Celebrating Each Other’s Successes

NotebooksUnlike Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, or Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, there was a huge disparity in the worldly successes of this month’s featured writers.

Although Anne Sharp wrote plays for her students to perform, and was able to use her sharp critiquing skills to give Jane Austen advice on her work, she has gone down in history as little more than a footnote in the life story of her illustrious friend.

We cannot know whether Sharp ever felt envious of Austen’s achievements, and the fact that her work had the chance to reach an audience far wider than her immediate social circle. Neither would we go as far as speculating that she could have been another Austen-in-the-making if life had dealt her a different hand of cards.

It is interesting to wonder, though, whether the governess might have attempted to pursue any similar ambitions if her family and financial circumstances had been different.

What we do know is that, despite their contrasting levels of commercial success, each woman rated the other. Sharp celebrated the publication of Austen’s novels along with her, but was also ready to tell her friend when she felt there was a flaw in the work – advice that Austen appears to have highly valued.

It’s nice to imagine that her decision to rename her novel First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice was her way of acknowledging in print the crucial support she’d received from Sharp.

It’s a notion that might mean something to last week’s guest bloggers. Antonia Honeywell and Rachel Connor discussed the pride they take, not just in each other’s creative output, but their long-running writing friendship too.

Antonia’s comment on the publication of Rachel’s first novel (ahead of her own book deal with Weidenfeld and Nicholson) was one that really struck home with us. ‘It felt like a great triumph not only for Rachel,’ she recalled, ‘but for the dedication with which we both carved out the time for our regular exchanges of work.’

As we’ve mentioned before on Something Rhymed, our own career trajectories have gone along roughly in tandem so far, but there is bound to be a point when – if only temporarily – one of us will accelerate past the other.

When that happens, we hope we can learn from the example of Antonia and Rachel, and Austen and Sharp too – that we will be able to enjoy this joint success for our writing friendship, rather than focusing on any perceived gulf that divides us as individuals.

Other news

We’re currently enjoying the BBC Radio 4 series Five Hundred Years of Friendship – episodes available to listen to on-line.

We’ll be moving on to the next profiled writers on Tuesday. We were advised to look into the friendship of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby by many of our readers, so we particularly look forward to sharing what we’ve discovered about them.

We’re still actively researching female writer pals, so do keep letting us know, by leaving a reply or Tweeting one of us, if there is any particular friendship you’d like to see profiled.

Jane Austen and Anne Sharp

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The presentation copies of Emma that Jane Austen sent to Anne Sharp (image used with kind permission from Bonhams)

When we realised that we knew all about the great male literary friendships but little of their female counterparts, we both immediately wondered whether Jane Austen had a writer friend. But since so little is known of her life, we weren’t confident of discovering much.

However, after a bit of sleuthing, we found out that Austen did have ‘an excellent kind friend’. What’s more, this support came from an unexpected source: her niece’s governess, Anne Sharp.

This name will be familiar to those of you who’ve been following Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama, The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen. You might not be aware, however, that Sharp was herself a writer.

Austen was attracted to Sharp’s keen intelligence and wit, combined with independence of spirit – sensibilities that transcended class lines. But Sharp lived an even more financially precarious existence than Austen – something Austen worried about on her friend’s behalf. Rehearsing the match-making role of her heroine, Emma, she dreamt that Sharp might marry a wealthy employer.

Like Austen, though, Sharp never did wed. The demands of fulltime teaching prevented her from pursuing writing professionally. However, she did get to flex her literary muscles by writing plays for her pupils to perform. Austen herself likely acted in one such play (interestingly, cast in the role of governess), and Sharp was known to pen male roles for herself.

Fascinatingly, one of her theatricals was entitled Pride Punished or Innocence Rewarded. Several years later, Austen decided to change the title of one of her novels from First Impressions to Pride and Prejudice, and it’s hard to imagine that she hadn’t been influenced by the work of her friend.

She certainly valued Sharp’s critical faculties, electing her as the only friend to whom she sent one of her precious presentation copies of Emma. The candour with which Sharp answered her request for a critique shows the level of trust between these two writer friends. Sharp pointed out a flaw in one of the sub-plots, ultimately rating this latest novel somewhere between Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park.

After Austen’s early death, her sister sent Sharp a lock of Austen’s hair, a pair of clasps, and a small bodkin as mementoes – mementoes of a radical friendship that refused to be bound by the constraints of class, or to be defined by divisions between the professional and the amateur; mementoes of an influential literary alliance, yet one that has been all but forgotten.

Activity

This month, we’re going to send each other a trinket accompanied by a note that explains why it should stand as a memento of our friendship. Like the gifts that Anne Sharp cherished, something as small as a hairclip or needle might be all it takes to bring back memories.

As usual, please also share with us any more female writing friendships that you’ve discovered.