First Years

Sharp’s early family life has not been exhaustively documented. Elizabeth Sharp’s Memoir (1910)1 and his own brief autobiographical sketch for Mainly About People in 1902, 2 remain the only authoritative sources, and neither his wife nor he saw fit to do more than provide a scant few of the facts of his childhood, as though providently aware of what a future generation might want to do with them.

He was born in Paisley, Scotland, on September 12, 1855 ("on a day," Elizabeth reminds us, "when the bells were ringing for the fall of Sebastopol"), the first child of Katherine Brook and David Galbraeth Sharp, both of substantial middle-class stock. Seven more children followed him, two sons and five daughters. Sharp’s wife recalls that "he believed himself to have been born under a lucky star."3

One impression emerges irresistibly from both Elizabeth’s casual chronicle and his own. The details they include all point to William as a child of unusual and distinctive traits, whose early life was marked by strange impressions in which his family did not share, and by events in which they participated only shadowily. The details they omit leave a near-vacuum where one would ordinarily expect to find a real and living family, with the inevitable human problems arising from the combination of two human parents with eight very human children. The omission seems remarkable. Being an eldest son surrounded by such a family is not something a child can be expected to ignore, or a man expected to forget. Yet forget he apparently did. All we learn of his sisters and brothers is from Mrs. Sharp’s Memoir. She and William were first cousins; they met when he was eight. "My impression of ‘Willie’ is vivid ... eager, active in his endless invention of games and occupations, and a veritable despot over his sisters in their play."4 He entertained them and his London cousins with stories, and teased and frightened them with his fantasies of nature. But of only one of his sisters do we hear any more thereafter---and then a good deal---thereafter his sister Mary, who became his secretary, entrusted with the important task of handling the correspondence of Fiona Macleod. His parents, too, receive slight treatment. David Sharp was "a partner in an old-established mercantile house,"5 says Elizabeth. William describes him as "a man of considerable means."6 Both agree that he had "a great love of the country, and especially of the West Higblands."7 It was on account of this love that the elder Sharp took a house in the country every summer, and it was through him that William was "initiated into the arts of swimming, rowing, and line fishing."8 Elizabeth adds that David Sharp was a "genial, observant man, humorous and a finished mimic,"9 implying perhaps that a flair for impersonation passed from father to son. William’s mother receives passing mention. While William tells nothing of her himself, Elizabeth describes her as having been brought up by her father "to read seriously and to take an interest in his favorite study of Geology. It was she," continues the Memoir, "who watched over her son’s work at college, and made facilities for him to follow his special pursuits at home."10

There would almost appear to have been a conspiracy between Sharp and his wife not to discuss his family at any length, beyond these simple, nearly impersonal, childhood recollections. Whether the close dependence on Mary during the Fiona Macleod period was the result of an intimacy that had survived childhood, or of a renewed association arising from convenience on his side and common sisterly loyalty on hers, is impossible to determine. There is simply no evidence either way, and Mary, as Elizabeth speaks of her, is no more than a disembodied handwriting. Sharp’s parents, of course, were important during his adolescence, when he was in the process of promoting, and they of thwarting, his natural inclinations toward an intellectual career. But even in their restraining roles, Elizabeth treats them rather evasively, her husband barely at all. She, for her part, seems to suggest that the obviously deep difference of temperament that divided William from his parents was something upon which it was unnecessary to dilate. She tells us, for example, that because of frail health William "was considered too delicate to be subjected to severe mental pressures; and he met with no encouragement from either parent in his wish to throw himself into the study of science or literature as a career." But there was, by implication, more Philistinism than philanthropy in their motives. "Such a course seemed to them to offer no prospects for his future."11

His parents’ motives were indeed an odd compound of severity and indulgence. Although they appear to have exerted pressure on him in the choice of a career, they also permitted him almost complete freedom in physical activity. He himself reports that the summers of his adolescence were filled with "boating, sailing, hill-climbing, wandering. From fifteen to eighteen," he writes, "I think I sailed up every loch, fjord, and inlet in the Western Highlands and Isles."12 It is possible, of course, to interpret this permissiveness as his parents’ device for exhausting William’s resistance to their control of his "future prospects." It did not. During the summer of 1874, when he was eighteen, he "took," as he says, "to the heather," joining a troupe of gypsies, and wandering all over the countryside with them for three rnonths.13 It is even possible that he intended this excursion somehow to be a permanent escape. Elizabeth speaks of the "truant" (the gentle epithet will be noted) having to be "recaptured," which he was only "after considerable trouble." 14

