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Elizabeth Gaskell
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 tale of Shirley had been begun soon after the publication of Jane Eyre. If the reader will refer to the account I have given of Miss Brontë's schooldays at Roe Head, he will there see how every place surrounding that house was connected with the Luddite riots, and will learn how stories and anecdotes of that time were rife among the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages; how Miss Wooler herself, and the elder relations of most of her schoolfellows, must have known the actors in those grim disturbances. What Charlotte had heard there as a girl came up in her mind when, as a woman, she sought a subject for her next work; and she sent to Leeds for a file of the Mercuries of 1812, '13, and '14; in order to understand the spirit of those eventful times. She was anxious to write of things she had known and seen; and among the number was the West Yorkshire character, for which any tale laid among the Luddites would afford full scope. In Shirley she took the idea of most of her characters from life, although the incidents and situations were, of course, fictitious. She thought that if these last were purely imaginary, she might draw from the real without detection, but in this she was mistaken; her studies were too closely accurate. This occasionally led her into difficulties. People recognised themselves, or were recognised by others, in her graphic descriptions of their personal appearance, and modes of action and turns of thought; though they were placed in new positions, and figured away in scenes far different to those in which their actual life had been passed. Miss Brontë was struck by the force or peculiarity of the character of some one whom she knew; she studied it, and analysed it with subtle power; and having traced it to its germ, she took that germ as the nucleus of an imaginary character, and worked outwards; - thus reversing the process of analysation, and unconsciously reproducing the same external development. The "three curates" were real living men, haunting Haworth and the neighbouring district; and so obtuse in perception that, after the first burst of anger at having their ways and habits chronicled was over, they rather enjoyed the joke of calling each other by the names she had given them. "Mrs. Pryor" was well known to many who loved the original dearly. The whole family of the Yorkes were, I have been assured, almost daguerreotypes. Indeed Miss Brontë told me that, before publication, she had sent those parts of the novel in which these remarkable persons are introduced, to one of the sons; and his reply, after reading it, was simply that "she had not drawn them strong enough." From those many-sided sons, I suspect, she drew all that there was of truth in the characters of the heroes in her first two works. They, indeed, were almost the only young men she knew intimately, besides her brother. There was much friendship, and still more confidence between the Brontë family and them, - although their intercourse was often broken and irregular. There was never any warmer feeling on either side.
The character of Shirley herself, is Charlotte's representation of Emily. I mention this, because all that I, a stranger, have been able to learn about her has not tended to give either me, or my readers, a pleasant impression of her. But we must remember how little we are acquainted with her, compared to that sister, who, out of her more intimate knowledge, says that she "was genuinely good, and truly great," and who tried to depict her character in Shirley Keeldar, as what Emily Brontë would have been, had she been placed in health and prosperity.
Miss Brontë took extreme pains with Shirley. She felt that the fame she had acquired imposed upon her a double responsibility. She tried to make her novel like a piece of actual life, - feeling sure that, if she but represented the product of personal experience and observation truly, good would come out of it in the long run. She carefully studied the different reviews and criticisms that had appeared on Jane Eyre, in hopes of extracting precepts and advice from which to profit.
Down into the very midst of her writing came the bolts of death. She had nearly finished the second volume of her tale when Branwell died, - after him Emily, - after her Anne; - the pen, laid down when there were three sisters living and loving, was taken up when one alone remained. Well might she call the first chapter that she wrote after this, "The Valley of the Shadow of Death."
I knew in part what the unknown author of Shirley must have suffered, when I read those pathetic words which occur at the end of this and the beginning of the succeeding chapter: -
"Till break of day, she wrestled with God in earnest prayer.
"Not always do those who dare such divine conflict prevail. Night after night the sweat of agony may burst dark on the forehead; the supplicant may cry for mercy with that soundless voice the soul utters when its appeal is to the Invisible. 'Spare my beloved,' it may implore. 'Heal my life's life. Rend not from me what long affection entwines with my whole nature. God of Heaven - bend - hear - be clement!' And after this cry and strife, the sun may rise and see him worsted. That opening morn, which used to salute him with the whispers of zephyrs, the carol of skylarks, may breathe, as its first accents, from the dear lips which colour and heat have quitted, - 'Oh! I have had a suffering night. This morning I am worse. I have tried to rise. I cannot. Dreams I am unused to have troubled me.'
