In Praise of the Spinster

When we decided on this month’s challenge, I knew straight away which of our profiled authors I would like to raise from the dead.

Even Jane Austen couldn’t sway me from beyond the grave, although it was a Wordsworth £1 classic edition of Emma that, as a young teenager, initiated me into the world of female authorship. I don’t need to conjure up Austen’s ghost to enjoy her dry humour, and her face – with which everyone in Britain will become intimately acquainted once the new £10 banknote is issued – was recorded for posterity by her sister Cassandra.

Creative Commons license.
Creative Commons license.

Although Austen’s family destroyed much of her correspondence, the writer with whom I would love to make contact is far more of an enigma: all her literary works have been lost and her portrait was likely never painted.

Anne Sharp, the amateur playwright so valued by Austen, has been silenced for centuries. The intelligent, spirited voice of this governess in the employment of the Austen family has survived only in snippets. But when she does speak up across the ages, for example in Austen’s records of Sharp’s feedback, her astute critical faculties make us sit up and take note: here was someone who read with sensitivity and, despite the mighty class divide, felt at liberty to express her thoughts.

Perhaps it was this outspokenness that led Austen’s nephew to describe Sharp as ‘horridly affected but rather amusing’ – a phrase that brings to mind a neighbour’s portrayal of Austen as the ‘silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly’.

Like Austen, Sharp never did wed although marriage would have been the surest path to financial security. Unsurprisingly, little was recorded of Sharp’s romantic history. But we do know that her famous friend turned down a proposal from a wealthy man, and engaged in at least two other romantic liaisons. Yet the pernicious myth persists that Austen was too plain to attract suitors.

I once dragged a new squeeze to see the original portrait of Austen during a first date at the National Portrait Gallery. We failed to find anything unattractive in her appearance and I couldn’t help but feel that her alleged plainness would never have caught on had she not remained single. Cassandra actually described Austen as ‘triumphing over the married women of her acquaintance, and rejoicing in her own freedom’ – an image that complicates the prevailing notion of her romantic suffering.

Talking about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp at this year's Ilkley Literature Festival
We talked about Jane Austen and Anne Sharp at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival

While Sharp’s single lifestyle would also have afforded her certain freedoms, it must have been a hard slog too – much more so than for Austen, whose only household responsibility was the preparation of tea and toast. After years of earning her crust as a governess for various wealthy families, she managed to set up her own boarding school in Everton. She spent the rest of her days in this area, living in York Terrace – a relatively prosperous street with views across the River Mersey to my hometown of Birkenhead.

I would love to learn from this working woman how she managed to do so well from such humble beginnings, and whether she ever considered giving up her independence and her toil for the perhaps easier option of marriage.

Perhaps my subconscious had been trying to tell me something when I dragged that poor date to view the painting of Austen: it was, in part, her independence that allowed her to pen those much-loved novels warning against ill-judged marriages. And it is her friend Anne Sharp – whose portrait I will never see – whose example reminds me that it was possible, even then, for a woman to make her way, ‘rejoicing in her own freedom’.

 

 

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