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William Sharp

The William Sharp 'Fiona Macleod' Archive

The Archive contains transcriptions of William Sharp's letters that have been made available to the editor by libraries and private collectors throughout the world.

The letters are interesting because of the wide range of people Sharp corresponded with and the topics he addressed. He was a close friend with many of the most important literary people of his age, among them Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Pater, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, and William Butler Yeats. He also corresponded with firms who published his books and with editors of magazines, journals, and newspapers for which he wrote articles and reviews. The letters will be of interest to individuals interested in literary and publishing activities in Great Britain and the United States in the 1880s and 1890s.

In 1894, William Sharp decided to publish a romance set in the western isles of Scotland under a female pseudonym, Fiona Macleod. He soon realized he would need to engage in correspondence from its supposed author in order to publish more works by Fiona Macleod while keeping his authorship secret. He enlisted his maiden sister, Mary Sharp, who lived with their mother in Edinburgh, to provide the Fiona Macleod handwriting. Sharp composed the letters and sent them to her to copy and mail from Edinburgh. Until his death in 1905, Sharp engaged in a double out-put of correspondence. This section includes letters Sharp wrote under both names.

The mechanism he devised to produce the Fiona Macleod letters contributed significantly to his ability to preserve for more than a decade the fiction that Fiona Macleod was a real woman. Claims that he was the real author emerged in print occasionally and were countered by pointing to the different handwriting. The letters were mailed always from one place while Sharp was constantly on the move. Sharp also moved Fiona Macleod about from place to place in order to preserve the secret, and it was convenient for her to send her letters to a friend in Edinburgh for posting.

The letters also gave Sharp the opportunity to create the person or, more accurately, the persona of Fiona Macleod. With great literary skill, he defined and entered the consciousness of a character and had that character project herself convincingly to her correspondents. She came through the letters as a  well-educated young woman steeped in Celtic lore. She was shy and reclusive, but also firm in her decisions, formal in manner, and resolved not to let herself be taken advantage of by publishers or diverted from her writing by newspaper reporters or suitors. She was also well-travelled, able to disappear on a yachting trip at a moments notice, because she had the good fortune to be married to a wealthy Scotsman who owned a yacht that could whisk her away to the western isles. She also had a sharp tongue which she exercised in correspondence when she thought her privacy or integrity endangered. She was particularly harsh in chastising anyone brash enough to suggest she had no existence except in the mind of William Sharp.

Fiona Macleod was William Sharp's most impressive literary 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. Yet it is in the letters that Sharp brought her into being. His ability to sustain the fiction that Fiona Macleod was a real human being was due, primarily, to his ability to project her in the letters as a woman who interacted easily with the people she wrote about and who genuinely cared about them and about the people she addressed in her letters. 

The Fiona Macleod letters are best approached as a body of literature which Sharp composed as a matter of necessity and because he enjoyed the process of creative deception. Cast in this light, the letters and the character who emerges through them constitute one of the most interesting and provocative literary productions of the 1890s in England.

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