"Then the watcher approaches the patient's pillow, and sees a new and strange moulding of the familiar features, feels at once that the insufferable moment draws nigh, knows that it is God's will his idol should be broken, and bends his head, and subdues his soul to the sentence he cannot avert, and scarce can bear. . . .
"No piteous, unconscious moaning sound - which so wastes our strength that, even if we have sworn to be firm, a rush of unconquerable tears sweeps away the oath - preceded her waking. No space of deaf apathy followed. The first words spoken were not those of one becoming estranged from this world, and already permitted to stray at times into realms foreign to the living."
She went on with her work steadily. But it was dreary to write without any one to listen to the progress of her tale, - to find fault or to sympathise, - while pacing the length of the parlour in the evenings, as in the days that were no more. Three sisters had done this, - then two, the other sister dropping off from the walk, - and now one was left desolate, to listen for echoing steps that never came, - and to hear the wind sobbing at the windows, with an almost articulate sound.
But she wrote on, struggling against her own feelings of illness; "continually recurring feelings of slight cold; slight soreness in the throat and chest, of which, do what I will," she writes, " I cannot get rid."
In August there arose a new cause for anxiety, happily but temporary.
"Aug. 23rd, 1849.
"Papa has not been well at all lately. He has had another attack of bronchitis. I felt very uneasy about him for some days - more wretched indeed than I care to tell you. After what has happened, one trembles at any appearance of sickness; and when anything ails Papa, I feel too keenly that he is the last - the only near and dear relative I have in the world. Yesterday and to-day he has seemed much better, for which I am truly thankful. . . .
"From what you Say of Mr. ----, I think I should like him very much. ---- wants shaking to be put out about his appearance. What does it matter whether her husband dines in a dress-coat, or a market-coat, provided there be worth, and honesty, and a clean shirt underneath?"
"Sept. 10th, 1849.
"My piece of work is at last finished, and despatched to its destination. 'You must now tell me when there is a chance of your being able to come here. I fear it will now be difficult to arrange, as it is so near the marriage-day. Note well, it would spoil all my pleasure, if you put yourself or any one else to inconvenience to come to Haworth. But when it is convenient, I shall be truly glad to see you. . . . Papa, I am thankful to say, is better, though not strong. He is often troubled with a sensation of nausea. My cold is very much less troublesome, I am sometimes quite free from it. A few days since, I had a severe bilious attack, the consequence of sitting too closely to my writing; but it is gone now. It is the first from which I have suffered since my return from the sea-side. I had them every month before."
"Sept. 13th, 1849.
"If duty and the well-being of others require that you should stay at home, I cannot permit myself to complain, still, I am very, very sorry that circumstances will not permit us to meet just now. I would without hesitation come to ----, if Papa were stronger; but uncertain as are both his health and spirits, I could not possibly prevail on myself to leave him now. Let us hope that when we do see each other our meeting will be all the more pleasurable for being delayed. Dear E----, you certain]y have a heavy burden laid on your shoulders, but such burdens, if well borne, benefit the character; only we must take the greatest, closest, most watchful care not to grow proud of our strength, in case we should be enabled to bear up under the trial. That pride, indeed, would be sign of radical weakness. The strength, if strength we have, is certainly never in our own selves; it is given us."
"Sept. 21st, 1849.
"MY DEAR SIR, - I am obliged to you for preserving my secret, being at least as anxious as ever (more anxious I cannot well be) to keep quiet. You asked me in one of your letters lately, whether I thought I should escape identification in Yorkshire. I am so little known, that I think I shall. Besides, the book is far less founded on the Real, than perhaps appears. It would be difficult to explain to you how little actual experience I have had of life, how few persons I have known, and how very few have known me.
"As an instance how the characters have been managed, take that of Mr. Helstone. If this character had an original, it was in the person of a clergyman who died some years since at the advanced age of eighty. I never saw him except once - at the consecration of a church - when I was a child of ten years old. I was then struck with his appearance, and stern, martial air. At a subsequent period, I heard him talked about in the neighbourhood where he had resided: some mention him with enthusiasm - others with detestation. I listened to various anecdotes, balanced evidence against evidence, and drew an inference. The original of Mr. Hall I have seen; he knows me slightly; but he would as soon think I had closely observed him or taken him for a character - he would as soon, indeed, suspect me of writing a book - a novel - as he would his dog, Prince. Margaret Hall called Jane Eyre a 'wicked book,' on the authority of the Quarterly; an expression which, coming from her, I will here confess, struck somewhat deep. It opened my eyes to the harm the Quarterly had done. Margaret would not have called it wicked,' if she had not been told so.
