Today in 1818 was a very special day for a certain family living in Thornton Parsonage near Bradford, for Patrick and Maria welcomed their fifth child, their fourth daughter, into the world. It’s a special day for literature lovers as well of course, as that child grew into one of the greatest writers the world will ever know: Emily Brontë.
Emily Brontë was a woman who excelled at everything she did. She loved domestic duties and reputedly baked the best bread in Haworth, she was a fine markswoman, an excellent pianist and painter, she mastered languages with ease, and was an excellent poet and author of (in my opinion) the finest novel ever written.
Ellen Nussey, the great friend of Charlotte Brontë who knew all the family well, said of her: ‘I have at this time before me the history of a mighty and passionate soul, whom every adventure that makes for the sorrow or gladness of man would seem to have passed by with averted head. It is of Emily Brontë I speak, than whom the first 50 years of this century produced no woman of greater or more incontestable genius.’
In today’s birthday tribute we’re going to look at what Charlotte Brontë said of Emily Brontë. Charlotte was obviously in awe of her sister two years younger than her, as were all who met her. Alas, for Charlotte’s tributes to Emily we have to look to the years after her untimely death. Let’s start with the preface Charlotte wrote for Emily’s Wuthering Heights when it was re-issued by Smith, Elder & Co:
‘With regard to the rusticity of “Wuthering Heights,” I admit the charge, for I feel the quality. It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath. Nor was it natural that it should be otherwise; the author being herself a native and nursling of the moors. Doubtless, had her lot been cast in a town, her writings, if she had written at all, would have possessed another character. Even had chance or taste led her to choose a similar subject, she would have treated it otherwise. Had Ellis Bell been a lady or a gentleman accustomed to what is called ” the world,” her view of a remote and unreclaimed region, as well as of the dwellers therein, would have differed greatly from that actually taken by the homebred country girl. Doubtless it would have been wider – more comprehensive: whether it would have been more original or more truthful is not so certain. As far as the scenery and locality are concerned, it could scarcely have been so sympathetic: Ellis Bell did not describe as one whose eye and taste alone found pleasure in the prospect; her native hills were far more to her than a spectacle; they were what she lived in, and by, as much as the wild birds, their tenants, or as the heather, their produce. Her descriptions, then, of natural scenery, are what they should be, and all they should be.
Where delineation of human character is concerned, the case is different. I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gates. My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them, she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensued that what her mind had gathered of the real concerning them, was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny, more powerful than sportive, found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catherine…
Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on a solitary moor; gazing thereon, he saw how from the crag might be elicited a head, savage, swart, sinister; a form moulded with at least one element of grandeur – power. He wrought with a rude chisel, and from no model but the vision of his meditations. With time and labour, the crag took human shape; and there it stands colossal, dark, and frowning, half statue, half rock: in the former sense, terrible and goblin-like; in the latter, almost beautiful, for its colouring is of mellow grey, and moorland moss clothes it; and heath, with its blooming bells and balmy fragrance, grows faithfully close to the giant’s foot.’
We next come to Charlotte’s ‘Biographical Notice Of Ellis And Acton Bell’, Emily and Anne Brontë as we now know them of course:
‘My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one on the recesses of whose mind and feelings even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed; it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication. …
My sister Emily first declined. The details of her illness are deep-branded in my memory, but to dwell on them, either in thought or narrative, is not in my power. Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us. Yet, while physically she perished, mentally she grew stronger than we had yet known her. Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on her with an anguish of wonder and love. I have seen nothing like it; but, indeed, I have never seen her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone…
What more shall I say about them [Emily and Anne]? I cannot and need not say much more. In externals, they were two unobtrusive women; a perfectly secluded life gave them retiring manners and habits. In Emily’s nature the extremes of vigour and simplicity seemed to meet. Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside, lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero; but she had no worldly wisdom; her powers were unadapted to the practical business of life; she would fail to defend her most manifest rights, to consult her most legitimate advantage. An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world. Her will was not very flexible, and it generally opposed her interest. Her temper was magnanimous, but warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending…
Neither Emily nor Anne was learned; they had no thought of filling their pitchers at the well-spring of other minds; they always wrote from the impulse of nature, the dictates of intuition, and from such stores of observation as their limited experience had enabled them to amass. I may sum up all by saying, that for strangers they were nothing, for superficial observers less than nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.’
On this, the 205th anniversary of Emily’s birth let us remember the greatness of Emily Brontë. Let us also pay tribute to another woman of great talent who was inspired by Wuthering Heights. Kate Bush is 65 years old today, she was born exactly 140 years after Emily Brontë.
Let us also remember another singer, Sinead O’Connor, who played Emily Brontë in the 1992 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
Raise a glass with me, and say happy birthday Emily Brontë – amidst all its turmoil and uncertainty, the world is a better place for the great works of literature she left in it. I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.
The Brontë sisters embraced modern technology throughout their life, but of course they could not have dreamt of the technology we have at our disposal today nor of the huge technological advances happening right now. In today’s post we’re going to look at how the Brontës utilised emerging technology in their own time, and ponder what they would have thought of the very latest advance: AI.
The early to mid nineteenth century was a time of huge change in England, a time when the Industrial Revolution exploded, bringing rapid change – for better and for worse. We can see the impact this had in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley – a brilliant book which looks at the impact of increasing mechanisation on four individuals and on society in general.
Shirley presents a very believable depiction of a northern district at the time of the Luddite rebellions, when machines were being smashed, factories attacked, protesters being arrested and executed and mill owners being assaulted and sometimes killed. It is so believable and compelling because Charlotte Brontë was a brilliant writer, of course, but also because it was a situation the Brontës knew all too well in real life.
