|A place adumbrated itself in
his thoughts, wherein those sacred personalities, which
are at once the reflex and the pattern of our nobler
phases of life, housed themselves; and this region in his
intellectual scheme all subsequent experience did but
tend still further to realise and define. Some ideal,
hieratic persons he would always need to occupy it and
keep a warmth there. And he could hardly understand those
who felt no such need at all, finding themselves quite
happy without such heavenly companionship, and sacred
double of their life, beside them.
I stand beside the gold-flamed pine-boles and look with hungry eyes against the light of a sun that never rose nor set.
Time, Place, Perspective
William Sharp was born in Scotland in 1855 and died in Sicily in 1905. Between those two points lie fifty years and perhaps a thousand miles, a brief span of earth and of life. Yet brevity is relative. To the men and women of Sharps time the distance between Scotland and Sicily, though it was a mere hint of the lengths Sharp traveled in his lifetime, was a significant one. To have been born in the Celtic north and to have embraced the Latin south, and to have found affinities with both such diverse racial and climatic characters, were facts impressive in themselves---then. Time has tended to make them less impressive. A shrinking world has weakened those geographical polarities to which Sharp responded so keenly and made many forget their significance.
What has happened to those fifty years is stranger still. A man who dies at fifty dies young. But the half-century that divides the high Victorian era into which Sharp was born from the dawn of the modern era upon which he last closed his eyes is long and tumultuous enough by historical standards for many lifetimes, and the changes in attitude it contains sometimes polar enough to defy reconciliation.
Alert and sensitive to the distances we now diminish, Sharp was equally alert and sensitive to the experience of those years we now find so complex. The great scope of his brief but varied career, a reflection of the scope of his times, gave him opportunity for a continual and conscious discovery of its opposites, tensions, and polarities. He bridged both geographical and psychological distances---bridged them, or painfully expressed their division in his art.
The oldest child in the teeming family of a provincial Scottish merchant, Sharp suffered early and deeply the disparity of values between his parents generation and his own that has since become the common sign of modern change. He felt an abiding sense of singularity: rejecting his family and his native Scotland, he turned toward an industrial and mercantile Europe, heaving in clumsy and thoughtless urban growth, and knew with ever-increasing poignancy the loneliness it mercilessly exacted as the price of art. Yet it was not a world altogether uncongenial. Through years in which he slowly gained uneasy fame as a popular writer and sought respect as a serious one, he was the object of the protective and absolute devotion of his wife Elizabeth, and the intimate of many artistic and literary circles in London, Paris, New York, Rome, and Edinburgh. But though he was notorious for his charm and good looks, though he was outgoing, willingly befriended, and apparently well fit for the life of the publishing careerist, Sharp remained always somewhat distant and elusive. Like the classic hero of a Thomas Mann novel, desperately protecting the vital center of his creative powers from the invasions of a bourgeois world, he represented in his life, and recreated through the secrecy of his female pseudonym Fiona Macleod, the very type---and since then the stereotype---of the modern artist. Under that pseudonym as well he expressed the sexual opposition he harbored within himself, again reflecting internally one of the most significant social tensions of his time.
The many-sidedness of Sharps era was in every way the mark of his career. He was a world traveler---one might even say a world wanderer, consummately stricken with the travel fever of his generation. As realist, aesthete, symbolist, and local colorist, he played the full range of roles offered by contemporary literary art. Both exploiter and victim of the most extraordinary publishing explosion in history during the London eighties and nineties, he spilled his creative energy into every kind of enterprise: art and literary criticism, travel writing, journalism, biography, poetry, drama, short stories, and novels.
A great deal about the life of that complex time might be learned from the study of William Sharp now, at the distance of yet another half-century and more of change. It revivifies the history, perhaps even clarifies the disordered spectacle of such an era, to find so much of it embodied in the life chronicle of a single man. Yet a truthful biography must be more than the history of an era writ small. Every man is singular: at least in that respect Sharp was right about himself. Unlike the broad, abstract portrait just sketched, a biography must convey a bios, a life, and has to display a process of growth, accretion, and change. It needs to understand causes; it needs to understand motives; it needs to understand how a man understood himself.
