Book of the week: Evelyn Sharp: Rebel Woman, 1869-1955

June Purvis welcomes a compelling tale of an overlooked feminist

May 21, 2009

She was a journalist and children's writer who published more than 30 books, many volumes of short stories, a life of the physicist Hertha Ayrton, the libretto for a comic opera by Ralph Vaughan Williams, as well as her own autobiography, but Evelyn Sharp has largely been hidden in history. Her name pops up occasionally, especially in publications on the British suffrage movement, but then it disappears again. Yet, as Angela V. John reveals in this fascinating biography - the first written about this remarkable feminist - there is a story of public achievement to be told as well as the anguished happiness of her long, secret love affair with Henry Nevinson, the radical war correspondent whom she eventually married.

Born in 1869 to privileged parents, Sharp lacked self-confidence in a large family of 11 children that favoured the boys. Her refuge came in reading, storytelling, studying and then writing; the first of her short stories were published in 1893 in a popular magazine. This early success profoundly influenced Sharp's future direction, and she became determined to be a writer. The following year, greatly against her family's wishes, she left home to live on her own in London. Her first novel appeared in 1895, and she also contributed to the infamous literary quarterly The Yellow Book, as well as to respected newspapers. With the help of a small family annuity, supplemented by income from her writing, the self-effacing Sharp gained success as a journalist and as the author of schoolgirl fiction and fairytales.

It was on 30 December 1901, while ice skating in Knightsbridge, that she collided with the handsome and confident Nevinson. Many years later, she recollected how he "took my hand in his and we skated off together as if all our life before had been a preparation for that moment". She was well aware that the charming Nevinson was married to Margaret, a devout Anglo-Catholic, and that they had two children. But Sharp was smitten. However, she did not know that Nevinson, who deeply resented his marriage and lived the life of a bachelor, already had a lover, Nannie Dryhurst, a politicised Irishwoman living close to his home in Hampstead. When Margaret found out about her husband's affair with Nannie, she and Nevinson decided not to part but to lead a semi-detached existence, remaining nominally married for 48 years.

Although Nevinson's affair with Nannie ended in 1912, Sharp's relationship with him spanned more than 30 years before she was able to marry him. Friends came to "appreciate" the situation, but Sharp hated the secrecy of it, especially as, given the circumstances, it would have been inappropriate for her to have a child. The situation was especially hard to bear because she was regarded as an authority on children. Nevinson, for his part, juggled his various relationships, even writing to all three women in his life when he was abroad on various assignments.

The suffragist movement, in which both Sharp and Nevinson became involved, brought them closer together. Sharp joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, and became a leading figure in the local branch in Kensington. An accomplished speaker, she was a founding member and vice-president of the Women Writers' Suffrage League. She went to prison twice but, unlike other suffragettes, was never force-fed. When the WSPU's leaders were arrested in 1912 and Emmeline's daughter Christabel fled to Paris, Sharp took over the editorship of Votes for Women, the WSPU newspaper. Nevinson worked behind the scenes - and greeted his lover with red roses and a bottle of muscat when she was released from Holloway.

Both became disillusioned with the more violent tactics of the WSPU and were instrumental in forming, in early 1914, the United Suffragists, a mixed-sex society that shied away from extremism but vowed not to criticise those who supported it. Nevinson, hardly an impartial observer, overstated the case when he claimed that it was the work of the United Suffragists during the First World War, and "the brilliant mind and dogged resolution of Evelyn Sharp", that made possible in 1918 the enfranchisement of some categories of women over the age of 30. Similarly contentious is John's claim that Sharp was a key figure "holding the suffragettes together once Christabel went abroad". Many key figures in the suffragette movement considered Sharp an intellectual whose close relationship with Nevinson made her suspect.

During the First World War, Sharp became more and more of a pacifist, refusing to pay income tax on her earnings because she lacked a parliamentary vote. The bailiffs stripped her rooms bare, and not until May 1918 was she finally free from a bankruptcy charge.

After the war, Sharp and Nevinson joined the Labour Party, and she became involved in Quaker relief work in Germany, Poland and Russia. She admired the Quakers, but she never joined them - perhaps because of her relationship with a married man.

Meanwhile, Sharp had welcomed in Britain the passing of the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act of 1919, which opened the door for women to enter the professions. Yet she stressed the importance of equal rights for women and men, and of collaboration and comradeship between the sexes, rather than an emphasis on women's special needs. John rightly identifies her position as that of "old" equalitarian feminism yet, curiously, makes no mention of Nevinson's influence on her thinking. Surely Sharp was seeking a feminism that included the love of her life rather than the women-centred politics of the single-sex WSPU?

It is not surprising, therefore, that Sharp was initially ambivalent about becoming a columnist, in 1922, for the Women's Page in The Manchester Guardian; when she took on the position, she gave her various contributions a political edge. Yet, despite her popularity in this work, it was as an expert on inner-city, working-class childhood that she became best known.

As Sharp and Nevinson grew older, holidays, music and folk dancing increasingly replaced their assignments abroad. Sharp's brother Cecil, who died in 1924, was renowned for bringing about a revival of English folk song and dance, and the couple were determined to remain loyal to his achievements. But Nevinson could not resist the temptation to flirt with young dancing partners. On his return from a dancing trip to Canada in 1929, there were rumours about him and a woman 20 years Sharp's junior. Sharp was deeply hurt, while Nevinson simply saw "the curse" that still haunted him in old age as part of his nature. Despite such incidents, on 1 January 1933, six months after his wife Margaret's death, Nevinson and the 63-year-old Sharp were married.

The Great Depression of the 1930s and the rise of fascism in Europe increasingly worried Sharp, and in the years leading up to the Second World War, she and Nevinson joined many anti-fascist demonstrations. After they were bombed out of their Hampstead home, the couple moved to Chipping Campden, where Nevinson passed away in 1941. Sharp's own last years were desperately lonely and blighted by senility.

This compelling, poignant biography paints a sensitive portrait of a modest "new woman" of the 1890s, who eagerly embraced the expanding opportunities for a generation that would see momentous changes in the decades up to the mid-20th century. Well researched and clearly expressed, John's book deserves a wide readership.

THE AUTHOR

Angela V. John has been a writer and an academic for almost 30 years. Her first article (on the aftermath of Chartism in Wales) was published when she was 22 and teaching at a sixth-form college. Since then, she has gone on to write nine books and to become an influential figure in the study of Welsh history.

John describes herself as a "biographical historian" - in her books, she focuses as much on her individual subject as on the historical period.

It was while working on a biography of Lady Charlotte Guest that John fell in love with life writing. She becomes so wrapped up in whoever is her current subject, she says, that she spends much of her time locked away in an attic study at her home on the Pembrokeshire coast.

When not ensconced in the attic, John is an honorary professor of history at the University of Aberystwyth and is vice-president and former chair of Llafur, the Welsh People's History Society.

Evelyn Sharp: Rebel Woman, 1869-1955

By Angela V. John

Manchester University Press

304pp, £60.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780719080142 and 80159

Published 1 May 2009

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