Charlotte Brontë, Walking On Alone

Charlotte Brontë was a masterful novelist, as we all know, but she was also a master of letter writing. Charlotte was simply incapable of writing dull or poorly executed sentences; in her hand, the mundane became the magnificent. Her letters could be witty, they could be enthralling, but they could often be mournful and moving too. On this day in 1850 Charlotte wrote perhaps her most moving letter of them all, and it’s phrases and emotions still resonate with so many. In today’s post we’re going to look at this letter, and at Charlotte Brontë walking on alone.

Charlotte Brontë, like Emily (especially) and Anne Brontë, was an introvert. When surprised by an unexpected visitor at Elizabeth Gaskell’s house she hid behind curtains, when forced into polite society during her visit to London in 1848 she was beset by doubts and by headaches. Charlotte was perfectly happy alone, but at times, as all introverts know, that loneliness can still be painful – especially when the loneliness is completed because of the absence of those people whose company they do enjoy.

Charlotte Bronte George Richmond
Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond drawn in the months after the letter below

Charlotte was perfectly happy when in the company of Anne and Emily (and of brother Branwell during their childhood and youth), but it was the sudden and tragic loss of these dear companions in 1848 and 1849 that left her truly alone. It was a terrible blow.

The traditions which the three sisters had enjoyed together were now carried out in solitary fashion by the sole surviving sibling. In 1853 loyal Brontë servant Martha Brown confided to parsonage visitor John Forster how Charlotte had continued the evening perambulations around the dining table that that sisters had used to discuss their tales, and how heartbreaking it was to witness it:

‘For as long as I can remember Miss Brontë [Charlotte], Miss Emily and Miss Anne used to put away their sewing after prayers and walk all three one after the other round the table in the parlour till near eleven o’ clock. Miss Emily walked as long as she could, and when she died Miss Anne and Miss Brontë took it up – and now my heart aches to hear Miss Brontë walking, walking, on alone.’

Bronte Dining Table
The dining table around which the Brontes walked

Charlotte could not give up walking, and she could not give up thinking about the siblings she had loved and lost. It was a thing of wonder to her that only she was left, a thing of horrible wonder, as she revealed in a letter to W. S. Williams of 4th June 1849, just a week after Anne’s passing:

‘They [Emily and Anne] are both gone, and so is poor Branwell – and Papa has now me only – the weakest, puniest, least promising of his six children. Consumption has taken the whole five.’

Grief is dealt with in different ways by different people, but once it has arrived it never really leaves does it? These feelings so raw in the letter above only gained in intensity in the years that lay ahead for Charlotte, as we see clearly in this letter written, again to W. S. Williams, 172 years ago today:

Charlotte still walks around the table, but she finds it hard to walk across the moors; she can write poetry, but she can no longer read her sister’s poetry for if she does she longs too eagerly to join them.

A mournful day but a powerful insight into the daily struggle Charlotte lived with in the six years after the death of Anne Brontë. There’s a mournful week ahead too, as we have reached the anniversary of Anne’s final struggle. In two days time, May 24th, we reach the date at which Anne Brontë set off with Charlotte Brontë to Scarborough – it would be the last time she would ever see Haworth. Painful memories of that approaching week must surely have been in Charlotte’s mind when she wrote her letter almost a year later.

Happier Brontë anniversaries are approaching, and whatever tests they faced, we still have their ultimate triumphs to revel in: their books. I will see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post in which we remember the anniversary of Anne Brontë.

Arthur Bell Nicholls – Lover Or ‘Unmanly Driveller’?

Charlotte Brontë lived a life that had remarkable triumphs but which was on all too many occasions remarkably full of tragedy. One thing we can be thankful for is that she, if all too briefly, found love, so in today’s post we’re going to look at the love of Arthur Bell Nicholls for Charlotte Brontë.