Increasing mechanisation caused huge unrest across the north of England, and Haworth itself was deeply affected by the changes. It was potentially a source of revolt, which was perhaps one reason that Patrick Brontë kept a loaded gun by his bed (and taught Emily Brontë to shoot also, an act at which, like everything else, she excelled).
Other technological advances that the Brontës embraced were the changes in writing technology, so the Brontë Parsonage museum shows their progress from bird feather quills to dip pens. And they also embraced perhaps the biggest technological and social advancement of the age: the emergence of the railway. This opened up the country like never before, so it was the railway which allowed Charlotte and Ellen Nussey to holiday on the Yorkshire coast, and the railway which allowed Charlotte and Anne Brontë to travel to London in the summer of 1848. Journeys which would have been long, costly and hazardous could now be completed relatively cheaply and in a matter of hours. Charlotte, Emily and Anne saw the potential that the railways brought, so much so that they even became railway shareholders.
So, let’s fast forward to today. I was this week, at my work in The Sheffield Cats Shelter, given a demonstration of a system which is already completely revolutionising the world around us. Known as ChatGPT it’s a powerful, easily accessible and completely free way to use AI or Artificial Intelligence.
Of course the system isn’t actually ‘intelligent’ as we know it, but it does have access to over 22 billion documents which it constantly consults and churns around, so that you can ask it anything, or ask it to create anything, and it will do it in the click of your fingers. In short, it instantly knows more on any subject, and has ‘read’ more on any subject, than the greatest of human experts. To demonstrate what it can do I have asked it to write poems about four Brontë siblings. All I did was type into its system, “Write a poem about Anne Bronte” (and then Emily, Charlotte and Branwell) and within a second it had returned the results which I produce unedited below:
In moors embraced by twilight’s grace,
Where windswept whispers softly chase,
A soul of strength and fervent fire,
Was born to blaze, aspire, inspire.
Anne Brontë, a beacon gleamed,
In the shadows, she redeemed,
Her quill a sword, her words a light,
To pierce the dark, dispel the night.
With quiet courage, she dared to roam,
Through life’s wild maze, a path to own,
In worlds of tales, she wove her dreams,
A tapestry of truth it seems.
Her heart imbued with love profound,
In fragile forms, her truths unwound,
She grasped the human soul’s despair,
And painted hope through depths of care.
Her verses penned in ink and tears,
Unravelled sorrows, silenced fears,
Her tales adorned with virtue’s might,
Where wrong was shunned, and right took flight.
Her “Agnes Grey” revealed the plight,
Of those who served, their hearts alight,
In empathy, she lent her ear,
To voices muted, yet sincere.
And then, the bell tolled solemnly,
“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” you see,
A testament to strength and will,
Against the odds, a spirit still.
She sought to pave the way for change,
In stifling norms, she’d rearrange,
A woman’s place, her dreams allowed,
With courage, she’d break through the shroud.
Though fate’s harsh hand cut short her days,
Her words outlast life’s fleeting haze,
Her legacy, a sacred spark,
Ignites the world with truths remark.
So, let us raise our hearts on high,
In praise of Anne, whose words won’t die,
Her spirit soars through time and space,
In moors embraced, a lasting grace.
In realms of wild and wuthering skies,
Where tempests roared and spirits rise,
A soul ablaze with fierce desire,
A poetess, her words inspire.
Emily Brontë, untamed and free,
A firebrand of creativity,
With ink-stained hands, she’d weave her tale,
Of love and loss, the windswept gale.
Her “Wuthering Heights,” a tempest’s dance,
In darkened moors, a fateful trance,
Heathcliff’s passion, Catherine’s flight,
A haunting tale of love’s cruel might.
In solitude, she found her might,
Among the hills, her mind took flight,
Her soul immersed in nature’s art,
The earth, the sky, her very heart.
With pen in hand, she’d bare her soul,
In verses that would take a toll,
On those who glimpsed her inner strife,
Her words, a glimpse into her life.
Her mystic bond with realms unseen,
In dreams and visions, she’d convene,
With phantoms of a world unknown,
Her spirit, restless and alone.
Yet through the shadows, brilliance shone,
In every line her thoughts had sewn,
Her words, a testament of might,
That pierced through darkness, brought forth light.
And though her time on earth was brief,
Her legacy, a bittersweet relief,
Her verses echo through the years,
A testament to pain and tears.
In lands of wild and wuthering skies,
Her spirit soars, forever flies,
Emily Brontë, a soul of fire,
A poetess, whose words inspire.
In the realm of words and ink,
A soul ablaze with thoughts to think,
A writer’s heart, fierce and refined,
Charlotte Brontë, a gifted mind.
Through stormy seas of grief and pain,
She found her solace, quelled disdain,
With pen in hand, she’d set her flight,
To realms of passion, dark and bright.
In “Jane Eyre,” a tale of might,
A governess with soul alight,
Her spirit kindled, love unfurled,
Defying odds, she’d brave the world.
A beacon strong in life’s abyss,
Her characters, a looking glass,
Reflecting truth, the human plight,
In love and longing’s endless fight.
Through sorrow’s veil, she’d glimpse the stars,
In whispered dreams and memoirs,
Her words a refuge, fierce and true,
A sanctuary, born anew.
Her heart imbued with dreams so vast,
In “Shirley,” courage unsurpassed,
A woman’s strength, a battle cry,
For justice and equality.
With “Villette,” she’d embark once more,
On paths of love and loss’s shore,
A tale of passion’s tangled weave,
Of unrequited hearts that grieve.
