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Charlotte Brontë and Her Circle by Clement King Shorter
 
 
The book was published in two volumes, under the title of _The Life of
Charlotte Bronte_, in the spring of 1857. At first all was well. Mr.
Bronte's earliest acknowledgment of the book was one of approbation. Sir
James Shuttleworth expressed the hope that Mr. Nicholls would 'rejoice
that his wife would be known as a Christian heroine who could bear her
cross with the firmness of a martyr saint.' Canon Kingsley wrote a
charming letter to Mrs. Gaskell, published in his _Life_, and more than
once reprinted since.

'Let me renew our long interrupted acquaintance,' he writes from St.
Leonards, under date May 14th, 1857, 'by complimenting you on poor
Miss Bronte's _Life_. You have had a delicate and a great work to
do, and you have done it admirably. Be sure that the book will do
good. It will shame literary people into some stronger belief that a
simple, virtuous, practical home life is consistent with high
imaginative genius; and it will shame, too, the prudery of a not over
cleanly though carefully white-washed age, into believing that purity
is now (as in all ages till now) quite compatible with the knowledge
of evil. I confess that the book has made me ashamed of myself.
_Jane Eyre_ I hardly looked into, very seldom reading a work of
fiction--yours, indeed, and Thackeray's, are the only ones I care to
open. _Shirley_ disgusted me at the opening, and I gave up the
writer and her books with a notion that she was a person who liked
coarseness. How I misjudged her! and how thankful I am that I never
put a word of my misconceptions into print, or recorded my
misjudgments of one who is a whole heaven above me.

'Well have you done your work, and given us the picture of a valiant
woman made perfect by suffering. I shall now read carefully and
lovingly every word she has written, especially those poems, which
ought not to have fallen dead as they did, and which seem to be (from
a review in the current _Fraser_) of remarkable strength and purity.'

It was a short-lived triumph, however, and Mrs. Gaskell soon found
herself, as she expressed it, 'in a veritable hornet's nest.' Mr.
Bronte, to begin with, did not care for the references to himself and the
suggestion that he had treated his wife unkindly. Mrs. Gaskell had
associated him with numerous eccentricities and ebullitions of temper,
which during his later years he always asserted, and undoubtedly with
perfect truth, were, at the best, the fabrications of a dismissed
servant. Mr. Nicholls had also his grievance. There was just a
suspicion implied that he had not been quite the most sympathetic of
husbands. The suspicion was absolutely ill-founded, and arose from Mr.
Nicholls's intense shyness. But neither Mr. Bronte nor Mr. Nicholls gave
Mrs. Gaskell much trouble. They, at any rate, were silent. Trouble,
however, came from many quarters. Yorkshire people resented the air of
patronage with which, as it seemed to them, a good Lancashire lady had
taken their county in hand. They were not quite the backward savages,
they retorted, which some of Mrs. Gaskell's descriptions in the beginning
of her book would seem to suggest. Between Lancashire and Yorkshire
there is always a suspicion of jealousy. It was intensified for the
moment by these sombre pictures of 'this lawless, yet not unkindly
population.' {17} A son-in-law of Mr. Redhead wrote to deny the account
of that clergyman's association with Haworth. 'He gives another as true,
in which I don't see any great difference.' Miss Martineau wrote sheet
after sheet explanatory of her relations with Charlotte Bronte. 'Two
separate householders in London _each_ declares that the first interview
between Miss Bronte and Miss Martineau took place at _her_ house.' In
one passage Mrs. Gaskell had spoken of wasteful young servants, and the
young servants in question came upon Mr. Bronte for the following
testimonial:--


'HAWORTH, _August_ 17_th_, 1857.

'I beg leave to state to all whom it may concern, that Nancy and
Sarah Garrs, during the time they were in my service, were kind to my
children, and honest, and not wasteful, but sufficiently careful in
regard to food, and all other articles committed to their charge.

