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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Mystery Of "fiona Macleod"

Title:     The Mystery Of "fiona Macleod"
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]


[1]_William Sharp (Fiona Macleod)_. A Memoir, compiled by his wife, Elizabeth A. Sharp. (Duffield & Co.) _The Writings of Fiona Macleod_. Uniform edition. Arranged by Mrs. William Sharp. (Duffield & Co.)

In the fascinating memoir of her husband, which Mrs. William Sharp has written with so much dignity and tact, and general biographic skill, she dwells with particular fondness of recollection on the two years of their life at Phenice Croft, a charming cottage they had taken in the summer of 1892 at Rudgwick in Sussex, seven miles from Horsham, the birthplace of Shelley. Still fresh in my memory is a delightful visit I paid them there, and I was soon afterwards to recall with special significance a conversation I had with Mrs. Sharp, as four of us walked out one evening after dinner in a somewhat melancholy twilight, the glow-worms here and there trimming their ghostly lamps by the wayside, and the nightjar churring its hoarse lovesong somewhere in the thickening dusk.

"Will," Mrs. Sharp confided to me, was soon to have a surprise for his friends in a fuller and truer expression of himself than his work had so far attained, but the nature of that expression Mrs. Sharp did not confide--more than to hint that there were powers and qualities in her husband's make-up that had hitherto lain dormant, or had, at all events, been but little drawn upon.

Mrs. Sharp was thus vaguely hinting at the future "Fiona Macleod," for it was at Rudgwick, we learn, that that so long mysterious literary entity sprang into imaginative being with _Pharais_. _Pharais_ was published in 1894, and I remember that early copies of it came simultaneously to myself and Grant Allen, with whom I was then staying, and how we were both somewhat _intrigue_ by a certain air of mystery which seemed to attach to the little volume. We were both intimate friends of William Sharp, but I was better acquainted with Sharp's earlier poetry than Grant Allen, and it was my detection in _Pharais_ of one or two subtly observed natural images, the use of which had previously struck me in one of his _Romantic Ballads and Poems of Phantasy_, that brought to my mind in a flash of understanding that Rudgwick conversation with Mrs. Sharp, and thus made me doubly certain that "Fiona Macleod" and William Sharp were one, if not the same. Conceiving no reason for secrecy, and only too happy to find that my friend had fulfilled his wife's prophecy by such fuller and finer expression of himself, I stated my belief as to its authorship in a review I wrote for the London _Star_. My review brought me an urgent telegram from Sharp, begging me, for God's sake, to shut my mouth--or words to that effect. Needless to say, I did my best to atone for having thus put my foot in it, by a subsequent severe silence till now unbroken; though I was often hard driven by curious inquirers to preserve the secret which my friend afterwards confided to me.

When I say "confided to me," I must add that in the many confidences William Sharp made to me on the matter, I was always aware of a reserve of fanciful mystification, and I am by no means sure, even now, that I, or any of us--with the possible exception of Mrs. Sharp--know the whole truth about "Fiona Macleod." Indeed it is clear from Mrs. Sharp's interesting revelations of her husband's temperament that "the whole truth" could hardly be known even to William Sharp himself; for, very evidently in "Fiona Macleod" we have to deal not merely with a literary mystification, but with a psychological mystery. Here it is pertinent to quote the message written to be delivered to certain of his friends after his death: "This will reach you," he says, "after my death. You will think I have wholly deceived you about Fiona Macleod. But, in an intimate sense this is not so, though (and inevitably) in certain details I have misled you. Only, it is a mystery. I cannot explain. Perhaps you will intuitively understand or may come to understand. 'The rest is silence.' Farewell. WILLIAM SHARP."

"It is only right, however, to add that I, and I only, was the author--in the literal and literary sense--of all written under the name of 'Fiona Macleod.'"

"Only, it is a mystery. I cannot explain." Does "I cannot explain" mean "I must not explain," or merely just what it says? I am inclined to think it means both; but, if so, the "must not" would refer to the purely personal mystification on which, of course, none would desire to intrude, and the "cannot" would refer to that psychological mystery which we are at liberty to investigate.

