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The Life of Charlotte Brontë
Publication of the Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell - Letter to Miss Wooler - Preparation for publishing the sisters' first fictions - Letter of advice to a young friend
Mr. Brontë afflicted with blindness, and relieved by a successful operation for cataract - Charlotte Brontë's first work of fiction, The Professor - She commences Jane Eyre - Circumstances attending its composition - Her ideas of a heroine - Her attachment to home - Haworth in December - A letter of confession and counsel
State of Charlotte Brontë's health at the commencement of 1847 - Family trials - Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey accepted by a publisher - The Professor rejected - Completion of Jane Eyre, its reception and publication - The reviews of Jane Eyre, and the author's comments on them - Her father's reception of the book - Public interest excited by Jane Eyre - Dedication of the second edition to Mr. Thackeray - Correspondence of Currer Bell with Mr. Lewes on Jane Eyre - Publication of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey - Miss Brontë's account of the authoress of Wuthering Heights - Domestic anxieties of the Brontë sisters - Currer Bell's correspondence with Mr. Lewes - Unhealthy state of Haworth - Charlotte Brontë on the revolutions of 1848 - Her repudiation of authorship - Anne Brontë's second tale, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Misunderstanding as to the individuality of the three Bells, and its results - Currer and Acton Bell visit London - Charlotte Brontë's account of her visit - The Chapter Coffee House - The Clergy Daughters' School at Casterton - Death of Branwell Brontë - Illness and death of Emily Brontë
The Quarterly Review on Jane Eyre-Severe illness of Anne Brontë - "Her last verses - She is removed to Scarborough-Her last hours, and death and burial there-Charlotte's return to Haworth, and her loneliness
Commencement and completion of Shirley - Originals of the characters, and circumstances under which it was written - Loss on railway shares - Letters to Mr. Lewes and other friends on Shirley, and the reviews of it - Miss Brontë visits London, meets Mr. Thackeray, and makes the acquaintance of Miss Martineau - Her impressions of literary men
Currer Bell" identified as Miss Brontë at Haworth and the vicinity - Her letter to Mr. Lewes on his review of Shirley - Solitude and heavy mental sadness and anxiety - She visits Sir J. and Lady Kay Shuttleworth - Her comments on critics, and remarks on Thackeray's Pendennis and Scott's Suggestions on Female Education - Opinions of Shirley by Yorkshire readers
An unhealthy spring at Haworth - Miss Brontë's proposed visit to London - Her remarks on The Leader - Associations of her walks on the moors - Letter to an unknown admirer of her works - Incidents of her visit to London - Her impressions of a visit to Scotland - Her portrait, by Richmond - Anxiety about her father
Visit to Sir J. and Lady Kay Shuttleworth - The biographer's impressions of Miss Brontë - Miss Brontë's account of her visit to the Lakes of Westmoreland - Her disinclination for acquaintance and visiting - Remarks on Woman's Mission, Tennyson's In Memoriam, etc. - Impressions of her visit to Scotland - Remarks on a review in the Palladium .
Intended republication of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey - Reaction after her visit to Scotland - Her first meeting with Mr. Lewes - Her opinion of Balzac and George Sand - A characteristic incident - Account of a friendly visit to Haworth Parsonage - Remarks on The Roman, by Sydney Dobell, and on the character of Dr. Arnold - Letter to Mr. Dobell
Miss Brontë's visit to Miss Martineau, and estimate of her hostess - Remarks on Mr. Ruskin's Stones of Venice - Preparations for another visit to London - Letter to Mr. Sydney Dobell: the moors in autumn - Mr. Thackeray's second lecture at Willis's Rooms, and sensation produced by Currer Bell's appearance there - Her account of her visit to London - She breakfasts with Mr. Rogers, visits the Great Exhibition, and sees Lord Westminster's pictures - Return to Haworth and letter thence - Her comment on Mr. Thackeray's Lecture - Counsel on development of character
Remarks on friendship - Letter to Mrs. Gaskell on her and Miss Martineau's views of the Great Exhibition and Mr. Thackeray's lecture, and on the Saint's Tragedy - Miss Brontë's feelings towards children - Her comments on Mr. J. S. Mill's article on the Emancipation of Women - More illness at Haworth Parsonage - Letter on Emigration - Periodical returns of illness - Miss Wooler visits Haworth - Miss Brontë's impressions of her visit to London - Her account of the progress of Villette - Her increasing illness and sufferings during winter - Her letter on Mr. Thackeray's Esmond - Revival of sorrows and accessions of low spirits - Remarks on some recent books - Retrospect of the winter of 1851-2 - Letter to Mrs. Gaskell on Ruth
Miss Brontë revisits Scarborough - Serious illness and ultimate convalescence of her father - Her own illness - Villette nearly completed - Further remarks on Esmond and Uncle Tom's Cabin - Letter respecting Villette - Another letter about Villette - Instance of extreme sensibility