"No matter, - whether known or unknown - misjudged, or the contrary, - I am resolved not to write otherwise. I shall bend as my powers tend. The two human beings who understood me, and whom I understood, are gone I have some that love me yet, and whom I love, without expecting, or having a right to expect, that they shall perfectly understand me. I am satisfied; but I must have my own way in the matter of writing. The loss of what we possess nearest and dearest to us in this world, produces an effect upon the character we search out what we have yet left that can support, and, when found, we cling to it with a hold of new-strung tenacity. The faculty of imagination lifted me when I was sinking, three in oaths ago; its active exercise has kept my head above water since; its results cheer me now, for I feel they have enabled me to give pleasure to others. I am thankful to God, who gave me the faculty; and it is for me a part of my religion to defend this gift, and to profit by its possession. - Yours sincerely,
At the time when this letter was written, both Tabby and the young servant whom they had to assist her were ill in bed; and, with the exception of occasional aid, Miss Brontë had all the household work to perform, as well as to nurse the two invalids.
The serious illness of the younger servant was at its height, when a cry from Tabby called Miss Brontë into the kitchen, and she found the poor old woman of eighty laid on the floor, with her head under the kitchen-grate; she had fallen from her chair in attempting to rise. When I saw her, two years later, she described to me the tender care which Charlotte had taken of her at this time; and wound up her account of "how her own mother could not have had more thought for her nor Miss Brontë had," by saying, "Eh! she's a good one - she is!"
But there was one day when the strung nerves gave way - when, as she says, "I fairly broke down for ten minutes; sat and cried like a fool. Tabby could neither stand nor walk. Papa had just been declaring that Martha was in imminent danger. I was myself depressed with headache and sickness. That day I hardly knew what to do, or where to turn. Thank God! Martha is now convalescent: Tabby, I trust, will be better soon. Papa is pretty well. I have the satisfaction of knowing that my publishers are delighted with what I sent them. This supports me. But life is a battle. May we all be enabled to fight it well!"
The kind friend, to whom she thus wrote, saw how the poor over-taxed system needed bracing, and accordingly sent her a shower-bath - a thing for which she had long been wishing. The receipt of it was acknowledged as follows: -
"Sept. 28th, 1849.
". . . Martha is now almost well, and Tabby much better. A huge monster-package, from 'Nelson, Leeds,' came yesterday. You want chastising roundly and soundly. Such are the thanks you get for all your trouble. . . . Whenever you come to Haworth, you shall certainly have a thorough drenching in your own shower-bath. I have not yet unpacked the wretch. - "Yours, as you deserve,
C. B."
There was misfortune of another kind impending over her. There were some railway shares, which, so early as 1846, she had told Miss Wooler she wished to sell, but had kept because she could not persuade her sisters to look upon the affair as she did, and so preferred running the risk of loss, to hurting Emily's feelings by acting in opposition to her opinion. The depreciation of these same shares was now verifying Charlotte's soundness of judgment. They were in the York and North-Midland Company, which was one of Mr. Hudson's pet lines, and had the full benefit of his peculiar system of management. She applied to her friend and publisher, Mr. Smith, for information on the subject; and the following letter is in answer to his reply: -
"Oct. 4th, 1849.
"MY DEAR SIR, - I must not thank you for, but acknowledge the receipt of your letter. The business is certainly very bad; worse than I thought, and much worse than my father has any idea of. In fact, the little railway property I possessed, according to original prices, formed already a small competency for me, with my views and habits. Now, scarcely any portion of it can, with security, be calculated upon. I must open this view of the case to my father by degrees; and, meanwhile, wait patiently till I see how affairs are likely to turn. . . . However the matter may terminate, I ought perhaps to be rather thankful than dissatisfied. When I look at my own case, and compare it with that of thousands besides, I scarcely see room for a murmur. Many, very many, are by the late strange railway system deprived almost of their daily bread. Such then as have only lost provision laid up for the future, should take care how they complain. The thought that Shirley has given pleasure at Cornhill, yields me much quiet comfort. No doubt, however, you are, as I am, prepared for critical severity; but I have good hopes that the vessel is sufficiently sound of construction to weather a gale or two, and to make a prosperous voyage for you in the end."
