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Charlotte Brontë and Her Circle by Clement King Shorter

There is a letter, printed by Mrs. Gaskell, from Charlotte Bronte to
Ellen Nussey, in which Miss Bronte, when a girl of seventeen, discusses
the best books to read, and expresses a particular devotion to Sir Walter
Scott. During those early years she was an indefatigable student of
literature. She read all that her father's study and the Keighley
library could provide. When the years brought literary fame and its
accompanying friendships, she was able to hold her own with the many men
and women of letters whom she was destined to meet. Her staunchest
friend was undoubtedly Mr. Williams, who sent her, as we have seen, all
the newest books from London, and who appears to have discussed them with
her as well. Next to Mr. Williams we must place his chief at Cornhill,
Mr. George Smith, and Mr. Smith's mother. Mr. Smith happily still lives
to reign over the famous house which introduced Thackeray, John Ruskin,
and Charlotte Bronte to the world. What Charlotte thought of him may be
gathered from her frank acknowledgment that he was the original of Dr.
John in _Villette_, as his mother was the original of Mrs.
Bretton--perhaps the two most entirely charming characters in Charlotte
Bronte's novels. Mrs. Smith and her son lived, at the beginning of the
friendship, at Westbourne Place, but afterwards removed to Gloucester
Terrace, and Charlotte stayed with them at both houses. It was from the
former that this first letter was addressed.



'DEAR ELLEN,--I have just remembered that as you do not know my
address you cannot write to me till you get it; it is as above. I
came to this big Babylon last Thursday, and have been in what seems
to me a sort of whirl ever since; for changes, scenes, and stimulus
which would be a trifle to others, are much to me. I found when I
mentioned to Mr. Smith my plan of going to Dr. Wheelwright's it would
not do at all--he would have been seriously hurt. He made his mother
write to me, and thus I was persuaded to make my principal stay at
his house. I have found no reason to regret this decision. Mrs.
Smith received me at first like one who had received the strictest
orders to be scrupulously attentive. I had fires in my bed-room
evening and morning, wax candles, etc., etc. Mrs. Smith and her
daughters seemed to look upon me with a mixture of respect and alarm.
But all this is changed--that is to say, the attention and politeness
continues as great as ever, but the alarm and estrangement are quite
gone. She treats me as if she liked me, and I begin to like her
much; kindness is a potent heart-winner. I had not judged too
favourably of her son on a first impression; he pleases me much. I
like him better even as a son and brother than as a man of business.
Mr. Williams, too, is really most gentlemanly and well-informed. His
weak points he certainly has, but these are not seen in society. Mr.
Taylor--the little man--has again shown his parts; in fact, I suspect
he is of the Helstone order of men--rigid, despotic, and self-willed.
He tries to be very kind and even to express sympathy sometimes, but
he does not manage it. He has a determined, dreadful nose in the
middle of his face, which, when poked into my countenance, cuts into
my soul like iron. Still, he is horribly intelligent, quick,
searching, sagacious, and with a memory of relentless tenacity. To
turn to Mr. Williams after him, or to Mr. Smith himself, is to turn
from granite to easy down or warm fur. I have seen Thackeray.



'_November_ 6_th_, 1849.

'MY DEAR SIR,--I am afraid Mr. Williams told you I was sadly "put
out" about the _Daily News_, and I believe it is to that circumstance
I owe your letters. But I have now made good resolutions, which were
tried this morning by another notice in the same style in the
_Observer_. The praise of such critics mortifies more than their
blame; an author who becomes the object of it cannot help momentarily
wishing he had never written. And to speak of the press being still
ignorant of my being a woman! Why can they not be content to take
Currer Bell for a man?

'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. You keep to your point about the curates. Since you think me
to blame, you do right to tell me so. I rather fancy I shall be left
in a minority of one on that subject.