Arthur Bell Nicholls, 200 today
Arthur Bell Nicholls

Physically they may have seemed an odd couple, despite being roughly the same age (Arthur was a little younger). Charlotte Brontë is renowned for being very small and is often described as looking frail, whereas contemporary reports depict Arthur as a tall, well built man. I often get asked if Arthur really did love Charlotte Brontë or if he was in love with her fame, or new found wealth. Ellen Nussey was never convinced by him, but there was a long running enmity between the two. Haworth villagers, however, had a very high opinion of him and were in no doubt of the assistant curate’s love for the curate’s brilliant daughter. Many years later, Haworth resident Charles E. Hall recalled:

‘Mr Nicholls, the curate whom Miss Brontë married, stayed in our house for about eighteen months. They formed a great contrast physically. He was a big, dark, burly Irishman; she a slender twig that you could almost have snapped with one hand. I could never really understand why she married him; for, though she used to come to our house to inquire about him and the other curates, she did it, I feel convinced, from a sense of duty, in order to find out whether they were all that they should be in the parish. She certainly never manifested any particular interest in Mr Nicholls. That, anybody would say. And I believe the idea that she was marrying the natural successor to her father at the parsonage had some weight with her. There was no doubt, mind you, that Mr Nicholls was very fond of her.’

We get further evidence from a service undertaken on this very Sunday in 1853, and reported on in a letter to Ellen Nussey dated 16th May 1853:

‘Dear Ellen, Habituated by this time to Mrs. Upjohn’s fluctuations – I received the news of this fresh put-off without the slightest sentiment of wonder. Indeed I keep all my powers of surprise for the intelligence that you are safely arrived at Gorleston – and still more for the desired but very moderately expected tidings that you are happy there.

The east-winds about which you inquire have spared me wonderfully till today, when I feel somewhat sick physically, and not very blithe morally. I am not sure that the east winds are entirely to blame for this ailment – yesterday was a strange sort of day at church. It seems as if I were to be punished for my doubts about the nature and truth of poor Mr. Nicholls’ regard. Having ventured on

Whitsunday to stay the sacrament, I got a lesson not to be repeated. He struggled – faltered – then lost command over himself – stood before my eyes and in the sight of all the communicants white, shaking, voiceless. Papa was not there – thank God! Joseph Redman spoke some words to him—he made a great effort—but could only with difficulty whisper and falter through the service. I suppose he thought; this would be the last time; he goes either this week or the next. I heard the women sobbing round – and I could not quite check my own tears.

What had happened was reported to Papa either by Joseph Redman [the parish clerk] or John Brown [the sexton who was no fan of Arthur’s after his proposal] – it excited only anger – and such expressions as ‘‘unmanly driveller’’. Compassion or relenting is no more to be looked for than sap from firewood.

I never saw a battle more sternly fought with the feelings than Mr. Nicholls fights with his – and when he yields momentarily you are almost sickened by the sense of the strain upon him. However he is to go – and I cannot speak to him or look at him or comfort him a whit – and I must submit. Providence is over all – that is the only consolation

Yrs faithfully

C Brontë’

Arthur Bell Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls in later life

After what was thought to be his very last service at Haworth on 27th May 1853 (he was by then officiating at most services due to Patrick Brontë’s health and age), Charlotte encountered Arthur for what they presumed would be the last time, as she again revealed in a letter to Ellen:

‘As to the last Sunday – it was a cruel struggle. Mr. Nicholls ought not to have had to take any duty. He left Haworth this morning at 6 o’clock. Yesterday evening he called to render into Papa’s hands the deeds of the National School [which Arthur ran on behalf of the church] – and to say good bye. They were busy cleaning – washing the paint &c. in the dining-room so he did not find me there. I would not go into the parlour to speak to him in Papa’s presence. He went out thinking he was not to see me – and indeed till the very

last moment I thought it best not – but perceiving that he stayed long before going out at the gate – and remembering his long grief I took courage and went out trembling and miserable. I found him leaning against the garden-door in a paroxysm of anguish – sobbing as women never sob. Of course I went straight to him. Very few words were interchanged – those few barely articulate: several things I should have liked to ask him were swept entirely from my memory. Poor fellow! but he wanted such hope and such encouragement as I could not give him.’

