Claire Harman | Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart | Knopf | March 2016 | 32 minutes (7,925 words)
The excerpt below is adapted from Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. It tells the story of how the Brontës burst onto the literary scene using male pseudonyms. The sisters slowly came out to a select few, beginning with their father. But Charlotte retained her male identity even in correspondence with her publishers and fellow authors, until tragedy compelled her to reveal the truth. This story comes recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
* * *
When the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.
Six sets of Jane Eyre arrived at the Parsonage on publication day, 19 October 1847, presumably much to the interest of the postmaster, Mr. Harftley. Reviews began flooding in immediately, from the daily papers, religious journals, provincial gazettes, trade magazines, as well as from the expected literary organs such as the Athenaeum, Critic and Literary Gazette. Charlotte had been anxious about the critical reception of “a mere domestic novel,” hoping it would at least sell enough copies to justify her publisher’s investment—in the event, it triumphed on both fronts. The response was powerful and immediate. Reviewers praised the unusual force of the writing: “One of the freshest and most genuine books which we have read for a long time,” “far beyond the average,” “very clever and striking,” with images “like the Cartoons of Raphael . . . true, bold, well-defined.” “This is not merely a work of great promise,” the Atlas said, “it is one of absolute performance”; while the influential critic George Henry Lewes seemed spellbound by the book’s “psychological intuition”: “It reads like a page out of one’s own life.” It sold in thousands and was reprinted within ten weeks; eventually, even Queen Victoria was arrested by “that intensely interesting novel.” Only four days after publication, William Makepeace Thackeray, whose masterpiece Vanity Fair was unfolding before the public in serial form at exactly the same time, wrote to thank Williams for his complimentary copy of Jane Eyre. He had “lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it”; in fact it had engrossed him so much that his own printers were kept waiting for the next instalment of Becky Sharp’s adventures, and when the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.
Who was Currer Bell? A man, obviously. This forthright tale of attempted bigamy and an unmarried woman’s passion could have been written only by a man, thought Albany Fonblanque, the reviewer in John Forster’s influential Examiner, who praised the book’s thought and morals as “true, sound, and original” and believed that “Whatever faults may be urged against the book, no one can assert that it is weak or vapid. It is anything but a fashionable novel . . . as an analysis of a single mind . . . it may claim comparison with any work of the same species.”
Charlotte could hardly keep up with responding to the cuttings that her publisher was sending on by every post, and even received a letter from George Henry Lewes while he was writing his review for Fraser’s Magazine, wanting to engage in a detailed analysis of the book. “There are moments when I can hardly credit that anything I have done should be found worthy to give even transitory pleasure to such men as Mr. Thackeray, Sir John Herschel, Mr. Fonblanque, Leigh Hunt and Mr. Lewes,” Currer Bell told his publisher; “that my humble efforts should have had such a result is a noble reward.” It must have been difficult for Emily and Anne to be wholly delighted for their sister, with their own books apparently forgotten, though when Newby saw the success of Currer Bell he suddenly moved back into action with the production of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, hoping to cash in on the excitement.
At home, the time had come to inform her father of the reason for the sudden flood of post from London, and his daughters’ animation. Patrick Brontë told Elizabeth Gaskell later that he suspected all along that the girls were somehow trying to get published, “but his suspicions could take no exact form, as all he was certain of was, that his children were perpetually writing—and not writing letters.” Sometime in November or early December 1847, between the publication of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, Charlotte sought out her father in his study after his usual solitary dinner, with a copy of her novel to show him and two or three reviews, including one that was critical—a characteristic piece of scrupulousness. Mrs. Gaskell wrote down Charlotte’s own report of the scene:
“Papa I’ve been writing a book.” “Have you my dear?” and he went on reading. “But Papa I want you to look at it.” “I can’t be troubled to read MS.” “But it is printed.” “I hope you have not been involving yourself in any such silly expense.” “I think I shall gain some money by it. May I read you some reviews.” So she read them; and then she asked him if he would read the book. He said she might leave it, and he would see.
When he came in to tea some hours later it was with the announcement, “Children, Charlotte has been writing a book—and I think it is a better one than I expected.” The scene made a pleasantly comical end to the secrecy that the girls had found obnoxious at home, however essential it seemed elsewhere, and Reverend Brontë’s pride in his daughter’s success became one of Charlotte’s deepest pleasures in the following years.