William Sharp's explanation to myself--as I believe to others of his friends--was to the same tenor as this posthumous statement. He and he only had actually _written_ the "Fiona Macleod" fantasies and poems, but--yes! there was a real "Fiona Macleod" as well. She was a beautiful cousin of his, living much in solitude and dreams, and seldom visiting cities. Between her and him there was a singular spiritual kinship, which by some inexplicable process, so to say, of psychic collaboration, had resulted in the writings to which he had given her name. They were hers as well as his, his as well as hers. Several times he even went so far as to say that Miss Macleod was contemplating a visit to London, but that her visit was to be kept a profound secret, and that he intended introducing her to three of his friends and no more--George Meredith, W.B. Yeats, and myself. Probably he made the same mock-confidence to other friends, as a part of his general scheme of mystification. On one occasion, when I was sitting with him in his study, he pointed to the framed portrait of a beautiful woman which stood on top of a revolving book-case, and said "That is Fiona!" I affected belief, but, rightly or wrongly, it was my strong impression that the portrait thus labelled was that of a well-known Irish lady prominently identified with Home Rule politics, and I smiled to myself at the audacious white lie. Mrs. Sharp, whose remembrance of her husband goes back to "a merry, mischievous little boy in his eighth year, with light-brown curly hair, blue-grey eyes, and a laughing face, and dressed in a tweed kilt," tells us that this "love not only of mystery for its own sake, but of mystification also," was a marked characteristic of his nature--a characteristic developed even in childhood by the necessity he always felt of hiding away from his companions that visionary side of his life which was almost painfully vivid with him, and the sacredness of which in late years he felt compelled to screen under his pseudonym.

That William Sharp's affirmation of an actual living and breathing "Fiona Macleod" was, however, virtually true is confided by this significant and illuminating passage in Mrs. Sharp's biography. Mrs. Sharp is speaking of a sojourn together in Rome during the spring of 1891, in which her husband had experienced an unusual exaltation and exuberance of vital and creative energy.

There, at last [she says], he had found the desired incentive towards a true expression of himself, in the stimulus and sympathetic understanding of the friend to whom he dedicated the first of the books published under his pseudonym. This friendship began in Rome and lasted throughout the remainder of his life. And though this new phase of his work was at no time the result of collaboration, as certain of his critics have suggested, he was deeply conscious of his indebtedness to this friend, for--as he stated to me in a letter of instructions, written before he went to America in 1896, concerning his wishes in the event of his death--he realized that it was "to her I owe my development as 'Fiona Macleod,' though in a sense of course that began long before I knew her, and indeed while I was still a child," and that, as he believed, "without her there would have been no 'Fiona Macleod.'" Because of her beauty, her strong sense of life and of the joy of life; because of her keen intuitions and mental alertness, her personality stood for him as a symbol of the heroic women of Greek and Celtic days, a symbol that, as he expressed it, unlocked new doors in his mind and put him "in touch with ancestral memories" of his race. So, for a time, he stilled the critical, intellectual mood of William Sharp, to give play to the development of this new-found expression of subtle emotions, towards which he had been moving with all the ardour of his nature.

From this statement of Mrs. Sharp one naturally turns to the dedication of _Pharais_ to which she refers, finding a dedicatory letter to "E.W.R." dealing for the most part with "Celtic" matters, but containing these more personal passages:

Dear friend [the letter begins], while you gratify me by your pleasure in this inscription, you modestly deprecate the dedication to you of this study of alien life--of that unfamiliar island-life so alien in all ways from the life of cities, and, let me add, from that of the great mass of the nation to which, in the communal sense, we both belong. But in the Domhan-Toir of friendship there are resting-places where all barriers of race, training, and circumstances fall away in dust. At one of these places we met, a long while ago, and found that we loved the same things, and in the same way.

The letter ends with this: "There is another Paras (Paradise) than that seen of Alastair of Innisron--the Tir-Nan-Oigh of friendship. Therein we both have seen beautiful visions and dreamed dreams. Take, then, out of my heart, this book of vision and dream."

"Fiona Macleod," then, would appear to be the collective name given to a sort of collaborative Three-in-One mysteriously working together: an inspiring Muse with the initials E.W.R.; that psychical "other self" of whose existence and struggle for expression William Sharp had been conscious all his life; and William Sharp, general _litterateur_, as known to his friends and reading public. "Fiona Macleod" would seem to have always existed as a sort of spiritual prisoner within that comely and magnetic earthly tenement of clay known as William Sharp, but whom William Sharp had been powerless to free in words, till, at the wand-like touch of E.W.R.--the creative stimulus of a profound imaginative friendship--a new power of expression had been given to him--a power of expression strangely missing from William Sharp's previous acknowledged writings.

