Charlotte Brontë After The Publication Of Jane Eyre

This weekend saw the anniversary of a very special day in the Brontë story, and in the story of English literature as a whole. On 16th October 1847 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was published by Smith, Elder & Co. Its success was instant and yet has proven enduring, so in today’s post we’re going to look at Charlotte’s comments in the aftermath of the book’s publication, accompanied by some beautiful illustrations from my two volume edition illustrated by Edmund Dulac.

19th October 1847, to Smith, Elder and Co.

‘Gentlemen, the six copies of “Jane Eyre reached me this morning. You have given the work every advantage which good paper, clear type and a seemly outside can supply. If it fails, the fault will lie with the author – you are exempt. I now await the judgement of the press and the public.’

28th October 1847, to W. S. Williams

‘Dear Sir, your last letter was very pleasant to me to read, and is very cheering to reflect on. I feel honoured in being approved by Mr. Thackeray because I approve Mr. Thackeray. This may sound presumptuous perhaps, but I mean that I have long recognized in his writings genuine talent such as I admired, such as I wondered at and delighted in… One good word from such a man is worth pages of praise from ordinary judges.

You are right in having faith in the reality of Helen Burns’s character: she was real enough: I have exaggerated nothing there: I restrained from recording much that I remember respecting her, lest the narrative should sound incredible. Knowing this, I could not but smile at the quiet, self-complacent dogmatism with which one of the journals lays it down that “such creations as Helen Burns are very beautiful but very untrue.”

The plot of “Jane Eyre” may be a hackneyed one; Mr. Thackeray remarks that it is familiar to him; but having read comparatively few novels, I never chanced to meet with it, and I thought it original…

I would still endeavour to keep my expectations low regarding the ultimate success of “Jane Eyre”; but the desire that it should succeed augments – for you have taken much trouble about the work, and it would grieve me seriously if your active efforts should be baffled and your sanguine hopes disappointed.’

6th November 1847, to W. S. Williams

‘Dear Sir, I shall be obliged if you shall direct the enclosed to be posted in London, as at present I wish to avoid giving any clue to my place of residence, publicity not being my ambition.

It is an answer to the letter I received yesterday, favoured by you; this letter bore the signature of G. H. Lewes, and the writer informs me that it is his intention to write a critique on “Jane Eyre” for the Decbr. number of Frazer’s Magazine – and possibly also, he intimates, a brief no for the Westminster Review. Upon the whole he seems favourably inclined to the work though he hints disapprobation of the melo-dramatic portions.

Can you give me any information respecting Mr. Lewes? What station he occupies in the literary world and what works he has written? He styles himself “a fellow-novelist”. There is something in the candid tone of his letter which inclines me to think well of him.’

6th November 1847, to G. H. Lewes

‘Dear Sir, your letter reached me yesterday; I beg to assure you that I appreciate fully the intention with which it was written, and I thank you sincerely both for its cheering commendation and valuable advice.

You warn me to beware of Melodrame and you exhort me to adhere to the real. When I first began to write, so impressed was I with the truth of the principles you advocate that I determined to take Nature and Truth as my sole guides and to follow in their very footprints; I restrained imagination, eschewed romance, repressed excitement; over-bright colouring too I avoided, and sought to produce something which should be soft, grave and true. My work (a tale in 1 vol) being completed, I offered it to a publisher. He said it was original, faithful to Nature, but he did not feel warranted in accepting it, such a work would not sell.’

10th November 1847, to W. S. Williams

‘Dear Sir, I have received the Britannia and the Sun, but not the Spectator, which I rather regret, as censure, though not pleasant, is often wholesome. Thank you for your information regarding Mr. Lewes. I am glad to hear that he is a clever and sincere man; such being the case, I can await his critical sentence with fortitude: even if it goes against me, I shall not murmur; ability and honesty have a right to condemn where they think condemnation is deserved. From what you say, however, I trust rather to obtain at least a modified approval.

