CHARLOTTE BRONTĖ

(1816-1855)

THE COUNTRY PARSON'S DAUGHTER

Mrs. Gaskell's "Life of Charlotte Brontė" is one of the great biographies of literature, but like other works on the same theme, it is really a history of the Brontė family during the period of Charlotte's life. The individuals of this family were for many years as closely associated with one another as they were closely hidden from the outside world. The personality of each was influenced by its house-mates to an unusual degree. They studied each other and they studied every book that came within reach. Themselves they knew well: the world, through books only. This probably accounts for the weird and even morbid character of much of their work. Their vivid imaginations, unchecked by experience, in a commonplace world were allowed free play, and as a result we find some of the most original creations in the whole realm of literature.

The life of the Brontė sisterhood should convince the literary aspirant that the creative imagination is sufficient unto itself and independent of the stimulus of contact with the busy hum of men. If it be necessary, the literary genius by divination can portray life without seeing it. Bricks are produced without straw.


From "Life of Charlotte Brontė," by Mrs. E. C. Gaskell.

But the children did not want society. To small infantine gayeties they were unaccustomed. They were all in all to each other. I do not suppose that there ever was a family more tenderly bound to each other. Maria read the newspapers, and reported intelligence to her younger sisters which it is wonderful they could take an interest in. But I suspect that they had no "children's books," and their eager minds "browzed undisturbed among the wholesome pasturage of English literature," as Charles Lamb expresses it. The servants of the household appear to have been much impressed with the little Brontės' extraordinary cleverness. In a letter which I had from him on this subject, their father writes: "The servants often said they had never seen such a clever little child" (as Charlotte), "and that they were obliged to be on their guard as to what they said and did before her. Yet she and the servants always lived on good terms with each other.…"

I return to the father's letter. He says:

"When mere children, as soon as they could read and write, Charlotte and her brothers and sisters used to invent and act little plays of their own in which the Duke of Wellington, my daughter Charlotte's hero, was sure to come off conqueror; when a dispute would not unfrequently arise amongst them regarding the comparative merits of him, Bonaparte, Hannibal, and Caesar. When the argument got warm, and rose to its height, as their mother was then dead, I had sometimes to come in as arbitrator, and settle the dispute according to the best of my judgment. Generally, in the management of these concerns, I frequently thought that I discovered signs of rising talent, which I had seldom or never before seen in any of their age.… A circumstance now occurs to my mind which I may as well mention. When my children were very young, when, as far as I can remember, the oldest was about ten years of age, and the youngest about four, thinking they knew more than I had yet discovered, in order to make them speak with less timidity, I deemed that if they were put under a sort of cover I might gain my end; and happening to have a mask in the house, I told them all to stand and speak boldly from under cover of the mask.

"I began with the youngest (Anne, afterward Acton Bell), and asked what a child like her most wanted; she answered, 'Age and experience.' I asked the next (Emily, afterward Ellis Bell) what I had best do with her brother Branwell, who was sometimes a naughty boy; she answered, 'Reason with him, and when he won't listen to reason, whip him.' I asked Branwell what was the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of men and women; he answered, 'By considering the difference between them as to their bodies.' I then asked Charlotte what was the best book in the world; she answered, 'The Bible.' And what was the next best; she answered, 'The Book of Nature.' I then asked the next what was the best mode of education for a woman; she answered, 'That which would make her rule her house well.' Lastly I asked the oldest what was the best mode of spending time; she answered, 'By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity.'

"I may not have given precisely their words, but I have nearly done so, as they made a deep and lasting impression on my memory. The substance, however, was exactly what I have stated."

The strange and quaint simplicity of the mode taken by the father to ascertain the hidden characters of his children, and the tone and character of these questions and answers, show the curious education which was made by the circumstances surrounding the Brontės. They knew no other children. They knew no other modes of thought than what were suggested to them by the fragments of clerical conversation which they overheard in the parlour, or the subjects of village and local interest which they heard discussed in the kitchen. Each had their own strong characteristic flavour.