With William Sharp, unfortunately, a great deal of this understanding must be conjectural. Past efforts repeatedly hint of the same difficulty: there is something about William Sharp that nearly defies biography. Although time has thrown the experiences of social change in Sharps lifetime into jarring new perspectives, revealing much that was not known before, it has left the mysteries of Sharps internal life practically untouched, and thus, if anything, more mysterious than ever. There is nothing in the stuff of Sharps history alone guaranteed to make hard, realistic sense out of his illusion of a unique literary mission, nothing concrete to explain completely his eccentricity in choosing to write under the name of a woman, nothing positive with which to penetrate the mystery of his cryptic utterances about himself and everything he produced as Fiona Macleod. By now it may have become impossible to know with certainty what were the deeper experiences that formed him and led to the feminine bias of his major work, experiences that every literary biographer, in this day of psychoanalytic judgments, is under sentence to investigate---his relations with his family, with his wife, and with the woman who was the effective cause of his taking the name and literary personality of Fiona Macleod. Relatives of intimates may survive, but the intimates themselves are gone.
Perhaps, too, no one may ever know fully the extent to which Sharp was conscious of his own motives. His work is there and it remains the same work, regardless of whether it was produced by an illusionist convinced that a female spirit dwelt in him, a hypocrite exploiting public sensibility, or an artist quite above hypocrisy, consciously forging a literary tool. Whereas the pure critic, if he exists, may resist the lure of the intentional fallacy, the biographer-critic, who wishes to trace the relationship of man to work, cannot entirely substitute literary analysis for analysis of motive.
But the challenges on this side are more than equaled by the temptations on the other, temptations that have not often been resisted. The same Sharp "mysteries" that no document has yet fully unlocked have proven too fascinating to await the application of an analytic technology. Sharp is a novelists fantasy realized. He has readily lent himself to interpretation as a self-romanticizing madman, frenzied wanderer, religious cultist, and literary opportunist, half-missionary, half-charlatan; he has been obviously suspect as a transvestite, using his unusual sympathy with women as grounds for one of the most curious literary hoaxes of the nineteenth century. The effect of this perspective upon his reputation as an artist is clear. Even in this era of supposedly enlightened sympathy for the abnormal, such imaginative evaluations of Sharp have stalled any genuine appreciation. Now, having for more than sixty years suffered every exaggeration of the most eccentric aspects of his personality and the most dubious aspects of his work, he is a literary figure in utter disrepute.
The process by which this disintegration occurred is interesting in itself. In 1911 Richard Le Gallienne, though not attempting a literary appraisal as such, described Sharp in terms that inescapably reflected on the value of his literary production, attributing to him "a certain histrionism," and drawing attention, through a series of innuendoes, to the sensational nature of the female inspiration that motivated the Fiona Macleod writings.1 Again in 1913, on the crest of the first full wave of anti-romantic sentiment that has characterized until recently much of twentieth-century criticism, Paul Elmer More dismissed Sharp as an inheritor of what was weakest and most meretricious in Wordsworthian and Shelleyan romanticism.2 But his animadversions were not merely literary; they were permeated with invidious judgment of the man. " No doubt," he said of some early Sharp poetry illustrative of his persistent bent for rhapsodizing, "no doubt the youthful bard thought he was uttering some startling spiritual truth and, as is the way with youthful bards and their accomplices, cursed the world for its obstinate deafness. As a matter of fact, that sort of pantheistic reverie was exasperatingly easy then, and now; Wordsworth and Shelley and a little contempt for reason are the formula responsible for a stream of that kind that trickles clammily through the nineteenth century." The mystery exploited by Fiona Macleod is, he continued, the kind "which has pleased so many other romantic writers, and which has its roots in the rather naive desire to pose as the prophetic instrument of some vast renovation of ideas, when really the prophets mind, instead of labouring with ideas, is floating on a shoreless sea of reverie, and tossing with indistinguishable emotions."3 Others of Mores opprobrious phrases would be familiar to anyone who knew the modern anti-romantic tradition, whether or not he also knew the work of Fiona Macleod: "the fluttering of tired nerves," "meaningless rhetoric" "pure poetic convention."4