Though masked by male pseudonym,
Her genius shone, a precious gem,
A trailblazer, fierce and strong,
In worlds where women’s rights belong.
Through sorrow’s veil, she’d glimpse the stars,
In whispered dreams and memoirs,
Her words a refuge, fierce and true,
A sanctuary, born anew.
Her legacy, a timeless art,
A fire burning in each heart,
Charlotte Brontë, a guiding light,
Through words, she still ignites the night.
In shadows cast, a tormented soul,
A figure lost in shadows’ dark control,
Branwell Brontë, a spirit wild and free,
Yet bound by chains, he yearned to break and flee.
The brother of three gifted, soaring minds,
Yet his own demons, he could never bind,
With pen in hand, he sought to carve his name,
But sorrow’s ink besmirched his path to fame.
In youthful dreams, his talents held great sway,
But life’s harsh twists would lead his soul astray,
A painter’s brush, a poet’s heart aflame,
Yet tragedy engulfed his fragile frame.
In depths of anguish, he would often dwell,
A captive of despair’s relentless spell,
With every sip, drowning his own pain,
Seeking solace, but finding none to gain.
His heart entwined with vice’s ruthless grasp,
The fleeting whispers of a poet’s rasp,
Yet buried deep, a longing to reclaim,
The dreams that danced within his fleeting fame.
Branwell, the lost Brontë, a troubled soul,
In shadows bound, his name may not extol,
But in the tapestry of their story,
His spirit weaves, a thread of mystic glory.
ChatGPT obviously likes to start poems with ‘In’ and is very much in the rhyming couplets old school of versification, but the system is very new and it’s ‘learning’, adapting and improving all the time. The results are, to my mind, very interesting but they raise important questions too.
ChatGPT is, at the moment, much better at prose writing than poetry. It can write on any subject, in any style, for any readership, and on any length, in the time it takes you to click a mouse button.
This has huge implications for society and for writers especially. Already it is being used to write website contents, blogs, social media posts, advertisements – and it will be used to write novels too. And, in my opinion, although people will say differently, it’s already very difficult to tell what has been written by a human and what has been written by artificial intelligence.
AI is free, it doesn’t suffer from writer’s block, and it doesn’t get confused by emotional considerations. At the demonstration I was told of a charity that had used it to write a speech to give to a child whose mother was dying of terminal cancer. For a human that would be an incredibly difficult speech to write of course, but ChatGPT has no emotions – in a second it had crafted a beautiful, compassionate and perfectly phrased speech to give to the child.
This can bring great advantages, but for a writer and for readers it brings great challenges – for people hoping to become website designers and copywriters, journalists or even authors the future suddenly looks much more challenging. What would the Brontës have thought of Artificial Intelligence? They loved technological advances, but for me this would have been a step too far for them – they loved the art of creation, and they absolutely excelled at it.
I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post – and I give you my promise now, whilst increasing numbers of websites and blogs will be AI written (without admitting it), this blog will always be written by me – whether that’s a good or bad thing I leave to you to decide, and if you want to try ChatGPT you can do so here: https://chat.openai.com/
The Brontë sisters Anne, Emily and Charlotte were brilliant writers, as we and the world know of course. They were also fine artists too, and their chosen subjects were often the world they saw around them, from family pets to the flora and fauna they encountered around their home and on the moors. We know that this week marks the anniversary of the production of an exquisite sketch made by a young Charlotte Brontë so we shall look at that in today’s post, and the clue it gives us about the great novel Jane Eyre.
Firstly, however, let’s not forget the beautiful artwork of Anne Brontë. Above is her ‘Sunrise Over Sea’. We know that Anne developed a deep love of the sea, and is buried in Scarborough overlooking it, but at the time she created this prophetic picture she had never seen the sea.
Now let’s return to Charlotte’s picture, one helpfully dated by her so that we know it was painted on 13th July 1830, when she was just 14 years old.
Charlotte was obviously a painting prodigy, and whilst some of her early art would have been copied from text books or during art lessons we know, from the title she has given this composition, that these were ‘wild roses, from nature’.
Amidst the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection are many such paintings by Charlotte of flowers and plants, from convolvulus to ferns and primroses. All are colourful, highly detailed and exquisitely elegant. Here obviously was a woman in love with nature, and in love with painting. Seventeen years after Charlotte sat with her painting kit before a wild rose, the world would be introduced to another young woman who loved painting: Jane Eyre.
As a governess, a role which both Charlotte and Anne had occupied and which they in turn gave to their heroines Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey, Jane would have been expected to be able to paint. It was adjudged a feminine art, a pleasant way for women in society to pass their time, although of course there could be no question of them painting seriously or expecting to make money from it (as another of Anne Brontë’s heroines, Helen the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall, does in a further signal of her break from society’s conventions).
A governess would need to be able to paint to some degree so that she could teach her charges how to paint, but they would not have been expected to excel at it. And yet Charlotte and Anne Brontë did excel at painting, as did Jane Eyre.
In the novel bearing her name, Jane is such an accomplished artist that not only does she teach her pupil Adele to draw, her own compositions catch the eye of Rochester – as we see in the following extract:
‘Mr. Rochester continued –
“Adèle showed me some sketches this morning, which she said were yours. I don’t know whether they were entirely of your doing; probably a master aided you?”
“No, indeed!” I interjected.
“Ah! that pricks pride. Well, fetch me your portfolio, if you can vouch for its contents being original; but don’t pass your word unless you are certain: I can recognise patchwork.”
“Then I will say nothing, and you shall judge for yourself, sir.”
I brought the portfolio from the library.