'I was indeed very much interested in the books you sent.
Eckermann's _Conversations with Goethe_, _Guesses at Truth_, _Friends
in Council_, and the little work on English social life pleased me
particularly, and the last not least. We sometimes take a partiality
to books as to characters, not on account of any brilliant intellect
or striking peculiarity they boast, but for the sake of something
good, delicate, and genuine. I thought that small book the
production of a lady, and an amiable, sensible woman, and I like it.

'You must not think of selecting any more works for me yet, my stock
is still far from exhausted.

'I accept your offer respecting the _Athenaeum_; it is a paper I
should like much to see, providing you can send it without trouble.
It shall be punctually returned.

'Papa's health has, I am thankful to say, been very satisfactory of
late. The other day he walked to Keighley and back, and was very
little fatigued. I am myself pretty well.

'With thanks for your kind letter and good wishes,--Believe me, yours


Mrs. Gaskell has much to say of Miss Bronte's relations with George Henry
Lewes. {432} He was a critic with whom she had much correspondence and
not a few differences. It will be remembered that Charlotte describes
him as bearing a resemblance to Emily--a curious circumstance by the
light of the fact that Lewes was always adjudged among his acquaintances
as a peculiarly ugly man. Here is a portion of a letter upon which Mrs.
Gaskell practised considerable excisions, and of which she prints the


'_June_ 12_th_, 1850.

'I have seen Lewes. He is a man with both weakness and sins, but
unless I err greatly, the foundation of his nature is not bad; and
were he almost a fiend in character I could not feel otherwise to him
than half-sadly, half-tenderly. A queer word that last, but I use it
because the aspect of Lewes's face almost moves me to tears, it is so
wonderfully like Emily--her eyes, her features, the very nose, the
somewhat prominent mouth, the forehead--even, at moments, the
expression. Whatever Lewes does or says, I believe I cannot hate
him. Another likeness I have seen, too, that touched me sorrowfully.
You remember my speaking of a Miss Kavanagh, a young authoress, who
supported her mother by her writings. Hearing from Mr. Williams that
she had a longing to see me, I called on her yesterday. I found a
little, almost dwarfish figure, to which even I had to look down; not
deformed--that is, not hunch-backed, but long-armed and with a large
head, and (at first sight) a strange face. She met me half-frankly,
half-tremblingly; we sat down together, and when I had talked with
her five minutes, her face was no longer strange, but mournfully
familiar--it was Martha Taylor on every lineament. I shall try to
find a moment to see her again. She lives in a poor but clean and
neat little lodging. Her mother seems a somewhat weak-minded woman,
who can be no companion to her. Her father has quite deserted his
wife and child, and this poor little, feeble, intelligent, cordial
thing wastes her brains to gain a living. She is twenty-five years
old. I do not intend to stay here, at the furthest, more than a week
longer; but at the end of that time I cannot go home, for the house
at Haworth is just now unroofed; repairs were become necessary.

'I should like to go for a week or two to the sea-side, in which case
I wonder whether it would be possible for you to join me. Meantime,
with regards to all--Believe me, yours faithfully,

'C. B.'

But her acquaintance with Lewes had apparently begun three years earlier.


'_November_ 6_th_, 1847.

'DEAR SIR,--I should be obliged to you if you will direct the
inclosed to be posted in London as I wish to avoid giving any clue to
my place of residence, publicity not being my ambition.

'It is an answer to the letter I received yesterday, favoured by you.
This letter bore the signature G. H. Lewes, and the writer informs me
that it is his intention to write a critique on _Jane Eyre_ for the
December number of _Fraser's Magazine_, and possibly also, he
intimates, a brief notice to the _Westminster Review_. Upon the
whole he seems favourably inclined to the work, though he hints
disapprobation of the melodramatic portions.

'Can you give me any information respecting Mr. Lewes? what station
he occupies in the literary world and what works he has written? He
styles himself "a fellow novelist." There is something in the candid
tone of his letter which inclines me to think well of him.

