On Sundays and holidays buses and cars back up along the steeply inclined main street with its cobbles set long ago to catch the slipping hooves of horses, for Haworth is England’s most visited tourist shrine after Stratford. The Black Bull, where Branwell drank himself sodden, now has a Brontë Room, and nearby shops sell Brontë T-shirts. In the church where they are all—except Anne—buried in the family vault, there is a Brontë chapel and an American window donated by American Brontë worshipers. In the parsonage museum are Charlotte’s tiny shoes, the brass collar of Emily’s dog, Keeper. But the pilgrim who wanders off to locate the waterfall to which Charlotte went for her last rustic walk arrives too quickly by a paved road. The moors are hardly so grandly empty, so given over to sky and heath, as one expects from Wuthering Heights.
In fact, they never were. As Charlotte herself observed in her introduction to Emily’s poems, “the scenery of these hills is not grand—it is not romantic; it is scarcely striking. Long, low moors—with dark heath, shut in little valleys, where a stream waters, here and there, a fringe of stunted copse. Mills and scattered cottages chase romance from these valleys.” Even in the mid-nineteenth century the smokestacks of nearby factories could be seen. Haworth was less than four miles from bustling Keighley on the railroad line. It lay on a main road between Yorkshire and Lancashire and experienced all the disturbances of a region, the West Riding, bound up with the new industrial economy.
When the continental embargo hit the woolen trades and new machinery was introduced, precipitating the Luddite riots, the Reverend Patrick Brontë acquired a habit of carrying a loaded pistol. In his children’s time, the Chartists gathered thousands of angry unemployed on the moors. Yet the Haworth visitor seeking romance imagines the famous siblings—Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell—to have sprung out of the ground of nature like the purple heather, persons who had no connection with the rest of English society in a turbulent period. The first book about them, Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte, promoted this view.
Gaskell’s portrait of Charlotte was also at variance with the subversive spirit Matthew Arnold discerned, with distaste, in the depths of her fiction—full of “hunger, rebellion and rage.” The biographer had been determined to depict an irreproachably proper woman incapable of unladylike feelings or dangerous views. She had been aided in this effort by her chief source of information and interpretation, Ellen Nussey, a lifelong friend to whom Charlotte wrote a vast number of letters which reflected the conventional character of the person addressed and showed only a part of the writer. Charlotte probably opened other sides of herself to some whose letters were not available—like Mary Taylor, far away in New Zealand, who had become an active feminist, had started her own business, and would write a feminist novel. But even where Gaskell glimpsed another Charlotte she felt compelled to suppress her knowledge. She saw letters written to Constantin Heger, the teacher in Brussels with whom Charlotte had been in love, but hardly used them significantly; they remained unknown until the Heger family gave four to the British Museum in 1913.
Gaskell’s biography, the work of a writer who was herself a skilled novelist, was included as a volume in the standard edition of Brontë writings repeatedly reprinted between 1873 and 1930—as though it was another novel by another Brontë sister. Its influence has been persistent. Correcting many errors and omissions at last, even Winifred Gérin’s able and detailed Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius (1967) did not discard its viewpoint. New interpretations have arrived mostly as the result of the effort by feminist critics to place the three sisters in a tradition of female writing. Margot Peters, Helene Moglen, and Rebecca Fraser have discovered Charlotte to be a martyr of patriarchy. Lyndall Gordon now insists that Charlotte was not a martyr but a female warrior who rejected the model of submission, hiding her real self beneath an appearance of conformity—a view she supports by drawing intelligently on Charlotte’s novels. Unfortunately, she also resorts, like Gaskell, to the weak notion that the spacious moors had much to do with her subject’s free nature. Juliet Barker brings in, more than others have, the larger world that impinged on the Brontës’ lives—the changing England when old divisions of class and gender were under pressure.
We can now see, I believe, that the seven Brontë novels—one by Emily, two by Anne, four by Charlotte—all try to suggest new conceptions of women, their inner life, and their relation to society. Jane Eyre challenges Rochester: “I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart!…I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit”—a demand for freedom from old categories that may sound merely romantic but is social and political. Romantic, it is true, the Brontës were. A dream world haunted their imaginations, born of their readings of Romantic poetry, especially Byron. Their earliest literary efforts were adventure tales of heroism and perfidy and love, not unlike the comic book or film make-believes that entertain children today except that these children wrote them for themselves. But their mature fiction, even the metaphysical Wuthering Heights, subjects myth to the test of social reality.
