On this day in 1814. . .
By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 23 2016 01:00PM
Fourteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.
Jane Austen’s circle of real friends seems to have been relatively small: her siblings -- especially her older sister, Cassandra -- and a handful of other intelligent, strong-minded daughters of the middle and gentry classes. Perhaps the most intriguing of the group was Anne Sharp, whose welfare Austen discusses in a letter she wrote to Cassandra exactly 202 years ago today (#102 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).
From 1804 to 1806, Le Faye’s notes tell us, Sharp worked for Austen’s older brother Edward at his Godmersham estate in Kent, serving as governess to Fanny, the oldest Austen niece. Sharp left that job because of ill-health but later worked as a governess, a lady’s companion and eventually the proprietress of a girls’ boarding school in Liverpool, before dying in 1853.
Some twenty-something clergy daughters might have turned up their noses at fraternizing with the help, but Jane Austen’s friendship with Sharp was clearly a close one. In 1816, Austen gave her one of the twelve presentation copies of the newly published Emma (in 2008, the inscribed first edition drew a whopping £180,000 at auction, setting a record for sales of Austen’s work), and eight weeks before her death, in one of the last letters she ever wrote (Le Faye’s #159), Austen addressed Sharp as “my dearest Anne.”
Cassandra clearly knew how much the relationship meant to both women: After Jane’s death, addressing her sister’s friend as “my dear Miss Sharp,” Cassandra complied with her request for a lock of Jane’s hair and added “a pair of clasps which she sometimes wore & a small bodkin which she has had in constant use for more than twenty years” (Le Faye’s CEA/2).
Three years earlier, Austen had just heard from Sharp, by then working as governess to the dowager Lady Pilkington’s four daughters. “Poor thing! She has been suffering indeed! But is now in a comparative state of comfort,” Jane reported to Cassandra. “She is at Sir W[illiam] P[ilkington]’s, in Yorkshire, with the Children, & there is no appearance of her quitting them.”
Thanks to the indefatigable sleuthing of AustenProse’s Laurel Ann Nattress, we know that Sir William, who had inherited the title upon the death of his older brother, was exactly Jane Austen’s age – thirty-eight or thirty-nine at the time of the letter. And apparently the novelist couldn’t help envisioning a scenario worthy of, well, a novel. Anne Sharp “writes highly of Sir Wm – I do so want him to marry her!” Austen told Cassandra. “Oh! Sir Wm--Sir Wm—how I will love you, if you will love Miss Sharp!”
Alas, this irresistible Jane Eyre scenario never came to pass. The intelligent, penniless governess continued to make her own way in the world, and predictably, the eligible Sir William, showing a distinct lack of imagination, went on to marry an heiress. Even novelists can't make real-life stories turn out the way they'd like.
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