P. BRONTE, A.B.,
'_Incumbent of Haworth_, _Yorkshire_.'

Three whole pages were devoted to the dramatic recital of a scandal at
Haworth, and this entirely disappears from the third edition. A casual
reference to a girl who had been seduced, and had found a friend in Miss
Bronte, gave further trouble. 'I have altered the word "seduced" to
"betrayed,"' writes Mrs. Gaskell to Martha Brown, 'and I hope that this
will satisfy the unhappy girl's friends.' But all these were small
matters compared with the Cowan Bridge controversy and the threatened
legal proceedings over Branwell Bronte's suggested love affairs. Mrs.
Gaskell defended the description in _Jane Eyre_ of Cowan Bridge with
peculiar vigour. Mr. Carus Wilson, the Brocklehurst of _Jane Eyre_, and
his friends were furious. They threatened an action. There were letters
in the _Times_ and letters in the _Daily News_. Mr. Nicholls broke
silence--the only time in the forty years that he has done so--with two
admirable letters to the _Halifax Guardian_. The Cowan Bridge
controversy was a drawn battle, in spite of numerous and glowing
testimonials to the virtues of Mr. Carus Wilson. Most people who know
anything of the average private schools of half a century ago are
satisfied that Charlotte Bronte's description was substantially correct.
'I want to show you many letters,' writes Mrs. Gaskell, 'most of them
praising the character of our dear friend as she deserves, and from
people whose opinion she would have cared for, such as the Duke of
Argyll, Kingsley, Greig, etc. Many abusing me. I should think seven or
eight of this kind from the Carus Wilson clique.'

The Branwell matter was more serious. Here Mrs. Gaskell had, indeed,
shown a singular recklessness. The lady referred to by Branwell was Mrs.
Robinson, the wife of the Rev. Edmund Robinson of Thorp Green, and
afterwards Lady Scott. Anne Bronte was governess in her family for two
years, and Branwell tutor to the son for a few months. Branwell, under
the influence of opium, made certain statements about his relations with
Mrs. Robinson which have been effectually disproved, although they were
implicitly believed by the Bronte girls, who, womanlike, were naturally
ready to regard a woman as the ruin of a beloved brother. The
recklessness of Mrs. Gaskell in accepting such inadequate testimony can
be explained only on the assumption that she had a novelist's
satisfaction in the romance which the 'bad woman' theory supplied. She
wasted a considerable amount of rhetoric upon it. 'When the fatal attack
came on,' she says, 'his pockets were found filled with old letters from
the woman to whom he was attached. He died! she lives still--in May
Fair. I see her name in county papers, as one of those who patronise the
Christmas balls; and I hear of her in London drawing-rooms'--and so on.
There were no love-letters found in Branwell Bronte's pockets. {19} When
Mrs. Gaskell's husband came post-haste to Haworth to ask for proofs of
Mrs. Robinson's complicity in Branwell's downfall, none were obtainable.
I am assured by Mr. Leslie Stephen that his father, Sir James Stephen,
was employed at the time to make careful inquiry, and that he and other
eminent lawyers came to the conclusion that it was one long tissue of
lies or hallucinations. The subject is sufficiently sordid, and indeed
almost redundant in any biography of the Brontes; but it is of moment,
because Charlotte Bronte and her sisters were so thoroughly persuaded
that a woman was at the bottom of their brother's ruin; and this belief
Charlotte impressed upon all the friends who were nearest and dearest to
her. Her letters at the time of her brother's death are full of censure
of the supposed wickedness of another. It was a cruel infamy that the
word of this wretched boy should have been so powerful for mischief.
Here, at any rate, Mrs. Gaskell did not show the caution which a
masculine biographer, less prone to take literally a man's accounts of
his amours, would undoubtedly have displayed.
Yet, when all is said, Mrs. Gaskell had done her work thoroughly and
well. Lockhart's _Scott_ and Froude's _Carlyle_ are examples of great
biographies which called for abundant censure upon their publication; yet
both these books will live as classics of their kind. To be interesting,
it is perhaps indispensable that the biographer should be indiscreet, and
certainly the Branwell incident--a matter of two or three pages--is the
only part of Mrs. Gaskell's biography in which indiscretion becomes
indefensible. And for this she suffered cruelly. 'I did so try to tell
the truth,' she said to a friend, 'and I believe _now_ I hit as near to
the truth as any one could do.' 'I weighed every line with my whole
power and heart,' she said on another occasion, 'so that every line
should go to its great purpose of making _her_ known and valued, as one
who had gone through such a terrible life with a brave and faithful
heart.' And that clearly Mrs. Gaskell succeeded in doing. It is quite
certain that Charlotte Bronte would not stand on so splendid a pedestal
to-day but for the single-minded devotion of her accomplished biographer.

