In Autumn 1847 the fortunes, and fame, of Charlotte Brontë were changed in rapid fashion thanks to two words: Jane Eyre. The speed with which the book was accepted and then published, and then with which it found favour with the reading public is unthinkable by modern standards, and remarkable even in the 19th century. Thanks to a letter written on this day in 1847 we have an insight into the terms that Charlotte’s publisher offered to her, and her response to them. In today’s post, then, we’ll take a look at the publishing contract for Jane Eyre.
The story is well known of how Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre rapidly after being encouraged to send another work by the London based publisher Smith, Elder & Co; they had rejected the work she had initially sent, The Professor, although as we shall see Charlotte didn’t take that decision lying down. Charlotte’s new manuscript was sent to Smith, Elder on 28th August 1847; George Smith read it in one day, cancelling his dinner appointment, and was enthralled; less than two months later, on 16th October 1847, it was available to buy.
By mid September the initial agreements had been made, and George Smith had written to Currer Bell (he of course had no idea at that time that the author was actually a woman named Charlotte) with some further suggestions. Here is Charlotte’s reply to his letter, written 174 years ago today:
‘Gentlemen, I have received your letter and thank you for the judicious remarks and sounds advice it contains. I am now however in a position to follow the advice; my engagements will not permit me to revise ‘Jane Eyre’ a third time, and perhaps there is little to regret in the circumstance; you will probably know from personal experience that an author never writes well till he has got into the full spirit of his work, and were I to retrench, to alter and to add now when I am uninterested and cold, I know I should only further injure what may already be defective. Perhaps too the first part of ‘Jane Eyre’ may suit the public taste better than you anticipate – for it is true and Truth has a severe charm of its own. Had I told all the truth, I might indeed have it more it far more exquisitely painful – but I deemed it advisable to soften and retrench many particulars lest the narrative should rather displease than attract.
I adopt your suggestion respecting the title; it would be much better to add the words “an autobiography.”
In accepting your terms, I trust much to your equity and sense of justice. You stipulate for the refusal of my two next works at the price of one hundred pounds each. One hundred pounds is a small sum for a year’s intellectual labour, nor would circumstances justify me in devoting my time and attention to literary pursuits with so narrow a prospect of advantage did I not feel convinced that in case the ultimate result of my efforts should prove more successful than you now anticipate, you would make some proportionate addition to the remuneration you at present offer. On this ground of confidence in your generosity and honour, I accept your conditions.
I shall be glad to know when the work will appear. I shall be happy also to receive any advice you can give me as to choice of subject or style or treatment in my next effort – and if you can point out any works peculiarly remarkable for the qualities in which I am deficient, I would study them carefully and endeavour to remedy my errors.
Allow me in conclusion to express my sense of the punctuality, straight-forwardness and intelligence which have hitherto marked your dealings with me, And Believe me Gentlemen, Yours Respectfully, C Bell.
Since you have no use for ‘the Professor’, I shall be obliged if you will return the M.S.S. [manuscript] Address as usual to Miss Brontë &c.’
From this letter we can see that Charlotte had great confidence in her work, and that she hated the editing process – something she also referred to prior to the publications of her later novels. Two revisions were all she could stomach and she absolutely refused to do any more – as the result of this is the Jane Eyre we know and love, it’s safe to say that Charlotte was right.
It’s interesting to see as well that Smith had suggested that the first part, that dealing with Jane’s childhood and especially her time at Lowood school, was the weakest. Once again, it seems to me that Charlotte was right, and the book would be greatly diminished if this section had been altered or removed.
Under the terms of the contract Charlotte had been offered an advance of one hundred pounds for this novel and two subsequent novels; she feels that this is scant reward for the intellectual effort to write a novel, although it is at least twice as much as a governess or teacher would earn in a year – as another comparison, Branwell Brontë earned an annual salary of £75 when he was appointed Assistant Clerk at Sowerby Bridge Railway Station.
Charlotte has confidence in Smith, Elder, however, and is confident, even without it being mentioned in the contract, that they will increase the advances offered if Jane Eyre proved to be as successful as she expected. Once again, Charlotte was right as by the time that her next novel, Shirley, was being readied for publication she was given an advance of £500.
This simple letter is really an important historical document for it charts the moment that the green light was given for the publication of Jane Eyre. Charlotte was supremely confident in her own ability and in the work she had produced, and that’s an example that all writers can learn from. I hope to see you all again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.
We have now entered September, although much of August has felt like December here in chilly Yorkshire. September 1845 was a pivotal month in the Brontë story for it marked a chance, or possibly not so chance, discovery that changed the course of the Brontë’s lives, and the world of literature forever. We’ll let Charlotte tell the story, in her 1850 biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell:
‘One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, – a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they also had a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating.
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. I knew, however, that a mind like hers could not be without some latent spark of honourable ambition, and refused to be discouraged in my attempts to fan that spark to flame.’
Charlotte had found not Emily’s usual poetry collection but her secret poetry manuscript, the one which contained her most powerful verse, the poems dearest to her. Reading between the lines we can see that Emily was furious at the discovery, at her innermost feelings being laid bare. Anyone who has watched ‘To Walk Invisible’ will remember the portrayal of that scene.
Eventually however, and with the help of Anne who produced her own poetry, Emily was persuaded to let the three sisters embark on a new adventure: they would approach publishers with their own jointly penned volume of verse. The result was the very first Brontë book: Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Whilst that was far from a success it did receive positive reviews, and the encouraged sisters then turned their hands to prose – the rest is history!
We can imagine Charlotte’s feelings of wonderment as she encountered that first page and then carried on reading, and now we can see exactly what those first words were and, thanks to Sotheby’s, see them ourselves:
‘Loud without the wind was roaring
Through the waned autumnal sky,
Drenching wet, the cold rain pouring
Spoke of stormy winters nigh.’
Here we have, in Emily Brontë’s own hand, the very words Charlotte Brontë looked upon on that September day 166 years ago. We also know exactly when they date from, for Emily has kindly dated them for us; many of the poems in this book come with a date of composition, in this case November 11th 1838 when Emily was 20 years old, but we also see at the head of this first page that Emily transcribed this and other poems into it in February 1844 – Emily had kept this book and its contents a secret from Charlotte for around a year and a half.