But the flood tide of the anti-romanticism represented by More, and by his fellow, Irving Babbitt, was still to come in the scholarship of his and the next generation. Writing in Modern Language Notes in 1918, Georgiana Goddard King thought she was exploding the value of Fiona Macleods work by throwing doubt upon its authenticity as pure Gaelic lore. She concluded that Sharps work under the pseudonym, passed off as genuinely Celtic, was "sheer pastiche."5 Some years after King, but not far behind her in spirit, came Dorothy Hoare, whose comments on Fiona Macleod appeared in a 1937 study of the use of saga literature by Morris and Yeats. Fiona Macleod, she says, rode into popularity on the coattails of the Irish movement. Her writing is "sentimental," her symbolism "dim," "almost meaningless."6 Later still, in a survey of minor writers of the later nineteenth century, Samuel Chew disposed of Willliam Sharp in a single sentence that summarized the views of previous critics: "His fame was due to the verse and prose published under the pseudonym Fiona Macleod which are in the most exaggerated manner of the Celtic Twilight school."7
Even men who had known Sharp, and who, as members of his generation had shared in its predilections and prejudices, suffered a reversal of feeling toward the era, and the men, they had survived.
Ernest Rhys is a particularly remarkable example. Like Le Gallienne, he had been Sharps friend and associate and---more---supporter of his causes. Such a cause was Fiona Macleod herself (apparently Rhys was not one of the sacred few admitted to knowledge of Sharps secret authorship). Rhys sang her praise in 1900, calling her an "incalculable writer," considering her work "vital and individual," "harmonious and natural," and designating the task she set herself "an errand of miracle."8 By 1931 he had thoroughly reconsidered his estimate. Sharp, he said in Everyman Remembers, "was one of those younger men much influenced by Addington Symonds, Pater, and Swinburne, not always for their own good." His works, Rhys claimed, "do not stand the hard test, and in the end fall into that limbo in which are hidden so many lost books of verse, so many romances that once delighted sentimental readers, and so many novels which had a months run before they dropped into the pit." As for Fiona Macleod, all sympathy was scuttled once the secret was out. She became "the master stroke of magic" of a "veritable literary chameleon," and her Gaelic paraphernalia was reduced to romantic camouflage."9
In a similar spirit, Arthur Waugh, in an article in the Spectator in 1936, thought it not improper to speak of a man whose colleague he had once been as a "dilettante," a "skillful euphuist." Fiona Macleod was for Waugh, in effect, no more than a lucky literary coup, to be understood in the terms used by Edmund Gosse to explain why he had never been fooled for a moment: "I have always understood that certain of the less saleable productions of William Sharp were being foisted on editors under the forged name of the Celtic siren. I think I have said so more than once."10
The one consistency these writers share is an evaluation of Sharp based almost exclusively on his work as Fiona Macleod. "The Celtic siren" has, in fact, stood as the single immovable obstacle to any just interpretation of Sharps literary career. Even those few writing in his praise have simply turned the same coin to the other side, finding admirable and inspiring precisely the same Fiona Macleod work that the tough-minded saw as sentimental and romantic camouflage. Thomas Rudmose-Browns encomiastic tribute of 1906 was nothing more than a tribute to Fiona Macleod and her dream visions.11 Sharps wife herself could not resist the same bias, when, in her Memoir (1910), while presenting an estimate of her husbands production more sympathetically divided between his two "personalities," she nevertheless felt it necessary to divide that estimate, and to treat Fiona Macleod as the culmination of Sharps literary power.12 And Sophia Fiechter, who published her intelligent essay in 1936, with all the supposed advantages of distance and impartiality, nonetheless concluded that Fiona Macleod was Sharp at his best---the best he could be, considering the tragically self-defeating division of his talents into what she agreed were two opposing streams.13
The clear fallacy in all these views is the use of the biographic fact of Sharps secretive pseudonym as almost the entire basis for literary judgment; the presumed split between the achievements of Sharp and the achievements of Fiona Macleod has been accepted as dogma. It is curious but true that, had Sharp left the real identity of the author of Fiona Macleods work a secret after his death, he could not have succeeded more thoroughly in having that work judged as an entirely distinct body. The price exacted for that death-bed revelation was high, as Sharp must have known it would be. His wife and friends were forced by it to endure both the sorry private jokes about his female proclivities and the ready public accusations of charlatanism. There is only one purpose for which he could have wanted them to pay such a price: to be judged by posterity as author of all his work.