The biographer's difficulty - Deep and enduring attachment of Mr. Nicholls for Miss Brontë - Instance of her self-abnegation - She again visits London - Impressions of this visit - Letter to Mrs. Gaskell - Reception of the critiques on Villette - Misunderstanding with Miss Martineau - Letter on Mr. Thackeray's portrait - Visit of the Bishop of Ripon to Haworth Parsonage - Her wish to see the unfavourable critiques on her works - Her nervous shyness of strangers, and its cause - Letter on Mr. Thackeray's lectures
Letter to Mrs. Gaskell on writing fiction, etc. - The biographer's account of her visit to Haworth, and reminiscences of conversations with Miss Brontë - Letters from Miss Brontë to her friends - Her engagement to Mr. Nicholls, and preparations for the marriage - The marriage ceremony and wedding tour - Her happiness in the married state - New symptoms of illness, and their cause - The two last letters written by Mrs. Nicholls - An alarming change - Her death
Mourners at the funeral - Conclusion
The next year opened with a spell of cold dreary weather, which told severely on a constitution already tried by anxiety and care. Miss Brontë describes herself as having utterly lost her appetite, and as looking "grey, old, worn and sunk," from her sufferings during the inclement season. The cold brought on severe toothache; toothache was the cause of a succession of restless miserable nights; and long wakefulness told acutely upon her nerves, making them feel with redoubled sensitiveness all the harass of her oppressive life. Yet she would not allow herself to lay her bad health to the charge of an uneasy mind; "for after all," said she at this time, "I have many, many things to be thankful for." But the real state of things may be gathered from the following extracts from her letters.
"Even at the risk of appearing very exacting, I can't help saying that I should like a letter as long as you last, every time you write. Short notes give one the feeling of a very small piece of a very good thing to eat, - they set the appetite on edge, and don't satisfy it, - a letter leaves you more contented; and yet, after all, I am very glad to get notes; so don't think, when you are pinched for time and materials, that it is useless to write a few lines; be assured, a few lines are very acceptable as far as they go; and though I like long letters, I would by no means have you to make a task of writing them. . . . I really should like you to come to Haworth, before I again go to B----. And it is natural and right that I should have this wish. To keep friendship in proper order, the balance of good offices must be preserved, otherwise a disquieting and anxious feeling creeps in, and destroys mutual comfort. In summer and in fine weather, your visit here might be much better managed than in winter. We could go out more, be more independent of the house and of our room. Branwell has been conducting himself very badly lately. I expect, from the extravagance of his behaviour, and from mysterious hints he drops (for he never will speak out plainly), that we shall be hearing news of fresh debts contracted by him soon. My health is better: I lay the blame of its feebleness on the cold weather, more than on an uneasy mind."
"March 24th, 1847.
"It is at Haworth, if all be well, that we must next see each other again. I owe you a grudge for giving Miss M---- some very exaggerated account about my not being well, and setting her on to urge my leaving home as quite a duty. I'll take care not to tell you next time, when I think I am looking specially old and ugly; as if people could not have that privilege, without being supposed to be at the last gasp! I shall be thirty-one next birthday. My youth is gone like a dream; and very little use have I ever made of it. What have I done these last thirty years? Precious little."
The quiet, sad year stole on. The sisters were contemplating near at hand, and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused in the person of that brother, once their fond darling and dearest pride. They had to cheer the poor old father, into whose heart all trials sank the deeper, because of the silent stoicism of his endurance. They had to watch over his health, of which, whatever was its state, he seldom complained. They had to save, as much as they could, the precious remnants of his sight. They had to order the frugal household with increased care, so as to supply wants and expenditure utterly foreign to their self-denying natures. Though they shrank from overmuch contact with their fellow-beings, for all whom they met they had kind words, if few; and when kind actions were needed, they were not spared, if the sisters at the parsonage could render them. They visited the parish-schools duly; and often were Charlotte's rare and brief holidays of a visit from home shortened by her sense of the necessity of being in her place at the Sunday-school.
In the intervals of such a life as this, Jane Eyre was making progress. The Professor was passing slowly and heavily from publisher to publisher. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey had been accepted by another publisher, "on terms somewhat impoverishing to the two authors;" a bargain to be alluded to more fully hereafter. It was lying in his hands, awaiting his pleasure for its passage through the press, during all the months of early summer.