This first poem is 17 stanzas long, ending:
‘Well, well the sad minutes are moving
Though loaded with trouble and pain –
And sometimes the loved and the loving
Shall meet on the mountains again -’
A powerful start, but it was followed by many of the poems that have earned Emily Brontë her rightful place as one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century. This history-making manuscript is part of the Honresfield Library collection that was initially due to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in July; thankfully, although the process is still ongoing, it seems certain now that they, and other treasures by the likes of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, will be saved for the nation.
Many of Emily’s verses, as Charlotte stated earlier, are powerful, terse and vigorous, but one of my favourites is a rather sweet, gentle moving poem. On page 13 of Emily’s secret poetry manuscript was the untitled verse later called ‘Love and Friendship’, and which always makes me think of the close friendship that she and Anne Brontë enjoyed.
Poetry was one of Emily’s great loves, and she was supremely talented at its composition. The discovery of her secret manuscript was deeply hurtful to this intensely private woman, but we get evidence that the trauma caused by the discovery was a long lasting one.
At the time of Charlotte’s discovery of the manuscript the final poem within it was ‘How beautiful the earth is still’, composed in June 1845. After the discovery just one more poem was added, composed at the start of January 1846, presumably to be added in time for their Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell collection to be sent to prospective publishers.
It did make that book, but after that in the final two and a half years of Emily’s life she wrote only one further poem, ‘Why ask to know the date – the clime?’, although she also reworked this slightly as ‘Why ask to know what date what clime’. It seems that the discovery of Emily’s secret poetry manuscript had at a stroke destroyed her ability to compose verse and obtain pleasure from it, especially after the publication of the book had laid her innermost thoughts before the world at large. The final poem in the manuscript, however, is not a bad way to end a collection: ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’:
Poetry will always have the power to raise the spirits and make the world seem a better place, especially when written by a masterful poet such as Emily Brontë. I hope you can join me next Sunday, for another new Brontë blog post.
We looked recently at the honeymoon of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls. Charlotte met her husband’s relatives in Ireland, and she was certainly impressed by them, but what did they think of her? That’s just what we’ll examine in today’s post, and we’ll also take a look at fascinating interviews with two of Charlotte’s Irish relatives, as well as encountering a terrible murder.
Firstly, let’s recall what Charlotte said of her new in-laws after meeting them in August 1854: ‘Three of Mr. Nicholls’ relatives met us in Dublin – his brother and 2 cousins. The 1st is manager of the Grand Canal from Dublin to Banagher – a sagacious well-informed and courteous man – his cousin is a student of the University and has just gained 3 premiums. The other cousin was a pretty lady-like girl with gentle English manners. They accompanied us last Friday down to Banagher – his Aunt’s – Mrs. Bell’s residence, where we are now… In this house Mr. Nicholls was brought up by his uncle Dr. Bell… The male members of this family – such as I have seen seem thoroughly educated gentlemen. Mrs. Bell is like an English or Scottish matron quiet, kind and well-bred – it seems she was brought up in London. Both her daughters are strikingly pretty in appearance – and their manners are very amiable and pleasing. I must say I like my new relations.’
Charlotte Brontë was never one to give praise lightly, and her expressed opinions were always honest and heartfelt, so this was high praise indeed. Was this praise reciprocated by her in-laws? I say in-laws because although Charlotte had met his brother Allen Nicholls the cousins were also like siblings to him; Arthur became an orphan at the age of seven in 1826, at which point he was adopted by his uncle the Rev. Dr. Allen Clerk Bell, elder brother of Arthur’s late mother Margaret. He was raised at their large residence of Cuba House, Banagher where he was placed on equal terms with the five children of Dr. Bell and his wife Harriette. In effect his cousins became like his brothers and sisters, including Mary Anna, 11 years his junior, whose prettiness and manners Charlotte had remarked upon.
Charlotte was delighted to discover that she had been completely wrong about Arthur’s background; in fact, he was from a family substantially more wealthy and elevated than the Brontës. The Rev. Dr. Bell had been headmaster of the prestigious Endowed School of Banagher, and he owned property in the area; as well as the grand Hill House that Arthur later lived in, Dr. Bell also owned the even larger Cuba House. He was also the founder of the local militia corps known as the Royal Banagher Fencibles. One of Dr. Bell’s sons, Joseph, followed in his footsteps as vicar of Banagher and another son, James, was also ordained and became head of the Banagher school. Dr. Bell and Harriette gave Arthur all he needed during his childhood and adolescence, and it was they who sent Arthur to Trinity College, Dublin and set him on the path to the curacy; it was surely in gratitude to his adoptive family that Arthur continually used their surname alongside his own, becoming Bell Nicholls.
There is of course one of the Bell children we are particularly interested in: ‘strikingly pretty’ Mary Anna, for in 1864 she became the second wife of the man she had been brought up alongside, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Charlotte had clearly been charmed by Mary, and it seems that the attraction was mutual.
It may well be that the marriage of Arthur and Mary Anna was one of convenience, allowing them to run their Banagher farm together and to provide companionship to each other into their old age (longevity was a trait of the Bells; Arthur survived into the 20th century, dying in 1906 aged 87, Mary Anna died aged 85 in 1915, and matriarch of the family Harriette lived to be 102 years old). It must have been clear to Mary that Charlotte Brontë remained the true love of her husband, for their home at Hill House became almost a shrine to her. Mary showed no signs of jealousy, in fact she seemed proud of the Brontë connection, and she remembered Charlotte in glowing terms. Recalling their 1854 meeting Mary praised Charlotte’s ‘amiable and quiet manner’, and she was always prepared to sing the praises of Charlotte to anyone who visited Hill House.
Before we look at what the other Bells thought of Charlotte let’s take a gruesome but fascinating diversion: murder! This is one of three Brontë related murders I’ve come across over the years, and this one involved Alan Bell, nephew of Arthur and Mary Anna Bell Nicholls. In 1920 his death made headlines across Ireland and beyond.
On April 3rd 1920 the Weekly Telegraph, an Irish newspaper, carried the eye catching headline: ‘THE MURDER CAMPAIGN. MR ALAN BELL, R.M., SLAIN. AWFUL DUBLIN CRIME. DRAGGED FROM TRAIN AND SHOT. NEAR MASONIC GIRLS’ SCHOOL. OTHER PASSENGERS HELPLESS.’