It was not an extravagant demand. There is good reason to believe that he recognized, as no thorough student of his work can fail to recognize, the intimacy in point of genesis between the imagination that produced the work known as Sharps and that known as Fiona Macleods. This intimacy is everywhere evident, but was consciously fostered after 1897 or 1898. A survey of Fiona Macleods production from that point until Sharps death shows two revealing things: that nothing like her first rush of stories and poems between 1894 and 1896 was ever conceived again; that by 1898 Fiona Macleods capacity for imaginative production had been almost totally exhausted, and there was no work thereafter that adhered to the classic Macleod type---the bardic, visionary, or mystical treatment of life in the Celtic highlands or islands. Instead, the later production contained only one work that might be termed "visionary," and it was a traditional, almost Elizabethan allegory, "The Divine Adventure." Two Celtic plays, published in 1900, were no doubt conceived some time before, during an intensive period of dramatic writing. Everything else of significance is nonfiction---first-person relations of Celtic life and manners, "spiritual history," philosophizing on the Gaelic heritage, criticism, commentary on the connections of literature and race, studies," particularly of folklore and symbolism.
None of this bears the stamp of an imagination unique, distinct from Sharps as such. What in the end he seems to have protected behind the pseudonym was privacy, and not a special kind of inspiration. Differing only slightly in vocabulary and tone, the criticism was equally good under either name, and grounded in similar literary values. Probably Sharps best imaginative work from his last period was his novel Silence Farm, published in 1899 as his own and not as Fiona Macleods.
There is, then, no reason to speak of Sharps production as two distinct bodies of work. To do so has been all too easy for those in a position to pass judgment upon him, and in this respect Sharp has suffered at the hands of his friends no less than his enemies. But the enemies had the additional advantage already alluded to, a popular and critical taste that has shared a largely unsympathetic view of the "decadence" and artificiality of the literary developments of the later Victorian period, especially the nineties. Such generalizations are longlived; even attempts at objective assessment have run afoul of them and continue to do so. Reputable literary histories often still represent the artistic spirit of the last years of the nineteenth century as some combination of amusement, indifference, and cynicism, a muddy blur of "yellow" and "mauve." As undergraduate study aids, such broad characterizations may have their place. When they become automatic, as they have a way of doing, they merely help to make all the artistic intentions of the writers of this period suspect. Obviously Sharp would be the first to suffer from an attitude that looks upon his special form of imaginative fabrication as part of a pattern of deliberate fakery.
When More grudgingly redeemed his subjects allegedly hard-headed 14 "Sharp" side from the generally contemptible froth of Fiona Macleod, he was even then making a totally characteristic gesture, unjust not only to Sharp but to the mercurial and various spirit of the age that Sharp so brilliantly epitomized. The man was like the era---of such variety that to judge it by any single line of development is to misrepresent it. In this sense, at least, Elizabeth Sharps biography is tentatively fair, though disappointing: it does not recreate a whole man who organically unifies his own disparities.
But time, in the long run, saves rather than destroys. The era of genuine reevaluation and reinterpretation is upon us, and like the thinkers of the period to which Sharp belongs, we may perhaps now begin to grasp what we are not yet completely able to resolve, and to know what we may not yet completely understand.
On this score, a biography of Sharp has its own intrinsic apologetic. When a single man is as responsive as Sharp was to so many different streams of literary and philosophic thought and makes a compound of so many movements of mind, English and foreign, he provides a kind of existential logic for their unity. If nothing else unites the influences of Wordsworth, Shelley, Emerson, Whitman, Tennyson, Arnold, Ruskin, Swinburne, Morris, Hardy, Meredith, Yeats, Zola, Maeterlinck, DAnnunzio, and Verga, Sharp unites them. If his looseconnections with Pater, Swinburne, and Symonds justify his being classified as an "esthete," there is yet nothing amused, indifferent, or cynical, either about his personal ethics and his solemn passion for the relevance and social value of his art, or his strong sympathies with the activist proponents of the feminism and radicalism of his day.
