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.
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.