Emily and Anne were not well served by their publisher, and the copies of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey that arrived just before Christmas proved to be cheaply produced and full of errors uncorrected from the proofs. Worse still, Newby had indulged in some chicanery in his advertising of the book, suggesting that it was by the author of Jane Eyre. The reception was mixed, and the coverage far less extensive than that of Currer Bell’s bestseller; reviewers seemed consternated by Wuthering Heights’s shocking violence and “abominable paganism”—even the multiple narrators unsettled them. Not all the judgements were negative, however. The force and originality of Ellis Bell’s book were indisputable, as was the mind behind it, “of limited experience, but of original energy, and of a singular and distinctive cast,” as the critic in Britannia said, while Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly recognised that the author “wants but the practised skill to make a great artist.” Emily was gratified by these few but potent marks of recognition and kept cuttings of five reviews in her writing desk, including one unidentified one, the best of all, which praised the novel’s vital force and truth to “all the emotions and passions which agitate the restless bosom of humanity” and “talent of no common order.”
Appearing as an adjunct to such a strange and powerful story, Agnes Grey never had a chance of being judged on its own merits. The Atlas, crushingly, said that, unlike Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey “left no painful impression on the mind—some may think it leaves no impression at all.” It also looked pallid in comparison with Currer Bell’s governess novel, which had in fact post-dated it.
But the appearance of two more novelists called Bell—one of whom was wickedly sensational—made a prime subject of gossip. Though none of the published works bore any biographical information about the authors, it became generally understood that the Bells were brothers, possibly through Charlotte’s reference to them as “relatives” in her correspondence with publishers, and with the writers to whom she had sent Poems. One of those writers, J. G. Lockhart, seemed much more interested in the gossip than in the work they had sent him and passed on to his friend Elizabeth Rigby the news that the Bells were “brothers of the weaving order in some Lancashire town.” Another school of thought, fuelled by Newby’s false advertising, favoured the idea that “the Bells” were all one person.
Her growing friendship with George Smith’s second-in-command, William Smith Williams, was one of the great pleasures that came to Charlotte through publication, and for almost a year she conducted a very open and lively correspondence with him in the person of the androgynous “Currer Bell,” with no revelation of her real name, sex or circumstances. The freedom that this gave her was unique in her life: she wrote to Williams not as a man or a woman, but the free spirit, unsnared, that her heroine Jane had defined and defended.
From the frankness with which Currer Bell tackles the question in one letter of what Williams’s daughters might do to earn an independent living, it is clear that Williams had shared (in his missing side of the correspondence) many details of his family life and circumstances with his new correspondent, whoever “Currer Bell” was. He could hardly have been in serious doubt that the author of Jane Eyre and of these letters was a woman, but the fiction of her non-womanness was maintained scrupulously in their early correspondence.
* * *
To all the rest of the world we must be ‘gentlemen’ as heretofore.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published in late June 1848, stoking press interest in “all these Bells,” as one paper called them, who suddenly seemed to be flooding the market with sensational novels—four in nine months. It encouraged the worst in Thomas Newby, who suggested to an American publisher that the Bells’ works, including this new one, were all the product of a single pen, Currer’s, and when Tenant of Wildfell Hall was advertised in this way—“by the author of ‘Jane Eyre,’ ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey’ ”—the American firm Harper’s, which had an agreement with Smith, Elder to publish Currer Bell’s next book, was understandably offended. George Smith could only pass on his own sense of affront to his author in Haworth by post, and ask for an explanation.
This was a dreadful letter for Charlotte to receive, threatening to ruin her hitherto excellent relations with Smith, Elder and tainting her and her sisters with blame for what had been Newby’s casual double-dealing. She was so mortified that only direct action seemed appropriate, and instead of getting out her desk to write a letter of explanation, she set about packing a small box instead and had it sent down to Keighley Station by carrier. After a heated discussion with Emily and a hurried meal, she and Anne set off on foot for four miles in pouring rain, caught the train to Leeds and from there took the night train to London. Emily was having no part in this rash adventure, and Patrick Brontë does not seem to have been either consulted or informed.
Telling Mary Taylor about these eventful few days, in a wonderfully comic letter, Charlotte described how on arrival in the capital early the next morning she and Anne made for the Chapter Coffee House, not knowing where else to go:
We washed ourselves—had some breakfast—sat a few minutes and then set of[f] in queer, inward excitement, to 65. Cornhill. Neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Williams knew we were coming they had never seen us—they did not know whether we were men or women—but had always written to us as men.
No. 65 Cornhill, the magical address to which Charlotte had been writing for the past year, turned out 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—but went to fetch him—We sat down and waited awhile—looking a[t] 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 somebody came up and said dubiously
“Do you wish to see me, Ma’am?”