Alan Bell had fallen victim to the political instability in Ireland at the time as the country was in a bloody phase of its battle for independence from Britain. It was believed he had been assassinated by Sinn Fein agents, as this paragraph reports:
‘Mr. Alan Bell, the latest victim of probably the most brutal of the long series of murders charged against Sinn Fein, had a long and distinguished career as an officer of the crown, and his death doubtless is a sequel to his appointment to preside over the recent government inquiry into the alleged relationship between Sinn Fein and certain other banks. He was well known and popular in the North of Ireland, where he served for a considerable period as R.M. for the Portadown district. During that time he became a familiar and respected figure on the Belfast bench, over which he frequently presided in the absence of one or the other resident magistrates.’
As well as being a magistrate, Alan Bell had also served for nearly 20 years in the Royal Irish Constabulary, becoming their District Inspector, and it was his reputation for excellence that led to his appointment as head of an investigation into the financial practices of Sinn Fein – an appointment that cost him his life.
The subsequent inquest established that Alan Bell had been on a tram which had reached the Sandymount Road stop near Dublin. A group of twelve masked men appeared and lifted the tram off of the overhead wire, rendering it immobile. Two men rushed upstairs, tapped their victim, who was reading a newspaper, on the shoulder and said, ‘Come on, Mr Bell, your time has come.’ He was dragged down the stairs, shot three times and left for dead. A tragic end indeed for one of the Bells of Banagher, but another indicator of the importance the family held.
Back to happier memories, thanks to two recollections of Charlotte by other descendants of Dr. Rev Bell and Harriette. They are quite revelatory in parts, and we’ll start with a letter printed in the Yorkshire Post on 30th June 1854, headlined: ‘Charlotte Brontë’s husband, By Marjorie Gallop, great-niece of the Rev A.B. Nicholls’. The article is shown below, but I will reproduce some of the more interesting sections:
‘Arthur Nicholls was my great-uncle, and this [positive] view of him is kept alive in the family by evidence which is based on more than hearsay. As I turned over the pages of the family album recently with my two aunts, one of them now in her 90th year, it was pleasant to hear them speak of the man Charlotte must have come to know, of his integrity, his affection and the sense of humour which lurked under his deep reserve…
It is pleasant to think that she [Charlotte Brontë] responded to the affection of this large and uninhibited Irish family, and tragic that her happiness should have been so short-lived. I treasure a memory of it in a book of dried ferns which she gathered and pressed in the Irish countryside. A few months later she was dead, and Arthur, whose wish to marry her had been opposed by her father, gave up six years of his life in caring for his father-in-law. When the Rev. Patrick Brontë died, Arthur returned to Banagher, where his mother [meaning Harriette Bell] and cousin, Mary, had settled in a smaller home, the Hill House. My grandfather, Joseph Bell, came back to Banagher as vicar, and two of his little girls are now the old ladies who have kept their uncle’s memory so vivid for me. Arthur always had a strong brotherly affection for Mary, and eventually the two were married.
Old Mrs. Bell continued to live with her daughter and son-in-law until her death at the age of 102. The spirit of Charlotte never ceased to brood over the Hill House. Arthur had brought the faithful maid, Martha Brown, from Haworth, and the smell of her sponge cake was generally the first thing that met visitors at the door of that hospitable house. She had not lost her Yorkshire austerity in the more easygoing Irish atmosphere and once, when she found her master making up a four at whist, she exclaimed: ‘The minister playing cards! What would the people of Haworth say!”
She also figures in our album [if only we still had this picture], leaning awkwardly on a pillar in her stiff black dress. With generous loyalty, Mary Nicholls made every room in the house a Brontë shrine. The drawing room was hung with the sisters’ drawings, Mr. Brontë’s gun leaned up against the dining room wall, and Charlotte’s portrait overlooked the sofa on which Mary used to rest. One day it broke away from the wall, missed a table which stood below it, and fell on to Mary. Neither the portrait nor Mary was harmed. When Arthur died, Mary had his coffin placed beneath the portrait until it was carried from the house.’
Mary Anna’s love for Charlotte is clear, and I don’t think we can blame Charlotte’s spirit for causing her portrait to jump off the wall and hit her widow’s second wife on the head.
Just two months later, the 90 year old referred to in Marjorie’s letter had her own say, in a report of 1st August 1955 featured in the Irish Times: ‘HUSBAND OF THE ARTIST, Reminiscences of a relation of Arthur Bell Nicholls.’ Once again here is the article, and I’ll reproduce some parts of this fascinating article below:
‘I am an old woman now, and I think my very first recollection is of being wrapped in a large shawl by my mother, preparatory to being carried by our manservant across the two fields which separated the grounds of the vicarage at Banagher from the Hill House, where Uncle Arthur Bell Nicholls and his second wife, my Aunt Mary, lived, and where there was always a kind and warm welcome for a small visitor.
There, too, lived “Gran”, as we always called her, equally kind and loving, and, besides her, Martha Brown, who would soon enter with a glass of creamy milk and a slice of delicious sponge cake. My chief memory of her is of her Yorkshire accent, so different from the Irish voices I was used to…
It was when James Bell was headmaster at Cuba House that the reading public was electrified by the novels of Currer Bell; Mrs. Bell and her daughter, Mary, among the number. The books were first published [in Ireland] in serial form, and the two ladies would drive into Birr to get each new edition at the earliest possible moment. They had, of course, no idea that Currer Bell was the Miss Brontë whom Arthur had been so long, and apparently so hopelessly, devoted.
When, eventually, they learned of this from Arthur, they were thrilled indeed – and when they heard from him that Miss Brontë had at last consented to marry him, they could scarcely believe it. He added that, after the wedding, they would come to Dublin, and he gave Mary a warm invitation to meet them in Dublin and stay with them for a week…
But these rays of sunshine were short-lived; everyone knows the story of her death, and that the last words she ever spoke were to Arthur, “We have been so happy!”
Arthur remained for six sad years with Mr. Brontë, and then returned to Banagher, to the Hill House, where Mrs. Bell and Mary were then living. He brought with him Martha Brown, the Brontë’s maid since Tabby’s superannuation; he and she had seen much sorrow and a short-lived happiness together, and he wished her to have peace and comfort in her old age.
Later on, Arthur Nicholls married my aunt, Mary, who made him a devoted wife, and treasured everything that had belonged to Charlotte. My grandmother and my aunt loved to tell me about her, and I loved to listen. Charlotte’s wedding dress, so tiny, and her tiny white gloves, buttoned at the wrist, my aunt gave to Allen Nicholls’ [Arthur’s brother] youngest daughter, who had been given the names of Charlotte Brontë at her christening. Later on she often stayed at the Hill House, and came to love Uncle Arthur, as did all the young people; and, after his death, feeling that these things were peculiarly sacred, she had them burned.