They took a vivid interest in the public characters, and the local and foreign politics discussed in the newspapers. Long before Maria Brontė died, at the age of eleven, her father used to say he would converse with her on any of the leading topics of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person.…

Miss Branwell instructed the children at regular hours in all she could teach, making her bed-chamber into their schoolroom. Their father was in the habit of relating to them any public news in which he felt an interest; and from the opinions of his strong and independent mind they would gather much food for thought; but I do not know whether he gave them any direct instruction. Charlotte's deep, thoughtful spirit appears to have felt almost painfully the tender responsibility which rested upon her with reference to her remaining sisters. She was only eighteen months older than Emily; but Emily and Anne were simply companions and playmates, while Charlotte was motherly friend and guardian to both; and this loving assumption of duties beyond her years made her feel considerably older than she really was.

I have had a curious packet confided to me, containing an immense amount of manuscript, in an inconceivably small space; tales, dramas, poems, romances, written principally by Charlotte, in a hand which is almost impossible to decipher without the aid of a magnifying glass.…

As each volume contains from sixty to a hundred pages … the amount of the whole seems very great, if we remember that it was all written in about fifteen months. So much for the quantity; the quality strikes me as of singular merit for a girl of thirteen or fourteen. Both as a specimen of her prose style at this time, and also as revealing something of the quiet domestic life led by these children, I take an extract from the introduction to "Tales of the Islanders," the title of one of their "Little Magazines":


"JUNE the 31st, 1829.

"The play of the 'Islanders' was formed in December, 1827, in the following manner: One night, about the time when cold sleet and stormy fogs of November are succeeded by the snowstorms and high, piercing night-winds of confirmed winter, we were all sitting round the warm blazing kitchen fire, having just concluded a quarrel with Tabby concerning the propriety of lighting a candle, from which she came off victorious, no candle having been produced. A long pause succeeded, which was at last broken by Branwell saying in a lazy manner, 'I don't know what to do.' This was echoed by Emily and Anne.

"Tabby. 'Wha ya may go t'bed.'

"Branwell. 'I'd rather do anything than that.'

"Charlotte. 'Why are you so glum to-night, Tabby? Oh! suppose we had each an island of our own.'

"Branwell. 'If we had I would choose the Island of Man.'

"Charlotte. 'And I would choose the Isle of Wight.'

"Emily. 'The Isle of Arran for me.'

"Anne. 'And mine should be Guernsey.'

"We then chose who would be chief men in our Islands. Branwell chose John Bull, Astley Cooper, and Leigh Hunt; Emily, Walter Scott, Mr. Lockhart, Johnny Lockhart; Anne, Michael Sadler, Lord Bentinck, Sir Henry Halford. I chose the Duke of Wellington and two sons, Christopher North and Co., and Mr. Abernethy. Here our conversation was interrupted by the, to us, dismal sound of the clock striking seven, and we were summoned off to bed. The next day we added many others to our list of men, till we got almost all the chief men of the kingdom. After this, for a long time, nothing worth noticing occurred. In June, 1828, we erected a school on a fictitious island, which was to contain 1,000 children. The manner of the building was as follows: The island was fifty miles in circumference, and certainly appeared more like the work of enchantment than anything real," etc.…


There is another scrap of paper in this all but illegible handwriting, written about this time, and which gives some idea of the sources of their opinions.…


"Papa and Branwell are gone for the newspaper, the Leeds Intelligencer, a most excellent Tory newspaper, edited by Mr. Wood, and the proprietor, Mr. Henneman. We take two, and see three, newspapers a week. We take the Leeds Intelligencer, Tory, and the Leeds Mercury, Whig, edited by Mr. Baines, and his brother, son-in-law, and his two sons, Edward and Talbot. We see the John Bull; it is a high Tory, very violent. Mr. Driver lends us it, as likewise Blackwood's Magazine, the most able periodical there is. The editor is Mr. Christopher North, an old man seventy-four years of age; the 1st of April is his birthday; his company are Timothy Tickler, Morgan O'Doherty, Macrabin Mordecai, Mullion, Warnell, and James Hogg, a man of most extraordinary genius, a Scottish shepherd. Our plays were established, 'Young Men,' June, 1826; 'Our Fellows,' July, 1827; 'Islanders,' December, 1827. These are our three great plays that are not kept secret. Emily's and my best plays were established the 1st of December, 1827; the others March, 1828. Best plays mean secret plays, they are very nice ones. All our plays are very strange ones. Their nature I need not write on paper, for I think I shall always remember them. The 'Young Men's' play took its rise from some wooden soldiers Branwell had; 'Our Fellows' from 'Aesop's Fables'; and the 'Islanders' from several events which happened. I will sketch out the origin of our plays more explicitly if I can. First, 'Young Men.' Papa brought Branwell some wooden soldiers at Leeds; when papa came home it was night, and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed, and I snatched up one and exclaimed, 'This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke!' When I had said this Emily likewise took one up and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest, and the most perfect in every part. Emily's was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him 'Gravey.' Anne's was a queer little thing, much like herself, and we called him 'Waiting-boy.' Branwell chose his, and called him 'Buonaparte.'"