“Approach the table,” said he; and I wheeled it to his couch. Adèle and Mrs. Fairfax drew near to see the pictures.
“No crowding,” said Mr. Rochester: “take the drawings from my hand as I finish with them; but don’t push your faces up to mine.”
He deliberately scrutinised each sketch and painting. Three he laid aside; the others, when he had examined them, he swept from him.
“Take them off to the other table, Mrs. Fairfax,” said he, “and look at them with Adèle;—you” (glancing at me) “resume your seat, and answer my questions. I perceive those pictures were done by one hand: was that hand yours?”
“And when did you find time to do them? They have taken much time, and some thought.”
“I did them in the last two vacations I spent at Lowood, when I had no other occupation.”
“Where did you get your copies?”
“Out of my head.”
“That head I see now on your shoulders?”
“Has it other furniture of the same kind within?”
“I should think it may have: I should hope – better.”
He spread the pictures before him, and again surveyed them alternately.
While he is so occupied, I will tell you, reader, what they are: and first, I must premise that they are nothing wonderful. The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.
These pictures were in water-colours. The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.
The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze. Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine. The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail. On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star.
The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon. Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,—a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it. Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil; a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible. Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.”
“Were you happy when you painted these pictures?” asked Mr. Rochester presently.
“I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.”
“That is not saying much. Your pleasures, by your own account, have been few; but I daresay you did exist in a kind of artist’s dreamland while you blent and arranged these strange tints. Did you sit at them long each day?”
“I had nothing else to do, because it was the vacation, and I sat at them from morning till noon, and from noon till night: the length of the midsummer days favoured my inclination to apply.”
“And you felt self-satisfied with the result of your ardent labours?”
“Far from it. I was tormented by the contrast between my idea and my handiwork: in each case I had imagined something which I was quite powerless to realise.”
“Not quite: you have secured the shadow of your thought; but no more, probably. You had not enough of the artist’s skill and science to give it full being: yet the drawings are, for a school-girl, peculiar. As to the thoughts, they are elfish. These eyes in the Evening Star you must have seen in a dream. How could you make them look so clear, and yet not at all brilliant? for the planet above quells their rays. And what meaning is that in their solemn depth? And who taught you to paint wind? There is a high gale in that sky, and on this hill-top. Where did you see Latmos? For that is Latmos. There! put the drawings away!”’
The first picture which impresses Rochester is a cormorant. It’s surely a coincidence that Charlotte Brontë herself had also drawn a cormorant, featured below:
It’s no coincidence at all, of course. Like all of the Brontë novels with the exception of Wuthering Heights, which has some historical influences upon its tale of a bitter generational feud, Jane Eyre has autobiographical elements to it. The author, Charlotte Brontë as we know but which was unknown to the reading public upon its release, even gave her novel the subtitle,”An Autobiography”.
This painting scene is one clue that Jane, on the face of it quiet and diminutive but at heart feisty, determined and passionate, is based at least in part upon Charlotte Brontë. We can also be sure that Rochester, at first cold, haughty and brutish, is based upon Monsieur Heger, the masterful Belgian tutor who can be found in all of Charlotte’s heroes. Perhaps this scene with paintings cast aside but others subjected to faint praise which meant everything to the painter, was drawn from real life over a desk in Brussels?
Jane Eyre works brilliantly as a novel even to people who know nothing of its creator, which is why it was such a phenomenal success upon its release in 1847 and remains so today, but it can be even more entertaining when we realise how much of it reflects the life and feelings of its author.
I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, when we’ll continue to paint a picture of this fascinating family.
This weekend marks the anniversary of a special event in the Brontë story which we have looked at before in previous years, but it’s such a special event that I had to mark it again in today’s new post. It is exactly 175 years ago to this weekend that Charlotte Brontë and Anne Brontë made the courageous decision to cast off their pen names, lower their masks and reveal their true identities to the world (or at least to Charlotte and Anne’s publisher).
We have covered before the reason for the hurried journey Anne and Charlotte made on an overnight train that left Yorkshire on Friday 7th July and arrived in the early hours of Saturday 8th July 1848. A letter from Charlotte’s publisher had led them to believe that Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (the pseudonyms they were using) were being accused of false dealings, an accusation that must be refuted however hard it may be for them and however much it may cost them.
They checked into the Chapter Coffee House on Paternoster Row in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and for an account of what happened next I will refer you to the following extract from the memoirs of Charlotte’s publisher, George Smith, himself:
“The works of Ellis and Acton Bell had been published by a Mr. Newby, on terms which rather depleted the scanty purses of the authors. When we were about to publish Shirley – the work which, in the summer of 1848, succeeded Jane Eyre – we endeavoured to make an arrangement with an American publisher to sell him advance sheets of the book, in order to give him an advantage in regard to time over other American publishers. There was, of course, no copyright with America in those days. We were met daring the negotiations with our American correspondents by the statement that Mr. Newby had informed them that he was about to publish the next book by the author of Jane Eyre under her other nom de plume of Acton Bell – Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell being in fact, according to him, one person. We wrote to ‘Currer Bell’ to say that we should be glad to be in a position to contradict the statement, adding at the same time we were quite sure Mr. Newby’s assertion was untrue. Charlotte Bronte has related how the letter affected her. She was persuaded that her honour was impugned. ‘With rapid decision’ says Mrs. Gaskell in her Life of Charlotte Bronte Charlotte and her sister Anne resolved that they should start for London that very day in order to prove their separate identity to Messrs. Smith, Elder, & Co.
With what haste and energy the sisters plunged into what was, for them, a serious expedition, how they reached London at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, took lodgings in the Chapter coffee-house in Paternoster Row, and, after an agitated breakfast, set out on a pilgrimage to my office in Cornhill, is told at length in Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë.