Half way up the stairs at the Hill House stood Mr. Brontë’s handsome old grandfather clock, and near it hung a plaque of Branwell; over the sideboard in the dining-room was the well-known photograph of Haworth Rectory and the graveyard, and in the corner near the door was Mr. Brontë’s old gun. In the drawing room was Charlotte’s portrait, and also one of Thackeray, as well as many framed drawings of the three Brontë sisters. In a glass-fronted case were all the books of the three sisters. The portraits of his sisters by Branwell, that now hang in the National Gallery, Arthur Nicholls disliked – he thought they were “such ugly representations of the girls.”
Martha Brown from time to time went back to Yorkshire to visit her relations and on one of these visits she died.’
We learn so much from these articles; Arthur didn’t fold Branwell’s pillar portrait up and keep it on top of his wardrobe because he disliked Branwell, but because he disliked the painting; Martha Brown didn’t simply make fleeting visits to Arthur in Ireland, she lived with him and his wife there for the rest of her life, making fleeting visits to Yorkshire; above all we learn of the love that Arthur always held for Charlotte Brontë, and which was shared by his second wife too. Arthur and Mary Anna were in effect a devoted brother and sister who married to please the conventions of the time, but his true love was always Charlotte.
I hope you enjoyed this delve into the Bell family as much as I have, and I’ll see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.
Vegetarianism and veganism are becoming increasingly popular. Whilst these terms were unheard of in the first half of the nineteenth century, there surely were people who followed these diets. In today’s post we’re going to look at whether the Brontës really did have a meat free diet, something that was first suggested in this passage from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life Of Charlotte Brontë:
‘But there never were such good children. I used to think them spiritless, they were so different to any children I had ever seen. In part, I set it down to a fancy Mr. Brontë had of not letting them have flesh-meat to eat. It was from no wish for saving, for there was plenty and even waste in the house, with young servants and no mistress to see after them; but he thought that children should be brought up simply and hardily; so they had nothing but potatoes for their dinner.’
There were a number of passages in the first edition of Gaskell’s book which showed Patrick in a less than favourable light, but it was this one in particular that he took umbrage with, as we see in a letter published by the ‘Daily News’ on this week in 1857, just five months after the biography of Charlotte Brontë was published. On 21st August 1857 the newspaper published a response from William Dearden, the indefatigable defender of Patrick Brontë who we’ve encountered in a previous post, in which he denied many of the books claims:
‘With regard to the statement that Mr. Brontë, in his desire to bring up his children simply and hardily, refused to permit them to eat flesh meat, he asserts that Nancy Garrs alleges that the children had meat daily, and as much other food as they chose. The only article from which they were restrained was butter, but its want was compensated for by what is known in Yorkshire as “spice-cake,” a description of bread which is the staple food at Christmas for all meals but dinner.’
The article also includes a quote attributed directly to Patrick himself:
‘I did not know that I had an enemy in the world, much less one who would traduce me before my death. Everything in that book which relates to my conduct to my family is either false or distorted. I never did commit such acts as are ascribed to me. I stated this in a letter which I sent to Mrs Gaskell, requesting her at the same time to cancel the false statements made about me in her next edition of her book. To this I received no answer than that Mrs Gaskell was unwell, and unable to write.’
For corroboration of Dearden’s words we can turn to an interview with Nancy Garrs herself to the Leeds Mercury and which was published in 1893:
‘The assertion that Mr Brontë would not allow his children butter, and that they had little animal food provided, Nancy also stated to be false. “Why,” said she, laughing derisively, “I was the cook, and if at any time they had no butter on their bread it was because there were good currants in it. Meat the children had every day of their lives, cooked on that very meat-jack you see above your heads, gentlemen. That was Mr Brontë’s jack, and after his death it was sent to me. Aye,” continued she, with a look which showed she was thinking of the chequered past in her youthful home, “Mr Brontë was one the kindest husbands I ever knew, except my own, and an Irishman, you will know Mr Brontë was.’
It seems that Patrick Brontë had indeed an enemy, although one he may well have forgotten, and that it was they who had fed false tales to Elizabeth Gaskell who then took them in good faith – the passages were later removed from later editions of the biography. The informant in question was a Martha Heaton, nee Wright, who had worked as a nursemaid in the parsonage during the final illness of Patrick’s wife Maria. She was dismissed soon after the arrival from Cornwall of Elizabeth ‘Aunt’ Branwell in Haworth, and may have held a grudge against both Patrick and Elizabeth.
A letter from Elizabeth Gaskell to her friend Charlotte Froude in August 1850, shortly after her first encounter with Charlotte Brontë, reveals that Charlotte stated that she had endured a poor diet not at home in Haworth Parsonage but at school in Cowan Bridge:
This recollection did not make its way into Gaskell’s biography but one that did is a recollection by Mary Taylor of the Charlotte Brontë she had known at Roe Head school:
‘She said she had never played, and could not play. We made her try, but soon found that she could not see the ball, so we put her out. She took all our proceedings with pliable indifference, and always seemed to need a previous resolution to say “No” to anything. She used to go and stand under the trees in the play-ground, and say it was pleasanter. She endeavoured to explain this, pointing out the shadows, the peeps of sky, &c. We understood but little of it. She said that at Cowan Bridge she used to stand in the burn, on a stone, to watch the water flow by. I told her she should have gone fishing; she said she never wanted. She always showed physical feebleness in everything. She ate no animal food at school.’
A typically blunt assessment from Mary, and it seems to point to Charlotte avoiding meat at this point in her life because of a lifestyle choice. Nevertheless we know that Charlotte did resume eating meat again; the reason why was outlined in Ellen Nussey’s memoir, ‘Reminiscences of Charlotte Bronte’:
‘Her appetite was of the smallest; for years she had not tasted animal food; she had the greatest dislike to it; she always had something specially provided for her at our midday repast. Towards the close of the first half-year she was induced to take, by little and little, meat gravy with vegetable, and in the second half-year she commenced taking a very small portion of animal food daily. She then grew a little bit plumper, looked younger and more animated, though she was never what is called lively at this period.’
If Charlotte had had access to the information we have today on nutritional content, and with today’s dietary supplements, it seems possible, even probable, that Charlotte Brontë would have remained vegetarian.