Of course, things worked out rather differently than both parties would have expected at that time. Perhaps Charlotte remembered the advice Anne Brontë had given her on her deathbed, and which are repeated in the letter above: ‘take courage.’ Little over a year later Charlotte was styling herself Charlotte Brontë Nicholls in her letters to Ellen.

Arthur places the ring on Charlotte
Arthur places the ring on Charlotte’s finger in a wedding re-enactment at Haworth church

It was perhaps this first, intensely private, letter especially that Arthur was thinking of when he asked Ellen to burn Charlotte’s correspondence. He was mortified in February 1896 to find the letter listed for sale in an upcoming auction. He believed that Ellen Nussey was trying to profiteer from the correspondence, but nothing could be further from the truth. She had in fact entrusted the letter temporarily to T. J. Wise and Clement Shorter who she believed were preparing a biography of Charlotte Brontë. Instead they placed this letter and many others on the open market.

Wise and Shorter were considered respectable figures in literature at the time, and indeed Shorter was made head of the Brontë Society, but they were little more than forgers and fraudsters. Nevertheless, without their illegal intervention we would not have this vital clue to the feelings of Arthur Bell Nicholls for Charlotte Brontë – there can be no doubt that he was deeply in love with her, and had been long before she became known as a writer.

They say money makes the world go round, but love is a better driving force I think – I personally have to make do with books, but that’s better than nothing! I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Local Discovery Of Jane Eyre’s Author

Do you remember how old you were when you first discovered a Brontë novel? Quite possibly it was Jane Eyre, a book which has captivated readers of all ages for well over 170 years now. Despite other great works to her name it remains Jane Eyre which has made its author a literary legend across the world, but at the time of its publication the author remained purposefully secluded. In today’s post we’re going to look at the discovery of Jane Eyre in the local area, and the author’s response to that discovery.

Jane Eyre was published by Smith, Elder & Co on 16th October 1847, with the subtitle ‘An Autobiography’. The author, as far as the world and the publisher knew, was a mysterious Currer Bell, who had previously written a book of poetry with his brothers Ellis and Acton Bell. Of course, we know that Currer Bell was a pseudonym of Charlotte Brontë, but this fact was kept hidden, even from those closest to her, for a long time.

Other than Emily and Anne, who were also involved in this pseudonymous publishing venture, who did Charlotte confide in? We know that Branwell Brontë was kept out of the loop, as Charlotte wrote: ‘My unhappy brother never knew what his sisters had done in literature – he was not aware that they had ever published a line.’

Surely, however, Charlotte would have told her best friend Ellen Nussey that she was the author of a hugely successful novel, or surely Ellen would have known this anyway, as we know that Charlotte corrected proofs of Jane Eyre whilst she was a guest in the Nussey house at Brookroyd? It seems not.

In late April 1848 Charlotte received a letter from Ellen Nussey; unfortunately no copy of this letter remains but we can guess its subject matter from this angry reply that Charlotte sent on 28th April 1848:

Ellen has heard rumours about Charlotte that has left her feeling hurt (or ‘chagrined’ as Charlotte rather wonderfully puts it), and we get further clues as to the nature of these rumours in a further letter sent from Charlotte to Ellen on 3rd May 1848 (once again we don’t have Ellen’s letter that this is in reply to):

Now we see without any doubt that Ellen Nussey has heard a report that Charlotte Brontë was in fact Currer Bell, author of Jane Eyre. Nearly seven months after its publication Charlotte had kept this hidden from her best friend, but nothing could stop the rumours that were now circulating in the polite society of Birstall and Gomersal where she lived.