To speak faithfully, it was the comparative mediocrity, and occasional even positive badness, of the work done over his own name that formed one of the stumbling-blocks to the acceptance of the theory that William Sharp _could_ be "Fiona Macleod." Of course, his work had been that of an accomplished widely-read man of letters, his life of Heine being perhaps his most notable achievement in prose; and his verse had not been without intermittent flashes and felicities, suggestive of smouldering poetic fires, particularly in his _Sospiri di Roma_; but, for the most part, it had lacked any personal force or savour, and was entirely devoid of that magnetism with which William Sharp, the man, was so generously endowed. In fact, its disappointing inadequacy was a secret source of distress to the innumerable friends who loved him with a deep attachment, to which the many letters making one of the delightful features of Mrs. Sharp's biography bear witness. In himself William Sharp was so prodigiously a personality, so conquering in the romantic flamboyance of his sun-like vitality, so overflowing with the charm of a finely sensitive, richly nurtured temperament, so essentially a poet in all he felt and did and said, that it was impossible patiently to accept his writings as any fair expression of himself. He was, as we say, so much more than his books--so immeasurably and delightfully more--that, compared with himself, his books practically amounted to nothing; and one was inclined to say of him in one's heart, as one does sometimes say of such imperfectly articulate artistic natures: "What a pity he troubles to write at all! Why not be satisfied with being William Sharp? Why spoil 'William Sharp' by this inadequate and misleading translation?"

The curious thing, too, was that the work he did over his own name, after "Fiona Macleod" had escaped into the freedom of her own beautiful individual utterance, showed no improvement in quality, no marks of having sprung from the same mental womb where it had lain side by side with so fair a sister. But, of course, one can readily understand that such work would naturally lack spontaneity of impulse, having to be done, more or less, against the grain, from reasons of expediency: so long as "Fiona Macleod" must remain a secret, William Sharp must produce something to show for himself, in order to go on protecting that secret, which would, also, be all the better kept by William Sharp continuing in his original mediocrity. Of this dual activity, Mrs. Sharp thus writes with much insight:

From then till the end of his life [she says] there was a continual play of the two forces in him, or of the two sides of his nature: of the intellectually observant, reasoning mind--the actor, and of the intuitively observant, spiritual mind--the dreamer, which differentiated more and more one from the other, and required different conditions, different environment, different stimuli, until he seemed to be two personalities in one. It was a development which, as it proceeded, produced a tremendous strain on his physical and mental resources, and at one time between 1897-8 threatened him with a complete nervous collapse. And there was for a time distinct opposition between those two natures which made it extremely difficult for him to adjust his life, for the two conditions were equally imperative in their demands upon him.

His preference, naturally, was for the intimate creative work which he knew grew out of his inner self; though the exigencies of life, his dependence on his pen for his livelihood, and, moreover, the keen active interest "William Sharp" took in all the movements of the day, literary and political, at home and abroad, required of him a great amount of applied study and work.

The strain must indeed have been enormous, and one cannot but feel that much of it was a needless, even trivial "expense of spirit," and regret that, when "Fiona Macleod" had so manifestly come into her own, William Sharp should have continued to keep up the mystification, entailing as it did such an elaborate machinery of concealment, not the least taxing of which must have been the necessity of keeping up "Fiona Macleod's" correspondence as well as his own. Better, so to say, to have thrown William Sharp overboard, and to have reserved the energies of a temperament almost abnormally active, but physically delusive and precarious, for the finer productiveness of "Fiona Macleod." But William Sharp deemed otherwise. He was wont to say, "Should the secret be found out, Fiona dies," and in a letter to Mrs. Thomas A. Janvier--she and her husband being among the earliest confidants of his secret--he makes this interesting statement: "I can write out of my heart in a way I could not do as William Sharp, and indeed I could not do so if I were the woman Fiona Macleod is supposed to be, unless veiled in scrupulous anonymity.... This rapt sense of oneness with nature, this _cosmic ecstasy_ and elation, this wayfaring along the extreme verges of the common world, all this is so wrought up with the romance of life that I could not bring myself to expression by my outer self, insistent and tyrannical as that need is.... My truest self, the self who is below all other selves, and my most intimate life and joys and sufferings, thoughts, emotions, and dreams, _must_ find expression, yet I cannot save in this hidden way...."

Later he wrote: "Sometimes I am tempted to believe I am half a woman, and so far saved as I am by the hazard of chance from what a woman can be made to suffer if one let the light of the common day illuminate the avenues and vistas of her heart...."

At one time, I thought that William Sharp's assumption of a feminine pseudonym was a quite legitimate device to steal a march on his critics, and to win from them, thus disguised, that recognition which he must have been aware he had failed to win in his own person. Indeed, it is doubtful whether, if he had published the "Fiona Macleod" writings under his own name, they would have received fair critical treatment. I am very sure that they would not; for there is quite a considerable amount of so-called "criticism" which is really foregone conclusion based on personal prejudice, or biassed preconception, and the refusal to admit (employing a homely image) that an old dog does occasionally learn new tricks. Many well-known writers have resorted to this device, sometimes with considerable success. Since reading Mrs. Sharp's biography, however, I conclude that this motive had but little, if any, influence on William Sharp, and that his statement to Mrs. Janvier must be taken as virtually sincere.