The piece of external brightness to which the sisters looked during these same summer months, was the hope that the friend to whom so many of Charlotte's letters are addressed, and who was her chosen companion, whenever circumstances permitted them to be together, as well as a favourite with Emily and Anne, would be able to pay them a visit at Haworth. Fine weather had come in May, Charlotte writes, and they hoped to make their visitor decently comfortable. Their brother was tolerably well, having got to the end of a considerable sum of money which he became possessed of in the spring, and therefore under the wholesome restriction of poverty. But Charlotte warns her friend that she must expect to find a change in his appearance, and that he is broken in mind; and ends her note of entreating invitation by saying, "I pray for fine weather, that we may get out while you stay."
At length the day was fixed.
"Friday will suit us very well. I do trust nothing will now arise to prevent your coming. I shall be anxious about the weather on that day; if it rains, I shall cry. Don't expect me to meet you; where would be the good of it ? I neither like to meet, nor to be met. Unless, indeed, you had a box or a basket for me to carry; then there would be some sense in it. Come in black, blue, pink, white, or scarlet, as you like. Come shabby or smart, neither the colour nor the condition signifies; provided only the dress contain E----, all will be right."
But there came the first of a series of disappointments to be borne. One feels how sharp it must have been to have wrung out the following words.
"Your letter of yesterday did indeed give me a cruel chill of disappointment. I cannot blame you, for I know it was not your fault. I do not altogether exempt ---- from reproach. . . . This is bitter, but I feel bitter. As to going to B----, I will not go near the place till you have been to Haworth. My respects to all and sundry, accompanied with a large amount of wormwood and gall, from the effusion of which you and your mother are alone excepted. - C. B.
"You are quite at liberty to tell what I think, if you judge proper. Though it is true I may be somewhat unjust, for I am deeply annoyed. I thought I had arranged your visit tolerably comfortable for you this time. I may find it more difficult on another occasion."
I must give one sentence from a letter written about this time, as it shows distinctly the clear strong sense of the writer.
"I was amused by what she says respecting her wish that, when she marries, her husband will, at least, have a will of his own, even should he be a tyrant. Tell her, when she forms that aspiration again, she must make it conditional if her husband has a strong will, he must also have strong sense, a kind heart, and a thoroughly correct notion of justice; because a man with a weak brain and a strong will, is merely an intractable brute; you can have no hold of him; you can never lead him right. A tyrant under any circumstances is a curse."
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 sympathise 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 of 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 and 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 Brontë, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire."
Some time elapsed before an answer was returned.
A little circumstance may be mentioned here, though it belongs to a somewhat earlier period, as showing Miss Brontë's inexperience of the ways of the world, and willing deference to the opinion of others. She had written to a publisher about one of her manuscripts, which she had sent him, and, not receiving any reply, she consulted her brother as to what could be the reason for the prolonged silence. He at once set it down to her not having enclosed a postage-stamp in her letter. She accordingly wrote again, to repair her former omission, and apologise for it.
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,
"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 which she afterwards characterised 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 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?"
While the minds of the three sisters were in this state of suspense, their long-expected friend came to pay her promised visit. She was with them at the beginning of the glowing August of that year. They were out on the moors for the greater part of the day basking in the golden sunshine, which was bringing on an unusual plenteousness of harvest, for which, somewhat later, Charlotte expressed her earnest desire that there should be a thanksgiving service in all the churches. August was the season of glory for the neighbourhood of Haworth. Even the smoke, lying in the valley between that village and Keighley, took beauty from the radiant colours on the moors above, the rich purple of the heather bloom calling out an harmonious contrast in the tawny golden light that, in the full heat of summer evenings, comes stealing everywhere through the dun atmosphere of the hollows. And up, on the moors, turning away from all habitations of men, the royal ground on which they stood would expand into long swells of amethyst-tinted hills, melting away into aërial tints; and the fresh and fragrant scent of the heather, and the "murmur of innumerable bees," would lend a poignancy to the relish with which they welcomed their friend to their own true home on the wild and open hills.
There, too, they could escape from the Shadow in the house below.
Throughout this time - during all these confidences - not a word was uttered to their friend of the three tales in London; two accepted and in the press - one trembling in the balance of a publisher's judgment; nor did she hear of that other story "nearly completed," lying in manuscript in the grey old parsonage down below. She might have her suspicions that they all wrote with an intention of publication some time; but she knew the bounds which they set to themselves in their communications; nor could she, nor can any one else, wonder at their reticence, when remembering how scheme after scheme had failed, just as it seemed close upon accomplishment.