Charlotte could hardly be stronger in her denial. She has not written any books, and if anyone says that she has they are no friend of hers. In a conciliatory touch at the foot of the letter Charlotte says that she remains faithfully Ellen’s, even though she has calumniated her.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

This makes me think that Charlotte Brontë would have made a good politician, so forceful is her denial of something that she knew to be true. Before we look at why she did this, let’s ponder on how the ‘Birstalians’ and ‘Gomersalians’ came to realise the true identity of Currer Bell.

Jane Eyre was an overnight success and it was rapidly read across the country by those who were literate and wealthy enough to be book readers. It’s no surprise then that it was read widely in the West Riding of Yorkshire where Ellen Nussey, and the Brontës themselves, lived. Despite its subtitle the novel is not remotely as autobiographical as another book about life as a governess, Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, and yet there was one clue within it which continued to be problematic, both for the author and for her later biographer Elizabeth Gaskell: Jane’s sojourn at Lowood School.

Lowood was quickly recognised as Cowan Bridge school, above

The portion of the novel dealing with this cruel, deadly school and the death of schoolgirls within it, including Jane’s best friend Helen Burns, resonated deeply with certain of its readers. There were many in the area who knew the story of Patrick Brontë, the curate of Haworth, who lost two of his daughters to consumption caught at Cowan Bridge school. Helen Burns was closely modelled on Maria Brontë, whose anniversary of her death aged 11 occurred this week, and so those who knew Maria’s tragic tale began to speculate that the author must have known of it too.

Speculation then turned to the eldest surviving daughter of Reverend Patrick Brontë. She was known for her intelligence and her bookish nature, and she herself had been a pupil at Cowan Bridge School and had to watch her sister Maria catch consumption and then die of it. That was why the depiction of Lowood was such a powerful one, such an angry one. The more the local readership pondered on it, the more it made sense: the celebrated author Currer Bell must in fact be the unassuming curate’s daughter Charlotte Brontë!

Helen Burns with Jane Eyre

As it was well known that Ellen Nussey was Charlotte’s best friend people began to ask her to confirm or deny the rumours. Surely at first she would have denied the rumours, thinking it impossible that Charlotte had written this great book without telling her. As the rumours gathered in force and number, however, even Ellen must have suspected they were true, which must have been a devastating moment for her and which then led to her letters of April and May 1848.

We have looked before at why the Brontës chose to use pen names, and the pen names of Bell in particular. Emily Brontë in particular, an intensely shy genius, was vehemently opposed to their true identities ever being revealed. Charlotte Brontë had promised her that she would never reveal her identity as Currer Bell, and so steadfastly did she keep this promise that even Ellen Nussey was kept in the dark.

Eventually, of course, the truth could be kept hidden no longer and Ellen was finally told that Charlotte was an author. Doubtless she too was told the reason for the secrecy, of the vow she had made to Emily and her own wish for privacy at all costs; apologies would have been made and accepted. Nobody had been told that Currer Bell was Charlotte Brontë; except, that wouldn’t have been true either.

Charlotte had in fact revealed the truth to her other great friend, Mary Taylor. Indeed, she even sent an early copy of Jane Eyre to Mary in New Zealand as we know from a letter which Mary sent back to Charlotte. Perhaps Charlotte was so excited that she simply had to tell someone. She chose Mary rather than Ellen because of the distance between them, and the safety that implied, but also perhaps she valued Mary’s intellect whereas she said of Ellen, ‘Ellen is without romance – if she attempts to read poetry or poetic prose aloud I am irritated and deprive her of the book; if she talks of it I stop my ears.’

If Ellen had known that, she really would have been chagrined!

Thank you for all your kind words after last week’s post. Well over a week later I’m still testing positive for Covid, but I’m plodding on. I hope you are all happy and healthy, and I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

A Poetic Anniversary And Brontë Good News

Sometimes when life throws you a curve-ball or slips a banana skin under your socks you have to turn to the things you love to lift your spirits again; with me, of course, that’s the Brontës, so in today’s post we’ll be looking at a very special poem written on this day 178 years ago!

