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The Life and Letters of William Sharp and “Fiona Macleod”. Volume 3

William Sharp
Fiona Macleod


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  • 1 This Introduction is a slightly revised version of the Introductions to Volumes 1 and 2 of The Life (...)

1William Sharp was born in Paisley, near Glasgow, in 1855. His father, a successful merchant, moved his family to Glasgow in 1867; his mother, Katherine Brooks, was the daughter of the Swedish Vice Consul in Glasgow. A talented, adventurous boy who read voraciously, he spent summers with his family in the Inner Hebrides where he developed a strong attachment to the land and the people. In the summer of 1863, his paternal aunt brought her children from London to vacation with their cousins. Months short of his eighth birthday, Sharp formed a bond with one of those cousins, Elizabeth Sharp, a bright girl who shared many of his enthusiasms. Their meeting led eventually to their engagement (in 1875) and their marriage (in 1884).

2After finishing school at the Glasgow Academy in 1871, Sharp studied literature for two years at Glasgow University, an experience that fed his desire to become a writer. Following his father’s sudden death in August 1876, he fell ill and sailed to Australia to recover his health and look for suitable work. Finding none, he enjoyed a warm and adventurous summer and returned in June 1877 to London where he spent several weeks with Elizabeth and her friends. A year later he settled in London and began to establish himself as a poet, journalist, and editor. Through Elizabeth’s contacts and those he made among writers, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he became by the end of the 1880s a well-established figure in the literary and intellectual life of the city. During this decade he published biographical studies of Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Robert Browning; three books of poetry; two novels; many articles and reviews; and several editions of other writers. None of those publications brought the recognition he sought. By 1890 he had accumulated enough money to reduce his editing and reviewing and devote more time to poetry and prose.

3 That autumn he and Elizabeth went to Heidelberg for several weeks and then to Italy for the winter. In January, Edith Wingate Rinder, a beautiful young woman and the wife of Frank Rinder, accompanied her cousin by marriage, Mona Caird, a close girlhood friend of Elizabeth, on a three-week visit to Rome. There Edith spent many hours exploring the city and surrounding area with Sharp, who fell deeply in love with her. Inspired by the joy he felt in her presence and the warmth and beauty of the country, Sharp wrote and printed privately in Italy a slim book of poems, Sospiri di Roma, that exceeded in quality those he had written previously.

4After returning to England in the spring of 1891 and under the influence of his continuing relationship with Edith, Sharp began writing a prose romance set in western Scotland. When he found a publisher (Frank Murray in Derby) for Pharais, A Romance of the Isles, he decided to issue it pseudonymously as the work of Fiona Macleod. In choosing a female pseudonym, Sharp signaled his belief that romance flowed from the repressed feminine side of his nature. The pseudonym also reflected the importance of Edith in the novel’s composition and substance. Their relationship is mirrored in the work’s depiction of a love affair doomed to failure. Finally, it disguised his authorship from London critics who, he feared, would not treat it seriously if it appeared as the work of the prosaic William Sharp.

5 Pharais changed the course of Sharp’s life. Along with The Mountain Lovers, another west of Scotland romance that followed in 1895, it attracted enthusiastic readers and favorable notices. When it became apparent that his fictional author had struck a sympathetic chord with the reading public and the books were bringing in money, Sharp proceeded to invent a life for Fiona Macleod and project her personality through her publications and letters. In letters signed William Sharp, he began promoting the writings of Fiona and adding touches to her character. He sometimes functioned as her agent. To some, he asserted she was his cousin, and he implied to a few intimate friends they were lovers. In molding the persona of Fiona Macleod and sustaining it for a decade, Sharp drew upon the three women he knew best: Elizabeth, his wife and first cousin; Edith Rinder, with whom he had developed a deep bond; and Elizabeth’s friend and Edith’s cousin, Mona Caird, a powerful and independent woman married to a wealthy Scottish Laird. He enlisted his sister Mary Sharp, who lived with their mother in Edinburgh, to provide the Fiona handwriting. His drafts of Fiona Macleod letters went to her for copying and mailing from Edinburgh.

6For a decade before his death in 1905, he conducted through his publications and correspondence a double literary life. As Fiona, he produced poems and stories which, in their romantic content, settings, characters, and mystical aura, reflected the spirit of the time, attracted a wide readership, and became the principal literary achievement of the Scottish Celtic Renaissance. As Sharp, he continued reviewing and editing and tried his hand at several novels. As Fiona’s chief advocate and protector, he deflected requests for interviews by insisting on her desire for privacy. If it became known that he was Fiona, critics would dismiss the writings as deceptive and inauthentic. Destroying the fiction of her being a real woman, moreover, would block his creativity and deprive him of needed income. So he persisted and maintained the double life until he died. He refused to disclose his authorship even to the Prime Minister of England in order to obtain a much-needed Civil List pension. The popular writings of Fiona Macleod may have obtained Parliament’s approval, but not those of the journeyman William Sharp.

7Sharp’s rugged good looks and exuberant manner obscured the fact that he had been ill since childhood. Scarlet fever in his youth and rheumatic fever as a young man damaged his heart. In his forties, diabetes set in, and attacks increased in frequency and seriousness. Given his declining health after the turn of the century, though interrupted by occasional bursts of exuberant creativity, his death in December 1905 was not a surprise to his family and close friends. It occurred while he and Elizabeth were staying with Alexander Nelson Hood, the Duke of Bronte, at his Castello Maniace on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. Sharp is buried there in the estate’s Protestant Cemetery, where a large Celtic cross marks his grave.