Their own lives were certainly not so romantic—or pathetic—as many of their admirers have supposed. If none of Patrick’s six children reached the age of forty, his bereavements were no worse than those of his parishioners, whose lives ended, on the average, at twenty-five. The brutal regime at the Evangelical boarding school, at Cowan Bridge, from which Charlotte’s two older sisters came home to die at eleven and ten, seems monstrous as described in Jane Eyre. But such conditions were common. After Cowan Bridge, the surviving sisters and their brother were well educated at home for five happy years by their father and aunt, and by themselves, and wrote their stories and poems for one another. When the sisters went back to school it was to Roe Head, a better place.
Soon, they were old enough to face the fact that if Patrick died, or if he was forced to retire since his sight was failing, they would be without support or their parsonage home. Their insecurity was much like that of thousands of middle-class families dependent on businesses that foundered in the Thirties and “hungry Forties.” What would Branwell do? It was a time when many young men felt there was not future that could be counted on—even if one were more prepared to come to the family’s rescue than Patrick Brontë’s only son.
Branwell’s absolute failure contrasts with his father’s ambitious rise. Born Prunty, in a two-room cabin, Patrick had shed his peasant Irishness to rename himself after his English hero, Nelson, the “Duke of Bronti.” He was a schoolmaster at sixteen, worked as a tutor in the family of a leading Evangelical, entered Cambridge on a scholarship to serve in the Anglican Church. He published three volumes of religious poetry, two pietistic tales, and a novella dealing with contemporary religious and political issues, though they failed to bring him fame. Mrs. Gaskell—influenced by Ellen Nussey’s rivalrous hostility—underestimated him, believing gossip that he was given to mad antics like tearing up his wife’s silk dresses, sawing off the backs of chairs, and firing his pistol in the air for amusement. Lyndall Gordon tends to give credence to Gaskell’s portrait of a political conservative as well as a domestic tyrant, but Barker reminds us that he was Evangelical within the established church, a campaigner for liberal causes though a Tory. He advocated Catholic emancipation, electoral reform, and the limiting of child labor, and opposed the changes in the Poor Law forcing Yorkshire workers to choose, as Dickens said, between starving slowly in the Poor House or more quickly outside.
His son might have have gone to a university; Patrick coached him in Greek and Latin. But Branwell had no desire to be a clergyman. He vainly sent his poems to Blackwood’s, and to Wordsworth, who did not reply—though a few appeared in Yorkshire newspapers. He studied with a pupil of Thomas Lawrence and set up without success as a portrait painter. He tried politics, campaigning for the Tories, and was carried in effigy down Haworth’s main street. Commerce held no promise; he worked as a railroad clerk until dismissed with bad marks for efficiency, and when he applied for the secretaryship of a railway company was refused. A last resort was tutor in a well-to-do household. He was fired from the first such post—for drunkenness, it has been thought, or, as new evidence suggests, for getting either one of his employer’s daughters or a maidservant pregnant with his child. His love affair with his next employer’s wife was discovered and he was sent packing. He spent the next two years, his last, moping at home, nursing his broken heart, except for visits to the tavern or to the chemist for opium.
Branwell’s family felt, Charlotte said, what it meant to watch “the sickness of hope deferred, the dismay of prayer baffled, to experience despair at last; and now to behold the sudden early obscure close of what might have been a noble career.” Practically, male achievement was necessary because women could not easily support themselves. In the nineteenth century drunkenness was a disaster visited by men upon women—which is why the temperance movement was to be so often linked to the campaign for the right of women to earn their own living. Drunkenness robbed a family of the workingman’s wages, but the alcoholism of male members could ruin a middle-class family, too. The profligate Brontë brother had failed to act as the prop of his helpless sisters. Perhaps fearing for her nieces, their maiden aunt left her money to them—rather than to Branwell, her favorite.
Each of the Brontë novels, but especially Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, deals in some way with Branwell’s sad fate; Anne had witnessed his last disgrace while working as a governess in the very same household where he was a tutor. His wild nature and obsessiveness in love are in Heathcliff, and his alcoholism is Hindley Earnshaw’s in Wuthering Heights. In Jane Eyre, Rochester’s loose past forecasts his attempt to commit bigamy by marrying Jane. Charlotte saw that men could be victimized by a culture which encouraged them to pursue an ideal of manly willfulness, freedom, and sensuous self-indulgence:
Men are strange beings…I have often thought so—and I think too that the mode of bringing them up is strange, they are not half sufficiently guarded from temptation—Girls are protected as if they were something very frail and silly indeed while boys are turned loose on the world as if they—of all beings in existence, were the wisest and the least liable to be led astray.