It may be that we still have a warped view, or no real view at all, of the psychological and philosophical motives behind those movements classically identified as decadent. To consider some examples, research may well prove that the sexual freedom advanced by many of the so-called decadents was almost always accompanied by a social or a physiological rationale, and that it was constrained by an extremely demanding sense of the intimate psychological obligations created by human relationships, obligations which the writers thought were unrecognized or falsified in the canons of conventional reality.
The refined artistic sensibility of men and women of Sharps era, often criticized by social realists of their own time and after as too precious and out of touch with reality, was perhaps a transfer of a sense for precision and an awareness of nuance from the world of morals to the world of the imagination. The eclecticism of the era, in which its detractors see violations of the integrity of the artistic medium, may well represent an early version of the modern McLuhanites total experience. We may indeed borrow some insight from radical artistic theory in our own day, which declares that no single art form is sacrosanct.
Other critiques of the decadence, particularly that ill-defined aspect called the "twilight" because of its dependence on crepuscular vagueness and mystery, are hard on the allegedly "escapist" need for fantasy and myth. But deeply underlying the infatuation with myth and folklore among Sharps contemporaries was a real quest for knowledge, for a new understanding of the life and mentality of primitive cultures and of children. Besides, as Oscar Wildes playfully shocking "Decay of Lying" brings home, the art that realists found escapist only thinly disguised outraged censure of the values of an over-urbanized and over-mechanized civilization.
From the partisans of English rectitude comes still another thrust, an attack on the passion among later Victorians for things French and foreign, viewed as both eccentric and lewd. Yet, sympathetically considered, that same passion appears as a healthy reaction to the petulant anti-Gallic middle-class sentiment of their time. It was united in Sharp and other members of his generation, moreover, with a genuine philosophic commitment to the solidarity and union of mankind. To the charge of lubricity there is never really any answer, since the grounds of attack are constantly shifting. What was considered morally repulsive might have been then, as it is now, clinically sexual (and justifiable as social realism) or erotically fantastic (and justifiable as psychological truth). Some of Sharps depictions of childbirth and labor---his poem "Motherhood" and his one-act drama "The Birth of a Soul," for example---and his use of images or themes of nudity (Sospiri di Roma, "The Passion of Pére Hilarion") left him occasionally open to such charges. Fiona Macleod was generally more delicate and discreet, if not downright proper.
Attacks on Sharps morals ordinarily came after his death and from another quarter entirely. They were based on the revolutionary shift in taste that decreed the "artifice," "pastiche," and "vagueness" of his Celtic work a forfeit of artistic integrity. Fair judgment, however, must be grounded in the knowledge that Sharps Macleod tales, his prose poems, and his studies" were exercises in literary impressionism, a widespread late nineteenth-century experiment in conveying experience colored by memory and association. Such impressionism is no more artificial than any other artistic means of ordering the maelstrom of experiential data.
The same relativism can go farther. What our hardened generation calls "sentimentality," whether it appear in Sharp or in other more significant writers of his period, was an attempt to express a profound and sincere compassion and reverence for the poor and the weak, the detritus of a cruelly advancing industrial civilization. This is how Henry James read Pierre Loti at the time, how Sharp himself read Loti, Maeterlinck, Hardy, and Yeats---not as writers indulging the impulse to tears, but as gentle and loving men. It is how, if we were to acknowledge it, modern readers continue to respond to Proust and Joyce.
The fact is that every judgment we have made in sweeping condemnation of this era, whether it condemns a formally careless, an amoral literature, or apparently amoral or immoral men, is a judgment condemning the possibly naive but nonetheless often transcendent ideals of moral and social regeneration with which the later Victorians invested their art and their artists. Even Sharps kind of transvestism---a transvestism not of the flesh but of the imagination---was implicitly sanctioned by contemporary anthropological studies of prophetic and visionary types, and by the "new spirit" of humane, compassionate sexuality expressed in the writings of such men as Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis.