Your account of the various surmises respecting the identity of the brothers Bell, amused me much: were the enigma solved, it would probably be found not worth the trouble of solution; but I will let it alone; it suits ourselves to remain quiet and certainly injures no one else.’

17th November 1847, to W. S. Williams

‘Dear Sir, the perusal of the Era gave me much pleasure, as did that of the People’s Journal. An author feels particularly gratified by the recognition of a right tendency in his works; for if what he writes does no good to the reader, he feels he has missed his chief aim, wasted, in a great measure, his time and labour. The Spectator seemed to have found more harm than good in “Jane Eyre”, and I acknowledge that distressed me a little.

I am glad to be told that your are not habitually over-sanguine: I shall now permit myself to encourage a little more freely the hopeful sentiment which your letters usually impart, and which hitherto I have always tried to distrust. Still I am persuaded every nameless writer should “rejoice with trembling” over the first doubtful dawn of popular good-will; and that he should hold himself prepared for change and disappointment: Critics are capricious, and the Public is fickle; besides one work gives so slight a claim to favour.’

1st December 1847, to Messrs. Smith, Elder and Co.

‘Gentlemen, the Examiner reached me to-day; it had been missent on account of the direction which was to Currer Bell, Care of Miss Brontë. Allow me to intimate that it would be better in future not to put the name of Currer Bell on the outside of communications; if directed simply to Miss Brontë they will be more likely to reach their destination safely. Currer Bell is ‘not’ known in this district and I have no wish that he should become known.

The notice in the Examiner gratified me very much; it appears to be from the pen of an able man who has understood what he undertakes to criticise; of course approbation from such a quarter is encouraging to an Author and I trust it will prove beneficial to the work. I am Gentlemen, yours respectfully, C Bell.’

We can see, as always, what a wonderful letter writer Charlotte Brontë was, but we can see much more as well. There are practical matters, such as the fact that Charlotte didn’t know who G. H. Lewes was and had to enquire as to his character and writing prowess. Lewes is much better known today not for his own literary output, or his work as a critic, but as the common law husband of Mary Ann Evans – the writer George Eliot. When Charlotte finally met Lewes, after the death of her siblings, she wrote that she was moved to tears because of his facial resemblance to Emily Brontë.

We also get a glimpse into Charlotte’s emotions after the publication of Jane Eyre; it seems incredible to us today, but Charlotte was worried about whether it would be a success, and whether it was good enough to justify the time and money her publishers had invested in it. She was beset by doubts even at the height of her success, the ‘imposter syndrome’ that so many writers and artists have to struggle with.

Winter draws near, so there’s never been a better time to re-read Jane Eyre or re-watch one of its brilliant adaptations. Nevertheless I hope you can find time to join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Brontës, Stamps, Letters And The Post

Yesterday, by which I mean Saturday October the 9th as I write this, was World Post Day. Some people think that in this world of WhatsApp and emails the days of posted letters are numbered, but there’s still nothing like receiving a handwritten letter in the post – it always makes a pleasant change to the bills. The postal service changed a lot in the first half of the nineteenth century, and it made a huge difference to how much we know about the Brontës, so in today’s post we take a look at the Brontës and post.

The first post revolution had taken place in 1784. In this year fledgling post offices were set up in towns which then fed into their own local infrastructures. Mail coaches could carry letters from one post office to another, meaning that for the first time postal communication as we know it was possible. It was this system which allowed Maria Branwell to send her courtship letters to her ‘Saucy Pat’ in 1812, and it was this system that the Brontë siblings grew up with as they made their first tentative contacts with the outside world.

Envelope for a letter from Charlotte Bronte to Ellen Nussey of 6th November 1841, with stamp!

One thing radically different about this 1784 mail solution was that the cost of postage was borne by the recipient – if it was in place today it would make receiving junk mail even more intolerable. There was no such thing as a stamp and the cost to the recipient was based upon both number of sheets sent and the distance they were sent.