The foregoing extract shows something of the kind of reading in which the little Brontės were interested; but their desire for knowledge must have been excited in many directions, for I find a "list of painters whose works I wish to see," drawn up by Charlotte Brontė when she was scarcely thirteen: "Guido Reni, Julio Romano Titian, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Coreggio, Annibal Carracci, Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Bartolomeo, Carlo Cignani, Vandyke, Rubens, Bartolomeo Ramerghi."

Here is this little girl, in a remote Yorkshire parsonage, who has probably never seen anything worthy the name of a painting in her life studying the names and characteristics of the great old Italian and Flemish masters, whose works she longs to see some time, in the dim future that lies before her! There is a paper remaining which contains minute studies of, and criticisms upon, the engravings in "Friendship's Offering for 1829," showing how she had early formed those habits of close observation and patient analysis of cause and effect, which served so well in after-life as handmaids to her genius.

The way in which Mr. Brontė made his children sympathize with him in his great interest in politics must have done much to lift them above the chances of their minds being limited or tainted by petty local gossip. I take the only other remaining personal fragment out of "Tales of the Islanders"; it is a sort of apology, contained in the introduction to the second volume, for their not having been continued before; the writers have been for a long time too busy and lately too much absorbed in politics:


"Parliament was opened, and the great Catholic question was brought forward, and the Duke's measures were disclosed, and all was slander, violence, party spirit, and confusion. Oh, those six months, from the time of the King's speech to the end! Nobody could write, think, or speak on any subject but the Catholic question, and the Duke of Wellington, and Mr. Peel. I remember the day when the Intelligence Extraordinary came with Mr. Peel's speech in it, containing the terms on which the Catholics were to be let in! With what eagerness papa tore off the cover, and how we all gathered round him, and with what breathless anxiety we listened, as one by one they were disclosed, and explained, and argued upon so ably and so well; and then when it was all out, how aunt said that she thought it was excellent, and that the Catholics could do no harm with such good security. I remember also the doubts as to whether it would pass the House of Lords, and the prophecies that it would not; and when the paper came which was to decide the question, the anxiety was almost dreadful with which we listened to the whole affair; the opening of the doors, the hush; the royal dukes in their robes, and the great duke in green sash and waistcoat; the rising of all the peeresses when he rose; the reading of his speech—papa saying that his words were like precious gold; and lastly, the majority of one to four (sic) in favour of the Bill. But this is a digression."


This must have been written when she was between thirteen and fourteen.

She was an indefatigable student; constantly reading and learning; with a strong conviction of the necessity and value of education very unusual in a girl of fifteen. She never lost a moment of time, and seemed almost to grudge the necessary leisure for relaxation and play-hours, which might be partly accounted for by the awkwardness in all games occasioned by her shortness of sight. Yet, in spite of these unsociable habits, she was a great favourite with her school-fellows. She was always ready to try and do what they wished, though not sorry when they called her awkward, and left her out of their sports. Then, at night, she was an invaluable story-teller, frightening them almost out of their wits as they lay in bed. On one occasion the effect was such that she was led to scream out loud, and Miss Wooler, coming upstairs, found that one of the listeners had been seized with violent palpitations, in consequence of the excitement produced by Charlotte's story.