Mr. Brontë, 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.
"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 Brontë, 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.
While it was in the press, Miss Brontë went to pay a short visit to her friend at B----. The proofs were forwarded to her there, and she occasionally sat at the same table with her friend, correcting them; but they did not exchange a word on the subject.
Immediately on her return to the Parsonage, she wrote:
"I had a very wet, windy walk home from Keighley; but my fatigue quite disappeared when I reached home, and found all well. Thank God for it.
"My boxes came safe this morning. I have distributed the presents. Papa says I am to remember him most kindly to you. The screen will be very useful, and he thanks you for it. Tabby was charmed with her cap. She said, ' she never thought o' naught o' t' sort as Miss sending her aught, and, she is sure, she can never thank her enough for it.' I was infuriated on finding a jar in my trunk. At first, I hoped it was empty, but when I found it heavy and replete, I could have hurled it all the way back to B----. However, the inscription A. B. softened me much. It was at once kind and villainous in you to send it. You ought first to be tenderly kissed, and then afterwards as tenderly whipped. Emily is just now on the floor of the bed-room where I am writing, looking at her apples. She smiled when I gave the collar to her as your present, with an expression at once well-pleased and slightly surprised. All send their love. - Yours, in a mixture of anger and love."
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.
On its publication, copies were presented to a few private literary friends. Their discernment had been rightly reckoned upon. They were of considerable standing in the world of letters; and one and all returned expressions of high praise along with their thanks for the book. Among them was the great writer of fiction for whom Miss Brontë felt so strong an admiration; he immediately appreciated, and, in a characteristic note to the publishers, acknowledged its extraordinary merits.
The Reviews were more tardy, or more cautious. The Athenæum and the Spectator gave short notices, containing qualified admissions of the power of the author. The Literary Gazette was uncertain as to whether it was safe to praise an unknown author. The Daily News declined accepting the copy which had been sent, on the score of a rule "never to review novels;" but a little later on, there appeared a notice of the Bachelor of the Albany in that paper; and Messrs. Smith and Elder again forwarded a copy of Jane Eyre to the Editor, with a request for a notice. This time the work was accepted; but I am not aware what was the character of the article upon it.
The Examiner came forward to the rescue, as far as the opinions of professional critics were concerned. The literary articles in that paper were always remarkable for their genial and generous appreciation of merit nor was the notice of Jane Eyre an exception; it was full of hearty, yet delicate and discriminating praise. Otherwise, the press in general did little to promote the sale of the novel; the demand for it among librarians had begun before the appearance of the review in the Examiner; the power of fascination of the tale itself made its merits known to the public, without the kindly finger-posts of professional criticism; and, early in December, the rush began for copies.
I will insert two or three of Miss Brontë's letters to her publishers, in order to show how timidly the idea of success was received by one so unaccustomed to adopt a sanguine view of any subject in which she was individually concerned. The occasions on which these notes were written, will explain themselves.
"Oct. 19th, 1847.
"GENTLEMEN, - The six copies of Jane Eyre reached me this morning. You have given the work every advantage which good paper, clear type, and a seemly outside can supply; - if it fails, the fault will lie with the author, - you are exempt.
"I now await the judgment of the press and the public. - I am,Gentlemen, yours respectfully,
MESSRS. SMITH, ELDER, AND CO.
"Oct. 26th, 1847.
"GENTLEMEN, - I have received the newspapers. They speak quite as favourably of Jane Eyre as I expected them to do. The notice in the Literary Gazette seems certainly to have been indited in rather a flat mood, and the Athenæum has a style of its own, which I respect, but cannot exactly relish; still when one considers that journals of that standing have a dignity to maintain which would be deranged by a too cordial recognition of the claims of an obscure author, I suppose there is every reason to be satisfied.
"Meantime a brisk sale would be effectual support under the hauteur of lofty critics. - I am, Gentlemen, yours respectfully,
MESSRS. SMITH, ELDER, AND CO.
"Nov. 13th, 1847.
"GENTLEMEN, - I have to acknowledge the receipt of yours of the 11th inst., and to thank you for the information it communicates. The notice from the People's Journal also duly reached me, and this morning I received the Spectator. The critique in the Spectator gives that view of the book which will naturally be taken by a certain class of minds; I shall expect it to be followed by other notices of a similar nature. The way to detraction has been pointed out, and will probably be pursued. Most future notices will in all likelihood have a reflection of the Spectator in them. I fear this turn of opinion will not improve the demand for the book-but time will show. If Jane Eyre has any solid worth in it, it ought to weather a gust of unfavourable wind. - I am, Gentlemen, yours respectfully,
MESSRS. SMITH, ELDER, AND CO.