That particular Saturday morning I was at work in my room, when a clerk reported that two ladies wished to see me. I was very busy and sent out to ask their names. The clerk returned to say that the ladies declined to give their names, but wished to see me on a private matter. After a moment’s hesitation I told him to show them in. I was in the midst of my correspondence, and my thoughts were far away from ‘Currer Bell’ and Jane Eyre. Two rather quaintly dressed little ladies, pale-faced and anxious-looking, walked into my room; one of them came forward and presented me with a letter addressed, in my own handwriting, to ‘Currer Bell, Esq.’ I noticed that the letter had been opened, and said, with some sharpness, ‘Where did you get this from?’ ‘From the post-office’ was the reply; ‘it was addressed to me. We have both come that you might have ocular proof that there are at least two of us.’ This then was Currer Bell in person.
I need hardly say that I was at once keenly interested, not to say excited. Mr. Williams was called down and introduced, and I began to plan all sorts of attentions to our visitors. I tried to persuade them to come and stay at our house. This they positively declined to do, but they agreed that I should call with my sister and take them to the Opera in the evening. She has herself given
an account of her own and her sister Anne’s sensations on that occasion: how they dressed for the Opera in their plain, high-necked dresses: “fine ladies and gentlemen glanced at us, as we stood by
the box-door, which was not yet opened, with a slight graceful superciliousness, quite warranted by the circumstances. Still I felt pleasurably excited in spite of headache, sickness, and conscious clownishness; and I saw Anne was calm and gentle, which she always is. The performance was Rossini’s Barber of Seville – very brilliant, though I fancy there are things I should like better. We got home after one o’clock. We had never been in bed the night before; had been in constant excitement for twenty-four hours; you may imagine we were tired.”
My mother called upon them the next day. The sisters, after barely three days in London, returned to Haworth. In what condition of mind and body those few days left them is graphically told by Charlotte Bronte herself:
“On Tuesday morning we left London, laden with books Mr. Smith had given us, and got safely home. A more jaded wretch than I looked, it would be difficult to conceive. I was thin when I went, but I was meagre indeed when I returned, my face looking grey and very old, with strange deep lines ploughed in it – my eyes stared unnaturally. I was weak and yet restless.”
This is the only occasion on which I saw Anne Bronte. She was a gentle, quiet, rather subdued person, by no means pretty, yet of a pleasing appearance. Her manner was curiously expressive of a wish for protection and encouragement, a kind of constant appeal which invited sympathy.
I must confess that my first impression of Charlotte Bronte’s personal appearance was that it was interesting rather than attractive. She was very small, and had a quaint old-fashioned look. Her head seemed too large for her body. She had fine eyes, but her face was marred by the shape of the mouth and by the complexion.
There was but little feminine charm about her; and of this fact she herself was uneasily and perpetually conscious. It may seem strange that the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance. But I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful. Perhaps few women ever existed more anxious to be pretty than she, or more angrily conscious of the circumstance that she was not pretty.”
We next turn to a fulsome account from Charlotte Brontë herself, given in a letter sent to her close friend Mary Taylor (or Polly as she was affectionately known):
“Dear Polly, I write you a great many more letters than you write me, though whether they all reach you, or not, Heaven knows! I dare say you will not be without a certain desire to know how our affairs get on; I will give you therefore a notion as briefly as may be. Acton Bell has published another book; it is in three volumes, but I do not like it quite so well as Agnes Grey the subject not being such as the author had pleasure in handling; it has been praised by some reviews and blamed by others. As yet, only 25 have been realised for the copyright, and as Acton Bell’s publisher is a shuffling scamp, I expected no more.
About two months since I had a letter from my publishers Smith and Elder saying that Jane Eyre had had a great run in America, and that a publisher there had consequently bid high for the first sheets of a new work by Currer Bell, which they had promised to let him have.
Presently after came another missive from Smith and Elder; their American correspondent had written to them complaining that the first sheets of a new work by Currer Bell had been already received, and not by their house, but by a rival publisher, and asking the meaning of such false play; it enclosed an extract from a letter from Mr. Newby (A. and C. Bell’s publisher) affirming that to the best of his belief Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (the new work) were all the production of one author.
This was a lie, as Newby had been told repeatedly that they were the production of three different authors, but the fact was he wanted to make a dishonest move in the game to make the public and the trade believe that he had got hold of Currer Bell, and thus cheat Smith and Elder by securing the American publisher’s bid.
The upshot of it was that on the very day I received Smith and Elder’s letter, Anne and I packed up a small box, sent it down to Keighley, set out ourselves after tea, walked through a snow-storm to the station, got to Leeds, and whirled up by the night train to London with the view of proving our separate identity to Smith and Elder, and confronting Newby with his lie.
We arrived at the Chapter Coffee House (our old place, Polly, we did not well know where else to go) about eight o’clock in the morning. We washed ourselves, had some breakfast, sat a few minutes, and then set off in queer inward excitement to 65 Cornhill. Neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Williams knew we were corning, they had never seen us they did not know whether we were men or women, but had always written to us as men.
