When Emily and I set up Something Rhymed, we were keen to find out whether Jane Austen enjoyed the support of a fellow writer. Perhaps she got to know Frances Burney or Maria Edgeworth, older authors whom we knew she admired. Sadly, we found no evidence of her meeting either of these novelists. But, in the pages of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Austen, we came across a fleeting reference to a rather more surprising literary friend: Anne Sharp, a governess employed by Austen’s brother, who penned plays in between teaching lessons.
Among the thousands of books about Britain’s favourite author, we felt sure that another biographer or academic would have delved deeper into the history of this unexpected relationship. After ploughing through every single book on Austen in Senate House Library, however, we discovered only a little more. Ever optimistic, we cast around for monographs, journal articles and papers delivered at the annual Austen society conferences. Again, we came across only a few more morsels of knowledge.
Finally, we consulted the surviving letters and diaries of Austen, her family and friends. We didn’t honestly expect to find much in these papers since most of them have already been scoured over by Austen experts. There surely couldn’t be anything new to say about a novelist on whom millions of pages had already been written.
But, much to our surprise, we found a cache of unpublished material that contains plenty of references to Sharp. And even the well-consulted documents reveal far more about this transgressive friendship than we could have predicted: a story full of rebellion and subterfuge.
Playing the part of literary detectives, we worked out that Austen’s family disapproved of the friendship between employer and employee. What’s more, we began to suspect that Austen had gone behind the backs of her relatives – putting her friend’s needs above their wishes.
We plan in the future to write in greater detail about this defining moment in their friendship, and our quest to uncover it. But here’s a potted history of our version of events:
Two years into her employment at Godmersham Park, Sharp began to receive unwanted advances from Austen’s brother. The governess risked divulging this information to her friend in the hope that Austen might put their bond above her sisterly loyalty.
Together, the women hatched a plan. Austen secretly wrote a reference for Sharp to help her get a job elsewhere. The governess told her employer that ill-health prevented her from continuing to work – a story that no one overtly questioned despite Sharp immediately taking up an equivalent post elsewhere. But Austen’s sister-in-law must have smelt something fishy since she later recruited an elderly widow to replace the young, attractive Sharp.
Despite the Austen family’s resistance, the friendship between the two writers endured. And Austen even managed to persuade her mother and sister to welcome Sharp into their home for extended visits. We were particularly taken by the community of women that Austen battled to create, because ever since setting up Something Rhymed we too have felt grateful to belong to a sisterhood of readers and writers – albeit online.
I must admit that, back when we set up this site, I was rather sceptical about whether friendships could really be forged in cyberspace. The warm sense of support and lively exchange we’ve enjoyed with so many of you from around the globe – people who were strangers just eighteen months ago – has caused me to rethink this assumption.
When Emily won the Lucy Cavendish Prize, for instance, one of the unexpected joys of her success was getting to share it with all of you. Neither of us could have realised just how much the online celebrations would deepen the joy we’d both felt at the awards ceremony. But perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that our site dedicated to friendship should have extended our own circle of friends.