When Patrick grieved for his prodigal, Charlotte felt the good elder child’s resentment: “My poor Father naturally thought more of his only Son than of his daughters, and much and long as he had suffered on his account—he cried out at his loss like David for that of Absalom.” And there may have been, I would guess, envy of another sort. Drinking and fornication were forms of behavior women had to forgive in men though they were unforgivable in women. Yet they represented a possibility of sensual expression from which “good” women were barred. Charlotte had been closest to Branwell in their childhood. But she was less sympathetic to him than his other sisters, perhaps because her own nature was as passionate yet while in Brussels she had restrained herself where he had yielded. Jane Eyre may feel love for the married Rochester, but flees adultery.
The relations of this brother and his sisters deserve more attention than they have received in any biography so far—though there have been some wild theories suggesting incest. There were attachments among them closer than lust—and hidden anger. Branwell was dismissed as a rival when his sisters made their first effort to become professional writers after he came home to stay in 1845. They did not invite him to contribute to the book of poems they sent out to a publisher, though only Emily’s are markedly superior to his. Barker calls it “petty and mean” of them and thinks they excluded him because he could not contribute to the costs of publication; they were paying these out of the legacy from their aunt that had favored only themselves. Gordon suggests that they were afraid of his talkativeness, since they wanted to safeguard the anonymity of their venture. But were they not resisting, by their bid for literary fame, the assumption that male genius alone deserved reward? They did not tell him anything about the novels they soon wrote, either—perhaps fearing his resentment, or, Charlotte claimed, for fear of hurting him if their efforts succeeded whereas his had failed. When he died in 1848, they had published all their novels except Villette, The Professor, and Shirley, but he did not know, Charlotte said, that his sisters had “ever published a line.”
They had tensions among themselves. At Cowan Bridge, the eldest, Maria, had borne cruelty without complaint and meekly faced her death; as Helen Burns, in Jane Eyre, she is memorialized as an Evangelical saint. But Gordon suspects that Maria served as a counter-example for her sisters. It is because she will not be like Helen that Jane Eyre becomes her true self, and that Charlotte became the author of Jane Eyre. Maria, caring for the younger children, keeping her father company after their mother’s death, was a maternal model to be cast off. Like Virginia Woolf, Charlotte had to strangle the “angel in the house” in order to survive.
Yet one can also argue that the survivors punished themselves for surviving, for failing to achieve Maria’s holiness. Emily would hurry her own death when it approached, starving herself as Maria had been starved, and refusing medical aid. Even Charlotte, who lived longest, would always suffer from vague illnesses, and at Roe Head, where she took over Maria’s role of elder sister, her breakdown seems to have involved both sexual awakening and a religious crisis of self-loathing. Maria herself had probably accepted the sinister arguments of the school’s head, the Reverend William Carus Wilson. This sanctimonious sadist is Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre, who insists that the little girls be fed burnt porridge since anything better would “feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls.” Maria had also accepted, as Gordon points out, the dogma that poverty is deserved, for Cowan Bridge was a charity school for the daughters of poor clergyman. Resistance or resentment on the child’s part would have been a form of class rebellion, the specter then haunting Europe.
Charlotte once described a dream of Maria and her other dead sister, Elizabeth. The dream had a bad ending: “They were changed; they had forgotten what they used to care for. They were very fashionably dressed.” In a word, they had married and become conventional. As if envisioning and rejecting marriage to a man, and seeking a lesbian alternative, Charlotte wrote Ellen at Roe Head, “I wish I could live with you always, I begin to cling to you more fondly than ever I did. If we had but a cottage and a competency of our own I do think we might live and love on till Death without being dependent on any third person for happiness.” Emily and Anne seem never to have had suitors or to have sought them, though they were better-looking than Charlotte.
Self-discipline and ambition, illustrated by her father, inspired Charlotte when she prepared to found a school by going abroad to study: “Papa will perhaps think it a wild and ambitious scheme; but who ever rose in the world without ambition. When he left Ireland to go to Cambridge University, he was as ambitious as I am now.” But female models were more important. Margaret Wooler, the Roe Head principal, provided the direct example:
It seems that even a “lone woman” can be happy as well as cherished wives and proud mothers…. There is no more respectable character on this earth than an unmarried woman who makes her own way through life, quietly perseveringly—without support of husband or brother.