The trouble, of course, in dealing with Sharp and his era is that the present-day reader is confronting revisionary romanticism from the vantage point of even further revision. We are suspicious of the lines of development the same movement underwent before us. Sharp and his contemporaries were themselves inclined to call their romanticism "neo-romanticism," like everything else of significance in the nineties, " new." For a time it represented, in Sharps mind at least, a movement of reaction, a protest, defined in obedience to the Swinburne-Baudelaire formulae, against "Grundyism"---the prudish and prosaic. But implicit in this definition, and explicit later on, was the knowledge that a protest based merely on the rejection of sexual inhibition and moral convention was unsatisfactory and imprecise. What Sharp proved to be reacting to was something larger, more pervasive, something to which his work, in whatever genre, whatever style, under whatever name, opposed itself, by asserting the sanctity of nature, human or otherwise, and calling for the conservation of privacy, intuition, and personal values.
What most clamored for the sacrifices of these values in his time was a forcefully self-conscious national society, a configuration of moral and social prescriptions, surrounding him, surrounding everyone, and demanding conformity and service to a national purpose. As so often happens in the history of ideas, it is paradoxically possible to lay the blame for the creation of this powerful concept of nation on romanticism itself. One of the several revolutions for which romanticism had been responsible was the discovery that man was reflected in and indeed coextensive with his environment. Political circumstances in England may not necessarily have been themselves romantically motivated, but as they more and more gave a name and an identity to that environmerit, and a banner of empire to its purpose, the power that enables a great nation to turn everything in it to its use worked almost inexorably to mold the individual man, no matter how otherwise renegade, in the national image, and join him to the mystical body called Great Britain. Men are not forever capable of sustaining the anxious inspection of their own private values thrust upon them by the romantic upheaval. It was possible for the Victorian to cling to the "image" of his breed and upbringing, to a cluster of values, moral, social, and spiritual, provided by a secure if narrow conception of his national tradition. As Jane Austen put it in Emma, "It was a sweet view---sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English comfort, English culture, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive." However ironic in intention was Austens version of it, the "sweet view" was to become the quiet, unquestioned persuasion of several subsequent generations of Victorians. H. G. Wells, attempting in his Experiment in Autobiography to characterize what he considered his fairly standard schoolboy mind of the late seventies, supplied hard confirmation.
It was made a matter of general congratulation about me that I was English . . . a blond and blue-eyed Nordic, quite the best make of human being known . . . We English, by sheer native superiority, practically without trying, had possessed ourselves of an Empire on which the sun never set, and through the errors and infirmities of other races were being forced slowly but steadily and quite modestly---towards world dominion.
The educational process by which these truths had been inculcated was clear, as were its ultimate psychological effects:
I was taught no history but English History, which after some centuries of royal criminality, civil wars and wars in France, achieved the Reformation and blossomed out into the Empire; and I learnt hardly any geography but British geography. It was only from casual reading that I gathered that quite a number of things had happened and quite a number of interesting things existed outside the world of English affairs. But I looked at pictures of the Tai Mahal, the Colosseum and the Pyramids in very much the same spirit as I listened to stories about the Wonders of Animal Intelligence (beavers, bees, birds nests, breeding habits of the salmon, etc.). They did not shake my profound satisfaction with the self, the township, the county, the nation, the Empire and the outlook that was mine.15
Sharp may not have been a great man, but he was a recalcitrant one. He could not yield to this persuasion, and in reacting against it he guaranteed himself a wholeness that defied even his own inconsistencies. In this light, and this light only, can be understood his frenzied movements---from Scotland, to Australia, to the South Seas, to London, France, Italy, Germany, America, Africa, Greece, and back to Scotland again---and only thus can be understood his frenzied reduplication of pseudonyms and identities. He was in flight---in flight from the orthodoxies and convictions that a century of political expansion had given to the individual Englishman to secure his identity with the national fate and turn the romantics sense of dislocation, and his quest for identity, to excellent political use.