'I duly received your letter containing the notices from the
_Critic_, and the two magazines, and also the _Morning Post_. I hope
all these notices will work together for good; they must at any rate
give the book a certain publicity.--Yours sincerely,


Mr. R. H. Horne {434} sent her his _Orion_.


'_December_ 15_th_, 1847.

'DEAR SIR,--You will have thought me strangely tardy in acknowledging
your courteous present, but the fact is it never reached me till
yesterday; the parcel containing it was missent--consequently it
lingered a fortnight on its route.

'I have to thank you, not merely for the gift of a little book of 137
pages, but for that of a _poem_. Very real, very sweet is the poetry
of _Orion_; there are passages I shall recur to again and yet
again--passages instinct both with power and beauty. All through it
is genuine--pure from one flaw of affectation, rich in noble imagery.
How far the applause of critics has rewarded the author of _Orion_ I
do not know, but I think the pleasure he enjoyed in its composition
must have been a bounteous meed in itself. You could not, I imagine,
have written that epic without at times deriving deep happiness from
your work.

'With sincere thanks for the pleasure its perusal has afforded me,--I
remain, dear sir, yours faithfully,

'C. BELL.'


'HAWORTH, _December_ 15_th_, 1847.

'DEAR SIR,--I write a line in haste to apprise you that I have got
the parcel. It was sent, through the carelessness of the railroad
people, to Bingley, where it lay a fortnight, till a Haworth carrier
happening to pass that way brought it on to me.

'I was much pleased to find that you had been kind enough to forward
the _Mirror_ along with _Fraser_. The article on "the last new
novel" is in substance similar to the notice in the _Sunday Times_.
One passage only excited much interest in me; it was that where
allusion is made to some former work which the author of _Jane Eyre_
is supposed to have published--there, I own, my curiosity was a
little stimulated. The reviewer cannot mean the little book of
rhymes to which Currer Bell contributed a third; but as that, and
_Jane Eyre_, and a brief translation of some French verses sent
anonymously to a magazine, are the sole productions of mine that have
ever appeared in print, I am puzzled to know to what else he can

'The reviewer is mistaken, as he is in perverting my meaning, in
attributing to me designs I know not, principles I disown.

'I have been greatly pleased with Mr. R. H. Horne's poem of _Orion_.
Will you have the kindness to forward to him the inclosed note, and
to correct the address if it is not accurate?--Believe me, dear sir,
yours respectfully,

'C. BELL.'

The following elaborate criticism of one of Mr. Lewes's now forgotten
novels is almost pathetic; it may give a modern critic pause in his
serious treatment of the abundant literary ephemera of which we hear so
much from day to day.


'_May_ 1_st_, 1848.

'MY DEAR SIR,--I am glad you sent me your letter just as you had
written it--without revisal, without retrenching or softening touch,
because I cannot doubt that I am a gainer by the omission.

'It would be useless to attempt opposition to your opinions, since,
in fact, to read them was to recognise, almost point for point, a
clear definition of objections I had already felt, but had found
neither the power nor the will to express. Not the power, because I
find it very difficult to analyse closely, or to criticise in
appropriate words; and not the will, because I was afraid of doing
Mr. Lewes injustice. I preferred overrating to underrating the
merits of his work.

'Mr. Lewes's sincerity, energy, and talent assuredly command the
reader's respect, but on what points he depends to win his attachment
I know not. I do not think he cares to excite the pleasant feelings
which incline the taught to the teacher as much in friendship as in
reverence. The display of his acquirements, to which almost every
page bears testimony--citations from Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish,
French, and German authors covering as with embroidery the texture of
his English--awes and astonishes the plain reader; but if, in
addition, you permit yourself to require the refining charm of
delicacy, the elevating one of imagination--if you permit yourself to
be as fastidious and exacting in these matters as, by your own
confession, it appears _you_ are, then Mr. Lewes must necessarily
inform you that he does not deal in the article; probably he will add
that _therefore_ it must be non-essential. I should fear he might
even stigmatise imagination as a figment, and delicacy as an

'An honest rough heartiness Mr. Lewes will give you; yet in case you
have the misfortune to remark that the heartiness might be quite as
honest if it were less rough, would you not run the risk of being
termed a sentimentalist or a dreamer?