Towards the close of October in this year, she went to pay a visit to her friend; but her enjoyment in the holiday, which she had so long promised herself when her work was completed, was deadened by a continual feeling of ill-health; either the change of air or the foggy weather produced constant irritation at the chest. Moreover, she was anxious about the impression which her second work would produce on the public mind. For obvious reasons an author is more susceptible to opinions pronounced on the book which follows a great success, than he has ever been before. Whatever be the value of fame, he has it in his possession, and is not willing to have it dimmed or lost.
Shirley was published on October 26th.
When it came out, but before reading it, Mr. Lewes wrote to tell her of his intention of reviewing it in the Edinburgh. Her correspondence with him had ceased for some time: much had occurred since.
"Nov. 1st, 1849.
"MY DEAR SIR, - It is about a year and a half since you wrote to me; but it seems a longer period, because since then it has been my lot to pass some black milestones in the journey of life. Since then there have been intervals when I have ceased to care about literature and critics and fame; when I have lost sight of whatever was prominent in my thoughts at the first publication of Jane Eyre; but now I want these things to come back vividly, if possible: consequently, it was a pleasure to receive your note. I wish you did not think me a woman. I wish all reviewers believed 'Currer Bell' to be a man; they would be more just to him. You will, I know, keep measuring me by some standard of what you deem becoming to my sex; where I am not what you consider graceful, you will condemn me. All mouths will be open against that first chapter; and that first chapter is true as the Bible, nor is it exceptionable. Come what will, I cannot, when I write, think always of myself and of what is elegant and charming in femininity; it is not on those terms, or with such ideas, I ever took pen in hand: and if it is only on such terms my writing will be tolerated, I shall pass away from the public and trouble it no more. Out of obscurity I came, to obscurity I can easily return. Standing afar off, I now watch to see what will become of Shirley. My expectations are very low, and my anticipations somewhat sad and bitter; still, I earnestly conjure you to say honestly what you think; flattery would be worse than vain; there is no consolation in flattery. As for condemnation I cannot, on reflection, see why I should much fear it; there is no one but myself to suffer therefrom, and both happiness and suffering in this life soon pass away. Wishing you all success in your Scottish expedition, - I am, dear Sir, yours sincerely,
Miss Brontë, as we have seen, had been as anxious as ever to preserve her incognito in Shirley. She even fancied that there were fewer traces of a female pen in it than in Jane Eyre; and thus, when the earliest reviews were published, and asserted that the mysterious writer must be a woman, she was much disappointed. She especially disliked the lowering of the standard by which to judge a work of fiction, if it proceeded from a feminine pen; and praise mingled with pseudo-gallant allusions to her sex, mortified her far more than actual blame.
But the secret, so jealously preserved, was oozing out at last. The publication of Shirley seemed to fix the conviction that the writer was an inhabitant of the district where the story was laid. And a clever Haworth man, who had somewhat risen in the world, and gone to settle in Liverpool, read the novel, and was struck with some of the names of places mentioned, and knew the dialect in which parts of it were written. He became convinced that it was the production of someone in Haworth. But he could not imagine who in that village could have written such a work except Miss Brontë. Proud of his conjecture, he divulged the suspicion (which was almost certainty) in the columns of a Liverpool paper; thus the heart of the mystery came slowly creeping out; and a visit to London, which Miss Brontë paid towards the end of the year 1849, made it distinctly known. She had been all along on most happy terms with her publishers; and their kindness had beguiled some of those weary, solitary hours which had so often occurred of late, by sending for her perusal boxes of books more suited to her tastes than any she could procure from the circulating library at Keighley. She often writes such sentences as the following, in her letters to Cornhill: -
"I was indeed very much interested in the books you sent Eckermann's Conversations with Goëthe, Guesses as 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 liked 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 Athenæum; it is a paper I should like much to see, providing that you can send it without trouble. It shall be punctually returned."
In a letter to her friend she complains of the feelings of illness. from which she was seldom or never free.
"Nov. 16th, I849.
"You are not to suppose any of the characters in Shirley intended as literal portraits. It would not suit the rules of art, nor of my own feelings; to write in that style. We only suffer reality to suggest, never to dictate. The heroines are abstractions and the heroes also. Qualities I have seen, loved, and admired, are here and there put in as decorative gems, to be preserved in that sitting. Since you say you could recognise the originals of all except the heroines, pray whom did you suppose the two Moores to represent? I send you a couple of reviews; the one is in the Examiner, written by Albany Fonblanque, who is called the most brilliant political writer of the day, a man whose dictum is much thought of in London. The other, in the Standard of Freedom, is written by William Howitt, a Quaker . . . I should be pretty well, if it were not for headaches and indigestion. My chest has been better lately."