A certain histrionism, which was one of his charms, and is perhaps inseparable from imaginative temperaments, doubtless had its share in his consciousness of that "dual nature" of which we hear so much, and which it is difficult sometimes to take with Sharp's "Celtic" seriousness. Take, for example, this letter to his wife, when, having left London, precipitately, in response to the call of the Isles, he wrote: "The following morning we (for a kinswoman was with me) stood on the Greenock pier waiting for the Hebridean steamer, and before long were landed on an island, almost the nearest we could reach, that I loved so well." Mrs. Sharp dutifully comments: "The 'we' who stood on the pier at Greenock is himself in his dual capacity; his 'kinswoman' is his other self." Later he writes, on his arrival in the Isle of Arran: "There is something of a strange excitement in the knowledge that two people are here: so intimate and yet so far off. For it is with me as though Fiona were asleep in another room. I catch myself listening for her step sometimes, for the sudden opening of a door. It is unawaredly that she whispers to me. I am eager to see what she will do--particularly in _The Mountain Lovers_. It seems passing strange to be here with her alone at last...." I confess that this strikes me disagreeably. It is one thing to be conscious of a "dual personality"--after all, consciousness of dual personality is by no means uncommon, and it is a commonplace that, spiritually, men of genius are largely feminine--but it is another to dramatize one's consciousness in this rather childish fashion. There seems more than a suspicion of pose in such writing: though one cannot but feel that William Sharp was right in thinking that the real "Fiona Macleod" was asleep at the moment. At the same time, William Sharp seems unmistakably to have been endowed with what I suppose one has to call "psychic" powers--though the word has been "soiled with all ignoble use"--and to be the possessor in a considerable degree of that mysterious "sight" or sixth sense attributed to men and women of Gaelic blood. Mrs. Sharp tells a curious story of his mood immediately preceding that flight to the Isles of which I have been writing. He had been haunted the night before by the sound of the sea. It seemed to him that he heard it splashing in the night against the walls of his London dwelling. So real it had seemed that he had risen from his bed and looked out of the window, and even in the following afternoon, in his study, he could still hear the waves dashing against the house. "A telegram had come for him that morning," writes Mrs. Sharp, "and I took it to his study. I could get no answer. I knocked, louder, then louder,--at last he opened the door with a curiously dazed look in his face. I explained. He answered: 'Ah, I could not hear you for the sound of the waves!'"

His last spoken words have an eerie suggestiveness in this connection. Writing of his death on the 12th of December, 1905, Mrs. Sharp says: "About three o'clock, with his devoted friend Alec Hood by his side, he suddenly leant forward with shining eyes and exclaimed in a tone of joyous recognition, 'Oh, the beautiful "Green Life," again!' and the next moment sank back in my arms with the contented sigh, 'Ah, all is well!'"

"The green life" was a phrase often on Sharp's lips, and stood for him for that mysterious life of elemental things to which he was almost uncannily sensitive, and into which he seemed able strangely to merge himself, of which too his writings as "Fiona Macleod" prove him to have had "invisible keys." It is this, so to say, conscious pantheism, this kinship with the secret forces and subtle moods of nature, this responsiveness to her mystic spiritual "intimations," that give to those writings their peculiar significance and value. In the external lore of nature William Sharp was exceptionally learned. Probably no writer in English, with the exceptions of George Meredith and Grant Allen, was his equal here, and his knowledge had been gained, as such knowledge can only be gained, in that receptive period of an adventurous boyhood of which he has thus written: "From fifteen to eighteen I sailed up every loch, fjord, and inlet in the Western Highlands and islands, from Arran and Colonsay to Skye and the Northern Hebrides, from the Rhinns of Galloway to the Ord of Sutherland. Wherever I went I eagerly associated myself with fishermen, sailors, shepherds, gamekeepers, poachers, gypsies, wandering pipers, and other musicians." For two months he had "taken the heather" with, and had been "star-brother" and "sun-brother" to, a tribe of gypsies, and in later years he had wandered variously in many lands, absorbing the wonder and the beauty of the world. Well might he write to Mrs. Janvier: "I have had a very varied, and, to use a much abused word, a very romantic life in its internal as well as in its external aspects." Few men have drunk so deep of the cup of life, and from such pure sky-reflecting springs, and if it be true, in the words of his friend Walter Pater, that "to burn ever with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life," then indeed the life of William Sharp was a nobly joyous success.

And to those who loved him it is a great happiness to know that he was able to crown this ecstasy of living with that victory of expression for which his soul had so long travailed, and to leave behind him not only a lovely monument of star-lit words, but a spiritual legacy of perennial refreshment, a fragrant treasure-house of recaptured dreams, and hallowed secrets of the winds of time: for such are The Writings of "Fiona Macleod".

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Mystery Of "fiona Macleod"