'Were I privileged to address Mr. Lewes, and were it wise or becoming
to say to him exactly what one thinks, I should utter words to this

'"You have a sound, clear judgment as far as it goes, but I conceive
it to be limited; your standard of talent is high, but I cannot
acknowledge it to be the highest; you are deserving of all attention
when you lay down the law on principles, but you are to be resisted
when you dogmatise on feelings.

'"To a certain point, Mr. Lewes, you can go, but no farther. Be as
sceptical as you please on whatever lies beyond a certain
intellectual limit; the mystery will never be cleared up to you, for
that limit you will never overpass. Not all your learning, not all
your reading, not all your sagacity, not all your perseverance can
help you over one viewless line--one boundary as impassable as it is
invisible. To enter that sphere a man must be born within it; and
untaught peasants have there drawn their first breath, while learned
philosophers have striven hard till old age to reach it, and have
never succeeded." I should not dare, nor would it be right, to say
this to Mr. Lewes, but I cannot help thinking it both of him and many
others who have a great name in the world.

'Hester Mason's character, career, and fate appeared to me so
strange, grovelling, and miserable, that I never for a moment doubted
the whole dreary picture was from the life. I thought in describing
the "rustic poetess," in giving the details of her vulgar provincial
and disreputable metropolitan notoriety, and especially in touching
on the ghastly catastrophe of her fate, he was faithfully recording
facts--thus, however repulsively, yet conscientiously "pointing a
moral," if not "adorning a tale"; but if Hester be the daughter of
Lewes's imagination, and if her experience and her doom be inventions
of his fancy, I wish him better, and higher, and truer taste next
time he writes a novel.

'Julius's exploit with the side of bacon is not defensible; he might
certainly, for the fee of a shilling or sixpence, have got a boy to
carry it for him.

'Captain Heath, too, must have cut a deplorable figure behind the

'Mrs. Vyner strikes one as a portrait from the life; and it equally
strikes one that the artist hated his original model with a personal
hatred. She is made so bad that one cannot in the least degree
sympathise with any of those who love her; one can only despise them.
She is a fiend, and therefore not like Mr. Thackeray's Rebecca, where
neither vanity, heartlessness, nor falsehood have been spared by the
vigorous and skilful hand which portrays them, but where the human
being has been preserved nevertheless, and where, consequently, the
lesson given is infinitely more impressive. We can learn little from
the strange fantasies of demons--we are not of their kind; but the
vices of the deceitful, selfish man or woman humble and warn us. In
your remarks on the good girls I concur to the letter; and I must add
that I think Blanche, amiable as she is represented, could never have
loved her husband after she had discovered that he was utterly
despicable. Love is stronger than Cruelty, stronger than Death, but
perishes under Meanness; Pity may take its place, but Pity is not

'So far, then, I not only agree with you, but I marvel at the nice
perception with which you have discriminated, and at the accuracy
with which you have marked each coarse, cold, improbable, unseemly
defect. But now I am going to take another side: I am going to
differ from you, and it is about Cecil Chamberlayne.

'You say that no man who had intellect enough to paint a picture, or
write a comic opera, could act as he did; you say that men of genius
and talent may have egregious faults, but they cannot descend to
brutality or meanness. Would that the case were so! Would that
intellect could preserve from low vice! But, alas! it cannot. No,
the whole character of Cecil is painted with but too faithful a hand;
it is very masterly, because it is very true. Lewes is nobly right
when he says that intellect is _not_ the highest faculty of man,
though it may be the most brilliant; when he declares that the
_moral_ nature of his kind is more sacred than the _intellectual_
nature; when he prefers "goodness, lovingness, and quiet
self-sacrifice to all the talents in the world."