“Is it Mr. Smith?” I said looking up through my spectacles at a young, tall, gentlemanly man
I then put his own letter into his hand directed to “Currer Bell.” He looked at it—then at me—again—yet again—I laughed at his queer perplexity—A recognition took place—. I gave my real name—“Miss Brontë—”
It is significant that Charlotte’s personal acquaintance with her publisher began with a laugh and a double-take. He never quite got over his amazement at the incongruity of it, that this strange little woman in glasses and old-fashioned travelling clothes was Currer Bell. And she, given the advantage of surprise, was able to make this first scrutiny of him without self-consciousness. What she saw was a tall, charming man of twenty-four, elegantly dressed and brimming with excitement at meeting her. He hurried his visitors into an office, where rapid explanations were gone into on both sides, accompanied by strong mutual condemnation of the “shuffling scamp,” Newby. At the first opportunity Smith called in his colleague Williams to share the revelation of their best-selling author’s identity, and now it was Charlotte’s turn to be surprised, for Williams, her confidential correspondent of the past year, appeared in the guise of “a pale, mild, stooping man of fifty,” stammering and shy. The shock to both of them must have been profound, having communicated so freely and equally, to meet at last and have to fit their epistolary personalities into these unlikely casings—one of them female. There was “a long, nervous shaking of hands—Then followed talk—talk—talk—Mr. Williams being silent—Mr. Smith loquacious.”
Smith was fully animated, and immediately had a dozen plans for the entertainment of the Misses Brontë and their introduction to London society. “[Y]ou must go to the Italian opera—you must see the Exhibition—Mr. Thackeray would be pleased to see you—If Mr. Lewes knew ‘Currer Bell’ was in town—he would have to be shut up,” et cetera, et cetera. Delightful though all these suggestions were, Charlotte cut him short with the warning that the sisters’ incognito had to be strictly preserved. She and Acton Bell had only revealed themselves to him to prove their innocence in the matter of Newby’s lies. “[T]o all the rest of the world we must be ‘gentlemen’ as heretofore,” she told him.
Nevertheless, Smith was determined to fête them, offered them the hospitality of his own home and, when that was refused, came up with the idea of introducing the sisters not as authors but as his “country cousins,” the Misses Brown. “The desire to see some of the personages whose names he mentioned—kindled in me very strongly,” Charlotte told Mary, “but when I found on further examination that he could not venture to ask such men as Thackeray &c. at a short notice, without giving them a hint as to whom they were to meet, I declined even this—I felt it would have ended in our being made a show of—a thing I have ever resolved to avoid.” The sisters retired to the Coffee House, exhausted, where Charlotte took smelling salts—the conventional if rather potent remedy of the time against headache and pains—to prepare herself for a promised call later in the day from Smith and his sisters. But when the Smiths turned up, young and lovely in full evening dress (right down to white gloves), it was with the expectation that the Misses Brown would accompany them to the Opera—which Charlotte and Anne had “by no means understood.” But, despite their unpreparedness, and the effects of the analgesic, Charlotte decided on the spur of the moment that it would be better to go along with the plan, so within minutes she and Anne were being helped into the Smiths’ carriage, where Williams was also in full fig. “They must have thought us queer, quizzical looking beings—especially me with my spectacles,” Charlotte related with deep amusement. “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 & gentlemen glanced at us with a slight, graceful superciliousness quite warranted by the circumstances—Still I felt pleasurably excited—in spite of headache sickness & conscious clownishness; and I saw Anne was calm and gentle which she always is—”
Also in the audience that night, watching the Royal Italian Opera Company perform The Barber of Seville, were the Earl and Countess of Desart, Viscount Lascelles, the author Lady Morgan and the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, a glamorous glimpse of real High Life for the two Brontës after all their years of imagining it in their writings. Charlotte was so impressed by the splendour of the Opera House building and company that she pressed Williams’s arm and whispered, “You know I am not accustomed to this sort of thing.” Making such an aside to a man she had only just met would have been unthinkable at home, but Charlotte found herself so far outside her milieu that night that she could behave naturally without impunity. And her authorial persona protected her further. It was not Miss Brown on the arm of dashing young George Smith, nor even Miss Brontë, but Currer Bell.
* * *
Ellis the ‘man of uncommon talents but dogged, brutal and morose,’ sat leaning back in his easy chair—Acton was sewing.
Unknown to Charlotte, the trip to London with Anne was to be the last bright spot in her life for a very long time. Branwell was sinking rapidly, worn out by the physical toll of his addictions and “intolerable mental wretchedness.”
Branwell died in his father’s arms, aged thirty-one. “My Son! My Son!” Patrick cried out piteously, refusing to be comforted, alone in his room. He never thought that his remaining children might have needed his comfort in return after their ordeal. “My poor Father naturally thought more of his only son than of his daughters,” Charlotte remarked sombrely.