In consequence of this long-protracted state of languor, headache, and sickness, to which the slightest exposure to cold added sensations of hoarseness and soreness at the chest, she determined to take the evil in time, as much for her father's sake as for her own, and to go up to London and consult some physician there. It was not her first intention to visit anywhere; but the friendly urgency of her publishers prevailed, and it was decided that she was to become the guest of Mr. Smith. Before she went, she wrote two characteristic letters about Shirley, from which I shall take a few extracts.
"Shirley makes her way. The reviews shower in fast. . . . The best critique which has yet appeared is in the Revue des deux Mondes, a sort of European Cosmopolitan periodical, whose head-quarters are at Paris. Comparatively few reviewers, even in their praise, evince a just comprehension of the author's meaning. Eugène Forçarde, the reviewer in question, follows Currer Bell through every winding, discerns every point, discriminates every shade, proves himself master of the subject, and lord of the aim. With that man I would shake hands, if I saw him. I would say, 'You know me, Monsieur; I shall deem it an honour to know you.' I could not say so much of the mass of the London critics. Perhaps I could not say so much to five hundred men and women in all the millions of Great Britain. That matters little. My own conscience I satisfy first; and having done that, if I further content and delight a Forsarde, a Fonblanque, and a Thackeray, my ambition has had its ration, it is fed; it lies down for the present satisfied; my faculties have wrought a day's task, and earned a day's wages. I am no teacher; to look on me in that light is to mistake me. To teach is not my vocation. What I am, it is useless to say. Those whom it concerns feel and find it out. To all others I wish only to be an obscure, steady-going, private character. To you, dear E----, I wish to be a sincere friend. Give me your faithful regard; I willingly dispense with admiration."
"Nov. 26th.
"It is like you to pronounce the reviews not good enough, and belongs to that part of your character which will not permit you to bestow unqualified approbation on any dress, decoration, etc., belonging to you. Know that the reviews are superb; and were I dissatisfied with them, I should be a conceited ape. Nothing higher is ever said, from perfectly disinterested motives, of any living authors. If all be well, I go to London this week; Wednesday, I think. The dress-maker has done my small matters pretty well, but I wish you could have looked them over, and given a dictum. I insisted on the dresses being made quite plainly."
At the end of November she went up to the "big Babylon," and was immediately plunged into what appeared to her a whirl; for changes, and scenes, and stimulus which would have been a trifle to others, were much to her. As was always the case with strangers, she was a little afraid at first of the family into which she was now received, fancying that the ladies looked on her with a mixture of respect and alarm; but in a few days, if this state of feeling ever existed, her simple, shy, quiet manners, her dainty personal and household ways, had quite done away with it, and she says that she thinks they begin to like her, and that she likes them much, for "kindness is a potent heart-winner." She had stipulated that she should not be expected to see many people. The recluse life she had led, was the cause of a nervous shrinking from meeting any fresh face, which lasted all her life long. Still, she longed to have an idea of the personal appearance and manners of some of those whose writings or letters had interested her. Mr. Thackeray was accordingly invited to meet her, but it so happened that she had been out for the greater part of the morning, and, in consequence, missed the luncheon hour at her friend's house. This brought on a severe and depressing headache in one accustomed to the early, regular hours of a Yorkshire Parsonage; besides, the excitement of meeting, hearing, and sitting next a man to whom she looked up with such admiration as she did to the author of Vanity Fair, was of itself overpowering to her frail nerves. She writes about this dinner as follows: -
"Dec. 10th, 1849.
"As to being happy, I am under scenes and circumstances of excitement; but I suffer acute pain sometimes, - mental pain, I mean. At the moment Mr. Thackeray presented himself, I was thoroughly faint from inanition, having eaten nothing since a very slight breakfast, and it was then seven o'clock in the evening. Excitement and exhaustion made savage work of me that evening. What he thought of me I cannot tell."