She would later know literary women like Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell who showed that a woman could succeed as a writer. Only Gaskell, among these friends, was married.
Everyone said Charlotte was ugly—that is, unmarriageable. George Smith, her publisher, observed her puny body, overlarge head, poor complexion, badly shaped mouth, and lack of “feminine charm.” Nothing, he thought, gave her more pain. “I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful.” Thackeray said,
The poor little woman of genius! the fiery little eager brave tremulous homely-faced creature! I can read a great deal of her life as I fancy in her book [Villette], and see that rather than have fame, rather than any other earthly good or mayhap heavenly one she wants some Tomkins or another to love her and be in love with. But you see she is a little bit of a creature without a penny worth of good looks, thirty years old I should think, buried in the country, and eating up her own heart there, and no Tomkins will come. You girls with pretty faces…will get dozens of young fellows fluttering about you—whereas here is one a genius, a noble heart longing to mate itself and destined to wither away into old maidenhood with no chance to fulfil the burning desire.
In fact, Charlotte had already received three proposals—including one from Smith’s clever manager, James Taylor. For none of these men could she feel “that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him.” She felt it for Heger, but he was married. She grew dangerously fond of Smith himself, but he was “a ‘curled darling’ of Nature and of Fortune,” like Dr. John in Villette—destined for someone rich and pretty and shallow. How intensely she felt for her father’s curate, Arthur Nicholls, is unclear, but she was thirty-eight when she married him, and lonely, and she had become famous and independent.
The Brontë sisters had no distaste for female domestic tasks. When the family servant broke her leg, Emily and Charlotte came gladly away from their jobs as teachers. Emily did the baking. “I am much happier—black-leading the stoves—making beds and sweeping the floors at home, than I should be living like a fine lady anywhere else,” Charlotte later said. But in 1845, when Charlotte was again at the parsonage recovering from her infatuation with Heger, Mary Taylor warned her that another five years at home would ruin her. “A dark shadow came over [Charlotte’s] face…. She went on walking up and down the room and said in a little while, ‘But I intend to stay, Polly.”‘ Yet two years later Jane Eyre says,
Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.
But what life offered outside the home was only teaching in a school or working as a private governess. Anne had been the first to try governessing and stood up to its strains longest; she had been in one household for five years when Branwell’s behavior there made her position impossible. But she agreed with Charlotte, who said, “I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil.” Not only Jane Eyre but Anne’s Agnes Grey describes the vacant selfhood of the Victorian governess. She had to be a Lady; only if she was one could she transmit middle-class manners along with schoolroom subjects. But she was not an equal of her employers though she did not belong to the servant class. In novels, she might marry an employer-class male—wickedly, like Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, or romantically, like Charlotte’s Jane. But such recovery of status was unlikely. A governess who dreamt of it might go mad, like the governess in Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw”; it was said that the largest category of female patients in hospitals for the insane in the 1840s was that of ex-governesses.
In 1841, when Charlotte was twenty-five, Emily twenty-three, and Anne twenty-one, they decided to start their own school, and Charlotte and Emily went to the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels to equip themselves by improving their French and German. After the year was over, Charlotte stayed on as a teacher until her evident love for Heger aroused his wife’s suspicion. In Haworth a flyer went out: “The Misses Brontë’s Establishment” would offer board at the parsonage and instruction in the usual subjects including needle-work, with extra lessons in French, German, Latin, music, and drawing. There were no applications. So, at last, they took on the vocation for which they had been preparing since childhood.
At the end of 1836 Charlotte had sent the Laureate, Robert Southey, some poems. He praised her “faculty of verse,” but added,
Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, & when you are you will be less eager for celebrity.
Charlotte protested that she had never “neglect[ed] real duties for the sake of imaginative pleasures.” As a poor clergyman’s eldest child she had become a teacher.
In that capacity, I find enough to occupy my thoughts all day long, and my head & hands too, without having a moment’s time for one dream of the imagination. In the evenings, I confess, I do think, but I never trouble any one else with my thoughts. I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation and eccentricity, which might lead those I live amongst to suspect the nature of my pursuits. Following my Father’s advice,—who from my childhood has counselled me just in the wise and friendly tone of your letter—I have endeavoured not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfill, but to feel deeply interested in them. I don’t always succeed, for sometimes when I’m teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing, but I try to deny myself…. I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should rise, I’ll look at Southey’s letter.
Most Brontë biographers have taken this self-abasement straight, and Gérin even compliments Charlotte on her “good sense—and good manners.” Gordon may be the first to declare what seems obvious—that it “reverberates with veiled sarcasm.”