We found 65 to be a large bookseller’s shop, in a street almost as bustling as the Strand. We went in, walked up to the counter. There were a great many young men and lads here and there; I said to the first I could accost : ‘May I see Mr. Smith?’ He hesitated, looked a little surprised. We sat down and waited a while, looking at some books on the counter, publications of theirs well known to us, of many of which they had sent us copies as presents. At last we were shown up to Mr. Smith. ‘Is it Mr. Smith?’ I said, looking up through my spectacles at a tall young man. ‘It is.’ I then put his own letter into his hand directed to Currer Bell. He looked at it and then at me again. ‘Where did you get this?’ he said. I laughed at his perplexity a recognition took place. I gave my real name: Miss Brontë. We were in a small room ceiled with a great skylight and there explanations were rapidly gone into; Mr. Newby being anathematised, I fear, with undue vehemence. Mr. Smith hurried out and returned quickly with one whom he introduced as Mr. Williams, a pale, mild, stooping man of fifty, very much like a faded Tom Dixon. Another recognition and a long, nervous shaking of hands. Then followed talk talk talk; Mr. Williams being silent, Mr. Smith loquacious.
Mr. Smith said we must come and stay at his house, but we were not prepared for a long stay and declined this also; as we took our leave he told us he should bring his sisters to call on us that evening. We returned to our inn, and I paid for the excitement of the interview by a thundering headache and harassing sickness. Towards evening, as I got no better and expected the Smiths to call, I took a strong dose of sal volatile. It roused me a little; still, I was in grievous bodily case when they were announced. They came in, two elegant young ladies, in full dress, prepared for the Opera Mr. Smith himself in evening costume, white gloves, etc. We had by no means understood that it was settled we were to go to the Opera, and were not ready. Moreover, we had no fine, elegant dresses with us, or in the world. However, on brief rumination I thought it would be wise to make no objections. I put my headache in my pocket, we attired ourselves in the plain, high-made country garments we possessed, and went with them to their carriage, where we found Mr. Williams. They must have thought us queer, quizzical-looking beings, especially me with my spectacles. I smiled inwardly at the contrast, which must have been apparent, between me and Mr. Smith as I walked with him up the crimson-carpeted staircase of the Opera House and stood amongst a brilliant throng at the box door, which was not yet open. Fine ladies and gentlemen glanced at us with a slight, graceful superciliousness quite warranted by the circumstances. Still, I felt pleasantly excited in spite of headache and sickness and conscious clownishness, and I saw Anne was calm and gentle, which she always is.
The performance was Rossini’s opera of the Barber of Seville, very brilliant, though I fancy there are things I should like better. We got home after one o’clock; we had never been in bed the night before, and had been in constant excitement for twenty-four hours. You may imagine we were tired.
The next day, Sunday, Mr. Williams came early and took us to church. He was so quiet, but so sincere in his attentions, one could not but have a most friendly leaning towards him. He has a nervous hesitation in speech, and a difficulty in finding appropriate language in which to express himself, which throws him into the background in conversation; but I had been his correspondent and therefore knew with what intelligence he could write, so that I was not in danger of undervaluing him. In the afternoon Mr. Smith came in his carriage with his mother, to take us to his house to dine. Mr. Smith’s residence is at Bayswater, six miles from Cornhill; the rooms, the drawing-room especially, looked splendid to us. There was no company only his mother, his two grown-up sisters, and his brother, a lad of twelve or thirteen, and a little sister, the youngest of the family, very like himself. They are all dark-eyed, dark-haired, and have clear, pale faces. The mother is a portly, handsome woman of her age, and all the children more or less well-looking one of the daughters decidedly pretty. We had a fine dinner, which neither Anne nor I had appetite to eat, and were glad when it was over. I always feel under an awkward constraint at table. Dining out would be hideous to me.
Mr. Smith made himself very pleasant. He is a practical man, I wish Mr. Williams were more so, but he is altogether of the contemplative, theorising order. Mr. Williams has too many abstractions.
On Monday we went to the Exhibition of the Royal Academy and the National Gallery, dined again at Mr. Smith’s, then went home with Mr. Williams to tea and saw his comparatively humble but neat residence and his fine family of eight children. A daughter of Leigh Hunt’s was there. She sang some little Italian airs which she had picked up among the peasantry in Tuscany, in a manner that charmed me.
On Tuesday morning we left London laden with books which Mr. Smith had given us, and got safely home, A more jaded wretch than I looked when I returned it would be difficult to conceive. I was thin when I went, but was meagre indeed when I returned; my face looked grey and very old, with strange, deep lines ploughed in it; my eyes stared unnaturally. I was weak and yet restless. In a while, however, the bad effects of excitement went off and I regained my normal condition. We saw Mr. Newby, but of him more another time. Good-bye. God bless you. Write. C B.”
So there we have two accounts from two of the three protagonists, unfortunately Anne Brontë did not leave her account, of an event that changed world literature forever. Without that letter from Thomas Cautley Newby, a confidence trickster as much as a publisher, Charlotte and Anne Brontë would never have gone to London – perhaps we would never have known their real names. But that letter started a chain of events which leads to today where the Brontë novels are loved, and the Brontës themselves are loved.
There is probably a darker side to this trip too. Charlotte talks of fatigue and depression of spirits, something she constantly battled. She also suddenly looks grey and very old, she is weak and restless. Within a year of their return to Haworth, a terrible tragedy had decimated Haworth Parsonage. Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë had all died of tuberculosis, but it was not one of the main causes of death in rural Haworth, it was a disease of the big city. It seems likely that either Charlotte or Anne caught it in the crowds of London and brought it back to the parsonage with them. The rest, sadly, is history.
I hope to see you here (or on the new site when it is finally up and running, but the address will be the same) for another Brontë blog post next week.
The summer holidays are fast approaching, as you can tell by the sudden drop in temperature and the dark clouds doing their best to hide that sunny orb from site. If you have children or grandchildren you may be tempted to take them to an art gallery, or you may enjoy that perusing the paintings in your own company. Did the Brontës enjoy art galleries? That’s just what we’re going to look at in today’s new post.
