s own complaints, but also her reasons for not writing the way her friend is. Anne resorts to quackery: cuts her hair again and attaches electrodes to her skull. Fanny’s diary: “Anne’s “eyes have been worse than ever, & she had all her air cut off, & continual blisters on her head all to no purpose.” Perhaps April 1811, no clear annotation.

A proposed visit a month later is frustrated: Jane proposes Anne visit May 1811 when some house-guests cancelled, and calls this “magnificent project.” Anne had a holiday leave. Jane writes Cassandra and Martha “by return of post if you have any reason for wishing it not done . I shall consider Silence as Consent.” They were not silent: “I have given up all idea of Miss Sharpe’s traveling with you & Martha, for tho’ you both all compliance with my scheme, ye as you knock off a week from the end of the visit, & Martha rather more from the beginning the thing is out of the question” (see letter 74-75, 3rd edition, pp 190-93).

[I remember visiting my mother one year and her playing tricks like this; oh yes she wanted to go to this museum but first we had to do this and then that and then it’s 4 o’clock, alas too late. I had seen her do that to my father and left for my own home the next day.]

The question is why Jane asked – why not just invite? Because Miss Sharp needed a way to come and she, Jane, needed permission to offer the space. How helpless against these obstacles this pair are; they cannot even experience the joy of a congenial friend ….

Still August 1811 (3 months later) – a throwaway line in Mary Lloyd’s pocketbook says Anne was staying in Chawton Cottage. Miss Sharp had secured a place with a Lady Pilkington and her four children, in a fancier rich house than Godmersham: Chevet Hall in Yorkshire. Anyway she is there with Jane at Chawton as S&S about to be published. M&S think Cassandra, Martha and Mrs Austen allowed Anne Sharp to come because this was a rise is status …

November 1813 Anne sends a letter of congratulation after publication of P&P published January 1813; and Austen writes: “I have more of such sweet flattery from Miss Sharpe! – she is an excellent kind friend.” (Letter 95, p 250, 3rd edition)

Spring 1814: MP was published May 1814, and M&S surmise Austen asks Anne to send an assessment of MP – there is no explanatory note beyond the BL ms, printed in Chapman, JA: Minor Works, as Opinions of MP, p 432. I can hear Austen’s voice as the one copying these out: “I think it excellent — & of its good sense & moral Tendency there can be no doubt. – Your characters are drawn to the Life – so very very natural & just – but as you beg me to be perfectly honest, I must confess I prefer P&P (p 434).

June 1814: Jane from London to Cassandra: how she wishes Anne’s employer’s brother in law, Sir Wm Pilkington would propose to Anne (Letter 102, p 265, 3rd edition)

June 1815, a year later: Anne “certainly” at Chawton cottage (from a typical word and note in LeFaye, Chronology, p 573)

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A copy of the first edition of Emma

February 1816 (Emma published May 1814) Anne receives her copy of Emma after December 1815 (LeFaye, Chronology, p 525) – she gave this book to two friends and they passed them down and so we have the book today. Anne paid to cover her copy with “just enough calfskin for the spines and corners.”

September 1816: surprisingly back-bitingcomment about Anne Sharp by Austen to Cassandra: JA has received “quite one of her letters” (Letter 145). JA is irritable with bad back pain, and Jane’s remarks about Anne follow upon describing Ms Perigord’s melancholy letter of Paris, and this tone suggests empathy also, though at the end Austen shows herself weary of this ever-looking-on-the-bright side and attributing goodness to people: Miss Sharpe is “obliged to exert herself – more than ever – in a more distressing harassed state — & has met with another excellent old Physician, & his Wife, with every virtue under heaven, who takes to her & cures her from pure Love & Benevolence … “ Anne might have relied too much on doctors, and Jane now needing one that didn’t exist as yet (who could help against her disease) has has enough of this kind of remark (p 321, 3rd edition).

