The Villette Letters Of Charlotte Bronte

On this day in 1853 a remarkable piece of fiction was published: Villette. It was to be the final completed novel by Charlotte Brontë, and it was written at a time of intense personal struggle for her. Unlike during the composition of Jane Eyre and the first half of Shirley she was completely alone during Villette’s genesis, without her beloved sisters Emily and Anne to advise and inspire her. It was also a time when she was dealing with her father’s illnesses, and the aftermath of a failed proposal, as well as having to deal with her new found fame as a writer. We see all this and more in the subject of today’s post: five letters written around the time of the publication of Villette.


This letter to best friend Ellen Nussey from early December 1852 shows one of the recurring bones of contention that author and publisher had over Villette. Charlotte often liked to base her fictional characters upon people she knew well: so that the eponymous heroine of Shirley was based upon Emily Brontë and Caroline in the novel was based upon Anne Brontë. George Smith clearly recognised that he was the model for Graham Bretton – portrayed as a handsome yet selfish, and at times rather self-centred individual. Charlotte had once loved Smith, but her publisher’s engagement and marriage had placed a great strain on their relationship. This is also apparent in the earlier letter of 6th December to Smith himself – where once Charlotte would have been open with her publisher, she is now on the defensive.



By 19th January 1853, Charlotte was staying in London with George Smith’s mother and sisters, but she realises now that her tastes are not in accord with theirs. Charlotte has, as usual during her stays in the capital, been offered tours of the city’s sights, but she is more interested in the extremes of humanity than the trappings of fashion or high culture. During this period she has also received a charming letter from Flossy, once Anne’s beloved pet spaniel and now in its fifth year in Charlotte’s care. Written by Patrick Brontë, its purpose is to warn Charlotte against trusting men – and in particular against trusting Arthur Bell Nicholls who recently proposed to Charlotte and was soundly rebuffed.

In the 28th January 1853 letter to Ellen we see that Villette has finally been published, but she didn’t have to wait long to hear an unfavourable reception – as we see from the fragment of a letter sent by Harriet Martineau. Charlotte had earlier asked Harriet to give her forthright opinion on the book, saying: “I kneel to Truth. Let her smite me on the cheek – good! The tears may spring to my eyes; but courage! There is the other side – hit again – right sharply!”

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Bronte’s friend was a fierce critic of Villette

Nevertheless, Charlotte was dismayed by Harriet’s reaction to Villette, and in a later review written anonymously by Martineau which repeated the same criticism. The rebuke of Charlotte for being full of love (the book was clearly, after all, written heavily under the influence of her unrequited love for Monsieur Heger, her former teacher and colleague in Brussels) was too much for her to take – and the friendship between Charlotte Brontë and Harriet Martineau was at an end.

It was a book that Charlotte Brontë found difficult to write, and she found its reception hard to take at times, but Villette is a book that endures. It is an incredibly powerful book, incredibly moving in its still, silent power. It is a work of genius. 

Constantin Heger
Constantin Heger inspired Villette’s Paul Emanuel

I can’t promise you a blog of genius, but I hope you will join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post. Incidentally, last week I failed to thank Vesna Armstrong for the incredible photo of Charlotte Brontë’s christening bonnet – my sincere apologies for that error on my part; Vesna is a fantastic photographer and Brontë enthusiast, so please do check out her work when you can.

Was Anne Brontë An Angelic Baby?

If we could travel back in time 204 years ago to the day to the parish parsonage at Thornton, Bradford what would we find? We would certainly find a hectic, crowded home – for in it are two parents, two servants and five children. No, make that six children, for by her mother in a cradle is a tiny baby – perhaps her older sisters are peering in at this gurgling infant – particularly the next youngest, one and a half year old Emily Jane who would become so close to her younger sister. The baby was of course Anne Brontë who was born in this week 1820, and in today’s post we’re going to look at just what kind of a baby she was.