Her indefatigable craving for knowledge tempted Miss Wooler on into setting her longer and longer tasks of reading for examination; and toward the end of the two years that she remained as a pupil at Roe Head, she received her first bad mark for an imperfect lesson. She had had a great quantity of Blair's "Lectures on Belles-Lettres" to read; and she could not answer some of the questions upon it; Charlotte Brontė had a bad mark. Miss Wooler was sorry, and regretted that she had over-tasked so willing a pupil. Charlotte cried bitterly. But her school-fellows were more than sorry—they were indignant. They declared that the infliction of ever so slight a punishment on Charlotte Brontė was unjust—for who had tried to do her duty like her?—and testified their feeling in a variety of ways, until Miss Wooler, who was in reality only too willing to pass over her good pupil's first fault, withdrew the bad mark.…

After her return home she employed herself in teaching her sisters over whom she had had superior advantages. She writes thus, July 21, 1832, of her course of life at the parsonage:


"An account of one day is an account of all. In the morning, from nine o'clock till half-past twelve, I instruct my sisters, and draw; then we walk till dinner-time. After dinner I sew till tea-time, and after tea I either write, read, or do a little fancywork, or draw, as I please. Thus, in one delightful though somewhat monotonous course, my life is passed. I have been out only twice to tea since I came home. We are expecting company this afternoon, and on Tuesday next we shall have all the female teachers of the Sunday-school to tea."


It was about this time that Mr. Brontė provided his children with a teacher in drawing, who turned out to be a man of considerable talent but very little principle. Although they never attained to anything like proficiency, they took great interest in acquiring this art; evidently from an instinctive desire to express their powerful imaginations in visible forms. Charlotte told me that at this period of her life drawing and walking out with her sisters formed the two great pleasures and relaxations of her day.…

Quiet days, occupied in teaching and feminine occupations in the house, did not present much to write about; and Charlotte was naturally driven to criticise books.

Of these there were many in different plights, and according to their plight, kept in different places. The well bound were ranged in the sanctuary of Mr. Brontė's study; but the purchase of books was a necessary luxury to him, and as it was often a choice between binding an old one, or buying a new one, the familiar volume, which had been hungrily read by all the members of the family, was sometimes in such a condition that the bedroom shelf was considered its fitting place. Up and down the house were to be found many standard works of a solid kind. Sir Walter Scott's writings, Wadsworth's and Southey's poems were among the lighter literature; while, as having a character of their own—earnest, wild, and occasionally fanatical, may be named some of the books which came from the Branwell side of the family—from the Cornish followers of the saintly John Wesley—and which are touched on in the account of the works to which Caroline Helstone had access in "Shirley": "Some venerable Lady's Magazines, that had once performed a voyage with their owner, and undergone a storm"—(possibly part of the relics of Mrs. Brontė's possessions, contained in the ship wrecked on the coast of Cornwall)—"and whose pages were stained with salt water; some mad Methodist Magazines full of miracles and apparitions, and preternatural warnings, ominous dreams, and frenzied fanaticism; and the equally mad Letters of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe from the Dead to the Living."

Mr. Brontė encouraged a taste for reading in his girls; and though Miss Branwell kept it in due bounds by the variety of household occupations, in which she expected them not merely to take a part, but to become proficients, thereby occupying regularly a good portion of every day, they were allowed to get books from the circulating library at Keighley; and many a happy walk up those long four miles must they have had burdened with some new book into which they peeped as they hurried home. Not that the books were what would generally be called new; in the beginning of 1833 the two friends [Charlotte and "E.," a school friend] seem almost simultaneously to have fallen upon "Kenilworth," and Charlotte writes as follows about it:


"I am glad you like 'Kenilworth'; it is certainly more resembling a romance than a novel; in my opinion, one of the most interesting works that ever emanated from the great Sir Walter's pen. Varney is certainly the personification of consummate villainy; and in the delineation of his dark and profoundly and artful mind, Scott exhibits a wonderful knowledge of human nature, as well as surprising skill in embodying his perceptions, so as to enable others to become participators in that knowledge.…"


Meanwhile, "The Professor" had met with many refusals from different publishers; some, I have reason to believe, not over-courteously worded in writing to an unknown author, and none alleging any distinct reasons for its rejection. Courtesy is always due; but it is, perhaps, hardly to be expected that, in the press of business in a great publishing house, they should find time to explain why they decline particular works. Yet, though one course of action is not to be wondered at, the opposite may fall upon a grieved and disappointed mind with all the graciousness of dew; and I can well sympathize with the published account which "Currer Bell" gives, of the feelings experienced on reading Messrs. Smith and Elder's letter containing the rejection of "The Professor."