This weekend I should have been holding a meeting to put in place an events team to raise much needed funds for The Sheffield Cats Shelter. Unfortunately I’ve tested positive for Covid. It’s finally got me, and whilst I feel okay I’m hugely disappointed that the fundraising meeting has had to be postponed – if you can help our cats and kittens in need please click here, where every pound is put to good use! I was also supposed to be heading to Formentera on holiday next week, so that’s off too. I obviously needed some good news to cheer me up, and thankfully that’s exactly what Brontë lovers got this week!

Zelda was left in a box on a vet’s doorstep. She’s now getting love and care at The Sheffield Cats Shelter

You may remember my recent post about ‘A Book Of Rhymes’, the tiny book of poetry by a young Charlotte Brontë which had been thought lost for over a hundred years until it recently surfaced again? It was announced that the book was sold for its full asking price of $1.25 million at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair last week, but it was reported that it was sold to an anonymous source, giving rise to fears that this precious little book would disappear from view once more.

This week, the identity of the winning bidder was revealed, and it was a great relief to hear that it was the wonderful organisation Friends Of The National Libraries who have in turn gifted it to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. ‘A Book Of Rhymes’ will be coming home at last!

I had been invited to talk about this great news on Irish radio this week but the producer and presenter both came down with Covid, so take care, dear reader, it’s rife out there at the moment.

A Book Of Rhymes will be heading home to Haworth! Copyright Clark Hodgin of The New York Times

Friends Of The National Libraries raise funds through their many supporters, but there were nine large supporters for this particular bid, one of which was the estate of the late, great Thomas Stearns Eliot.

T. S. Eliot was undoubtedly one of the greatest poets of all time and a towering figure in twentieth century literature, and his estate’s use of his money to secure Charlotte Brontë’s little book certainly wasn’t a waste(land). Alongside his rather serious, if brilliant, work, Eliot also wrote the children’s book of poetry upon which the musical ‘Cats’ was based of course, which is a nice link in more ways than one: in 2020 the same estate donated £20,000 from its ‘Cats’ royalties to the Brontë Parsonage Museum to help its coronavirus relief fund.

T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf
T. S. Eliot with another Bronte fan, Virginia Woolf, in 1924

Although their style of writing was very different, Eliot would surely have appreciated the poetic genius of Emily Brontë. On this day in 1845 Emily Brontë wrote one of her finest pieces of poetry, a May Day look at nature in all her beauty and the endless cycle of life, death and renewal. As with all great Brontë poetry that too elevates my spirits, and I hope it will with yours too. I also hope you can join me next week when Deo volente (as Charlotte often said) I will bring you a new plague-free Bronte blog post. I leave you now with Emily Brontë and a certain linnet amidst the rocky dells where a lady sleeps forevermore:

‘The linnet in the rocky dells,
The moor-lark in the air,
The bee among the heather-bells
That hide my lady fair:
The wild deer browse above her breast;
The wild birds raise their brood;
And they, her smiles of love caressed,
Have left their solitude!
I ween, that when the grave’s dark wall
Did first her form retain,
They thought their hearts could ne’er recall
The light of joy again.
They thought the tide of grief would flow
Unchecked through future years,
But where is all their anguish now,
And where are all their tears?
Well, let them fight for Honour’s breath,
Or Pleasure’s shade pursue –
The Dweller in the land of Death
Is changed and careless too.
And if their eyes should watch and weep
Till sorrow’s source were dry
She would not, in her tranquil sleep,
Return a single sigh!
Blow, west wind, pass by the lonely mound,
And murmur, summer streams –
There is no need of other sound
To soothe my Lady’s dreams.’

A linnet in a rocky dell