In 1845, Charlotte opened one of Emily’s notebooks to discover that her sister had been writing poems that “were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music—wild, melancholy, and elevating.” She persuaded Emily and Anne to join her in publishing a collection of verse by the three of them, though, rebuffed by one publisher after another, they finally paid for a “vanity” printing—and only two copies were sold. But the great age of the popular novel had dawned. They had three in hand, The Professor, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, which went the rounds until the last two were accepted by a publisher who made Emily and Anne pay for costs again. The more responsible firm of Smith, Elder, though it rejected The Professor, asked to see something else—and Charlotte sent Jane Eyre. The firm’s reader sat up half the night until he had finished, and Smith took it home and could not put it down until he had reached the last page. He knew that he had hold of a bestseller, and paid the low price of £100 for it, securing the right of first refusal on the author’s next two books.
So began the careers of Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell, the authorial selves that gave a new life to the Brontë women. Jane Eyre was widely acclaimed though attacked for “coarseness”—by which was meant the unconventional heroine’s frank expression of emotion and her independence. It was coarse because it was revolutionary, as the Quarterly Review divined, in the year of revolutions, 1848:
There is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.
In that year also The Tenant of Wildfell Hall provoked attack. Anne dealt more directly with objective social problems. A protomodern woman leaves an alcoholic husband and goes off to earn her own living, taking her son with her—claiming three liberties at once: a woman’s right to sever an undesirable union, her right to work, her right to her own children. But Jane Eyre has been wrongly said by Kathleen Tillotson to have “less relation to its time” than Dickens’s Dombey and Son, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Though it is a study of the interior life, that life is shaped by social reality. This subtler realism has not been understood. George Lewes, George Eliot’s future companion, was less supportive of Currer Bell when he convicted Jane Eyre of melodrama and improbability, “which smack of the circulating library,” despite the “beauty and truth” of many parts. He warned Charlotte not to “stray far from the ground of experience,” though Jane’s struggles had originated in Charlotte’s own. Harriet Martineau put an end to her friendship with Charlotte by writing that Villette, Charlotte’s later masterpiece, was surcharged with a single theme—love—to the exclusion of all those other matters this busy observer of society was preoccupied with: “It is not thus in real life. There are substantial, heartfelt interests for women of all ages, and under ordinary circumstances, quite apart from love.” But, as later for D.H. Lawrence, Charlotte Brontë’s preoccupation with love became an attempt to free human nature from rigid social forms.
At the end of 1848, Emily was dead. Anne died the following May, and Charlotte became the custodian of their reputations. Like Gaskell, who, after Charlotte’s own death, would strive to distinguish the woman she had been from her writings, Charlotte insisted that her sisters had been different from their novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall must have made her shudder at its reference to Branwell. She also feared for the author’s image. “The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature could be conceived,” says the note she supplied for the novel’s re-publication in 1850. In her preface to a new edition of Wuthering Heights, she apologized for its exhibitions of wild passion: “Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know: I scarcely think it is.” It seems probable that Emily had been working on a new work when she died; there is a letter from her publisher which suggests that she had arranged for its future publication. But no manuscript survives, and Barker believes that Charlotte found something that frightened her, and destroyed it.
Charlotte, alone of the Brontës, found herself in the world of Victorian authorship. Among others, she met Thackeray, the contemporary she most admired. Thackeray immediately recognized the greatness of Jane Eyre. He, too, complained that he had been unable to put it down until he finished, losing a day from his own work. She dedicated its second edition to him. But they could not be friends. The great satirist was also a social lion in the society he satirized. He was flabbergasted by her behavior when he organized a soirée in her honor; she shrunk from conversation with his guests. She resented his jesting public references to her by the name of her heroine. She chided him for being a supreme man of letters who wasted his gifts by courting the well-to-do. His novels were unfair to women. “One by one the faults came to my mind and one by one I brought them out,” she later boasted. Thackeray was shaken by her dismissal of his London world: “I fancied an austere little Joan of Arc marching in upon us, and rebuking our easy lives, our easy morals.”