The greatest proof that the Brontës did eat meat comes from the Brontës themselves. The 1834 diary paper composed jointly by Emily and Anne Brontë provides a snapshot of a day in the life of the two teenage sisters, and it also reveals what they were having for dinner:
‘It is past Twelve o’clock Anne and I have not tided ourselves, done our bed work done our lessons and we want to go out to play. We are going to have for dinner boiled beef, turnips, potato’s and apple pudding, the kitchin is in a very untidy state.’
All in all that sounds like a fine, balanced meal, and certainly disproves Martha Wright’s tale that the Brontë children were given spartan dinners. Whatever you are having for your Sunday lunch I hope you enjoy it, and I hope to see you here next week for another new Brontë blog post.
This week marks the 173rd anniversary of the publication of the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. The second edition was necessitated because it had proved hugely popular, with the first edition selling faster than even her sister Charlotte’sJane Eyre had. In today’s new post we’re going to look at Charlotte Bronte’s opinion of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, and why she may have held it.
One reason for the huge popularity that Anne’s second novel enjoyed after it’s launch was of course that it’s a fabulous novel executed brilliantly, but it was also because it had a whiff of controversy about it. Some critics had been damning of the subject matter of the book, and unsurprisingly that made a lot of people want to read it for themselves.
‘The Atlas’, for example, were most concerned with the depiction of the upper classes, who in the reviewer’s eyes seem to be beyond reproach: ‘This, perhaps, is the passage which of all others in the book the general reader will be most inclined to describe “powerful.” But it is power of a bad kind. It is sheer exaggeration. These creatures are supposed to belong to the class “gentlemen” – to have moved in good society, to have been subject to humanising influences. They appear, too, in a story illustrative of modern life. We need not take any trouble to explain why we pronounce them essentially unreal.’
It was criticism such as this which led Anne Brontë to compose her famous preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. In it she effectively shot down those who had criticised the authenticity of her work:
‘My object in writing the following pages, was not simply to amuse the Reader, neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it… When we have to deal with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts – this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.’
Nevertheless, many discerning critics had praised Anne’s novel. ‘The Athenaeum’, for example, called it, ‘the most interesting novel which we have read for a month past’, whilst the ‘Morning Herald’ hailed it as ‘a thorough racy English novel’ (which probably helped sales no end.)
What did Charlotte make of Anne’s latest work? From pronouncements she made after Anne’s death, which tragically came just a year after she found success with ‘Tenant’, we can see that she was less than enamoured with the work. In a letter of 5th September 1850 to W.S. Williams (her publisher Smith, Elder was talking of publishing new editions of her sisters’ work), she pronounced:
‘“Wildfell Hall” it hardly appears desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake – it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer. She wrote it under a strange, conscientious, half-ascetic notion of accomplishing a painful penance and a severe duty.’
Charlotte returned to this theme a year later when she wrote her ‘biographical notice’ of Acton Bell (Anne’s pseudonym of course): ‘The choice of subject was an entire mistake… She had in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail as a warning to others.’
Were these views shaped by Anne’s passing? We have letters showing what Charlotte thought of the book at the time of its publication. On 31st July 1848 she wrote (once again to W.S. Williams):
‘The fact is neither she [Anne] nor any of us expected that view to be taken of the book which has been taken by some critics: that it had its faults of execution, faults of art was obvious; but faults of intention or feeling could be suspected by none who knew the writer. For my own part I consider the subject unfortunately chosen – it was one the author was not qualified to handle at once vigorously and truthfully; the simple and natural, quiet description and simple pathos are, I think, Acton Bell’s forte. I liked Agnes Grey better than the present work.
In reply to this, it seems that Williams countered that he thought Huntingdon, the central villain of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, reminded him of Rochester. Predictably, Charlotte wasn’t happy at that assessment, and on 14th August 1848 replied with a fascinating assessment of some of the male protagonists of Brontë novels:
It’s quite clear that Charlotte Brontë was far from a fan of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, but why was this? There are many hypotheses; could it be that Charlotte was jealous of the success of Anne’s second novel, and felt that it had eclipsed her own Jane Eyre? Sibling rivalry is as old as Cain and Abel after all. Could it be that Charlotte did indeed think her youngest sister was simply too meek to write such a book, and to endure the consequences of writing it? I personally think that the subject matter hit too close to home for Charlotte to bear. Huntingdon was not based on Branwell Brontë (although Lowborough in the novel may be closer to him), but the episodes of drunken and drug-fuelled behaviour may have seemed familiar to Charlotte – perhaps she worried that Anne’s novel was placing Branwell’s frailties in front of the world?
Without a time machine we shall never know, but Charlotte’s pronouncement on the novel had a long lasting effect. It was not re-published alongside Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, and in fact it was ten years after Anne’s death, and four after Charlotte’s own exit, that another edition saw the light of day – by which time the novel had been all but forgotten.
The effect was long lasting, it seemed like it might do the novel and author eternal damage, but as we see in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall itself, Anne was aware that ‘eternal’ doesn’t really mean forever:
‘”How will it be in the end, when you see yourselves parted for ever; you, perhaps, taken into eternal bliss, and he cast into the lake that burneth with unquenchable fire – there for ever to -”
“Not for ever,” I exclaimed, “‘only till he has paid the uttermost farthing;’ for ‘if any man’s work abide not the fire, he shall suffer loss, yet himself shall be saved, but so as by fire;’ and He that ‘is able to subdue all things to Himself will have all men to be saved,’ and ‘will, in the fulness of time, gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus, who tasted death for every man, and in whom God will reconcile all things to Himself, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven.’”
“Oh, Helen! where did you learn all this?”
“In the Bible, aunt. I have searched it through, and found nearly thirty passages, all tending to support the same theory.”
“And is that the use you make of your Bible? And did you find no passages tending to prove the danger and the falsity of such a belief?”
“No: I found, indeed, some passages that, taken by themselves, might seem to contradict that opinion; but they will all bear a different construction to that which is commonly given, and in most the only difficulty is in the word which we translate ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternal.’ I don’t know the Greek, but I believe it strictly means for ages, and might signify either endless or long-enduring.”
Long-enduring though the reputational damage to ‘Tenant’ was, it did not last forever. Today it is rightly hailed as a masterpiece, a book well ahead of its time that has a message as important today as it has ever been.