A rebellion against such disciplining of the personality is the implicit credo of the romantic faith. Nothing characterizes the romantic temperament if not its mobility, its "negative capability," the exercise of its renegade nature through projection into all the phenomena the external world---and beyond, if need be, into infinity---in a continual process of experiment. And even while temporarily lending itself to practical ends, that volatile element was still alive in the Victorians, surviving in what may be called the sense of place. The romantics had of course, discovered "place," that quality of personality possessed by certain configurations of permanent objects in space. Wordsworth had submitted to its influence. So had Byron, though differently. Scott had dramatized it and made it work in the very action of his novels. But the Victorians, who had been somewhat liberated from the anxiety which had been its original motive among the romantics, revelled in it at home or on their travels, and turned it into an active diversion. The world literally became their drawing-room, each place a gimcrack on the shelf, unique in its kind---"colorful," "beautiful" "sublime," "picturesque."
Possessed of the romantics temperamental mobility to an extraordinary degree, Sharp was especially well suited to act as a heightened reflector of the Victorian taste for place. But the taste itself was widespread. The fascination of Victorian popular literature with the foreign had grown by the end of the century to an obsession, and almost every serious writer was in some way touched by it. Anthony Trollope owed an essential part of his popularity to his travel writing. John Ruskin, for some time an arbiter of Victorian middle-class taste, both reflected and fostered the same tendency; our own era, nursed on travel literature, can easily miss the significance of his concern, so exquisitely expressed in his autobiography, with the places rather than the people that had the most profound effect upon his life. Another taste-setting Victorian, Robert Browning, used nationality and race as essential resources for the delineation of character. Particular landscapes and cityscapes too had an intrinsic ancillary function in his dramatic monologues. George Eliot tried Brownings Italian vein in prose with Romola, and her greater novels represent the sense of place in one of its best forms among the Victorians. Hers is no mere regionalism, but a deep sense for the efficacy of community in shaping peoples lives. Hardy, too, evokes a familiar English setting with a full awareness of its power, with him a fateful, symbolic power that the term pastoral, as applied to it, utterly falls to convey. "Place" did not have to be countryside or province either, as Dickenss London eminently well attests. Matthew Arnold exhibited another aspect of this tendency, the isolation and characterization of racial qualities, but even he was not averse to writing into his Essays in Criticism peculiarly evocative descriptions of places---Oxford, Pompeii, Assisi, the coast of Wales. In all of these writers, and in more, places became analogues for moral states and even metaphors for entire movements of civilization.
The growing sense of place had other ramifications, too, to which Sharp and other Victorians were susceptible. On the continent, where boundaries were more flexible than the coastline of the British Isles, the romantic impulse to provide places with character had functioned also in the opposite direction---to provide peoples with their proper geographical limits. The Europeans had begun early, and their literature on the influence of climate and region on art and character was already copious by the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. It was Mme. de Staël who had led the English to discover, with such delight and awe, their own national character, and it was through her, certainly, that cultural determinism was assisted on its way to England and influenced the thinking of the English on issues of nationalism. That famous Victorian byproduct, the fascination with Italy (eventually to play so important a part in Sharps career), was a result of this influence combined with the sense of place already described: it was a country where characteristic and compelling places had proliferated in semi-tropical abundance; and it was also a symbol of the national character discovering its homeland, its physical definition. The combination, however contradictory in practice, had an irresistible imaginative appeal.
This Zeitgeist worked a profound effect upon Sharp. That he was a Scotsman, bred in a peculiarly Scottish landscape, familiar with the highlands and the isles, was important, but not at first for the obvious reason that it would someday make him a Celtic writer. It was first important because it made him not English at a time when, to most of the English, to be English was to be everything. It was important because it delayed, temporarily at least, any confrontation with, and perhaps conformity to, the English national character in all its Victorian intensity. He was bred on the romantic fascination with nature---nature for itself, untitled and universal---and the romantic breadth of natural sympathy; he had traveled almost around the world before he was twenty-five. These experiences became his resources, and these made him a cosmopolitan before he was anything else. His psychological baggage was essentially a problem of identity that initially had no conscious connection with his nationality. But his ticket to a literary career was issued by a Victorian public pleading for someone to delight their sense of place, and in delighting theirs, he exaggerated his own. Places, nations, nationalities, were not mere physical pauses in his restless wanderings: each became a separate analogue for his various perceptions of his own personal identity. Each was systematically recreated in his work, and, by an organic principle of accretion and growth, adapted to his entire outlook. Fiona Macleod, the self-sufficient Celtic recluse who was the antithesis of her roaming creator, was no final resolution. She was merely one of a system of pauses and experiments, the whole of which represented an instinctive anti-nationalism, a convinced cosmopolitanism. This is why, though Fiona Macleod was so closely associated in the popular theories of literary history with a nationalist movement, Sharp spoke through her to reject emphatically any association with that movements strictly nationalist aspect.