Brought to heel after this escapade, however, Sharp seems to have temporized with surrender. "At my parents’ urgent request," he says, "I not only resumed my classes at the University, but entered a lawyer’s office in Glasgow . . . to learn something of the law."15 How real was his acquiescence is perhaps indicated by an added parenthesis---"on very easy conditions, hardly suitable to a professional career." Whether the easy conditions were a shrewd arrangement devised by William himself, or merely another example of his parents’ ambivalence, is not made clear. At any rate, this is the last mention of the familial consequences of William’s behavior. His father’s sudden death very soon thereafter, in August 1876, removed paternal opposition to his hopes, and undoubtedly with that opposition much of the stuff of filial defiance. "Our home circumstances were altered," says Sharp quite simply, meaning, one would guess, in the financial sense. That the results of the loss were more profound may only be inferred. "About this time, too, partly from excessive overwork at college, my health gave way."16 He was precipitously sent to Australia to recuperate, but also to test his prospects elsewhere. He never completed his education at the University of Glasgow.

Sharp, for his part, does not offer any defense of his parents, but neither does he imply that there was anything especially inimical in their attitude toward him. His tone throughout his biographical sketch is whimsical and detached, as though nothing in these youthful duels with his father and mother had ever really touched him emotionally. Only his wife seems to have borne even the smallest grudge towards the wardens of William’s first years. Following his "recapture" after the gypsy episode, her narrative has it (couched as usual in the passive voice) that he "was put into a lawyer’s office, ostensibly to teach him business habits, but also the better to chain him to work, to the accepted conventions of life, and to remove him out of the way of the dangerous temptations offered by the freer College life with its long vacations."17 Had she forgotten the easy conditions of which her husband spoke? Perhaps. But it is rather probable that this fact was as irrelevant to her account of her husband’s development as emotion or resentment were to his, and for the very same reason. 

Their reason was, quite simply, that in the formation of the real William Sharp his family had hardly shared at all. "The three influences that taught him most in childhood were the wind, the woods, and the sea,"18 says Elizabeth with simple emphasis. Practically from his infancy, William took "delight in open-air life."19 He was inclined, like many imaginative children, to have fantasies of "presences" in nature, and in this view he was encouraged, not by his parents, but by a "Highland nurse," who filled his imagination with Gaelic folklore,20 and later by an old fisherman, Seumas Macleod, who seems to have been to him the embodiment of a kindly and fatherly nature god, and whose surname Sharp eventually selected for his pseudonym.21 His real playmates were not his sisters and brothers and cousins, but the "invisible" ones in the natural world around him. He thought, Elizabeth recalls, "that a belt of firs had a personality as individual as that of any human being, a sanctity not to be disturbed by sport or play." For awe of paternal authority he substituted awe of the universe. "There was some great power (he could not define the feeling to himself) behind the beauty he saw . . . that awoke in him a desire to belong to it." And he wrote later of trying to invoke that power: "I desired terror."22 In effect he was a spirit, not a child. What could a family have been to such a spirit but an encumbrance?

His family was, in fact, an encumbrance he tried with obstinate, almost pathetic frequency to shake off. The gypsy excursion was only the last and most serious of a long series of attempted escapes. He says that it must have been his "wandering" Scandinavian blood that first sent him off at the age of three, only to be found in the garden "a huddled little white heap at the foot of a great poplar."23 At the age of nine he ran away from boarding school three times.24