"Nov. 30th, 1847.
"GENTLEMEN, - I have received the Economist, but not the Examiner; from some cause that paper has missed, as the Spectator did on a former occasion; I am glad, however, to learn through your letter, that its notice of Jane Eyre was favourable, and also that the prospects of the work appear to improve."I am obliged to you for the information respecting Wuthering Heights. - I am, Gentlemen, yours respectfully,
To MESSRS. SMITH, ELDER, AND CO.
"Dec. 1st, 1847.
"GENTLEMEN, - The Examiner reached me to-day; it had been missent on account of the direction, which was to Currer Bell, care of Miss Brontë. Allow me to intimate that it would be better in future not to put the name of Currer Bell on the outside of communications; if directed simply to Miss Brontë they will be more likely to reach their destination safely. Currer Bell is not known in the district, and I have no wish that he should become known. The notice in the Examiner gratified me very much; it appears to be from the pen of an able man who has understood what he undertakes to criticise; of course, approbation from such a quarter is encouraging to an author, and I trust it will prove beneficial to the work. - I am, Gentlemen, yours respectfully,
"I received likewise seven other notices from provincial papers enclosed in an envelope. I thank you very sincerely for so punctually sending me all the various criticisms on Jane Eyre."
TO MESSRS. SMITH, ELDER, AND CO.
"Dec. 10th, 1847.
"GENTLEMEN, - I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter inclosing a bank post bill, for which I thank you. Having already expressed my sense of your kind and upright conduct, I can now only say that I trust you will always have reason to be as well content with me as I am with you. If the result of any future exertions I may be able to make should prove agreeable and advantageous to you, I shall be well satisfied; and it would be a serious source of regret to me if I thought you ever had reason to repent being my publishers.
"You need not apologise, Gentlemen, for having written to me so seldom; of course I am always glad to hear from you, but I am truly glad to hear from Mr. Williams likewise; he was my first favourable critic; he first gave me encouragement to persevere as an author, consequently I naturally respect him and feel grateful to him.
"Excuse the informality of my letter, and believe me, Gentlemen, yours respectfully,
There is little record remaining of the manner in which the first news of its wonderful success reached and affected the one heart of the three sisters. I once asked Charlotte - we were talking about the description of Lowood school, and she was saying that she was not sure whether she should have written it, if she had been aware how instantaneously it would have been identified with Cowan Bridge - whether the popularity to which the novel attained had taken her by surprise. She hesitated a little, and then said: "I believed that what had impressed me so forcibly when I wrote it, must make a strong impression on any one who read it. I was not surprised at those who read Jane Eyre being deeply interested in it; but I hardly expected that a book by an unknown author could find readers."
The sisters had kept the knowledge of their literary ventures from their father, fearing to increase their own anxieties and disappointment by witnessing his; for he took an acute interest in all that befell his children, and his own tendency had been towards literature in the days when he was young and hopeful. It was true he did not much manifest his feelings in words; he would have thought that he was prepared for disappointment as the lot of man, and that he could have met it with stoicism; but words are poor and tardy interpreters of feelings to those who love one another, and his daughters knew how he would have borne ill-success worse for them than for himself. So they did not tell him what they were undertaking. He says now that he suspected it all along, 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. We have seen how the communications from their publishers were received under cover to Miss Brontë." Once, Charlotte told me, they overheard the postman meeting Mr. Brontë, as the latter was leaving the house, and inquiring from the parson where one Currer Bell could be living, to which Mr. Brontë replied that there was no such person in the parish. This must have been the misadventure to which Miss Brontë alludes in the beginning of her correspondence with Mr. Aylott.
Now, however, when the demand for the work had assured success to Jane Eyre, her sisters urged Charlotte to tell their father of its publication. She accordingly went into his study one afternoon after his early dinner, carrying with her a copy of the book, and one or two reviews, taking care to include a notice adverse to it.
She informed me that something like the following conversation took place between her and him. (I wrote down her words the day after I heard them; and I am pretty sure they are quite accurate.)
"Papa, I've been writing a book."
"Have you, my dear?"
"Yes, and I want you to read it."
"I am afraid it will try my eyes too much."
"But it is not in manuscript: it is printed."
"My dear! you've never thought of the expense it will be! It will be almost sure to be a loss, for how can you get a book sold? No one knows you or your name.
"But, papa, I don't think it will be a loss; no more will you, if you will just let me read you a review or two, and tell you more about it."
