Jane Austen’s Dearest Friendship with Miss Sharp Still Resonates Today

You would have held the memory of your friend Jane too in tender regret I am sure. – But the Providence of God has restored me – & may I be more fit to appear before him when I am summoned, than I sh’d have been now! – Sick or Well, beleive me ever your attached friend. J. Austen Letter to Anne Sharp, 22 May 1817

Image of three volumes first edition of Emma, presented to Ann SharpJaneites with deep pockets and warm hearts will be winging their way to London for the June 24th auction of a first edition of Emma being offered at Bonham’s Auction House. The rare three volume presentation copy of Jane Austen’s fourth and final novel to be published in her lifetime was a gift from the authoress to Anne Sharp, a dear friend and previous governess to her brother Edward Austen Knight’s daughter Fanny at Godmersham, Kent.

Bonham’s online catalogue description contains some interesting facts.

Jane Austen was allocated twelve presentation copies by the publisher John Murray. Of these, nine were sent to family members (including Jane herself), one to the librarian of the Prince Regent (to whom the work was dedicated), and one to Countess Morley, these last under obligation from the publisher. The present copy is the only one given to a personal friend, testament to the strength of Jane’s feelings for Anne.

First editions of Jane Austen’s novels can garner healthy prices. A November 2007 article in Antiquarian Books listed a recent sale of a three volume set of Sense and Sensibility by Bloomsbury Auctions in New York for $48,000.00. (1) Because the ‘Anne Sharp’ edition of Emma has unique provenance, and no known presentation copies of Emma have ever hit the market before, Bonham’s is anticipating a sale price between £50,000 to £70,000. This could be quite a windfall for its present UK owner who had the volumes shelved in their family library for three generations without a clue as to how their ancestors acquired them. One wonders what else they have loitering about, and why they chose this moment to dispose of them!

Illustration of Godmersham Park, Kent, England

Godmersham Park, Kent, home of the Edward Austen Knight family circa 1804

Anne Sharp served as governess to Fanny Knight (1793-1882) Jane Austen’s niece, at Godmersham from 1804 to 1806, resigning for health reasons. (2) She is mentioned fondly several times in Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra and in this wonderful passage from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen. 

None of Edward’s (Austen Knight) many in-laws and their neighbors seem to have become her (Jane) regular correspondent; instead, the closet friend she made in Kent was a Godmersham employee, the governess Anne Sharp. In Miss Sharp she found a truly compatible spirit. She was delicate in health, clever, keen on acting and quick enough with her pen to write a play for the children to perform; it was called Pride Punished or Innocence Rewarded, and was put on, although only to amuse the servants. And she was obliged to earn her bread by the only possible means, the hard labour of teaching. Jane took to her at once, and formed a lasting friendship with her; and although Anne Sharp left Godmersham in 1806, and worked mostly in the north of England afterwards, the two women kept up a regular correspondence.

Miss Sharp became “my dearest Anne”. In 1809, feeling rather “languid and solitary” a Godmersham, Jane could not help recalling a much more animated time when Miss Sharp had been present. Jane worried about her circumstances, and invited her to stay more than once; and she did manage to get her to Hampshire at least once, in the summer of 1815. She sent her copies of her books and cared for her opinion of them, some of which we know: Pride and Prejudice the favorite, Mansfield Park excellent, Emma somewhere between. Jane worried about her as she might about a sister. On one occasion she was concerned enough for her to express the desperate romantic wish that one of her employers, the widower Sir Wm. P. of Yorkshire, would fall in love with his children’s governess: “I do so want him to marry her! …. Oh! Sir Wm – Sir Wm – how I will love you, if you will love Miss Sharp!” Sir William, needless to say, did not oblige; neither he nor Miss Sharp were figures of romance, and it would take a later novelist to marry a working governess to her employer.

It was Jane, not anyone at Godmersham, who wrote to Miss Sharp to inform her when her erstwhile employer, Elizabeth Austen (wife of brother Edward), died. Jane wrote one of her last letters to her dearest Anne; and after Jane’s death, Cassandra felt it right to send Miss Sharp – as she still called her – a lock of her sister’s hair and a few mementoes. The modest nature of the gifts underlines the poverty and thrift all three women took for granted: one was a bodkin that had been in Jane’s sewing kit for twenty years. It was no doubt treasured for another thirty. Miss Sharp lived into the 1850’s…It seems that in Kent, Jane found a semblable and made her into one of her very close friends; someone who was neither rich nor particularly happy, but who was entirely congenial. What’s more, she was not shared with the family; she was entirely her own friend. That she was also a working woman who was later to set up and run her own boarding school in Doncaster suggests a good deal about what interested and attracted Jane Austen. 3