A single sheet of paper cost fourpence if sent 15 miles or less, with each subsequent sheet of paper multiplying that cost. This could soon add up to a significant cost at a time when a pound could be a month’s salary to some, which is why cross letters came into being. Cross letters are a style of letter which has writing both vertically and horizontally, meaning that you’d have to rotate the letter 90 degrees to read the remainder once you’d read half of it. It seems incredibly confusing to our modern minds and eyes, but writing and reading them must have seemed second nature at the time. The Brontës were certainly familiar with the cross letter art, and must have become so used to it that they sometimes continued to use it even when postal reforms had made it unnecessary. For example, Anne Brontë’s final, incredibly moving, letter to Ellen Nussey in 1849 was crossed.

Anne Brontë letter
Anne’s final letter was cross written

Distance was also a factor to be considered, as the cost rose sharply from four pence up to a shilling for mail sent up to 300 miles away, and even more for distances greater than that (such as the 400 miles or so between Penzance and the West Riding of Yorkshire, which saw letters going back and forth between the Branwell sisters in the run up to Maria’s December 1812 wedding.

The distance between Haworth and Birstall, home of Charlotte’s great friend and regular correspondent Ellen Nussey was 16 miles. Ellen’s family was considerably more comfortable financially than Charlotte’s, but even so we can see that they were concerned about the cost of the letters flying regularly between them. On 4th July 1834, for example, Charlotte begins:

‘Dear Ellen, you will be tired of paying the postage of my letters but necessity must plead my excuse for their frequent recurrence.’

In 1840 things changed thanks to a man named Rowland Hill. His name is largely forgotten today and yet he brought about a communications revolution whose influence was as great as the invention of the internet, and whose influence is still being felt today. Born in Worcestershire in 1795 Hill was a teacher and social reformer, and his particular area of interest was the postal service. Hill knew that the 1784 system prohibited working class people, and poorer members of the middle class from being able to send letters, and he put forward plans for a new system whereby the sender would pay for the carriage of their letter, but at a much lower rate.

Sir Rowland Hill
Sir Rowland Hill, aptly writing a letter

The government adopted his plans in 1840 and the cost of sending a simple letter became just one penny. To show the cost had been paid for another of Hill’s ideas was applied to the envelope: a postage stamp which became known as the penny black. Within a decade, Hill’s system of stamps, envelopes and a universally available post service had been adopted in nearly a hundred countries.

Charlotte Brontë had been a prolific letter writer before the change came into place on May 6th 1840, but she became an even more frequent letter writer after this date. Thank goodness for that, as it’s thanks to the near thousand letters from Charlotte which are still in existence (many more are sadly lost or destroyed, such as her letters to Mary Taylor) that we know so much about the Brontës of Haworth.

CBWS stamp
Charlotte has herself featured on postage stamps

Charlotte Brontës letters are a genius work of art in their own right, as anyone who has read a book of them will agree. The postal system itself is the conduit which allowed that art to take form and exist, and which will continue to permit a ready flow of genius, love, hope, yearning, loss and comfort – if we let it.

Haworth Main Street Post Office has been a central part of its community since the nineteenth century, used by the Brontës and countless others, and yet for many years now it has been under threat from people who only see value in balance sheets.

Save Haworth Post Office
Haworth villagers of all ages are campaigning to save Main Street Post Office (picture from Yorkshire Live)

Thankfully the cause has been taken up by local MP Robbie Moore, and initial plans to close the post office this year have been postponed. Nevertheless, it could be a temporary reprieve. This historic post office has been told to prove it is commercially viable, and it will have to outperform the sterile post office counter at the Co-Op at the foot of Haworth’s hill. If it doesn’t win this battle it faces closure next year, and its historic associations, not to mention its convenience for all the people who don’t want to trudge down the hill and back up again, will be gone forever. If you visit Haworth please take time out to use the Main Street Post Office – every transaction counts, because it’s now in a critical ‘use it or lose it’ scenario.