As we know, the Brontës were a very talented family who excelled at just about everything they turned their hand to (especially Emily Brontë, who was a dab hand at everything from bread baking to piano playing and mastering new languages). They were all excellent artists, and of course Branwell Brontë tried to make a career out of it, and was even enrolled to study at the Royal Academy of Arts, although whether he studied there remains a mystery! That’s a picture of it at the top of this post, as it was then part of the National Gallery.
We know that there were definitely Brontë visitors to the gallery however, his sisters Charlotte and Anne! In 1848, those two Brontë sisters travelled to London together. Their mission was to disprove a letter from Charlotte’s publisher George Smith questioning whether Currer and Acton Bell (their pen names) were in fact one and the same person. Presumably they intended to prove their identities, clear up the misunderstanding, clear their names from any suspicions of dishonesty, and then take the train back home to Yorkshire.
Smith, however, was so taken aback by the two genii before him that he insisted on showing them the sites of London and making them guests of himself and his mother. It was the only time Anne Brontë travelled outside of Yorkshire, and she and Charlotte were treated like royalty and shown many of the great sites England’s capital had to offer.
After their return to Haworth, Charlotte Brontë wrote to W. S. Williams (Smith’s assistant at the publishing house): “I wish you had been with us when we went over the Exhibition and the National Gallery – a little explanation from a judge of Art would doubtless have enabled us [Charlotte and Anne] to understand better what we saw; perhaps, one day, we may have this pleasure.”
Charlotte was indeed to have the pleasure of meeting Williams, and Smith, on many further occasions, but alas for Anne it was not to be. This little snippet from a letter shows that Charlotte and Anne loved art, and loved galleries. We get a full glimpse of Charlotte’s love of galleries, however, in her magnificent novel Villette. Like most Brontë novels it has autobiographical elements in it, and particularly of interest to us today is chapter 19 of that work, entitled ‘The Cleopatra’, in which Charlotte, er I mean Lucy Snowe, has visited a Belgian art gallery. The following extract is revealing:
“It was hardly possible to oblige Dr. John quietly and in secret. When you thought that the fabrication of some trifle dedicated to his use had been achieved unnoticed, and that, like other men, he would use it when placed ready for his use, and never ask whence it came, he amazed you by a smilingly-uttered observation or two, proving that his eye had been on the work from commencement to close: that he had noted the design, traced its progress, and marked its completion. It pleased him to be thus served, and he let his pleasure beam in his eye and play about his mouth.
This would have been all very well, if he had not added to such kindly and unobtrusive evidence a certain wilfulness in discharging what he called debts. When his mother worked for him, he paid her by showering about her his bright animal spirits, with even more affluence than his gay, taunting, teasing, loving wont. If Lucy Snowe were discovered to have put her hand to such work, he planned, in recompense, some pleasant recreation.
I often felt amazed at his perfect knowledge of Villette; a knowledge not merely confined to its open streets, but penetrating to all its galleries, salles, and cabinets: of every door which shut in an object worth seeing, of every museum, of every hall, sacred to art or science, he seemed to possess the “Open! Sesame.” I never had a head for science, but an ignorant, blind, fond instinct inclined me to art. I liked to visit the picture-galleries, and I dearly liked to be left there alone. In company, a wretched idiosyncracy forbade me to see much or to feel anything. In unfamiliar company, where it was necessary to maintain a flow of talk on the subjects in presence, half an hour would knock me up, with a combined pressure of physical lassitude and entire mental incapacity. I never yet saw the well-reared child, much less the educated adult, who could not put me to shame, by the sustained intelligence of its demeanour under the ordeal of a conversable, sociable visitation of pictures, historical sights or buildings, or any lions of public interest. Dr. Bretton was a cicerone after my own heart; he would take me betimes, ere the galleries were filled, leave me there for two or three hours, and call for me when his own engagements were discharged. Meantime, I was happy; happy, not always in admiring, but in examining, questioning, and forming conclusions. In the commencement of these visits, there was some misunderstanding and consequent struggle between Will and Power. The former faculty exacted approbation of that which it was considered orthodox to admire; the latter groaned forth its utter inability to pay the tax; it was then self-sneered at, spurred up, goaded on to refine its taste, and whet its zest. The more it was chidden, however, the more it wouldn’t praise. Discovering gradually that a wonderful sense of fatigue resulted from these conscientious efforts, I began to reflect whether I might not dispense with that great labour, and concluded eventually that I might, and so sank supine into a luxury of calm before ninety-nine out of a hundred of the exhibited frames.
It seemed to me that an original and good picture was just as scarce as an original and good book; nor did I, in the end, tremble to say to myself, standing before certain chef-d’œuvres bearing great names, “These are not a whit like nature. Nature’s daylight never had that colour: never was made so turbid, either by storm or cloud, as it is laid out there, under a sky of indigo: and that indigo is not ether; and those dark weeds plastered upon it are not trees.” Several very well executed and complacent-looking fat women struck me as by no means the goddesses they appeared to consider themselves. Many scores of marvellously-finished little Flemish pictures, and also of sketches, excellent for fashion-books displaying varied costumes in the handsomest materials, gave evidence of laudable industry whimsically applied. And yet there were fragments of truth here and there which satisfied the conscience, and gleams of light that cheered the vision. Nature’s power here broke through in a mountain snow-storm; and there her glory in a sunny southern day. An expression in this portrait proved clear insight into character; a face in that historical painting, by its vivid filial likeness, startlingly reminded you that genius gave it birth. These exceptions I loved: they grew dear as friends.