'There is something divine in the thought that genius preserves from
degradation, were it but true; but Savage tells us it was not true
for him; Sheridan confirms the avowal, and Byron seals it with
terrible proof.

'You never probably knew a Cecil Chamberlayne. If you had known such
a one you would feel that Lewes has rather subdued the picture than
overcharged it; you would know that mental gifts without moral
firmness, without a clear sense of right and wrong, without the
honourable principle which makes a man rather proud than ashamed of
honest labour, are no guarantee from even deepest baseness.

'I have received the _Dublin University Magazine_. The notice is
more favourable than I had anticipated; indeed, I had for a long time
ceased to anticipate any from that quarter; but the critic does not
strike one as too bright. Poor Mr. James is severely handled; _you_,
likewise, are hard upon him. He always strikes me as a miracle of

'I must conclude by thanking you for your last letter, which both
pleased and instructed me. You are quite right in thinking it
exhibits the writer's character. Yes, it exhibits it _unmistakeably_
(as Lewes would say). And whenever it shall be my lot to submit
another MS. to your inspection, I shall crave the full benefit of
certain points in that character: I shall ever entreat my _first
critic_ to be as impartial as he is friendly; what he feels to be out
of taste in my writings, I hope he will unsparingly condemn. In the
excitement of composition, one is apt to fall into errors that one
regrets afterwards, and we never feel our own faults so keenly as
when we see them exaggerated in others.

'I conclude in haste, for I have written too long a letter; but it is
because there was much to answer in yours. It interested me. I
could not help wishing to tell you how nearly I agreed with
you.--Believe me, yours sincerely,

'C. BELL.'


'_April_ 5_th_, 1849.

'MY DEAR SIR,--Your note was very welcome. I purposely impose on
myself the restraint of writing to you seldom now, because I know but
too well my letters cannot be cheering. Yet I confess I am glad when
the post brings me a letter: it reminds me that if the sun of action
and life does not shine on us, it yet beams full on other parts of
the world--and I like the recollection.

'I am not going to complain. Anne has indeed suffered much at
intervals since I last wrote to you--frost and east wind have had
their effect. She has passed nights of sleeplessness and pain, and
days of depression and languor which nothing could cheer--but still,
with the return of genial weather she revives. I cannot perceive
that she is feebler now than she was a month ago, though that is not
saying much. It proves, however, that no rapid process of
destruction is going on in her frame, and keeps alive a hope that
with the renovating aid of summer she may yet be spared a long time.

'What you tell me of Mr. Lewes seems to me highly characteristic.
How sanguine, versatile, and self-confident must that man be who can
with ease exchange the quiet sphere of the author for the bustling
one of the actor! I heartily wish him success; and, in happier
times, there are few things I should have relished more than an
opportunity of seeing him in his new character.

'The Cornhill books are still our welcome and congenial resource when
Anne is well enough to enjoy reading. Carlyle's _Miscellanies_
interest me greatly. We have read _The Emigrant Family_. The
characters in the work are good, full of quiet truth and nature, and
the local colouring is excellent; yet I can hardly call it a good
novel. Reflective, truth-loving, and even elevated as is Alexander
Harris's mind, I should say he scarcely possesses the creative
faculty in sufficient vigour to excel as a writer of fiction. He
_creates_ nothing--he only copies. His characters are
portraits--servilely accurate; whatever is at all ideal is not
original. _The Testimony to the Truth_ is a better book than any
tale he can write will ever be. Am I too dogmatical in saying this?

'Anne thanks you sincerely for the kind interest you take in her
welfare, and both she and I beg to express our sense of Mrs.
Williams's good wishes, which you mentioned in a former letter. We
are grateful, too, to Mr. Smith and to all who offer us the sympathy
of friendship.