Charlotte’s letter to Ellen Nussey of 9th October 1849 was still in a black bordered mourning envelope

We should all write more letters – if anyone wants to write a Brontë related letter to me (no bills please, I have enough of those) then email me for my details. I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post – no stamp required.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Moving Letter On The Brontës

At the end of September 1853 Elizabeth Gaskell made her first visit to see her friend Charlotte Brontë at Haworth Parsonage. Much of the information she gathered at this initial visit, and the first impressions she made, impacted upon her later biography The Life Of Charlotte Brontë. It’s a brilliant book, but we get an even clearer impression of Elizabeth Gaskell’s views on Charlotte, Patrick Brontë, Haworth and more in a remarkable letter that she wrote at around this time of the year in 1853 – and it’s that letter that we’re going to look at today.

We don’t know the exact date, but we know that it was written at the very end of September or start of October, and it was addressed to a John Forster. Forster was a biographer and influential critic, and he was one of the founders of the Guild of Literature and Art. He himself had met Charlotte Brontë in December 1849, before she made the acquaintance of Gaskell. I will reproduce the letter in full below, but we’ll take a quick look at some points within it first.

The ‘ruddy kind-looking man’ whom Elizabeth met on the steps to the parsonage was Francis Bennoch. Their paths crossed fleetingly, and it seems that Elizabeth was unaware of who he was. In fact, Bennoch was one of the richest industrialists in the north of England, owner of a large silk factory in Manchester. He became renowned for his love of literature and especially for his philanthropy and charitable actions towards the poor. He imposed himself upon Charlotte, but both she and her father found him charming. In a letter to Bennoch of 29th September 1853, Charlotte wrote:

‘Both my father and myself and enjoyed the interview much, and I only regretted that you could not add another hour or two to your stay, and thus have made the acquaintance of Mrs. Gaskell. You are right in conjecturing that she was the lady who arrived just as you were departing.’

Philanthropist Francis Bennoch in later life

Bennoch was a self-made man and Gaskell sums him up as a man of no refinement, but this gives us a clue to further points within the letter and her biography of Charlotte. Gaskell had a troubled start to her life, having to leaver her London home to be raised by her aunt in Knutsford, yet she certainly had a very privileged upbringing. Her novels such as North And South contain brilliant depictions of working class life, and yet Elizabeth herself had never experienced that life herself. She had no innate sympathy for people from working class backgrounds who had raised themselves up – people like Francis Bennoch; people like Patrick Brontë.

Within this letter we see that Patrick Brontë has treated her with kindness and respect, and yet she has clearly taken against him from this very first meeting because of ‘a glare of his stern eyes’ that made her ‘know my man’. In fact that glare may be related to something else she mentions – Patrick’s cataracts and near-blindness at that point. She is critical of his decisions to eat alone and to walk on the moors alone, but perhaps she could instead have seen a man who found his strength failing and his life ebbing away, but who didn’t want to be a burden on the daughter he loved?

As in her biography of Charlotte, Elizabeth is very critical of the Haworth villagers, especially those who have made money. In the biography she called them ‘sleuth-hounds after money’ and in this letter they are ‘queer people’ while the poor are ‘densely ignorant.’

This letter foretells much of what will be in The Life Of Charlotte Bronte

Nevertheless this letter is profoundly moving in many places, such as when Patrick talks of Keeper, or when Martha talks of the deaths of Emily and Anne Brontë and the diminishing group of people walking around the dining room table: ‘now my heart aches to hear Miss Brontë walking, walking on alone.’

This is a beautiful and very informative letter, and written not from hazy recollections but just days after the events described happened. I reproduce it below, and hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

John Forster, recipient of this remarkable letter

'Keeper from life' by Emily Bronte
‘Keeper from life’ by Emily Bronte – Patrick feared never feeling his paws on his knees again