So she sat down and read some of the reviews to her father; and then, giving him the copy of Jane Eyre that she intended for him, she left him to read it. When he came in to tea, he said, "Girls, do you know Charlotte has been writing a book, and it is much better than likely?"
But while the existence of Currer Bell, the author, was like a piece of a dream to the quiet inhabitants of Haworth Parsonage, who went on with their uniform household life, - their cares for their brother being its only variety, - the whole reading-world of England was in a ferment to discover the unknown author. Even the publishers of Jane Eyre were ignorant whether Currer Bell was a real or an assumed name, - whether it belonged to a man or a woman. In every town people sought out the list of their friends and acquaintances, and turned away in disappointment. No one they knew had genius enough to be the author. Every little incident mentioned in the book was turned this way and that to answer, if possible, the much-vexed question of sex. All in vain. People were content to relax their exertions to satisfy their curiosity, and simply to sit down and greatly admire.
I am not going to write an analysis of a book with which every one who reads this biography is sure to be acquainted; much less a criticism upon a work, which the great flood of public opinion has lifted up from the obscurity in which it first appeared, and laid high and safe on the everlasting hills of fame.
Before me lies a packet of extracts from newspapers and periodicals, which Mr. Brontë has sent me. It is touching to look them over, and see how there is hardly any notice, however short and clumsily-worded, in any obscure provincial paper, but what has been cut out and carefully ticketed with its date by the poor, bereaved father, - so proud when he first read them - so desolate now. For one and all are full of praise of this great, unknown genius, which suddenly appeared amongst us. Conjecture as to the authorship ran about like wild-fire. People in London, smooth and polished as the Athenians of old, and like them "spending their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing," were astonished and delighted to find that a fresh sensation, a new pleasure, was in reserve for them in the uprising of an author, capable of depicting with accurate and Titanic power the strong, self-reliant, racy, and individual characters which were not, after all, extinct species, but lingered still in existence in the North. They thought that there was some exaggeration mixed with the peculiar force of delineation. Those nearer to the spot, where the scene of the story was apparently laid, were sure, from the very truth and accuracy of the writing, that the writer was no Southron; for though "dark, and cold, and rugged is the North," the old strength of the Scandinavian races yet abides there, and glowed out in every character depicted in Jane Eyre. Farther than this, curiosity, both honourable and dishonourable, was at fault.
When the second edition appeared, in the January of the following year, with the dedication to Mr. Thackeray, people looked at each other and wondered afresh. But Currer Bell knew no more of William Makepeace Thackeray as an individual man - of his life, age, fortunes, or circumstances - than she did of those of Mr. Michael Angelo Titmarsh. The one had placed his name as author upon the title-page of Vanity Fair, the other had not. She was thankful for the opportunity of expressing her high admiration of a writer, whom, as she says, she regarded "as the social regenerator of his day - as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped state of things. . . . His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning, playing under the edge of the summer cloud, does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb."
Anne Brontë had been more than usually delicate all the summer, and her sensitive spirit had been deeply affected by the great anxiety of her home. But now that Jane Eyre gave such indications of success, Charlotte began to plan schemes of future pleasure, - perhaps relaxation from care, would be the more correct expression, - for their darling younger sister, the "little one" of the household. But, although Anne was cheered for a time by Charlotte's success, the fact was, that neither her spirits nor her bodily strength were such as to incline her to much active exertion, and she led far too sedentary a life, continually stooping either over her book, or work, or at her desk. "It is with difficulty," writes her sister, "that we can prevail upon her to take a walk, or induce her to converse. I look forward to next summer with the confident intention that she shall, if possible, make at least a brief sojourn at the sea-side." In this same letter, is a sentence, telling how dearly home, even with its present terrible drawback, lay at the roots of her heart; but it is too much blended with reference to the affairs of others to bear quotation.
Any author of a successful novel is liable to an inroad of letters from unknown readers, containing commendation - sometimes of so fulsome and indiscriminating a character as to remind the recipient of Dr. Johnson's famous speech to one who offered presumptuous and injudicious praise - sometimes saying merely a few words, which have power to stir the heart" as with the sound of a trumpet," and in the high humility they excite, to call forth strong resolutions to make all future efforts worthy of such praise; and occasionally containing that true appreciation of both merits and demerits, together with the sources of each, which forms the very criticism and help for which an inexperienced writer thirsts. Of each of these kinds of communication Currer Bell received her full share; and her warm heart, and true sense and high standard of what she aimed at, affixed to each its true value. Among other letters of hers, some to Mr. G. H. Lewes have been kindly placed by him at my service; and as I know Miss Brontë highly prized his letters of encouragement and advice, I shall give extracts from her replies, as their dates occur, because they will indicate the kind of criticism she valued, and also because throughout, in anger, as in agreement and harmony, they show her character unblinded by any self-flattery, full of clear-sighted modesty as to what she really did well, and what she failed in, grateful for friendly interest, and only sore and irritable when the question of sex in authorship was, as she thought, roughly or unfairly treated. As to the rest, the letters speak for themselves, to those who know how to listen, far better than I can interpret their meaning into my poorer and weaker words. Mr. Lewes has politely sent me the following explanation of that letter of his, to which the succeeding one of Miss Brontë is a reply.