Structure of the Volume


8The introductions to each chapter constitute a chronological biography that draws upon the letters and places them in context. The focus is on Sharp’s life; his writings are discussed only as they shed light on his daily comings and goings, his beliefs, his values, and his physical and mental condition. The letters reveal more than has previously been known about William Sharp, and he emerges from them as a unique individual who was talented, ambitious, determined to succeed as a writer, and aware of his shortcomings. He was immersed in the crosscurrents of ideas and in the artistic and social movements of the last two decades of the nineteenth century in Great Britain and continental Europe. He participated in spiritualist efforts to affirm the existence of some form of life after death, and he embraced new ideas about the place of women in society, the constraints of marriage, the fluidity of gender identity, and the complexity of the human psyche. Those issues and many others are addressed in his letters and, often indirectly, in his writings. The Life sections of Life and Letters are not a comprehensive biography, but they are intended to provide, with the letters, the basis for more comprehensive studies of his life and work. They may also be of interest to scholars studying other individuals of the period and the issues in which they were involved.


9Most of the letters transcribed, dated, and annotated were made available to the editor by libraries and private collectors throughout the world. They are of interest for what they reveal about Sharp, his correspondents, and the topics he addressed. He knew and corresponded with many influential writers, among them Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Pater, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, and William Butler Yeats. He wrote extensively as William Sharp and as Fiona Macleod to the firms that published his books and to the editors of magazines, journals, and newspapers for which he wrote essays and reviews. Individuals interested in literary and publishing activities in Great Britain and the United States in the 1880s and 1890s may find the letters useful.

10The Fiona Macleod letters contributed significantly to Sharp’s ability to maintain the fiction of her independent identity. When claims that he was the author emerged in print, he countered by pointing to the different handwriting. He also used the letters to move Fiona from place to place to avoid meetings with avid readers and skeptical journalists. Given her constant travels, it was convenient for her letters to be sent from and received at the address of a good friend she often visited in Edinburgh. It was the address of Sharp’s mother and his sister Mary, who supplied the handwriting for Fiona and who was always on guard against visitors seeking her.

11Sharp also used the letters to create and mold the person or, more accurately, the persona of Fiona Macleod. Exercising his imagination and literary skills, he entered the consciousness of an imaginary woman and projected her convincingly to her correspondents. She was well-educated and steeped in Celtic lore. She was well-traveled and well-fixed. She had the good fortune to be sometimes the daughter and other times the wife — there were inconsistencies — of a wealthy Scotsman who owned a yacht that could whisk her away on a moment’s notice to the western isles, Iceland, or Scandinavia. She was shy and reclusive, but also firm in her decisions, formal in her manner, and resolved not to let herself be taken advantage of by publishers or diverted from her writing by newspaper reporters or suitors. She also had a sharp tongue which she exercised in correspondence when her privacy or integrity was in danger. She was particularly harsh in chastising those brash enough to suggest she was William Sharp.

12The poems and stories Sharp published as Fiona Macleod exceed in quality and popularity those he wrote as William Sharp, but Fiona Macleod herself was his most impressive achievement. Her personality emerges in many stories that describe the people she met and the places she visited, and in dedications and prefatory notes in her books, but it is in the letters that Sharp brought her fully into being. Speaking directly as Fiona, he crafted her distinct personality. Initially a lark, she became a financial necessity. Enjoying the deception, he soon became entranced by the woman he was creating. He continued to embellish his creation to the point he could claim and sometimes believe she was a separate person inhabiting his body. His fictional creation became the perfect means for expressing a strand of his being that had its origin in his childhood summers in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Cast in this light, the character who emerges in the Fiona letters and other writings is one of the most compelling and provocative literary creations of the 1890s.


13The letters are divided chronologically into Chapters, and each Chapter begins with a biographical introduction. The letters have a uniform format:

Line one contains the name of the recipient and the date of composition. For undated letters, a date derived from a postmark, internal evidence, or context provided by other letters is placed in brackets. A question mark precedes questionable dates as [January ?12, 1892].

Line two states the place where the letter was written or from which it was mailed. Vertical marks denote line divisions in the original.

Line three contains the salutation if one exists.

Lines four and following contain the body of the letter with Sharp’s paragraphing preserved where it can be determined.

Following the body, a single line contains the complimentary close and signature separated by a vertical mark if the close and signature are separate lines in the original.

If the original contains postscripts, they follow the signature.

14The form of the original manuscript and its location follow each letter in a separate line at lower left. When a letter has been transcribed from a printed source, that source is indicated. Most letters have been transcribed from the manuscripts or photocopies of the manuscripts provided by institutions and individuals. Their locations are identified, but any previous printings, with a few exceptions, are not identified.

15Obvious errors of spelling are silently corrected. Errors of punctuation and grammar are corrected only when necessary to attain clarity of the author’s presumed intention. Notes on margins marked as inserts are placed within the body of the text at the point of intended insertion. Postscripts on margins follow the main body and signature. Every effort has been made to attain a balance between authenticity and readability. Sharp and his sister Mary sometimes omitted the comma after the salutation, and that inconsistency has been preserved in transcribing the letters.

16The notes explain or clarify references. Given the multitude of people, places, literary and artistic works, and events mentioned in the letters, the process of annotation required editorial judgment about what is too much and what is not enough.


17These abbreviations describe the form of the original letter:


1 This Introduction is a slightly revised version of the Introductions to Volumes 1 and 2 of The Life and Letters.


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