Emily had caught a chill, it seemed, on the day of the funeral, and had a persistent, racking cough. Charlotte at first blamed the weather and the stress of Branwell’s death, but the cough persisted, worsened, and she began to be deeply alarmed: “Emily’s cold and cough are very obstinate; I fear she has a pain in the chest—and I sometimes catch a shortness in her breathing when she has moved at all quickly—she looks very, very thin and pale.” But her sister was not a good patient—not patient at all. “Her reserved nature occasions one great uneasiness of mind—it is useless to question her—you get no answers—it is still more useless to recommend remedies—they are never adopted.” By early November, Emily’s harsh dry cough and breathlessness, and her frightening emaciation, were getting worse.
Charlotte at first described Emily as “a real stoic in illness,” trying to see her intransigence in the best possible light, but the sick woman’s refusal to accept any help or sympathy or to make any adjustments to her daily routine became increasingly distressing to her sisters: “you must look on, and see her do what she is unfit to do, and not dare to say a word.” “I have again and again incurred her displeasure by urging the necessity of seeking advice, and I fear I must yet incur it again and again.” This recalls “the unconscious tyranny” that Constantin Heger observed in Emily’s treatment of Charlotte that may not have been unconscious at all. “When she is ill there seems to be no sunshine in the world for me,” Charlotte told Williams. “I think a certain harshness in her powerful and peculiar character only makes one cling to her more.” Indeed, Emily seems to have fully understood her power over Charlotte—over the whole household—and been strangely determined to test it at this juncture, imposing on them what Charlotte later called “forced, total neglect.”
George Smith’s gifts of books and periodicals diverted the household during these awful months, though the growing notoriety of the brothers Bell, the guessing games about their true identities and the temptation to rank them as competitors were signs of notice more agitating than gratifying. From her later remarks about Wuthering Heights, it is clear that Charlotte thought it an immature work that Ellis Bell would improve on, given time; the undervaluing of Ellis Bell’s poetry, on the other hand, was a source of increasing annoyance to her. Smith had bought the unsold, unloved stock of the 1846 volume and reissued it in 1848 after the success of Jane Eyre. But still there was insufficient appreciation, in Charlotte’s view, for the genius of Ellis Bell, especially now that Currer’s novel, the most successful of the four by far, always seemed to dispose critics in his favour. It was hard to read aloud to her ailing sister notices that spoke of Ellis’s and Acton’s “comparative inferiority . . . from the greater quietness of a small or the triteness of a common subject.” Charlotte thought such critics “blind . . . as any bat—insensate as any stone.”
Among the articles that Smith, Elder forwarded to Haworth was one from North American Review, considering all four of the Bell novels in the light of the “Jane Eyre fever” currently sweeping the eastern United States. A feverish confusion certainly surrounded the authorship of each novel—the American editions attributed Wuthering Heights to “the author of Jane Eyre” and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to the “author of Wuthering Heights”—and taken together, the Bells, powerfully clever though they were, seemed to embody all that was brutal and offensive. The reviewer deplored the fact that Heathcliff’s creator “seems to take a morose satisfaction in developing a full and complete science of human brutality,” while Acton Bell succeeded in depicting profligacy without making virtue pleasing. Charlotte enjoyed describing to Williams the actual home life of this depraved crew:
As I sat between them at our quiet but now somewhat melancholy fireside, I studied the two ferocious authors. Ellis the “man of uncommon talents but dogged, brutal and morose,” sat leaning back in his easy chair drawing his impeded breath as he best could, and looking, alas! piteously pale and wasted—it is not his wont to laugh—but he smiled half-amused and half in scorn as he listened—Acton was sewing, no emotion ever stirs him to loquacity, so he only smiled too, dropping at the same time a single word of calm amazement to hear his character so darkly pourtrayed [sic].
Charlotte found particularly amusing the reviewer’s suggestion that the Bells might be a brother-and-sister or husband-and-wife team (their work bearing “the marks of more than one mind, and one sex”): “Strange patch-work it must seem to them, this chapter being penned by Mr., and that by Miss or Mrs. Bell; that character or scene being delineated by the husband—that other by the wife! The gentleman of course doing the rough work—the lady getting up the finer parts.” But one can sympathise with the reviewer, trying to make sense of the new phenomenon represented by the Bells. No one had written novels like this before, with so much unaccountable power.
* * *
Dying all the time—the rattle in her throat while she would dress herself.
On the evening of 18 December, Charlotte read to Emily from one of Emerson’s essays, that had arrived in the latest parcel from George Smith. Emily drifted off to sleep and Charlotte put the book down, thinking they would continue the next day. But the next day, “the first glance at her face” assured Charlotte her sister was dying.