It has sometimes been implied that the portrait drawn by Mrs. Gaskell was
far too sombre, that there are passages in Charlotte's letters which show
that ofttimes her heart was merry and her life sufficiently cheerful.
That there were long periods of gaiety for all the three sisters, surely
no one ever doubted. To few people, fortunately, is it given to have
lives wholly without happiness. And yet, when this is acknowledged, how
can one say that the picture was too gloomy? Taken as a whole, the life
of Charlotte Bronte was among the saddest in literature. At a miserable
school, where she herself was unhappy, she saw her two elder sisters
stricken down and carried home to die. In her home was the narrowest
poverty. She had, in the years when that was most essential, no mother's
care; and perhaps there was a somewhat too rigid disciplinarian in the
aunt who took the mother's place. Her second school brought her, indeed,
two kind friends; but her shyness made that school-life in itself a
prolonged tragedy. Of the two experiences as a private governess I shall
have more to say. They were periods of torture to her sensitive nature.
The ambition of the three girls to start a school on their own account
failed ignominiously. The suppressed vitality of childhood and early
womanhood made Charlotte unable to enter with sympathy and toleration
into the life of a foreign city, and Brussels was for her a further
disaster. Then within two years, just as literary fame was bringing its
consolation for the trials of the past, she saw her two beloved sisters
taken from her. And, finally, when at last a good man won her love,
there were left to her only nine months of happy married life. 'I am not
going to die. We have been so happy.' These words to her husband on her
death-bed are not the least piteously sad in her tragic story. That her
life was a tragedy, was the opinion of the woman friend with whom on the
intellectual side she had most in common. Miss Mary Taylor wrote to Mrs.
Gaskell the following letter from New Zealand upon receipt of the
_Life_:--

'WELLINGTON, 30_th_ _July_ 1857.


'MY DEAR MRS. GASKELL,--I am unaccountably in receipt by post of two
vols. containing the Life of C. Bronte. I have pleasure in
attributing this compliment to you; I beg, therefore, to thank you
for them. The book is a perfect success, in giving a true picture of
a melancholy life, and you have practically answered my puzzle as to
how you would give an account of her, not being at liberty to give a
true description of those around. Though not so gloomy as the truth,
it is perhaps as much so as people will accept without calling it
exaggerated, and feeling the desire to doubt and contradict it. I
have seen two reviews of it. One of them sums it up as "a life of
poverty and self-suppression," the other has nothing to the purpose
at all. Neither of them seems to think it a strange or wrong state
of things that a woman of first-rate talents, industry, and integrity
should live all her life in a walking nightmare of "poverty and
self-suppression." I doubt whether any of them will.

'It must upset most people's notions of beauty to be told that the
portrait at the beginning is that of an ugly woman. {22} I do not
altogether like the idea of publishing a flattered likeness. I had
rather the mouth and eyes had been nearer together, and shown the
veritable square face and large disproportionate nose.

'I had the impression that Cartwright's mill was burnt in 1820 not in
1812. You give much too favourable an account of the black-coated
and Tory savages that kept the people down, and provoked excesses in
those days. Old Robertson said he "would wade to the knees in blood
rather than the then state of things should be altered,"--a state
including Corn law, Test law, and a host of other oppressions.

'Once more I thank you for the book--the first copy, I believe, that
arrived in New Zealand.--Sincerely yours,

'MARY TAYLOR.'

And in another letter, written a little later (28th January 1858), Miss
Mary Taylor writes to Miss Ellen Nussey in similar strain:--

'Your account of Mrs. Gaskell's book was very interesting,' she says.
'She seems a hasty, impulsive person, and the needful drawing back
after her warmth gives her an inconsistent look. Yet I doubt not her
book will be of great use. You must be aware that many strange
notions as to the kind of person Charlotte really was will be done
away with by a knowledge of the true facts of her life. I have heard
imperfectly of farther printing on the subject. As to the mutilated
edition that is to come, I am sorry for it. Libellous or not, the
first edition was all true, and except the declamation all, in my
opinion, useful to be published. Of course I don't know how far
necessity may make Mrs. Gaskell give them up. You know one dare not
always say the world moves.'

We who do know the whole story in fullest detail will understand that it
was desirable to 'mutilate' the book, and that, indeed, truth did in some
measure require it. But with these letters of Mary Taylor's before us,
let us not hear again that the story of Charlotte Bronte's life was not,
in its main features, accurately and adequately told by her gifted
biographer.

Why then, I am naturally asked, add one further book to the Bronte
biographical literature? The reply is, I hope, sufficient. Forty years
have gone by, and they have been years of growing interest in the
subject. In the year 1895 ten thousand people visited the Bronte Museum
at Haworth. Interesting books have been written, notably Sir Wemyss
Reid's _Monograph_ and Mr. Leyland's _Bronte Family_, but they have gone
out of print. Many new facts have come to light, and many details,
moreover, which were too trivial in 1857 are of sufficient importance
to-day; and many facts which were rightly suppressed then may honestly
and honourably be given to the public at an interval of nearly half a
century. Added to all this, fortune has been kind to me.