Sharps union of cosmopolitanism with his problem of personal identity was no private eccentricity. Both were there, all around him---the cosmopolitanism a persistent and growing bias away from high Victorian nationalism; the problem of identity, even sexual identity, a growing malaise in the artistic mind. The connection between them is evident in the mask consciousness and symbolic nationalism of Yeats, in Stevensons Jekyll-Hyde doppelganger, in the taut strain between the poles of the civilized and the primitive in the work of Conrad, and in the American-European dialectic of Henry James. Like Sharp, they were "foreigners" all. Only slightly later, the same link between psychological and physical alienation became functional in James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, and, owing to the influence of the most important political event of this century, the First World War, even in such native-born Englishmen as E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence.
The nature of Sharps cosmopolitanism, then, and its evolution out of his problem of identity, can illuminate a period of transition in English literature that has long proven problematical and difficult to define. That is the underlying premise of what I hope will be a useful study of William Sharp, for it would be egregious to suggest that, despite the fine quality of some small portion of his work, he can be restored to anything resembling the reputation he had as Fiona Macleod in his own time. No one would now even wildly surmise, as some of his contemporaries did, that Fiona Macleod and William Butler Yeats were the same person. It would take a very fervent apologist to claim him a writer of vital importance and pardon his obvious shortcomings---the thinness, the occasional false heightening of mood, the flagging creative energy exhibited in so many of his narrative and lyrical efforts, and the failure of confident execution revealed repeatedly by slackness in vocabulary and style. Added to these is the mystery Sharp allowed to surround the genesis of his Fiona Macleod work. Increasingly tough-minded generations accustomed to scrutinizing the origin of every hyphen a poet puts to paper will with time find this mystery, with its suspicion of epicenism, only more unreasonable and irritating. What merely adds a certain luster to a great talent will blight and obscure a lesser one.
Yet there remains much that can and should be redeemed. There is a flagrant injustice in the superficial rendering of Sharps work and life that has cast him as the epitome of what men like Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt regarded as a disintegrating romantic ethos, the sum of all they found reprehensible in "emotional naturalism." In the half-century since Babbitt threw out his keenest challenge to the romantic vision in Rousseau and Romanticism, and More contributed his contemptuous sketch of William Sharp to The Drift of Romanticism, no fully adequate reply has been given either to the general or the particular charge that the romanticism of the nineteenth century began in potential degeneracy and ended in degeneracy realized. The reputation Sharp enjoyed in his lifetime might have declined in any case after his death, yet it never would have been so effectively obliterated had he not so easily provided a scapegoat upon whom anti-romantic critics might discharge much of their animus toward what they viewed as a literature without genuine moral life, a vision of flux without permanence, an ethic of sympathies without values and sensibility without restraint, a failure to arrive at any controlling "superrational perception" by which to order and interpret a response to nature.16
There is no better argument for reassessment of William Sharp than the fact that he provides so illustrative a case for the important historical reaction that such views represent. And there may be no better praise of him than to say that an authentic delineation of his life and work would be, in a real sense, a reply to that challenge, and perhaps the best way in which that reply might be delivered. As the contemporary of many striking but abused and puzzling men, Sharp provides, as lesser writers so often do, a focal point for contemporary influences and contemporary tendencies. And finally he suggests in his own strange unity---in-diversity what can now be seen only dimly---that there is a valuable, even admirable unity in the diversity of the greater men who surround him.