Martha Brown told Mrs. Gaskell that on her last morning, Emily got up, “dying all the time—the rattle in her throat while she would dress herself; & neither Miss Brontë nor I dared offer to help her.” Emily’s violent display of denial went as far as trying to take up her sewing, though the servants saw that her eyes had already begun to glaze over. This was the fight that Charlotte described later to Williams, and that Emily forced her to witness, “the conflict of the strangely strong spirit and the fragile frame . . . relentless conflict—once seen, never to be forgotten.”
Charlotte told Mrs. Gaskell that she went out on to the moor on that bleak December day, desperate to find any small spray of heather to take to her dying sister, though the flowers were all brown and withered at that time of year. Emily did not recognise them. Two hours before she died, she said, “If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now,” but of course it was too late. Dr. Wheelhouse may not even have got to the Parsonage in time to see Emily die “in the arms of those who loved her.”
She was buried three days later, on a clear, frosty morning. Arthur Nicholls took the service, and the chancel flagstones, hardly settled from Branwell’s funeral less than three months earlier, were levered up again. The coffin was the narrowest that William Wood ever recalled making for a grown person. It measured five foot seven by only sixteen inches wide. Keeper, who had stayed by Emily’s deathbed and followed her coffin to the church, now lay outside the bedroom door, howling.
Anne’s cough, weakness and the pains in her side were all too clearly indicative of the same disease, though no one wanted to believe it possible. When Ellen Nussey came to visit at the turn of the new year, she found the family “calm and sustained” but very anxious about Anne. Reverend Brontë had inquired after the best Leeds doctor, and a Mr. Teale subsequently came to examine the invalid, whom Ellen thought was looking “sweetly pretty and flushed and in capital spirits.” But when the doctor left and Patrick Brontë came into the room, it was clear that the news was bad. This most undemonstrative of fathers sat next to his youngest child on the sofa and drew her towards him, saying, “My dear little Anne,” as if they were already parting.
With her new understanding of consumption, Charlotte guessed rightly that the family had been harbouring it for years, “unused any of us to the possession of robust health, we have not noticed the gradual approaches of decay; we did not know its symptoms; the little cough, the small appetite, the tendency to take cold at every variation of atmosphere have been regarded as things of course—I see them in another light now.” Anne submitted to all the treatments that Emily would never countenance: she was examined with a stethoscope, she used a respirator, she was blistered, she took cod-liver oil (that smelt “like train oil”) and iron tonics, she accepted help walking round the room, she rested (in what used to be Emily’s chair), but still she did not improve. Charlotte’s instinct was to take the patient somewhere warmer, but travel was not recommended by the doctor until the weather improved, so they waited out the coldest months of the year on the edge of the frozen moor, hoping to get to the seaside—Scarborough was Anne’s longing—as soon as the weather improved.
The trip to Scarborough finally went ahead at the end of that month, too late to be more than a distressing last wish. The journey, broken for a night in York, was arduous and the semblance of a holiday seemed to Charlotte like a “dreary mockery.” “Oh—if it would please God to strengthen and revive Anne how happy we might be together! His will—however—must be done.” Anne was a model patient, the opposite of Emily: she bore the discomforts and anxieties of the journey with what Ellen emotionally termed “the pious courage and fortitude of a martyr” and, with heroic selflessness, tried to minimise the distress to her two companions. She was also doubtless trying to set an example to Charlotte, whose stricken face must have caused the dying girl deep pain.
Their lodgings on the front included a bedroom and sitting room overlooking the sea in one of the best properties in the town, known to Anne from her holidays with the Robinsons. On the Saturday, they went on to the sands and Anne had a ride in a donkey carriage, taking the reins from the boy driver so that the donkey would not be driven too hard, and advising him how to treat the animal in future. It was the last active thing she ever did. The next evening she was wheeled to the window to watch a spectacular sunset lighting the castle and distant ships at sea, and the day after that she died.
* * *
To you I am neither Man nor Woman—I come before you as an Author only.
Almost two years after Jane Eyre’s first publication, criticism of it was still appearing, and Charlotte still felt defensive about it. In August 1849 a review in the North British Review followed the by now common presumption that the “Bells” were one and the same, and concluded that Currer Bell, if a woman, “must be a woman pretty nearly unsexed.” Charlotte deeply resented the implied double standard, which it had been her objective to circumvent: “To such critics I would say—‘to you I am neither Man nor Woman—I come before you as an Author only—it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.’ ”
Worse than any remarks about her own work, though, were denigrations of her sisters’: the reviewer said he could not finish Wuthering Heights, he found it so disgusting, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was not much better, with scenes of “naked vice” that he refused to believe possible among the gentry. Such lashing rebukes were “scarce supportable”; Charlotte was glad Emily and Anne weren’t alive to read them, but her anger on their behalf grew.