Before I go, I have to say a big thank you for all the kind messages you sent in response to last week’s post. Thank you. Such kind words and thoughts certainly make writing this blog worthwhile, and I’m sure they will do me a world of good. I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.
Last week we celebrated the 203rd birthday of the wonderful Emily Brontë, but there was another Brontë anniversary taking place for it also marked the return from honeymoon of Charlotte Brontë in 1854 – or Charlotte Brontë Nicholls as she then styled herself.
In this week’s post we’re going to take a look at Charlotte Brontë’s honeymoon, and thankfully we have a great source for our information – the letters of Charlotte herself. As many people have been finding over the last year, there are many great places to see in the British Isles, and Charlotte enjoyed her month long honeymoon in Ireland, birthplace of her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls, after travelling through Wales.
We also have a report of Charlotte and Arthur setting off on their honeymoon on 29th June 1854 thanks to the recollection of James Robinson, a young trainee teacher who was present at their wedding:
‘Directly the ceremony was over, and the interested parties had gone to the parsonage, a carriage and pair drove up from Keighley. There was no station at Haworth then. I remember there was a bay horse and a grey one, and in a few moments Miss Brontë and Mr. Nicholls, now married, were away on their honeymoon.’
We can be thankful that Charlotte found time on her honeymoon to write some detailed and enlightening letters, for they give us a fascinating insight into this happy time for her. There are five such letters, and the first was written to her great friend, and bridesmaid, Ellen Nussey:
Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey, 29th June 1854
As we shall see, Charlotte sailed from Wales to Ireland. Whilst in Wales she found time to draw this beautiful sketch of Conwy Castle.
Charlotte Brontë to Margaret Wooler, 10th July 1854
Charlotte is fascinated by the home and family of her new husband, Hill House in Banagher, County Offaly, around 80 miles west of Dublin. She is particularly charmed by Arthur’s cousin Mary who is a ‘pretty, lady-like girl with gentle English manners.’ This cousin was like a sister to Arthur, they were brought up together after his uncle the Reverend Bell of Banagher became his guardian. Ten years after this meeting, and nine after Charlotte’s tragic death, Mary Bell and Arthur Bell Nicholls were married.
Charlotte Brontë to Catherine Wooler, 18th July 1854
Catherine Wooler was younger sister to Margaret, and had also taught Charlotte at Roe Head school. Charlotte and Arthur loved the wild Atlantic coastline of Kilkee, and the resort still remembers Charlotte. She is mentioned here on this sign, underneath a picture of a rather different visitor to Kilkee: Che Guevara.
Charlotte Brontë to Catherine Winkworth, 27th July 1854
Catherine Winkworth, or Katie as she was known to Charlotte, was a close friend of Elizabeth Gaskell and had met Charlotte at Gaskell’s Plymouth Grove home in Manchester. In this letter we get an account of an incident that could have ended Charlotte’s life. Thrown from her horse at the spectacularly beautiful Gap of Dunloe, a sometimes treacherous passageway in the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, she narrowly avoids being trampled to death. It seems strangely reminiscent of a scene which Charlotte had written seven years earlier: Rochester being thrown from his horse at his first encounter with Jane Eyre.
Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey, 28th July 1854
Charlotte’s Irish adventure has come to an end, and she is once more in Dublin (that’s Dublin Castle at the head of this post) waiting to sail back to Wales. From these letters we see that Charlotte has had a hugely enjoyable, and certainly memorable, honeymoon. She loved Ireland, the land of her father, and her love for her new husband was growing by the day.
There is a sadder note, however, as we hear of Charlotte’s concern for her father’s health. Unfortunately, I found a little over a week ago that my own health is not as ship shape as I thought it was. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but I hope to be able to continue writing these Brontë blog posts for a long time yet, but if I have to miss some weeks or if posts are late then I hope you will understand. Anyway, let’s end on a happier note and remember the happy moments that Charlotte spent in Ireland. I hope to see you all again next week for another new Brontë blog post.
I’m back from my holiday in Scarborough – and what a wonderful town it is; it’s easy to see why it held such appeal for Anne Brontë. In today’s new post we take a look at a special anniversary this week for Anne’s beloved sister Emily Brontë.
Emily wrote possibly the greatest novel of them all, Wuthering Heights, but her person has attracted almost as much legend as her novel. Today many people see Emily as aloof, mystical, a creature completely at one with nature. Certainly Emily was very shy, but was there more to her than that? The 30th of July marked the 203rd birthday of Emily Brontë, so let’s celebrate by looking at what the people who actually met and knew Emily actually thought of her. Here are some illuminating first person accounts of Emily Brontë:
‘She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty; never have given way but with life.’
A Haworth Church-goer
‘Emily made a lasting impression. One who saw her many times told of “the stolid stoical manner of Emily as she sat bolt upright in the corner of the pew, as motionless as a statue. Her compressed mouth and drooping eyelids, and indeed her whole demeanour, appeared to indicate strong innate power”.’
‘“And Miss Emily?” Miss Parry asked. “Oh, you see, ma’am, I don’t know much about Miss Emily, she was very shy; but Martha loved her: she said she was so kind.”’
‘I believe Charlotte was the lowest and the broadest, and Emily was the tallest. She’d bigger bones and was stronger looking and more masculine, but very nice in her ways.’
‘Patrick had such unbounded confidence in his daughter Emily that he resolved to learn her to shoot too. They used to practice with pistols. Let her be ever so busy in her domestic duties, whether in the kitchen baking bread at which she had such a dainty hand, or at her studies, rapt in a world of her own creating – it mattered not; if he called upon her to take a lesson, she would put all down. His tender and affectionate “Now, my dear girl, let me see how well you can shoot today”, was irresistible to her filial nature and her most winning and musical voice would be heard to ring through the house in response, “Yes, papa” and away she would run with such a hearty good will taking the board from him, and tripping like a fairy to the bottom of the garden, putting it in its proper position, then returning to her dear revered parent, take the pistol which he had primed and loaded for her. “Now my girl” he would say, “take time, be steady”. “Yes papa” she would say taking the weapon with as firm a hand, and as steady an eye as any veteran of the camp, and fire. Then she would run to fetch the board for him to see how she had succeeded. And she did get so proficient, that she was rarely far from the mark. His “how cleverly you have done, my dear girl”, was all she cared for. “Oh!” He would exclaim, “she is a brave and noble girl. She is my right-hand, nay the very apple of my eye!”’