The mention of the "wandering" Scandinavian blood is significant, too, as part of the habit both Sharp and his wife had of defining his genealogy in racial rather than personal terms. Elizabeth’s account is particularly affected by the glamour of race. Infinitely more important than any of his mother’s maternal offices, for instance, was her Scandinavian descent, from which Sharp had allegedly derived his splendid blond looks as well as his desire to roam.25 And his father’s Celtic blood was apparently not diminished by the mercantilism of the man into whom it had flowed. It was characteristic of Elizabeth to find a friend’s description of William so memorable: "He was a Viking in build, a Scandinavian in cast of mind, a Celt in heart and spirit."26 Nearly everything in their accounts, in short, is designed to give William a unique and special benediction, to portray his family as a mere accident in the life of what should have been a free spirit. Were Sharp’s refractory responses to discipline evidence of a churlish and spoiled disposition? Not in the least. Elizabeth is positive: William "at all times hated the restrictions and limitations of conventional life."27 Sharp himself is only less shrill, equally positive: "By natural instinct," he says with delight in his youthful individualism, "I was ‘agin the Government.’ I remember the rapture with which I evaded a master’s pursuing grip."28 Did he ever regret the anxiety his disappearance "into the heather" had caused his parents? That adventure was, he conceded with mild sarcasm, "’a sad waste of time and opportunity’ (of course), but an enduring happiness for the rest of my life."29 These are no mere devices to avoid the expression of rancor. They are part of a deliberate effort to recreate out of the materials of Sharp’s early experience a child who has been given a special dispensation to do as he likes ---a child whose very weaknesses are marks of special blessing that only the profane can misinterpret. It is an attempt to suggest for him an existence that is almost biologically independent of his family. 

It must be said in Sharp’s defense that the treatment he himself gives to his childhood is not, like his wife’s, deliberately romantic in tone. But his restraint is not indicative of perspective, for his account, written in 1900, is that of a man who was already divided in his public image. The rhapsodic self represented by Fiona Macleod he kept as a thing apart, and none of the early visionary experiences is included in the article in Mainly About People, no doubt lest some Fleet Street detective make the connection Sharp was so determined to avoid. The restraint was all the easier because as Fiona Macleod he had already detailed the romantic episodes of his childhood, in a piece of veiled and fictionalized autobiography that had formed the prologue to a collection of twice-told Celtic tales for children, The Laughter of Peterkin (1895). There Peterkin is without doubt Sharp himself, liberated from perspective and restraint by the camouflage of pseudonymous authorship. He is a glamorous and special personality, his imagination filled with "Laughter, Wonder, and Delight," the beautiful fantasies with which he surrounds the natural world only vaguely understood by the uninitiated adults around bim.30 Peterkin has that same capacity Elizabeth had attributed to the young William for peopling the world with supernatural creatures. He does not disguise his feeling that he is more a member of the race whence they come than of the human race in which he actually lives.

Elizabeth, not surprisingly, readily avails herself of this material, and of another "autobiographical" essay by Fiona Macleod, "The Gaelic Heart." From the latter she takes the story, so often quoted by commentators sympathetic to Sharp as evidence of his peculiar visionary Powers, that he was once visited by a mysterious "lady of the woods," who gathered "blueness," like foam, out of the flowers.31 The manner of Elizabeth’s retelling asks the reader for more than a willing suspension of disbelief regarding these intimations of immortality. Though she tries to maintain a hold on reality with a well-placed aside about other imaginative and psychic children," it is clear that for her too his membership in another kind of race might have been actual. "He seemed to feel himself different from the other children of his age," she writes, "and would fly off alone to the hillside." He was precociously aware of his "special" character: "He realized that his playmates understood nothing of the confused memories of previous lives that haunted him. To his surprise he found they saw none of the denizens of the other worlds . . . so familiar to him . . . He found . . . that he had an inner life, a curious power of vision unshared by anyone about him; so that what he related was frequently discredited . . . He needed from time to time to get away alone.32