In the long months of reclusion, Charlotte felt she had been insufficiently vigilant of her own and her sisters’ reputations, and a notice in The Quarterly Review from December 1848, which had been perceived through the fog of Emily’s death, now seemed to require an answer urgently. In a long article, which first heaped praise on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the anonymous reviewer (Elizabeth Rigby, the friend with whom J. G. Lockhart had been exchanging gossip about the Bells) had lambasted Currer Bell for his vulgarity and, while admitting in passing many virtues of pace, style and feeling in the book, maintained a harsh and sarcastic attack on the debut novelist.
Jane Eyre, in spite of some grand things about her, is a being totally uncongenial to our feelings from beginning to end . . . the impression she leaves on our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman—one whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend, whom we should not desire for a relation, and whom we should scrupulously avoid for a governess.
Jane Eyre was a dangerous, “anti-Christian” book:
There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God’s appointment—there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God’s word or in God’s providence—there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact has at the present day to contend with. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of the mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.
However it was the passages that expressed disgust at Ellis Bell’s novel—“too odiously and abominably pagan to be palatable even to the most vitiated class of English readers”—that roused Charlotte to respond. Her anger on behalf of Emily was perfectly justified, but the nine-month delay in answering was not, nor was her idea—to address The Quarterly in a preface to her new book—a good one. The “Word to The Quarterly” that she drafted had an uncomfortably flippant tone, and targeted the most minor points raised, such as whether Currer Bell had an adequate knowledge of ladies’ fashion in the 1820s, which had convinced Rigby that the author of Jane Eyre was a man.
Smith and Williams did not like the piece at all and asked Charlotte to change it for something that would engage the public’s sympathies rather than stir up an image of a disgruntled carper. They were much more aware than she of her fame, and how such a display could damage her reputation, things for which Charlotte cared little at this stage. Smith believed that a preface that alluded to her personal circumstances and the deaths of Ellis and Acton Bell might provide a useful context to Shirley, but Charlotte dismissed such an idea severely. “What we deeply feel is our own—we must keep it to ourselves,” she told Williams. “Ellis and Acton Bell were, for me, Emily and Anne; my sisters—to me intimately near, tenderly dear—to the public they were nothing—beings speculated upon, misunderstood, misrepresented. If I live, the hour may come when the spirit will move me to speak of them, but it is not come yet.” In the meantime, Shirley went into print in October with no preface at all.
Elizabeth Rigby was hardly wrong in noticing Jane Eyre’s revolutionary bent, however much Charlotte remained in denial about it. When the second edition of Jane Eyre appeared early in 1848 (just as revolution was breaking out in France, Germany and Italy), a reviewer in the ultra-respectable Christian Remembrancer had accused the book of “moral Jacobinism” on every page. “Never was there a better hater,” the author said of the novel’s angry heroine; “ ‘Unjust, unjust,’ is the burden of every reflection upon the things and powers that be. All virtue is but well masked vice, all religious profession and conduct is but the whitening of the sepulchre.” It is easy to see how a book like Jane Eyre could strike readers as all the more subversive because of its surface conventionality. “To say that Jane Eyre is positively immoral or antichristian, would be to do its writer an injustice,” the Remembrancer concluded. “Still it wears a questionable aspect.”
* * *
Why can the Press not be content to take Currer Bell for a man?
Charlotte had said back in July 1849 that, although she felt she might have lost any ability to enjoy society again, she did sometimes crave it, and a change of scene. Smith and Williams were keen to encourage her to come to London and engage with other writers; they understood how useful it might be to her critical reception as much as to her own well-being to emerge now and then from her Yorkshire fastness. Charlotte had no desire to go to parties and be lionised—in fact the idea filled her with revulsion—but being able to meet “some of the truly great literary characters” of the day, Thackeray, Dickens, Harriet Martineau, tempted her strongly. “However this is not to be yet—I cannot sacrifice my incognito—And let me be content with seclusion—it has its advantages. In general indeed I am tranquil—it is only now and then that a struggle disturbs me—that I wish for a wider world than Haworth.” Her isolation was problematic artistically, though, as she was aware on completion of Shirley. Until she heard from Williams that he liked the book, she had no confidence in it at all, not having been able to share it with her sisters, or with anybody.
The publication of Shirley also left her very vulnerable, not just from some of the reviews, which she knew she took too much to heart (“Were my Sisters now alive they and I would laugh over this notice,” she told Williams of one slightly bad one), but from the frenzy of interest locally in the identity of Currer Bell, hugely provoked by the appearance of a book that was all about the West Riding, albeit thirty years in the past. Charlotte already suspected that her post was being opened on purpose in Keighley, and that her retirement was resented there.