'Whenever you can write with pleasure to yourself, remember Currer
Bell is glad to hear from you, and he will make his letters as little
dreary as he can in reply.--Yours sincerely,


It was always a great trouble to Miss Wheelwright, whose friendship, it
will be remembered, she had made in Brussels, that Charlotte was
monopolised by the Smiths on her rare visits to London, but she
frequently came to call at Lower Phillimore Place.


'HAWORTH, KEIGHLEY, _December_ 17_th_, 1849.

'MY DEAR LAETITIA,--I have just time to save the post by writing a
brief note. I reached home safely on Saturday afternoon, and, I am
thankful to say, found papa quite well.

'The evening after I left you passed better than I expected. Thanks
to my substantial lunch and cheering cup of coffee, I was able to
wait the eight o'clock dinner with complete resignation, and to
endure its length quite courageously, nor was I too much exhausted to
converse; and of this I was glad, for otherwise I know my kind host
and hostess would have been much disappointed. There were only seven
gentlemen at dinner besides Mr. Smith, but of these, five were
critics--a formidable band, including the literary Rhadamanthi of the
_Times_, the _Athenaeum_, the _Examiner_, the _Spectator_, and the
_Atlas_: men more dreaded in the world of letters than you can
conceive. I did not know how much their presence and conversation
had excited me till they were gone, and then reaction commenced.
When I had retired for the night I wished to sleep; the effort to do
so was vain--I could not close my eyes. Night passed, morning came,
and I rose without having known a moment's slumber. So utterly worn
out was I when I got to Derby, that I was obliged to stay there all

'The post is going. Give my affectionate love to your mamma, Emily,
Fanny, and Sarah Anne. Remember me respectfully to your papa,
and--Believe me, dear Laetitia, yours faithfully,


Miss Wheelwright's other sisters well remember certain episodes in
connection with these London visits. They recall Charlotte's anxiety and
trepidation at the prospect of meeting Thackeray. They recollect her
simple, dainty dress, her shy demeanour, her absolutely unspoiled
character. They tell me it was in the _Illustrated London News_, about
the time of the publication of _Shirley_, that they first learnt that
Currer Bell and Charlotte Bronte were one. They would, however, have
known that _Shirley_ was by a Brussels pupil, they declared, from the
absolute resemblance of Hortense Moore to one of their governesses--Mlle.

At the end of 1849 Miss Bronte and Miss Martineau became acquainted.
Charlotte's admiration for her more strong-minded sister writer was at
first profound.


'_January_ 1_st_, 1850.

'MY DEAR SIR,--I am sorry there should have occurred an irregularity
in the transmission of the papers; it has been owing to my absence
from home. I trust the interruption has occasioned no inconvenience.
Your last letter evinced such a sincere and discriminating admiration
for Dr. Arnold, that perhaps you will not be wholly uninterested in
hearing that during my late visit to Miss Martineau I saw much more
of Fox How and its inmates, and daily admired, in the widow and
children of one of the greatest and best men of his time, the
possession of qualities the most estimable and endearing. Of my kind
hostess herself I cannot speak in terms too high. Without being able
to share all her opinions, philosophical, political, or religious,
without adopting her theories, I yet find a worth and greatness in
herself, and a consistency, benevolence, perseverance in her practice
such as wins the sincerest esteem and affection. She is not a person
to be judged by her writings alone, but rather by her own deeds and
life--than which nothing can be more exemplary or nobler. She seems
to me the benefactress of Ambleside, yet takes no sort of credit to
herself for her active and indefatigable philanthropy. The
government of her household is admirably administered; all she does
is well done, from the writing of a history down to the quietest
female occupation. No sort of carelessness or neglect is allowed
under her rule, and yet she is not over strict nor too rigidly
exacting; her servants and her poor neighbours love as well as
respect her.

'I must not, however, fall into the error of talking too much about
her, merely because my own mind is just now deeply impressed with
what I have seen of her intellectual power and moral worth. Faults
she has, but to me they appear very trivial weighed in the balance
against her excellencies.

'With every good wish of the season,--I am, my dear sir, yours very


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