Tomalin has pulled together a fitting tribute to the memory of the two women’s lasting friendship. Austen’s concern for the welfare of her friend is admirable. I was amused by her emotionally charged wishes for her to find love and security, “Sir Wm – how I will love you, if you will love Miss Sharp!”. (4) In 1814, Miss Sharp was employed by the widow Lady Pilkington of Chevet Park, near Wakefield, Yorkshire as governess to her four daughters Eliza, Anne, Louisa and Catherine. Her husband Sir Thomas Pilkington (1773-1811) had recently died at the young age of 37 passing the baronetcy to his single younger brother William Pilkington (1775-1850). (5)

Steel engraving of Wakefield Cathedral, Yorkshire

Wakefield Cathedral, Yorkshire, Pilkington family chancelry tombs

Austen’s romantic wishes for her dear friend are quite lofty, and a bit implausible, considering the chasm in their social standing. William Pilkington would later marry heiress Mary Swinnerton in 1825, (6) bringing additional wealth and titles to the Pilkington estate, – and Miss Sharp would continue earning her own pewter in the governess trade. It is thought that Jane Austen drew from Miss Sharp’s experiences in the profession and included them in her novel Emma in the characters of Mrs. Weston and Jane Fairfax. Both of these two characters find love and marriage by the end of the novel, but that was not to be for Miss Sharp who never married, established a boarding school for girls in Everton near Liverpool, and died there in 1853. (7 & 8)

One of Jane Austen’s last letters before her death was written to Anne Sharp on 22 May 1817 from Chawton and is quite touching. She attempts to calm a friends concerns about her failing health and include her in her recovery.

Your kind Letter my dearest Anne found me in bed, for in spite of my hopes & promises when I wrote to you I have since been very ill indeed. An attack of my sad complaint seized me within a few days afterwards – the most severe I ever had – & coming upon me after weeks of indisposition, it reduced me very low. I have kept my bed since 13. of April, with only removals to a Sopha. Now, I am getting well again, & indeed have been gradually tho’ slowly recovering my strength for the last three weeks. I can sit up in my bed & employ myself, as I am proving to you at this present moment, & really am equal to being out of bed, but that the posture is thought good for me. How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness, is quite beyond me!  … I have so many alleviations & comforts to bless the Almighty for! – My head was always clear, & I had scarcely any pain; my cheif sufferings were from feverish nights, weakness and Languor… In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I has died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection, – You would have held the memory of your friend Jane too in tender regret I am sure. – But the Providence of God has restored me – & may I be more fit to appear before him when I am summoned, than I sh’d have been now! – Sick or Well, beleive me ever your attached friend. J. Austen

After Jane Austen’s death the following July, her sister Cassandra sent Miss Sharp a lock of Jane Austen’s hair and some small tokens as a memento of her dear friend whose memory would now have to sustain their relationship. It is not known what happened to Miss Sharp’s presentation copy of Emma after her death in 1853, or how it happened to reside in its present owner’s library, but the legacy of the lifelong friendship of these two single, smart and strong 19th-century women continues to resonate to us almost two hundred years later. Now that this unique memento of friendship has been re-discovered, let us hope that the new owner will share the copy with Austen’s admirers by exhibiting it in a prominent library or museum, and not in some millionaires vault.

Engraving of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, (1844)

Steel Engraving of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, Designed by Architect John Carr

Austen Fun Fact: The Chevet Park estate was purchased by the Pilkington family in 1753 and used it for hunting and fishing. Chevet Hall was designed by the prominent north England Architect John Carr (1723-1807), who also designed Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, which was used as Mr. Darcy’s manor Pemberley in the movie Pride and Prejudice (2005). In the 1800’s the Pilkington’s developed very profitable coal and lead mining on the estate which later generations would regret, causing mining subsidence under Chevet Hall which was sadly demolished in the 1960’s.

Sources

  1. Antiquarian Books: Issue No: 1815 (November 2007) pp 55
  2. Biographical Notes on Anne Sharp, Jane Austen’s Letters, Collected and Edited by Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford University Press (1997) 3rd edition pp 572-3
  3. Jane Austen, A Life, by Claire Tomalin, Alfred Knopf, New York (1997) pp136-7
  4. 23 June 1814 Letter to Cassandra, Jane Austen’s Letters, Collected and Edited by Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford University Press (1997) 3rd edition, pp 265
  5. A General and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire, by John Burke, Esq, 1832, pp 299-300
  6. Jane Austen: Obstinate Heart, by Valerie Grosvenor Myer, Arcade Publishing (1997) pp 19
  7. UK Census of 1851, Co of Lancashire, Parish of Everton, District 1o, Abode 124 York Terrace, Occupant Anne Sharp, Head of household, Unmarried, age 76, Occupation Fund holder & Annuet, Born London, England
  8. England and Wales Death Index, 1853, January – March quarter, Ann Sharp, Lancashire, West Derby District