By what strange alchemy had Sharp’s memory and his wife’s observation been so transformed? He was, obviously, an imaginative child, clearly forced, as Elizabeth is well aware, to subdue his imaginative display and seal it off into a private, inner life. His frequent attempts at escape were the commonplace expressions of a child’s will to assert his fantasy, and not to sacrifice it to the disciplines of adult life. But this assertion did not diminish as he grew older. To leave home and join the gypsies was to cultivate the rift between him and his bourgeois Glasgow world. To become their "sun-brother" was only to flatter his conviction of uniqueness, an essential part of the "enduring happiness" he derived from the experience. The escapes of his youth were translated in later life into a pattern of evasion and flight. Like many artistic personalities, divided between public and private selves, he suffered the fantasy of imposture, and, consciously or otherwise, considered himself the son of other parents than his natural ones; but unlike most other artistic personalities, he nurtured his fantasy as he matured with notions derived from folklore and spiritualism, and gradually, relentlessly, drove an ever deeper and deeper wedge between his real origins and his imagined ones. The return to Glasgow University, presented as a concession to his parents’ will, was hardly that in effect. There he studied "literature, philosophy, poetry, mysticism, occultism, magic, mythology, folklore,"33 none of which was precisely designed to arouse paternal pride and favor. Indeed his wife says that "the immediate result" of this reading "was to turn him from the from of Presbyterian faith in which he had been brought up." What she does not say is that such was undoubtedly its subconscious design, for its even more important result was to give him "a sense of brotherhood with the acknowledged psychics and seers of other lands and other days."34

The exigencies of life, and indeed the attractions of normality, made real and complete flight impossible. But Sharp could take flight into imposture itself. It took time for him to give that imposture a permanent shape, but slowly he developed a secure and angerless faith in himself as an artistic prophet and deliverer to justify his resentment against his family. He became a changeling, with special gifts of communion with another world, content in the happy knowledge that only be knew the secret truth.

Remarkably, Sharp’s fantasy was not something in which he ever fully submerged himself. It was conditioned by reality, and expressed as the opposing, secret side of a dual existence. The "deliverer" was not the real, but the "other" self, to whom the "real" William Sharp, bound to the ties of this life, was a spectator. His life in London during the late seventies and eighties for a time held this duality in abeyance, and then began to have the reverse effect of exacerbating it. With the writing of "The Gipsy Christ" early in the nineties, the notion of the other, redeemer self reemerged with full force.35 By then, too, he was already well on the way to giving new form to his private dispensation in the figure of Fiona Macleod. In her work the Christ concept persists, appropriately transformed into a female Christ, a woman who would come in her turn to deliver the race.36 The same fantasy was otherwise expressed in the figure of the changeling, actual or believed, of which Oona in The Mountain Lovers (1895) is one example; and sometimes in the Fiona Macleod work a child or young poet undergoes a kind of ritual initiation into the "mysteries" at the hands of Christ or the apostles, or of some other divine creature momentarily assuming an earthly shape. The child himself is understood to be "special," independent of any normal worldly ties.37 But the changeling type could also be cast as the son or daughter of lost, unknown, or mysterious parentage, as is the case with Alan, in Fiona Macleod’s Green Fire (1896). Sometimes it was further sublimated into a figure of some spontaneous or parentless birth, a free spirit, born or reborn into an utterly independent existence, like Cathal of "The Annir-Choille" (1895), who takes his passage into "the green life."38 Although the changeling is mainly a conception of Fiona Macleod’s, it can be found also in transitional work like the impressionistic dramas published as Sharp’s in Vistas (1894): in one of these, "The Passion of Pére Hilarion," a young priest casts off his past along with his robes, and swims across the river to join the pagan spirits in timeless irresponsibility and joy. 

In William Sharp’s usually realistic fiction, most of it dating from the eighties, the same theme found its expression in circumstances similar to those used by Fiona Macleod in Green Fire. Lora Cameron’s mysterious parentage in The Sport of Chance (1887), and Sanpriel’s in The Children of To-morrow (1890), are illustrations, but so also is Margaret Gray’s in Silence Farm, published in 1899. These works serve, because of their greater realism, as further confirmations of the kind of alienation Sharp seems to have suffered from his family. The families in these novels, none of them, curiously, tested by moral conflict, are invariably broken---the Camerons by villainy and catastrophe, the Acostas in The Children of To-morrow by a fatal curse.

The significant exception to this melodramatic rule, and that an exception only in part, is Silence Farm. There the family is indeed unhappy---excruciatingly so---but only in this novel is family unhappiness explained in primarily psychological terms. It is perhaps not surprising that the Ruthven family consists only of father and son---at least until the end, when the girl whom the father has kept as his domestic is revealed as his unacknowledged illegitimate daughter. From the outset, the conflict between the generations is a deep, tense war of incompatible minds that finally erupts into a violent physical struggle. For a time father and son appear to be at war over the girl herself, whom the young Ruthven, in ignorance of the blood tie, wishes to marry, and whom the elder does not have the courage to admit is his own daughter. But the essential source of their trouble is an utter division in temperament and outlook. The son is a modern, a skeptic in religion, and a confused freethinker, if not freewheeler, in morals. The father, deeply tormented by his own guilt, has developed, as his only means of living with himself and his weakness, an implacably authoritarian and self-righteous Presbyterianism. The son at last sets distance between them, and goes off to America alone in permanent self-exile.