One day, at a quiet early hour, I found myself nearly alone in a certain gallery, wherein one particular picture of portentous size, set up in the best light, having a cordon of protection stretched before it, and a cushioned bench duly set in front for the accommodation of worshipping connoisseurs, who, having gazed themselves off their feet, might be fain to complete the business sitting: this picture, I say, seemed to consider itself the queen of the collection.
It represented a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude, suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher’s meat—to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids—must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She, had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material—seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery—she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans—perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets—were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch and cumbered the floor. On referring to the catalogue, I found that this notable production bore the name “Cleopatra.”
Well, I was sitting wondering at it (as the bench was there, I thought I might as well take advantage of its accommodation), and thinking that while some of the details—as roses, gold cups, jewels, &c., were very prettily painted, it was on the whole an enormous piece of claptrap; the room, almost vacant when I entered, began to fill. Scarcely noticing this circumstance (as, indeed, it did not matter to me) I retained my seat; rather to rest myself than with a view to studying this huge, dark-complexioned gipsy-queen; of whom, indeed, I soon tired, and betook myself for refreshment to the contemplation of some exquisite little pictures of still life: wild-flowers, wild-fruit, mossy wood-nests, casketing eggs that looked like pearls seen through clear green sea-water; all hung modestly beneath that coarse and preposterous canvas.”
Here we have Lucy’s impression of art in a nutshell, she shies away from the large portrait of the Cleopatra, and instead prefers the delicate paintings of flowers. It is surely Charlotte’s own impression too, as we have many examples of her own small and exquisitely drawn pictures of flowers.
So, was this scene in Villette drawn from real life? I believe so, and (as Roy Walker used to say on Catchphrase) the clues are there in the passage above. An early Brontë biographer attempting to establish the veracity of this vividly painted scene opined that it was a real work by a Belgian artist named ‘Defiefve’, and this has been used in many Brontë biographies since, including recent ones – but in fact it’s wrong.
The original attribution had misread a handwritten guide to an exhibition at the Brussels Salon in 1842 – during the time Charlotte Brontë was studying there. The artist was in fact not called Defiefve but De Biefve.
Eduoard De Biefve was one of the leading Belgian paintings of his time, known for his portraits and paintings of historical scenes. He painted some of the leading people of Europe at the time, but one particular work of his caused a scandal in 1842 – when it was exhibited at the Brussels Salon.
This was a huge portrait of an oriental dancing girl, draped across a couch with flowers in the background. It was roundly condemned at the time for being too sexual, and I believe this is the painting Charlotte Brontë saw, was repulsed by and which later inspired the Cleopatra of her novel. De Biefve’s painting is actually called ‘The Almeh’ (a dancing girl or belly dancer) although it is also sometimes called ‘The Sultan’s Favourite Songstress’, and here it is in a black and white reproduction:
That, however, isn’t the only item drawn from nature and disguised by a different name in this scene, or in the book as a whole. At the start of the extract Charlotte is discussing the character of Dr. John Bretton, the man who has brought her to the exhibition. His is a complex character within an admittedly complex, deep novel full of symbolism. At times he is almost a brother to Lucy Snowe, at other times she seems to love him, at others to hate his weaknesses and his attentions to another woman. And yet, all he wants to do is make Lucy happy – he takes her to galleries, museums, to the centres of arts and science. He is in fact very like someone whom Charlotte knew very well: the aforementioned George Smith.
At the time Charlotte knew him and wrote Villette, Smith was living with his widowed mother. They made it their duty to entertain Charlotte to the full when she was in London, and his memoir is full of examples of such enterprises. Sometimes he would leave her whilst he went off to conduct his own business, just as Dr. John does with Lucy at the gallery. In Smith’s memoir we have this recollection of him taking Charlotte to the Houses of Parliament:
“On one occasion I took Miss Bronte to the Ladies Gallery of the House of Commons. The Ladies’ Gallery of those days was behind the Strangers’ Gallery, and from it one could see the eyes of the ladies above, nothing more. I told Miss Brontë that if she felt tired and wished to go away, she had only to look at me – I should know by the expression of her eyes what she meant – and that I would come round for her. After a time I looked and looked. There were many eyes, they all seemed to be flashing signals to me, but much as I admired Miss Brontë’s eyes I could not distinguish them from the others. I looked so earnestly from one pair of eyes to another that I am afraid that more than one lady must have regarded me as a rather impudent fellow. At length I went round and took my lady away. I expressed my hope that I did not keep her long waiting, and said something about the difficulty of getting out after I saw her signal. ‘I made no signal,’ she said. ‘I did not wish to come away. Perhaps there were other signals from the Gallery.’”
It seems clear then that Dr. Breton is a facsimile of George Smith, and of Charlotte’s complex feelings towards him. Smith himself addresses this later in his memoirs:
“In ‘Villette’ my mother was the original of ‘Mrs. Bretton’; several of her expressions are given verbatim. I myself, as I discovered, stood for ‘Dr. John.’ Charlotte Brontë admitted this to Mrs. Gaskell, to whom she wrote: ‘I was kept waiting longer than usual for Mr. Smith’s opinion of the book [Villette], and I was rather uneasy, for I was afraid he had found me out, and was offended.’”
The Brontës loved art and they loved galleries, and I love reading their books and plucking out little moments that seem to be inspired by real life or that have a particular ring of truth or emotion to them – I’m sure you do as well.
I mentioned last week that I would be migrating this site to a new platform, and that is still my plan but it’s taking a little longer than I anticipated. Whatever platform it’s being hosted on, and whatever it looks like, I hope you will join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.