From this world she retreated at last to Haworth. With her marriage in 1854, she assumed the role of the curate’s spouse, organizing parish teas, visiting the poor, entertaining visiting clergy, with little time for anything else. She wrote Miss Wooler,
You ask what visitors we have had?—A good many amongst the clergy &c. in the neighbourhood, but none from a distance…. Besides, now that I am married I do not expect to be an object of much general interest. Ladies who have won some prominence (call it either notoriety or celebrity) in their single life—often fall quite into the background when they change their names; but if true domestic happiness replace Fame—the exchange will indeed be for the better
It seems almost as though she was preparing to enter into collaboration with Mrs. Gaskell, who would be so eager to stress her domesticity, to make us forget the dangerous artist. Her abnegation in marriage would reconcile her at last to the example of the saintly Maria. It seems very doubtful that, as some modern feminist biographers have suggested, she died of exaggerated and prolonged morning sickness, a syndrome of psychic revulsion against marriage and its consequent motherhood. It is not easy to say whether she would have written again. Though Charlotte wrote very little after her wedding, she had only been married nine months when she died. We are left to speculate as one does at the ambiguous conclusion of Villette, where the reader is invited to choose an ending—either Lucy’s union with her Mr. Paul or his loss at sea and her continuing as a single, self-determining woman.
However the biographer tells her story, self-revelation ambiguously survives in Charlotte’s fiction. She also left an accidental, fragmentary, but fascinating account of herself in her letters. Gaskell, writing immediately after her death, had the good fortune to see many unavailable to her successors. In later years, these letters were scattered or even lost, and there eventually emerged only an untrustworthy, inexact printed edition, produced by Thomas J. Wise and J. Alexander Symington in 1933. Even recent biographers have had to apologize to their readers for relying on it, though efforts have been made to retrieve and study the original letters and to use what Gaskell was ignorant of or ignored. Barker’s family biography makes more thoroughgoing use of these than any previous study. At last, 140 years after Charlotte’s death, we have the first of two printed volumes of all her known letters, edited by a distinguished scholar, Margaret Smith. It is a literary event of importance that these can now be read in the new, authoritative edition.
As Smith relates, the letters have had a curious afterlife since Charlotte wrote them. Mr. Brontë was too kind to autograph hunters, and cut some up with scissors. Mary Taylor destroyed nearly all her letters from Charlotte; she may have had reason to fear their effect on other readers than herself. Heger tore up Charlotte’s touching appeals to him after her return from Brussels; just four survive because his wife pulled the pieces out of the waste-basket and glued them together—to have proof to show that Charlotte’s love was uninvited and unreciprocated. Nicholls destroyed all to himself, and we cannot know what she said to the man she married after long hesitation. Embarrassed by the publication of a letter of hers to Ellen Nussey which described his condition after Charlotte’s rebuff of his first proposal, he destroyed more in his own possession—including most of her letters to Emily (only eight remain). When he found out Charlotte had almost accepted James Taylor he got Miss Wooler to burn Charlotte’s letter about it.
Ellen, who owned the largest continuous series of letters from Charlotte, proved an unwise guardian. She appointed herself censor of the five hundred she had received, showing three hundred to Mrs. Gaskell, and claimed to have destroyed those remaining, though nearly four hundred have turned up, with gaps at crucial points such as Charlotte’s breakdown at school or the period of Nicholls’s courtship. She thought of depositing her letters in a library but she delayed for years, hoping to publish them, collaborating with others in the production of memoirs, always stymied by the fact that Nicholls, her rival for the guardianship of Charlotte’s memory, held the copyright. Eventually, she helped Clement Shorter in the production of two books on the Brontë family and, in 1908, a Brontë Life and Letters.
By this time, however, she had lost control of the letters—and turned them over to the worst of proprietors, Thomas Wise, whose profitmaking forgeries of first editions of nineteenth-century poets were to remain undetected until 1934. Under the pretense of adding them to his famous Ashley Library, he bought her four hundred for £125 in 1892, and put most of them on the open market—and one by one they drifted off. Shorter had succeeded where Ellen had not in persuading the aging Nicholls to sign over the precious copyright, and Wise, through Shorter, bought and sold again most of Nicholls’s manuscripts, which still included many of Charlotte’s letters to her family, letters of her parents to one another, the diaries of Emily and Anne, all the juvenilia.
Symington and Wise’s four volumes of correspondence were added to the Shakespeare Head edition of the Brontës’ writings, which has been the standard text until the current Oxford publication. But Charlotte’s letters had been scattered wide by the winds of commerce. The locations of many were unknown and the edition had to rely on inaccurate transcripts, When available, like those made by Wise himself. Still, through the years, many though not all of the lost letters have turned up and been gathered in libraries, and now they are accessible, in renovated form, to the readers of her other remarkable books.
November 2, 1995