"When Jane Eyre first appeared, the publishers courteously sent me a copy. The enthusiasm with which I read it, made me go down to Mr. Parker, and propose to write a review of it for Frazer's Magazine. He would not consent to an unknown novel - for the papers had not yet declared themselves - receiving such importance, but thought it might make one on ' Recent Novels: English and French' - which appeared in Frazer, December, 1847. Meanwhile I had written to Miss Brontë to tell her the delight with which her book filled me; and seem to have 'sermonised her, to judge from her reply."
To G. H. LEWES, ESQ.
"Nov. 6th, 1847.
"DEAR SIR, - Your letter reached me yesterday; I beg to assure you, that I appreciate fully the intention with which it was written, and I thank you sincerely both for its cheering commendation and valuable advice.
"You warn me to beware of melodrama, and you exhort me to adhere to the real. When I first began to write, so impressed was I with the truth of the principles you advocate, that I determined to take Nature and Truth as my sole guides, and to follow in their very footprints; I restrained imagination, eschewed romance, repressed excitement; over-bright colouring, too, I avoided, and sought to produce something which should be soft, grave, and true.
"My work (a tale in one volume) being completed, I offered it to a publisher. He said it was original, faithful to nature, but he did not feel warranted in accepting it; such a work would not sell. I tried six publishers in succession; they all told me it was deficient in 'startling incident' and 'thrilling excitement,' that it would never suit the circulating libraries, and, as it was on those libraries the success of works of fiction mainly depended, they could not undertake to publish what would be overlooked there.
"Jane Eyre was rather objected to at first, on the same grounds, but finally found acceptance.
"I mention this to you, not with a view of pleading exemption from censure, but in order to direct your attention to the root of certain literary evils. If, in your forthcoming article in Frazer, you would bestow a few words of enlightenment on the public who support the circulating libraries, you might, with your powers, do some good.
"You advise me, too, not to stray far from the ground of experience, as I become weak when I enter the region of fiction; and you say, 'real experience is perennially interesting, and to all men.'
"I feel that this also is true; but, dear Sir, is not the real experience of each individual very limited? And, if a writer dwells upon that solely or principally, is he not in danger of repeating himself, and also of becoming an egotist? Then, too, imagination is a strong, restless faculty, which claims to be heard and exercised: are we to be quite deaf to her cry, and insensate to her struggles ? When she shows us bright pictures, are we never to look at them, and try to reproduce them ? And when she is eloquent, and speaks rapidly and urgently in our ear, are we not to write to her dictation?
"I shall anxiously search the next number of Fraser for your opinions on these points. - Believe me, dear Sir, yours gratefully,
But while gratified by appreciation as an author, she was cautious as to the person from whom she received it; for much of the value of the praise depended on the sincerity and capability of the person rendering it. Accordingly, she applied to Mr. Williams (a gentleman connected with her publishers' firm) for information as to who and what Mr. Lewes was. Her reply, after she had 'learnt something of the character of her future critic, and while awaiting his criticism, must not be omitted. Besides the reference to him, it contains some amusing allusions to the perplexity which began to be excited respecting the "identity of the brothers Bell," and some notice of the conduct of another publisher towards her sister, which I refrain from characterising, because I understand that truth is considered a libel in speaking of such people.
To W. S. WILLIAMS, ESQ.
"Nov. 10th, 1847.
"DEAR SIR, - I have received the Britannia and the Sun, but not the Spectator which I rather regret, as censure, though not pleasant, is often wholesome.
"Thank you for your information regarding Mr. Lewes. I am glad to hear that he is a clever and sincere man such being the case, I can await his critical sentence with fortitude; even if it goes against me, I shall not murmur; ability and honesty have a right to condemn, where they think condemnation is deserved. From what you say, however, I trust rather to obtain at least a modified approval.
"Your account of the various surmises respecting the identity of the brothers Bell, amused me much were the enigma solved, It would probably be found not worth the trouble of solution; but I will let it alone; it suits ourselves to remain quiet, and certainly injures no one else.