To the disappointment of no longer being able to “walk invisible” was added the annoyance of Currer Bell’s gender always being a matter of concern to readers and critics. “Why can [the Press] not be content to take Currer Bell for a man?” she asked James Taylor, the editor at Smith, Elder with whom she had begun to correspond (and who had taken a special interest in Shirley, coming to the Parsonage in September to pick up the manuscript personally). “I imagined—mistakenly it now appears—that ‘Shirley’ bore fewer traces of a female hand than ‘Jane Eyre’: that I have misjudged disappoints me a little—though I cannot exactly see where the error lies.” The most aggravating judgement had come from her former champion, G. H. Lewes, whose review of Shirley in The Edinburgh Review criticised the coarseness of the book, and the inferiority of female creativity in general, concluding (in a reprise of what Robert Southey had said in 1837) that “the grand function of woman . . . is, and ever must be, Maternity.” Charlotte was so angry that she sent him a single sentence: “I can be on my guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”
Even if they hadn’t read Jane Eyre, the reviewers all treated Shirley as a woman’s work, and harped annoyingly on speculation about the authoress. Gossip about Currer Bell had spread wide by this date, and from her sofa in the Casa Guidi in Florence Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to thank her friend Mary Russell Mitford for the latest snippet—that Jane Eyre had been written by a governess from Cowan Bridge School: “I certainly don’t think that the qualities, half savage and & half freethinking, expressed in ‘Jane Eyre,’ are likely to suit a model governess,” the poet observed wryly. “Your account falls like dew upon the parched curiosity of some of our friends here, to whom (as mere gossip . . .) I couldn’t resist the temptation of communicating it. People are so curious . . . about this particular authorship.”
A similarly avid interest in Currer Bell’s identity was shown by Harriet Martineau, a novelist who had much in common with Charlotte. Martineau, who came from an intellectually distinguished Unitarian family, had come to notice in the 1830s with her essays on social reform, Illustrations of Political Economy, and her bestselling novel, Deerbrook. Charlotte was an admirer of the novel and in tribute sent Martineau a copy of Shirley on publication. Little did she imagine how closely the accompanying note would be examined by its recipient for clues as to Currer Bell’s sex. “The hand was a cramped and nervous one,” Martineau recalled in her autobiography, “which might belong to any body who had written too much, or was in bad health, or who had been badly taught.” Martineau had noticed what might or might not have been a genuine slip of the pen when Currer Bell changed the pronoun “she” to “he” in his/her covering letter, but was convinced anyway, from some domestic details in Jane Eyre, that the author could only have been a woman. She therefore addressed her reply on the outside to “Currer Bell Esqre” but began it “Madam.”
There was no point struggling too long against this tide, especially when it brought with it very welcome messages such as the one that Smith, Elder forwarded in November from Elizabeth Gaskell, praising Shirley in such generous and sympathetic terms that it brought tears to Charlotte’s eyes. “She said I was not to answer it—but I cannot help doing so,” Charlotte told Williams. “[S]he is a good—she is a great woman—proud am I that I can touch a chord of sympathy in souls so noble. In Mrs. Gaskell’s nature—it mournfully pleases me to fancy a remote affinity to my Sister Emily—in Miss Martineau’s mind I have always felt the same—though there are wide differences—Both these ladies are above me—certainly far my superiors in attainments and experience—I think I could look up to them if I knew them.” In her reply to Mrs. Gaskell, Currer Bell used the female pronoun without demur.
Eagerness to know such people began to work on Charlotte in a beneficial way. She came to realise, gradually and imperfectly, the effect that her presence on the literary scene had been having ever since the publication of Jane Eyre—its effect on readers, writers and the culture generated between them. That world had its own life and momentum and would go on without her whether she joined it or not, though she began to think it time to assert herself. Just before she fell out with him over his disappointing review of Shirley, Charlotte had confessed to George Henry Lewes that during the previous year she had sometimes ceased “to care about literature and critics and fame” altogether, that she had temporarily “lost sight of whatever was prominent in my thoughts at the first publication of ‘Jane Eyre.’ ” “[B]ut now I want these things to come back—vividly—if possible.” Something else was also impelling her to find new distractions—the anniversary of Emily’s death looming, memories of which were revived with intolerable poignancy by the returning season. By the middle of November, she told Williams that she had “almost formed the resolution of coming to London,” and then—nearly as abruptly as her trip to London with Anne in 1848—she was packing her bags and heading for a fortnight’s stay with George Smith and his family in the “big Babylon.”
* * *
Thackeray couldn’t resist making a remark about his cigar.