17th January 1820 was the day that the sixth and final Brontë sibling was born. She was delivered by a local midwife or possibly by a local doctor known to the family called John Outhwaite, and her birth took place before the fireplace which still stands today inside Thornton Parsonage. Incidentally, the community plan to buy the parsonage and save it for the public is making great progress – so keep an eye on this blog for further details as their plans near fruition.

Thornton parsonage fireplace
Anne Bronte was born by this fireplace

The newly saved and renovated Thornton Parsonage will offer Brontë lovers the chance to live in the house in which those three famous Brontë sisters were born – but whilst many original features remain, it will be a very different building to the one that Patrick and Maria Brontë, and their six children, knew. Prior to Anne’s birth, her father had already written to the Bishop calling Thornton Parsonage wholly inadequate for his needs. Within four months of Anne’s nativity the family had moved to a new parish in a village which was forever transformed by their arrival: six miles away across the moors, Haworth.

Anne Brontë would not have had memories of Thornton like her siblings had, she would not have had memories of her mother – as tragically Maria died in 1821, probably from sepsis caused by complications after Anne’s birth. In many ways, therefore, she had a different shared experience to her four sisters and a brother, so just what was Anne like as a baby?

The 17th January 1820 was a Monday, so was Anne Brontë full of grace just like the famous rhyme says about Monday’s child? We can be sure that Anne grew up to be a very kind woman, one who thought seriously about society and about inequalities in it. She was a very shy, quiet and reflective woman, and a very religious woman too – perhaps she exhibited these qualities from a very early age, as there is a famous account that paints Anne as a truly angelic child.

Nancy Garrs
Nancy de Garrs, who gave this account of a young Anne

The account comes from Nancy de Garrs, one of the two Thornton servants (along with her sister Sarah de Garrs) who travelled with the Brontë family to Haworth. She described the incident as follows:

‘When Anne was a baby, Charlotte rushed into her Papa’s study to say that there was an angel standing by Anne’s cradle, but when they returned it was gone, though Charlotte was sure she had seen it.’

Above is the very cradle that held Anne and, presumably, her siblings before her – but was there really an angel standing by it? Young Charlotte certainly seemed to think so – although of course we all know how powerful her imagination was. We will never know just what Charlotte saw, or what made the five year old rush to her father so, but I wonder, I wonder?

I also wonder what treasures the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth will unveil for us when it opens its doors to the public again in February? Fittingly, in light of today’s post, the exhibits will place a particular emphasis on the childhood of the Brontë siblings. It will feature something very special never displayed before – the christening bonnet worn by Charlotte Brontë in 1816. Here it is in all its glory!

Charlotte bonnet
Charlotte Bronte’s christening bonnet, to be shown for the first time! Picture courtesy of Vesna Armstrong

I will bring you more news of the exhibit once I’ve visited it, but you don’t have to wait that long for another new Brontë blog post. I hope to see you here next Sunday.

Charlotte Brontë’s Cheery Farewell To Ellen Nussey

We saw in last week’s blog post how central Ellen Nussey was to the Brontë story – she was there at many of the most important events in the lives, and deaths, of the Brontë family. To Charlotte Brontë she was a lifelong best friend, and their relationship was summed up perfectly in a letter she wrote to her publisher:

It is another letter that Charlotte wrote, however, that we look at in today’s post – one in which she bids Ellen a fond farewell. It was sent on this day 1834 – 190 years ago to the day. A transcript of the letter follows below:

Charlotte is at her cheery best in this letter. She chides Ellen for buying her a gift – something Ellen often did; on this occasion it was a bustle. Charlotte’s threat to ‘smother’ her friend for the gift is delivered playfully, but it seems from this and other letters that Charlotte was all too painfully aware of the difference in social status, and finances, between herself and Ellen who came from a relatively wealthy manufacturing family. 

We also see Charlotte delivering fashion advice to Ellen, and chiding her over the possibility of one of the Taylor family of nearby Gomersal courting her – the family that produced their mutual friend Mary Taylor. Charlotte also promises to write an elegy for poor Mr Vincent. Reverend Vincent was not dead, but his romantic advances had recently been rebuffed by Ellen. 

Finally, we read Charlotte encouraging Ellen to write soon; the reason for this is that Charlotte is about to set sail for Brussels alongside her sister Emily Brontë (a picture of Victorian Brussels adorns the head of this post). This must have been an incredibly exciting time for Charlotte, a world of travel and adventure was about to open itself up for her – the sort of opportunity she had yearned for as a child when creating the imaginary kingdom of Angria. Alongside this happiness, though, there was a sadness – a sadness that she will have to wave goodbye to Ellen. We see this in a picture drawn by Charlotte at the foot of a subsequent letter – Charlotte has drawn herself in typical self-deprecating manner waving good-bye across the English Channel to Ellen, who has the ‘chosen’ alongside her – the aforementioned O. P. Vincent.

If Charlotte worried that Ellen would find a man in her absence, maybe that she would marry and have no more time for her friend, she was wrong. Ellen never married – it was the friendship and love she had for Charlotte that endured throughout her life.

The two years in Brussels were hugely important for Charlotte and for her subsequent writing, but she eventually realised there was no place like home and the people waiting for her there. I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Anne Brontë’s Visit From Dr Teale

After the tragic end to 1848 for the Brontë family those in Haworth Parsonage must have been hoping for a less testing start to 1849 – alas it was not to be, as we will see in today’s post thanks to the testimony of the great family friend Ellen Nussey.

Emily Brontë died, aged 30, in the week before Christmas and her funeral was a particularly solemn affair, with her pet mastiff Keeper leading the funeral procession: ‘He never regained his cheerfulness’, as Ellen recalled in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell.

Ellen Nussey on Keeper
Ellen Nussey’s letter revealing Keeper’s presence at Emily’s funeral

Christmas 1848 was a black-bordered time of mourning in the parsonage then, but there were fears for the future as well as tears for the past. Anne Brontë, Emily’s beloved younger sister, was also now showing the signs of consumption, what we today call tuberculosis. Her handkerchiefs, which Anne embroidered with her own initials, were held to her mouth during coughing fits – when removed, they were splattered with blood, as we see from the blood stained example in the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection.

Ellen Nussey had arrived at the parsonage on 28th December 1848, at the request of her best friend Charlotte Brontë. Whenever Charlotte’s spirits were at their lowest, it was Ellen that she called upon. Ellen remained in the parsonage over the new year, and was there on 5th January when Dr. Teale came to visit.

Anne Bronte handkerchief
Anne Bronte’s blood stained handkerchief.

Teale had been called in by the Reverend Patrick Brontë. A renowned tuberculosis specialist, he had been asked to examine Patrick’s youngest daughter Anne – but by that time all in the family must have known what was coming.

Ellen described what happened next in her typical, and moving, understatement:

‘Anne was looking sweetly pretty and flushed, and in capital spirits for an invalid. While consultations were going on in Mr Brontë‘s study, Anne was very lively in conversation, walking around the room surrounded by me. Mr Brontë joined us after Mr Teale’s departure and, seating himself on the couch, he drew Anne towards him and said, “My dear little Anne.” That was all – but it was understood.’

The diagnosis had confirmed their worst fears. Anne had terminal tuberculosis, there was no hope for her. A crushing blow to start the year in Haworth, but Anne dealt with it with her characteristic and stoicism. This was the beginning of her great trial, but she refused to be bowed, and her faith and love remained strong to the end. Teale’s diagnosis also brought an end to Ellen’s visit to the parsonage, as he gave strict instructions that Ellen must leave the parsonage and return home – an instruction that may well have saved her from the infection, and saved her life.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte, was a loyal friend to Anne too.

I hope that your new year has started in more cheerful fashion. Anne’s story, indeed the Brontë story as a whole, is a reminder to us all that we never know what is coming – so we must all make the most of our talents and our dreams. Let this year be the year that your dreams come true, and I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.