"As a forlorn hope, we tried one publishing house more. Ere long, in a much shorter space than that on which experience had taught him to calculate, there came a letter, which he opened in the dreary anticipation of finding two hard, hopeless lines, intimating that 'Messrs. Smith and Elder were not disposed to publish the MS.,' and, instead, he took out the envelope a letter of two pages. He read it, trembling. It declined, indeed, to publish that tale, for business reasons, but it discussed its merits and demerits so courteously, so considerately, in a spirit so rational, with a discrimination so enlightened, that this very refusal cheered the author better than a vulgarly expressed acceptance would have done. It was added, that a work in three volumes would meet with careful attention."


Mr. Smith has told me a little circumstance connected with the reception of this manuscript which seems to me indicative of no ordinary character. It came (accompanied by the note given below) in a brown paper parcel, to 65 Cornhill. Besides the address to Messrs. Smith & Co., there were on it those of other publishers to whom the tale had been sent, not obliterated, but simply scored through, so that Messrs. Smith at once perceived the names of some of the houses in the trade to which the unlucky parcel had gone, without success.


[To Messrs. Smith and Elder]

"JULY 15th, 1847.

"Gentlemen—I beg to submit to your consideration the accompanying manuscript. I should be glad to learn whether it be such as you approve, and would undertake to publish at as early a period as possible. Address, Mr. Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Brontė, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire."


Some time elapsed before an answer was returned.…


[To Messrs. Smith and Elder]

"AUGUST 2nd, 1847.

"Gentlemen—About three weeks since I sent for your consideration a MS. entitled 'The Professor, a Tale by Currer Bell.' I should be glad to know whether it reached your hands safely, and likewise to learn, at your earliest convenience, whether it be such as you can undertake to publish. I am, gentlemen, yours respectfully,

"CURRER BELL.

"I enclose a directed cover for your reply."


This time her note met with a prompt answer; for, four days later, she writes (in reply to the letter she afterward characterized in the Preface to the second edition of "Wuthering Heights," as containing a refusal so delicate, reasonable, and courteous as to be more cheering than some acceptances):


"Your objection to the want of varied interest in the tale is, I am aware, not without grounds; yet it appears to me that it might be published without serious risk, if its appearance were speedily followed up by another work from the same pen, of a more striking and exciting character. The first work might serve as an introduction, and accustom the public to the author's name: the success of the second might thereby be rendered more probable. I have a second narrative in three volumes, now in progress, and nearly completed, to which I have endeavoured to impart a more vivid interest than belongs to 'The Professor.' In about a month I hope to finish it, so that if a publisher were found for 'The Professor' the second narrative might follow as soon as was deemed advisable; and thus the interest of the public (if any interest was aroused) might not be suffered to cool. Will you be kind enough to favour me with your judgment on this plan?"…


Mr. Brontė, too, had his suspicions of something going on; but, never being spoken to, he did not speak on the subject, and consequently his ideas were vague and uncertain, only just prophetic enough to keep him from being actually stunned when, later on, he heard of the success of "Jane Eyre"; to the progress of which we must now return.


[To Messrs. Smith and Elder]

"AUGUST 24th.

"I now send you per rail a MS. entitled 'Jane Eyre,' a novel in three volumes, by Currer Bell. I find I cannot prepay the carriage of the parcel, as money for that purpose is not received at the small station-house where it is left. If, when you acknowledge the receipt of the MS., you would have the goodness to mention the amount charged on delivery, I will immediately transmit it in postage stamps. It is better in future to address Mr. Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Brontė, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire, as there is a risk of letters otherwise directed not reaching me at present. To save trouble, I enclose an envelope."


"Jane Eyre" was accepted, and printed and published by October 16th.…

When the manuscript of "Jane Eyre" had been received by the future publishers of that remarkable novel, it fell to the share of a gentleman connected with the firm to read it first. He was so powerfully struck by the character of the tale that he reported his impression in very strong terms to Mr. Smith, who appears to have been much amused by the admiration excited. "You seem to have been so enchanted that I do not know how to believe you," he laughingly said. But when a second reader, in the person of a clear-headed Scotchman, not given to enthusiasm, had taken the MS. home in the evening, and became so deeply interested in it as to sit up half the night to finish it, Mr. Smith's curiosity was sufficiently excited to prompt him to read it for himself; and great as were the praises which had been bestowed upon it, he found that they had not exceeded the truth.