George Eliot Fellowship

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We are grateful to Michael Harris for passing this essay by William Sharp to the Fellowship. It was first published by The Pall Mall Magazine in 1903 and was among the George Eliot papers of Michael’s wife Ruth who died earlier this year (2020). Ruth was a considerable expert on George Eliot and served on the Fellowship Council and as a Vice-President.

William Sharp was born in Paisley in 1855. He did not complete his degree at Glasgow University as he caught typhoid in 1872. He worked in a law office until ill health intervened in 1876 and he went to Australia, returning in 1878 to work in a London bank. He died in 1905 but during his life published 40 collections of poems and novels, and edited editions of poetry by Scott, Arnold, Swinburne and others, and worked with and argued with Yeats during the 1890s. He became a full time writer in 1891, having married his cousin Elizabeth Sharp in 1884.

He had an intense romantic attachment to another Scottish writer, Edith Wingate Rinder and it was to her that he attributed the inspiration for his writing as Fiona Macleod. Yeats found Macleod acceptable, but Sharp not, though he was one of few who fathomed the connection; it seems that the dual personality posed a considerable strain. When writing as Fiona Macleod to someone unaware of the dual identity he dictated the text to his sister, whose handwriting would then be passed off as Fiona’s manuscript. He does seem to have been a somewhat tortured soul though his loyal wife wrote a memoir after his death in Sicily in 1905 in which she attempted to explain the creative necessity behind his elaborate deception. She also published a collected edition of his works.

A year after The Pall Mall Magazine printed Sharp’s essay on George Eliot they published a handsome book of his essays, all relating to the geographical location of famous British writers, each illustrated to show the localities. Copies are available through the usual online sources for around £30.

Sharp’s confident style suggests that he is a man of letters, conversant with writer and their books from all over the world but his attitude suggests a superiority created through grandiloquent sweeping statements that reveal more about him than the writer under discussion. His comments on Romola, The Spanish Gypsy and Daniel Deronda will show what I mean. It suggests that he knows more than George Eliot which is not borne out by what he writes or the way he writes it. Nevertheless, an interesting example of its kind.