Smith was keen to treat his guest to some stimulating outings: Charlotte saw Macready, the most famous actor of the day, both in Macbeth and in Othello (though she shocked a dinner party by being insufficiently impressed with him) and went to the National Gallery, where she was delighted with an exhibition of some of the paintings that Turner had bequeathed to the nation. Smith had a whole list of people he wished Charlotte to meet: Lady Morgan (author of The Wild Irish Girl), Catherine Gore (one of the fashionable “silver-fork” novelists), Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens. As it was, he tested Miss Brontë’s sociability to a new extreme by inviting two gentlemen to dinner one evening: Dr. John Forbes, with whom Charlotte had been in correspondence during Anne’s last illness, and William Makepeace Thackeray. Smith had forewarned the novelist not to upset Miss Brontë by indicating that he knew she was Currer Bell, but Thackeray couldn’t resist making a remark about his cigar, quoting from Jane Eyre, when the gentlemen rejoined the ladies after dinner. Charlotte was discomposed (not surprisingly, since Rochester’s cigar habit was one of Constantin Heger’s bequests to her novel) and shut down the conversation “in a chilly fashion,” as Smith was sorry to see, but Thackeray apparently went off to his club none the worse for his reprimand, saying, “Boys! I have been dining with ‘Jane Eyre.’ ”
For all its interest, Charlotte found the evening very taxing, and knew that nerves had made her “painfully stupid” with the man whose works she so admired. She fared much better with an introduction she arranged herself, writing to Harriet Martineau as Currer Bell to ask if she could call. Martineau and her relations waited in suspense to see who would turn up at the appointed hour: “whether a tall moustached man six feet high or an aged female, or a girl, or—altogether a ghost, a hoax or a swindler!” Miss Martineau needed the aid of an ear trumpet, so was hoping that the visitor’s real name was properly announced; she told her cousins they were to shout it distinctly into the horn if not. When a carriage was heard at the door and the bell rung, “in came a neat little woman, a very little sprite of a creature nicely dressed; & with nice tidy bright hair.” Charlotte did reveal her real name, but the Martineaus were sworn to keep it secret, and Charlotte must have been pleased with them and with the frisson her dramatic arrival caused, for she relaxed and was able to talk to them very naturally.
If Smith had hoped that this injection of activity and interest into Miss Brontë’s life would bring her out of her shell, he was wrong—she was and remained very self-conscious in company—but the closer contacts she made, with Elizabeth Gaskell particularly, fed her craving for intelligent discussion and a sympathetic audience.
Charlotte may have been encouraged by Elizabeth Gaskell’s interest in her life, and her deeply sympathetic response to the story of her siblings’ deaths from consumption (which Gaskell, incidentally, immediately assumed the emaciated Miss Brontë had also contracted), to consider doing what she had previously refused, and write something biographical about them. The adverse criticism that the works of Ellis and Acton Bell had attracted and the fading of interest in them since their deaths—which the public didn’t know about, of course—hung on Charlotte’s conscience. While she was fêted and rewarded, while she visited celebrities and banked large cheques from her publisher (£500 for the copyright of Shirley), her sisters were forgotten. Having asked George Smith to buy back the rights to Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey from the recalcitrant Newby, Charlotte offered to write a biographical preface to a new edition, in line with what he and Williams had suggested in 1849. In prose of sombre power and beauty, she outlined her family’s remote country upbringing, close sibling bonds and love of their moorland home, their delight in composition and—after Charlotte’s chance discovery of Emily’s poems—their efforts to get the poems, and then their novels, published and read. It made an irresistible narrative.
[Their works] appeared at last. Critics failed to do them justice. The immature but very real powers revealed in Wuthering Heights were scarcely recognised; its import and nature were misunderstood; the identity of its author was misrepresented; it was said that this was an earlier and ruder attempt of the same pen which had produced Jane Eyre. Unjust and grievous error! We laughed at it at first, but I deeply lament it now. Hence, I fear, arose a prejudice against the book.
Emily’s character comes strongly before the reader: proud, uncompromising, distant, stoical. Her death, and that of Anne, were told briefly, but from a depth of personal pain that made this one of the most moving memorials of the age, to two tragic young women whose real names were only just being revealed:
Never in all her life had [Emily] 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 love and awe. 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.
“An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world,” Charlotte said, brilliantly fulfilling that role herself in this poignant tribute to doomed and unrecognised genius. Of Anne, whose personality was, as in life, eclipsed by the heroic Emily, Charlotte said, “[she was] long-suffering, self-denying, reflective, and intelligent,” but that “a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her in the shade, and covered her mind, and especially her feelings, with a sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted.” As character studies, these could hardly have been more suggestive and intriguing. The mystery of “the Bells” was solved—the legend of “the Brontës” begun.
* * *
From the Book:
CHARLOTTE BRONTË by Claire Harman
Copyright © 2015 by Claire Harman
Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC