© Copyright 2020 Laurie Beattie, Ryerson University
We will be discussing, William Sharp, the creator of the Pagan Review and writer of the short story “The Black Madonna,” His work The Pagan Review was only ever published once in August 1892 under the alias of W.H Brooks, where he created a magazine with the intent of promoting the idea of “New Paganism” and to teach the people of the time what exactly paganism is. He wanted to educate the readers on history and other mythologies otherwise known as “pagan beliefs” that weren’t prevalent in their time due to most of the population being Catholic or Protestant. He targets his audience with bold statements like claiming that many do not really know the ‘truth’ and stating that the general public or ‘they’ do not have a muse and live a life of convention. His opening is a clear testament to the overall content of what the magazine is and who exactly it’s for; those who want to find out the truth of the world and who are not concerned with being “Periodically Popular.”
“It was linked to a willingness to end gender discrimination and live a freer life resonating throughout the 64 pages of the Pagan Review” (Coste 1).
The Exhibit will focus on Sharp’s short story The Black Madonna and the significant themes of Paganism, Christan mockery and the feminist agenda that the work introduces and how all of these critical lense’s support the idea that The Black Madonna was a way of embodying the Pagan beliefs and informing the readers the importance of the new women’s movement and the rise of Paganism in everyday society.
William Sharp was born on September 12th, 1855 to father David Galbraith Sharp and his wife, Katherine Brooks. Growing up Sharp was known to be an unusual and unique child. In 1871 he attended Glasgow University due to his love of English and after went on to become an apprentice in a lawyer’s office but soon after suddenly decided to spend the next three months travelling with a group of Gypsies. It is speculated that his love for Paganism can be attributed to his brief time travelling with the group. He continued to go on to pursue a career in writing and proceeded to write stories focusing on mysticism. “His interest was incredibly focused on spiritism and folklore” (Denisoff, 2010).
During Sharp’s career as a writer, he began to create many different alias and pseudonyms as previously mentioned. His most popular alias’s being H.W Brooks and Fiona MacLeod. Due to Sharp’s criticism against the gender inequalities between men and women, Sharp wanted to show the presence of woman within by developing a female persona named Fiona MacLeod. The creation of Fiona MacLeod may have been the reason that caused Sharp frequent mental health problems, which resulted in a near breakdown in 1897, as Sharp believed he was being haunted by past lives. Sharp’s declining health eventually lead to him passing away on December 12th, 1905 but not before leaving a letter to his friends exposing his second identity as Fiona Macleod.
Many of Sharp’s works under his own name and that of Fiona MacLeod presented a recurring theme of feminism and the belief that men and women should be seen as equals. These such themes were not common in the 19th century and can be possibly be attributed to Sharp’s very Pagan way of viewing life as shown with the new women movement becoming major themes throughout his works such as “Pharais” (1894), “Romantic Ballads and Poems of Phantasy” (1888) and “Earth’s Voices” (1884). These works signifying the idea that Paganism and Feminism went hand in hand with one another through the belief that traditional values should be something of the past.
The history of Sharp proves to be integral to the context and themes throughout the magazine as Sharp at the time had gone under the alias of W.H. Brooks and the other pseudonyms in order to show the public the ideas and history of Paganism or ‘new paganism’ as he viewed his beliefs. This was most likely due to the fact that going by his real name would raise the public ire towards him as the idea of the Pagan religion did not bode well in the 19th century as many of these Pagan beliefs included Gender Equality and the ending of traditions. Sharps’s ideals that he wished to spread are a reflection of the standard we hold in the 21st century such as women’s equality and a less religious lifestyle integrated with society.
The Black Madonna
The Black Madonna is a short story that takes place following an African cult, they are making a sacrifice to their god known as ‘the mighty mother’ who also goes by the name the Black Madonna. She is depicted in Sharp’s words as “the goddess, glorious in her beauty, that is as of the night’ (Sharp, 13). After the sacrifices, the Black Madonna appears and her followers begin to pray for her to save them while the chief men, Bihr confess his love for her and begs to become like her. After killing five more sacrifices Bihr declares that the Black Madonna shall become his bride and begins to have violent intercourse with her. The black Madonna is then shown screaming in agony described as “in the hunger of his desire she sinks as one who drowns” (Sharp, 17). On the last day of the festival celebrating the Black Madonna, the chief presents himself to the followers and tells them that the mighty mother has sacrificed herself and soon after they are met with black smoke and flames and ends with the ominous line “from forth of the Black Madonna come strange and horrible cries, as though a mortal woman were perishing by the torture of fire” (Sharp, 18).
The story of the Black Madonna can be interpreted as a mockery against the Christian faith or religion as a whole. This is shown throughout The Black Madonna; its symbols and actions of the characters are where Sharp incorporates his beliefs and interpretation on the issues of organized religion through the cult-like followers and the problems that come with blind devotion to God. It also incorporates the gender discrimination seen through the treatment of the black Madonna with issues that were prevalent to women during the 19th century and even to this day. All beliefs that are connected to the views of Paganism.
The story is the reinterpretation of the book of Genesis, a Hebrew bible that depicts the creation of the world. Yet the Black Madonna depicts these events in a much darker and almost satanical light. “Does Sharp engage in a rewriting of the supposed origins of religion? Does he give a flamboyant version of the Genesis?” (Coste, 24). The story also incorporates the question that the gods are more akin to the devil in a sense. Since the story takes a church, which would usually be associated with the colour white which represents purity. But the opening depicts the setting as red and uses blood as imagery. Signs that are usually more representative of the devil. When the Black Madonna appears it is unknown whether or not she is a god or the devil as she is referred to both as the slayer and the saver. She is worshiped by the people yet only seems to bring death and misery, but the people still worship at her feet and beg for mercy from their god, This allegory for how Sharp reviews people who follow religion blindly, that they are blinded to the evils that ‘god’ can bring upon the world because they are obsessed with the idea of god itself. This Paganist view’s coming to life with the message that traditions that only harm and blind the people are no longer necessary.
“His short story is redolent with fin-de-siècle syncretism fuelled by the waning of established religious discourses, as well as by late-Victorian ethnography. It is indeed difficult to insert such a text in any specific religious creed as it relies on, and mixes several of them.”(Coste, 24).
Feminism and The New Women Movement
Sharp and his views on women could be classified as feminist even before feminism was established. His Paganistic views allowed him to broaden his views and enabled him to abolish the premise that women were merely second class citizens and strive towards equality between the sexes. In a time where the voices of women were not being heard, Sharp moved towards creating works such as The Black Madonna and taking the alias of Fiona MacLeod to strive towards supporting women’s rights.
The 19th century sparked the first wave of feminists. “The New Woman calls women to action, encouraging them to become educated, free, and self-supporting or wage-earning women,” (Sellers). As Seller establishes in her work, the New Women movement was created to call women into action to gain basic human rights such as education and opening their own bank accounts. In order to fight the belief that one should be defined by their gender when both are equal.
Work such as Charles Dana Gibson’s “The Reason Dinner Was Late” was an artistic attempt to counter the argument that women art and work were not as many believed as inferior to men’s work. Sharp’s alias as Fiona MacLeod helped support the beliefs as his female alias was one of his most popular and helped prove the importance of women’s contribution to the arts.”The new woman, in the sense of the best woman, the flower of all the womanhood of past ages, has come to stay — if civilization is to endure. The sufferings of the past have but strengthened her, maternity has deepened her, education is broadening her-” (Cooley)
Sharp’s work on the Black Madonna is an allegory for the treatment and what power women actually possess. The Black Madonna takes the place of Christ, the male god and instead changes god to represent women, an idea that was seen as blasphemous at the time. While the story seeks to empower women it also deals with the dehumanization that they undergo at the hands of men. Bihr declares he will take the Black Madonna as his bride and forcefully as intercourse with her, resulting in her ‘sacrifice’ and ultimately her death. The story of The Black Madonna alludes to the beauty and the suffering that comes with being a woman and Sharp seeks to address and confront his readers throughout his story.
Sharp and his story of The Black Madonna, are the embodiment of what Paganism and essentially what feminism was during the 19th century. Even in the 21st century, the feminist movement is still in action and is still prevalent to this day. Sharp proves that the new woman’s movement isn’t just being fought by women but by everyone. Through his alias of Fiona Mcleod, he was able to aid the movement by giving fame to a woman writer in a time where it was looked down upon, all while creating work like the Pagan review to teach people the ways of Paganism. Sharp’s work embodies the fin-de-siècle of the 19th century by acting as the spark to try and end traditions such as gender inequality and the blind following of religion in order to create a society where they don’t have to live a conventional life by following what is periodically popular but instead teach people the way of new paganism where it is acceptable to believe in ones own ideals and not the ideals of others.
The Pagan Review (Aug. 1892). The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2010. Web. Dec. 26, 2011. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=TPR.htm
Coste, Bé. “Late-Victorian Paganism: The Case of the Pagan Review.” Cahiers Victoriens & Édouardiens (Online), no. 80, 2014, pp. 2-12. ProQuest,
Denisoff, Dennis. “William Sharp [pseud. Fiona Macleod, W.H. Brooks] (1855-1905),” Y90s Biographies, edited by Dennis Denisoff, 2010. Yellow Nineties 2.0, General Editor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019, https://1890s.ca/sharp_bio/.
Sellers, Kelli M. “Tossing the Pink Parasol: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the New Woman, and Progressive Era Reform.” Children’s Literature, vol. 40, 2012, p. 108-130. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/chl.2012.0006.
The New Womanhood, by Winnifred Harper Cooley. tile.loc.gov/storage-services/service/rbc/rbnawsa/n7023/n7023.pdf.
A. Sharp, William Sharp (Fiona MacLeod): a memoir (1910).
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.