Austen copies out “Opinions of Emma – this time the entries are much shorter. From Miss Sharp: “better than MP – but not so well as P&P – pleased with the heroine for her Originality, delighted with Mr K — & called Mrs Elton beyond praise – dissatisfied with Jane Fairfax” (Chapman, Minor Works, p 436)

May 22, 1817, the one letter we have from Jane to Anne, M&S, p 57 (Letter 159, pp 340-41) – not a candid letter say M&S; still it has that “Galigai de Concini forever remark …. And by the end Jane Austen is bidding adieu to this friend. From LeFaye’s note in Letters, p 572; letter went to South Parade, Yorkshire where there was a boarding school run by Miss Haugh. So Miss Sharp working as a teacher in a boarding school.

See text printed out and exegesis: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/austen-letter-159-to-anne-sharpe-thurs-22-may-1817-chawton-to-doncaster/


College Street, Winchester, where Jane was headed for, the last house she lived in, died there

28 July 1817, CEA NO 2, Cassandra’s grudging letter, p 346:

See text printed out and exegesis: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2014/07/20/cassandras-2nd-letter-on-janes-death-to-anne-sharp-mon-28-july-1817/

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August 1820 according to laconic note by Mary Austen, Anne visited Chawton cottage and Cassandra. LeFaye: she was still there in September when JEAL met her and mocked her as “horridly affected” but “most amusing.” LeFaye again presents theory about two Miss Sharps, one in Bath different from the one who visits …

By 1823 Anne Sharp has set up boarding school for girls 14-15, on Everton Terrace, high street in Liverpool; from the place one can see across to River Mersley to Birkenhead and beyond. Anne kept this up for 18 years, that is, until 1841 when she retired to York Terrace, Everton. An 1841 census said she employed three teachers, three servants, eleven girls in her school. So an independent woman!

1843: the year that Cassandra destroyed the majority of Austen’s letters she left a will and £30 to Anne Sharp, then aged 70

January 8 1853, Anne Sharp dies, buried in Everton churchyard (in a vault?).

In 1926 the first publication by Chapman in TLS of Austen’s letter to Anne Sharp (now No 159, 22 May 1817) to Anne Sharpe; and Cassandra’s brief to Anne Sharp (now CEA 2, 28 July 1817).

In response Times prints a letter from Mrs Creaghe-Howard of Ottery St May, who wrote: “she was very reticent about her early life before coming to Liverpool, and also made a mystery of her age.” Not a kind statement, casting an aspersion on a working woman who acknowledged no family

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There is a sort of mystery here, perhaps something deliberately hidden, never written down: how did Miss Sharpe become an educated woman. She had to have been to be hired at these expensive country house estates, and later in life run a boarding school herself. We basically know nothing beyond the minimum of birth, perhaps death of her mother shortly before she appears at Godmersham. No documents, no explanations written down.

Unlike for Martha Lloyd, I see no evidence for any kind of homoerotic relationship between Jane Austen and Anne Sharp. It may be they never had an intimate enough one-on-one relationship for a long enough time together. What I see from Austen’s tones to Anne and about her (except the one letter late in 1816) is a deeply congenial friendship. They were drawn to one another’s natures. Anne Sharp sympathized deeply with Austen as a writer as well as reader. It seem to me semi-tragic that the economic bases of their existence and Austen’s family prevented them from (or refused to help them achieve) a way of living nearer to one another and spending more of their existences together.

I am again drawn to Austen’s allusive comment to Miss Sharp about the court case. “Galigai de Concini for ever & ever.” Chapman says it’s a reference to a devastating story of a woman burned to death who asked what she had used on her mistress to “charm” her (the mistress was getting back at this poor woman), answered the power of strong souls over weak. I wish I knew the Voltaire contextual letter: he would be telling the story with sardonic irony perhaps. The full context is at least a story of court intrigue and a woman sacrificed as a scapegoat (see Marie de Medici, wikipedia). This was a kind of shared motto for these two women: the source is as revealing as the surface content. They seem themselves as strong-minded women. But here we have a strong-minded maid of honor at court burnt to death as a witch. Their strength may influences weakness, but with such strength they may garner envy and blame and be at high risk of destruction you are powerless to avoid or escape from. We must not press this dark conclusion too strongly; perhaps Austen meant only to refer to the power of strong minds; if so, unconsciously, writing swiftly and near death, she is undercutting the idea that strength of personality allows women to win out over others in life.

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