"The reviewer who noticed the little book of poems, in the Dublin Magazine, conjectured that the soi-disant three personages were in reality but one, who, endowed with an unduly prominent organ of self-esteem, and consequently impressed with a somewhat weighty notion of his own merits, thought them too vast to be concentrated in a single individual, and accordingly divided himself into three, out of consideration, I suppose, for the nerves of the much-to-be-astounded public! This was an ingenious thought in the reviewer, - very original and striking, but not accurate. We are three.
"A prose work, by Ellis and Acton, will soon appear it should have been out, indeed, long since; for the first proof-sheets were already in the press at the commencement of last August, before Currer Bell had placed the MS. of Jane Eyre in your hands. Mr. ----, however, does not do business like Messrs. Smith and Elder; a different spirit seems to preside at ---- Street, to that which guides the helm at 65, Cornhill. . . . My relations have suffered from exhausting delay and procrastination, while I have to acknowledge the benefits of a management at once business-like and gentleman-like, energetic and considerate.
"I should like to know if Mr. ---- often acts as he has done to my relations, or whether this is an exceptional instance of his method. Do you know, and can you tell me anything about him? You must excuse me for going to the point at once, when I want to learn anything: if my questions are importunate, you are, of course, at liberty to decline answering them. - I am, yours respectfully,
To G. H. LEWES, ESQ.
"Nov. 22nd, 1847.
"DEAR SIR, - I have now read Ranthorpe. I could not get it till a day or two ago; but I have got it and read it at last; and in reading Ranthorpe, I have read a new book, - not a reprint - not a reflection of any other book, but a new book.
"I did not know such books were written now. It is very different to any of the popular works of fiction: it fills the mind with fresh knowledge. Your experience and your convictions are made the reader's; and to an author, at least, they have a value and an interest quite unusual. I await your criticism on Jane Eyre now with other sentiments than I entertained before the perusal of Ranthorpe.
"You were a stranger to me. I did not particularly respect you. I did not feel that your praise or blame would have any special weight. I knew little of your right to condemn or approve. Now I am informed on these points.
"You will be severe; your last letter taught me as much. Well I shall try to extract good out of your severity: and besides, though I am now sure you are a just, discriminating man, yet, being mortal, you must be fallible; and if any part of your censure galls me too keenly to the quick - gives me deadly pain - I shall for the present disbelieve it, and put it quite aside, till such time as I feel able to receive it without torture. - I am, dear Sir, yours very respectfully, C. BELL."
In December, 1847, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey appeared. The first-named of these stories has revolted many readers by the power with which wicked and exceptional characters are depicted. Others, again, have felt the attraction of remarkable genius, even when displayed on grim and terrible criminals. Miss Brontë herself says, with regard to this tale, "Where delineation of human character is concerned, the case is different. I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country-people that pass her convent gates. My sister's disposition was not naturally gregarious: circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church, or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though the feeling for the people around her was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought, nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced and yet she knew them, knew their ways, their language, and their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensued, that what her mind has gathered of the real concerning them, was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits, of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny - more powerful than sportive - found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catherine. Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done. If the auditor of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable - of spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night, and disturbed mental peace by day, Ellis Bell would wonder what was meant, and suspect the complainant of affectation. Had she but lived, her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree - loftier, straighter, wider-spreading - and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom; but on that mind time and experience alone could work; to the influence of other intellects she was not amenable."
Whether justly or unjustly, the productions of the two younger Miss Brontës were not received with much favour at the time of their publication. "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.
Henceforward Charlotte Brontë's existence becomes divided into two parallel currents - her life as Currer Bell, the author; her life as Charlotte Brontë, the woman. There were separate duties belonging to each character - not opposing each other; not impossible, but difficult to be reconciled. When a man becomes an author, it is probably merely a change of employment to him. He takes a portion of that time which has hitherto been devoted to some other study or pursuit; he gives up something of the legal or medical profession, in which he has hitherto endeavoured to serve others, or relinquishes part of the trade or business by which he has been striving to gain a livelihood; and another merchant or lawyer, or doctor, steps into his vacant place, and probably does as well as he. But no other can take up the quiet, regular duties of the daughter, the wife, or the mother, as well as she whom God has appointed to fill that particular place: a woman's principal work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents that were ever bestowed. And yet she must not shrink from the extra responsibility implied by the very fact of her possessing such talents. She must not hide her gift in a napkin; it was meant for the use and service of others. In an humble and faithful spirit must she labour to do what is not impossible, or God would not have set her to do it.
I put into words what Charlotte Brontë put into actions.
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