Some three or four years ago Miss Ellen Nussey placed in my hands a
printed volume of some 400 pages, which bore no publisher's name, but
contained upon its title-page the statement that it was _The Story of
Charlotte Bronte's Life_, _as told through her Letters_. These are the
Letters--370 in number--which Miss Nussey had lent to Mrs. Gaskell and to
Sir Wemyss Reid. Of these letters Mrs. Gaskell published about 100, and
Sir Wemyss Reid added as many more as he considered circumstances
justified twenty years back.

It was explained to me that the volume had been privately printed under a
misconception, and that only some dozen copies were extant. Miss Nussey
asked me if I would write something around what might remain of the
unpublished letters, and if I saw my way to do anything which would add
to the public appreciation of the friend who from early childhood until
now has been the most absorbing interest of her life. A careful study of
the volume made it perfectly clear that there were still some letters
which might with advantage be added to the Bronte story. At the same
time arose the possibility of a veto being placed upon their publication.
An examination of Charlotte Bronte's will, which was proved at York by
her husband in 1855, suggested an easy way out of the difficulty. I made
up my mind to try and see Mr. Nicholls. I had heard of his
disinclination to be in any way associated with the controversy which had
gathered round his wife for all these years; but I wrote to him
nevertheless, and received a cordial invitation to visit him in his Irish
home.

It was exactly forty years to a day after Charlotte died--March 31st,
1895--when I alighted at the station in a quiet little town in the centre
of Ireland, to receive the cordial handclasp of the man into whose
keeping Charlotte Bronte had given her life. It was one of many visits,
and the beginning of an interesting correspondence. Mr. Nicholls placed
all the papers in his possession in my hands. They were more varied and
more abundant than I could possibly have anticipated. They included MSS.
of childhood, of which so much has been said, and stories of adult life,
one fragment indeed being later than the _Emma_ which appeared in the
_Cornhill Magazine_ for 1856, with a note by Thackeray. Here were the
letters Charlotte Bronte had written to her brother and to her sisters
during her second sojourn in Brussels--to 'Dear Branwell' and 'Dear E.
J.,' as she calls Emily--letters even to handle will give a thrill to the
Bronte enthusiast. Here also were the love-letters of Maria Branwell to
her lover Patrick Bronte, which are referred to in Mrs. Gaskell's
biography, but have never hitherto been printed.

'The four small scraps of Emily and Anne's manuscript,' writes Mr.
Nicholls, 'I found in the small box I send you; the others I found in
the bottom of a cupboard tied up in a newspaper, where they had lain
for nearly thirty years, and where, had it not been for your visit,
they must have remained during my lifetime, and most likely
afterwards have been destroyed.'

Some slight extracts from Bronte letters in _Macmillan's Magazine_,
signed 'E. Balmer Williams,' brought me into communication with a gifted
daughter of Mr. W. S. Williams. Mrs. Williams and her husband generously
placed the whole series of these letters of Charlotte Bronte to their
father at my disposal. It was of some of these letters that Mrs. Gaskell
wrote in enthusiastic terms when she had read them, and she was only
permitted to see a few. Then I have to thank Mr. Joshua Taylor, the
nephew of Miss Mary Taylor, for permission to publish his aunt's letters.
Mr. James Taylor, again, who wanted to marry Charlotte Bronte, and who
died twenty years afterwards in Bombay, left behind him a bundle of
letters which I found in the possession of a relative in the north of
London. {25} I discovered through a letter addressed to Miss Nussey that
the 'Brussels friend' referred to by Mrs. Gaskell was a Miss Laetitia
Wheelwright, and I determined to write to all the Wheelwrights in the
London Directory. My first effort succeeded, and _the_ Miss Wheelwright
kindly lent me all the letters that she had preserved. It is scarcely
possible that time will reveal many more unpublished letters from the
author of _Jane Eyre_. Several of those already in print are forgeries,
and I have actually seen a letter addressed from Paris, a city which Miss
Bronte never visited. I have the assurance of Dr. Heger of Brussels that
Miss Bronte's correspondence with his father no longer exists. In any
case one may safely send forth this little book with the certainty that
it is a fairly complete collection of Charlotte Bronte's correspondence,
and that it is altogether a valuable revelation of a singularly
interesting personality. Steps will be taken henceforth, it may be
added, to vindicate Mr. Nicholls's rights in whatever may still remain of
his wife's unpublished correspondence.



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