The parallels between the Ruthvens and the elder and younger Sharp are difficult to resist, except for one important fact: the younger Ruthven, as Sharp presents him, is cruelly self-willed, and an almost entirely unsympathetic character. It is the daughter instead who is intended to attract and engage our respect, and she does not run. She stays, endures, and, after her father’s death, sustains all the dignity left to the Ruthven name. Yet the apparent discrepancy here with Sharp’s own experience is no discrepancy at all. By the time of the completion of this novel, Sharp had already "become" Fiona Macleod, a woman, and not a woman merely, but a Scot, restored to all the native ties to which Sharp had, in effect, made himself an alien. It was "she," of course, that private, imaginative self of William Sharp, who was indeed the "illegitimate" child of Sharp’s father, betrayed, despised, and humiliated, but eventually transcending her suffering. The story thence becomes a fable, delineating the entire course of Sharp’s psychological life.

Another question this novel inevitably raises is one which it is impossible to omit from any discussion of the psychological roots of Sharp’s work in the experiences of his childhood. Was there anything in that experience by itself that might have urged him to identify the "illegitimate" part of his nature as female? Whatever the origins of this notion, it appears to have taken hold of him quite early. He was still in his twenties when he wrote to a close friend, "Don’t despise me when I say that in some things I am more a woman than a man."39 One probable source of this feeling is fairly obvious. His father’s stern authoritarianism was a quality of manhood which the rebellious and sensitive young William must early have found distasteful. But there was, on the feminine side, something perhaps even more compelling. A psychoanalyst has observed that we who have become accustomed to invisible and antiseptic childbirth may often forget that it was the rule until very recently for women to have their children at home, and the emotional impact this had on older children must have been immense.40 To say this was true in the case of William Sharp, the eldest of eight, is to be guilty of no exaggeration. Childbirth is one of the most obsessive preoccupations of his work, from beginning to end. The frail and sensitive boy, whose father encouraged him in every manly physical exercise and no doubt looked upon a literary career as smacking of the effete, may easily have repressed these impulses of sympathy for the suffering of women together with the secret visions of his inner life.

When those visions emerged, they emerged with a feminine cast upon them. The romantic dictum that the child is father of the man may well be considered proven by modern psychology. Sharp’s father died when Sharp was twenty, and thereafter the pressures that came from his family could not have been in any real sense binding. But psychologically Sharp had by that time already been made. As he grew older he still fought in his imagination the shadows of tyrannies his feelings had warred with as a child. Shelley, also profoundly sympathetic to women, became his poetic idol, and his fictional heroes became surrogates for his own victimization. They made an entire gallery of disinherited sons: Charles Cameron of The Sport of Chance, urged by his father to disappear after a mysterious and unexplained besmirching of the family name; Alan of Green Fire, an adopted son, sent away because he was unwanted; Jim Ruthven of Silence Farm, turned into a monster and deprived of his patrimony by a fiercely vengeful father. It is hardly a surprise to come upon an entry for about 1890 in Sharp’s fragmentary journals, where he speaks of someday writing a "blank verse tragedy a terrible modern instance of the scriptural warning as to the sins of the father ... an instance where the father himself shares the doom and agony."41 When Sharp left Scotland for Australia in 1876, he was already a moral exile. For him there was no place called home, and no roots he wished to acknowledge as his own, except the vaguest of ties with the gypsies, themselves a wandering and expatriated race, and along with these a dim sense of being bound by ichor if not by blood to another race which was not of this world. Clearly he did not consciously identify himself as a Scot---a member of the race of his father. His few Scottish intellectual connections were with the university, and were not markedly different from those any hopeful young man might have made in the search for guardianship and guidance. Even these were soon to be replaced in London by the exciting avant-garde of the Rossetti circle.

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