‘Emily had by this time acquired a lithesome, graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house, except her father. Her hair, which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte’s, was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes, kind, kindling, liquid eyes; but she did not often look at you: she was too reserved. She talked very little. She and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.’
‘Her extreme reserve seemed impenetrable, yet she was intensely loveable. She invited confidence in her moral power. Few people have the gift of looking and smiling, as she could look and smile – one of her rare expressive looks was something to remember through life, there was such a depth of soul and feeling, and yet shyness of revealing herself, a strength of self-containment seen in no other. She was in the strictest sense a law unto herself, and a heroine in keeping to her law.’
‘A spell of mischief also lurked in her [Emily] on occasions. When out on the moors she enjoyed leading Charlotte where she would not dare to go of her own free will. C. had a mortal dread of unknown animals and it was Emily’s pleasure to lead her into close vicinity and then to tell her of what she had done, laughing at her horror with great amusement.’
‘She could be really vivacious in conversation, taking pleasure in giving pleasure.’
‘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.’
‘Many’s the time that I have seen Miss Emily put down the tally-iron as she was ironing the clothes to scribble something on a piece of paper. Whatever she was doing, ironing or baking, she had her pencil and paper by her. I know now that she was then writing Wuthering Heights. Poor Emily, we always thought her to be the best-looking, the cleverest, and the bravest-spirited of the three. Little did we dream that she would be the first to be taken away.’
‘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.’
Now we see a different picture of Emily Brontë, a truer one because these descriptions come from those who were lucky enough to know her. We see that Emily was shy, without doubt, but that she also enjoyed playing jokes and could be very vivacious. She was noted not only for her practical skills in life, such as baking, but for her kindness and for her loving nature. Above all, those who knew Emily Brontë knew that they were in the presence of someone completely unique, a one-off genius.
Happy belated birthday Emily Brontë, and Happy Yorkshire Day to all those who share with me in hailing from this wonderful county that gave us the inimitable Brontës. I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë has rightly taken its place in the canon of great works of literature. It was loved from the moment it was published in 1847, but whilst the public took the novel to their hearts, some of the snootier critics weren’t always so impressed (it has ever been thus). In a previous post we looked at Elizabeth Rigby’s incredibly unperceptive take on the novel, but today we’re going to look at a Jane Eyre pronouncement from someone Charlotte knew well: Mary Taylor.
Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor were very close friends from the moment they met at Roe Head school in 1831. By the time of Jane Eyre’s publication in late 1847, however, they were over 11,000 miles apart. Mary Taylor emigrated to New Zealand in March 1845, following the path of her brother Waring Taylor who had moved there three years earlier. In a letter of October 1844, Charlotte Brontë revealed the news of Mary’s plans to their mutual friend Ellen Nussey:
‘Mary Taylor is going to leave our hemisphere. To me it is something as if a great planet fell out of the sky. Yet unless she marries in New Zealand she will not stay there long.’
Mary, as Charlotte surely knew, was not the marrying kind, but she was a determined and entrepreneurial woman, and she remained in New Zealand running a successful business until 1859. Being in New Zealand then meant that communication with England was difficult, with letters and parcels taking weeks or months to reach their destination. Nevertheless Mary did keep up correspondence with Charlotte, Ellen and others, and so it was that Charlotte Brontë sent Mary a copy of Jane Eyre written under her pseudonym of Currer Bell.
Unfortunately we don’t have Charlotte’s original letter, sent with the book, to Mary, but we do have Mary’s response to it. She began writing it in June 1848, and completed and sent it on July 24th due to the difficulty in sending mail at the time – as we shall see. Here is Mary Taylor’s letter containing her opinion on Jane Eyre and more:
‘Dear Charlotte, About a month since I received and read Jane Eyre. It seemed to me incredible that you had actually written a book. Such events did not happen while I was in England. I begin to believe in your existence much as I do in Mr. Rochester’s. In a believing mood I don’t doubt either of them. After I had read ‘it’ I went to the top of Mt. Victoria & looked for a ship to carry a letter to you. There was a little thing with one mast, & also H.M.S. Fly & nothing else. If a cattle vessel came from Sydney she would probably return in a few days & would take a mail, but we have had east wind for a month & nothing can come in – ‘July 1’ The Harlequin has just come from Otago and is to sail for Singapore when the wind changes & by that route (which I hope to take myself sometime) I send you this. Much good may it do you.
Your novel surprised me by being so perfect as a work of art. I expected something more changeable & unfinished. You have polished to some purpose. If I were to do so I should get tired & weary every one else in about two pages. No sign of this weariness is in your book – you must have had abundance, having kept it all to yourself!
You are very different from me in having no doctrine to preach. It is impossible to squeeze a moral out of your production. Has the world gone so well with you that you have no protest to make against its absurdities? Did you never sneer or declaim in your first sketches? I will scold you well when I see you. I don’t believe in Mr Rivers. There are no good men of the Brocklehurst species. A missionary either goes into his office for a piece of bread, or he goes from enthusiasm, & that is both too good & too bad a quality for St. John. It’s a bit of your absurd charity to believe in such a man. You have done wisely in choosing to imagine a high class of readers. You never stop to explain or defend anything & never seem bothered with the idea – if Mrs. Fairfax or any other well intentioned fool gets hold of this what will she think? And yet you know the world is made up of such, & worse.
Once more, how you have written through 3 vols. without declaring war to the knife against a few absurd doctrines each of which is supported by a “large and respectable class of readers”? Emily seems to have had such a class in her eye when she wrote that strange thing Wuthering Heights. Ann [sic.] too stops repeatedly to preach commonplace truths. She has had a still lower class in her mind’s eye. Emily seems to have followed the bookseller’s advice. As to the price you got it was certainly Jewish. But what could the people do? If they had asked you to fix it, do you know yourself how many cyphers your sums would have had? And how should they know better? And if they did, that’s the knowledge they get their living by. If I were in your place the idea of being bound in the sale of 2! more would prevent me from ever writing again. Yet you are probably now busy with another. It is curious for me to see among the letters one from Aunt Sarah sending a copy of a whole article on the currency question written by Fonblanque! I exceedingly regret having burnt your letters in a fit of caution , & I’ve forgotten about the names. Was the reader Albert Smith? What do they all think of you? I perceive I’ve betrayed my habit of only writing on one side of the paper. Go onto the next page.
I mention the book to no one & hear no opinions. I lend it a good deal because it’s a novel & it’s as good as another! They say it “makes them cry”. They are not literary enough to give an opinion. If ever I hear one I’ll embalm it for you.
As to my own affair I have written 100 pages & lately 50 more. It’s no use writing faster. I get so disgusted I can do nothing. I have sent 3 or 4 things to Joe for Tait. Troup (Ed.) never acknowledges them though he promised either to pay or send them back. Joe sent one to Chambers who thought it unsuitable in which I agree with them…
I have now told you everything I can think of except that the cat’s on the table & that I’m going to borrow a new book to read. No less than an account of all the systems of philosophy of modern Europe. I have lately met with a wonder, a man who thinks Jane Eyre would have done better to marry Mr Rivers! He gives no reasons – such people never do. Mary Taylor’
I have missed out the long middle section dealing with Mary’s life in New Zealand in which she talks about the price of cows and her dream of buying and riding a horse, among many other things. What we have above, though, is a fascinating glimpse into Mary’s mind, her friendship with Charlotte and her views on Jane Eyre.
At first, some of Mary’s opinions may seem a little harsh, but she shared with Charlotte a complete forthrightness and a determination to give an honest opinion in all things, not to mention a sometimes waspish way with words.
It is clear that Mary was very proud of Charlotte and her book, especially as her own dream of being a writer was not proving fruitful. The 150 pages that Mary talks of having written were probably from an early draft of her own novel Miss Miles, which was not published until 42 years after Mary wrote this letter.
Mary Taylor did however become a relatively successful writer of articles for magazines, of which some are seen as early examples of feminist journalism. It’s interesting to note however that despite Mary’s admonishment of Charlotte for not preaching a doctrine, her own Miss Miles is itself free of obvious preaching.
What do we make of Mary’s opinion of St. John Rivers? Not many people reading the book today would think that Charlotte had sugar coated him, or see him as a relentlessly ‘good’ character. We can, however, share Mary’s astonishment that a reader thought that Jane should have married the hectoring preacher.
We can also see that Charlotte has previously given Mary notice of her writing, and of her dealings with the publishers Smith, Elder & Co. We see that she has signed a contract to deliver two more novels after Jane Eyre; alas, two more novels were all that Charlotte did write after signing that contract.
Above all, this is a letter that a friend would write to someone who knows her very well; she has no need to fear that Charlotte will take offence at her comments. It is a letter full of love, although that love and kindness is hidden beneath a veneer that both Mary and Charlotte could coat their letters with.
The great thing about a great novel such as Jane Eyre is that we can all read it and form our own opinions, and all are as valid as the next. I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.
Apologies in advance, but today’s will be a very short post, if indeed it can be called that at all.
I’m on holiday this weekend; I’ve travelled to Anne Bronte’s beloved Scarborough on Yorkshire’s east coast. Of course, one of the first things I did was visit Anne’s grave in the shadow of Scarborough Castle. I’m pleased to say that while we sat there, there were plenty of visitors to see Anne. She remains ever popular with fans from far and wide.
I hope to see you next Sunday when normal Bronte blog service will be resumed.
On this day in 1848 two tired yet happy sisters boarded a steam train at Euston Station (that’s it at the head of this post) en route to Leeds, Keighley and finally Haworth. They were Charlotte and Anne Brontë, and they had just completed a four day sojourn in London which changed literary history forever.
Charlotte and Anne had travelled hastily to London in an attempt to clear their name from a scam being perpetuated by Anne’s ever unscrupulous publisher Thomas Cautley Newby. In previous posts we’ve looked at the Brontës’ time in London, but we haven’t heard from somebody who can explain it from a unique viewpoint: Charlotte Brontë herself. In today’s post I reproduce in full a letter sent by Charlotte to her friend Mary Taylor (at that time living in New Zealand); written two months after the London journey, it nevertheless gives a fulsome account of the days the Brontës spent there. I’ve also added some notes after the letter which here follows:
To Mary Taylor
Haworth, September 4th, 1848.
‘Dear Polly1, 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 station2, 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 morning3. 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 Dixon4. 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 volatile5. 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 church6. 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 there7. 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 time8. Good-bye. God bless you. Write. C B.’
Notes to Charlotte’s letter:
1. Polly was Charlotte’s nickname for Mary Taylor. It was also the name given to one of the central characters of Villette: Polly Home, later encountered in the novel as the grand Countess Paulina de Bassompierre. When we first meet Polly she is a pretty, precocious child. Charlotte first met Mary Taylor at school at Roe Head, Mirfield where Mary was described by headmistress Margaret Wooler as ‘too pretty to live’.
2. Charlotte and Anne set out on the evening of July 7th 1848; even amidst the wuthering moorlands of Haworth it would seem unlikely to have a snowstorm on that day.
3. The Chapter Coffee House was on Paternoster Row behind St. Paul’s Cathedral; it was where Charlotte, Emily and Patrick Brontë had stayed there in 1842 en route to Brussels, accompanied by Mary Taylor and her brother Joe.
4. Tom Dixon was the youngest son of Abraham Dixon, an inventor and entrepreneur originally from Leeds but who moved with his family to Brussels. Tom Dixon was a cousin of Mary Taylor, and Charlotte often met Tom and his brother George, who later became MP for Birmingham, in Brussels.
5. Smelling salts; the ornate smelling salts bottles of Elizabeth and Maria Branwell (aunt and mother to the Brontës) are in the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection. Maria’s salts bottle became the property of Anne, but it seems likely that Charlotte also had a bottle.
6. Although staying in the shadow of the mighty St. Paul’s, Anne requested that they be taken to St. Stephen Walbrook church in the nearby City of London. This beautiful church was noted at the time for its preacher Reverend George Croly, whose views on religious salvation chimed with those of Anne.
7. Leigh Hunt was a poet and publisher, most known today for having been a great friend of John Keats. In 1813 Hunt’s newspaper called Prince George (later George IV) ‘corpulent’; this led to Hunt being arrested and jailed for two years.
8. If only we had an account of Charlotte and Anne’s meeting with Thomas Newby! Surprisingly the meeting didn’t end with Anne transferring her rights from Newby to the altogether more honest George Smith, possibly because Emily Brontë wasn’t there to discuss the matter with.
A charming and revealing letter, as so many of Charlotte’s are. Storm clouds were looming over Haworth when she and Anne returned, but these four days had been days of joy and happiness for them. I wish you all joy and happiness, and I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.