She told me how difficult she found it, this first time of meeting Mr. Thackeray, to decide whether he was speaking in jest or in earnest, and that she had (she believed) completely misunderstood an inquiry of his, made on the gentlemen's coming into the drawing-room. He asked her "if she had perceived the secret of their cigars;" to which she replied literally, discovering in a minute afterwards, by the smile on several faces, that he was alluding to a passage in Jane Eyre. Her hosts took pleasure in showing her the sights of London. On one of the days which had been set apart for some of these pleasant excursions, a severe review of Shirley was published in the Times. She had heard that her book would be noticed by it, and guessed that there was some particular reason for the care with which her hosts mislaid it on that particular morning. She told them that she was aware why she might not see the paper. Mrs. Smith at once admitted that her conjecture was right, and said that they had wished her to go to the day's engagement before reading it. But she quietly persisted in her request to be allowed to have the paper. Mrs. Smith took her work, and tried not to observe the countenance, which the other tried to hide between the large sheets; but she could not help becoming aware of tears stealing down the face and dropping on the lap. The first remark Miss Brontë made was to express her fear lest so severe a notice should check the sale of the book, and injuriously affect her publishers. Wounded as she was, her first thought was for others. Later on (I think that very afternoon) Mr. Thackeray called; she suspected (she said) that he came to see how she bore the attack on Shirley; but she had recovered her composure, and conversed very quietly with him: he only learnt from the answer to his direct inquiry that she had read the Times' article. She acquiesced in the recognition of herself as the authoress of Jane Eyre, because she perceived that there were some advantages to be derived from dropping her pseudonym. One result was an acquaintance with Miss Martineau. She had sent her the novel just published, with a curious note, in which Currer Bell offered a copy of Shirley to Miss Martineau, as an acknowledgment of the gratification he had received from her works. From Deerbrook he had derived a new and keen pleasure, and experienced a genuine benefit. In his mind Deerbrook, etc.
Miss Martineau, in acknowledging this note and the copy of Shirley, dated her letter from a friend's house in the neighbourhood of Mr. Smith's residence; and when, a week or two afterwards, Miss Brontë found how near she was to her correspondent, she wrote, in the name of Currer Bell, to propose a visit to her. Six o'clock, on a certain Sunday afternoon (Dec. 10th), was the time appointed. Miss Martineau's friends had invited the unknown Currer Bell to their early tea; they were ignorant whether the name was that of a man or a woman; and had had various conjectures as to sex, age, and appearance. Miss Martineau had, indeed, expressed her private opinion pretty distinctly by beginning her reply, to the professedly masculine note referred to above, with "Dear Madam;" but she had addressed it to "Currer Bell, Esq." At every ring the eyes of the party turned towards the door. Some stranger (a gentleman, I think) came in; for an instant they fancied he was Currer Bell, and indeed an Esq.; he stayed some time - went away. Another ring; "Miss Brontë was announced; and in came a young-looking lady, almost child-like in stature, in a deep mourning dress, neat as a Quaker's, with her beautiful hair smooth and brown, her fine eyes blazing with meaning and her sensible face indicating a habit of self-control." She came, - hesitated one moment at finding four or five people assembled, - then went straight to Miss Martineau with intuitive recognition, and, with the free-masonry of good feeling and gentle breeding, she soon became as one of the family seated round the tea-table; and, before she left, she told them, in a simple, touching manner, of her sorrow and isolation, and a foundation was laid for her intimacy with Miss Martineau.
After some discussion on the subject, and a stipulation that she should not be specially introduced to any one, some gentlemen were invited by Mr. Smith to meet her at dinner the evening before she left town. Her natural place would have been at the bottom of the table by her host; and the places of those who were to be her neighbours were arranged accordingly; but, on entering the dining-room, she quickly passed up so as to sit next to the lady of the house, anxious to shelter herself near some one of her own sex. This slight action arose out of the same womanly seeking after protection on every occasion, when there was no moral duty involved in asserting her independence, that made her about this time write as follows: "Mrs. ---- watches me very narrowly when surrounded by strangers. She never takes her eye from me. I like the surveillance; it seems to keep guard over me."
Respecting this particular dinner-party she thus wrote to the Brussels schoolfellow of former days, whose friendship had been renewed during her present visit to London: -
"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 - 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 the 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 again obliged to stay there all night."
"Dec. 17th.
"Here I am at Haworth once more. I feel as if I had come out of an exciting whirl. Not that the hurry and stimulus would have seemed much to one accustomed to society and change, but to me they were very marked. My strength and spirits too often proved quite insufficient to the demand on their exertions. I used to bear up as long as I possibly could, for, when I flagged, I could see Mr. Smith became disturbed; he always thought that something had been said or done to annoy me - which never once happened, for I met with perfect good breeding even from antagonists - men who had done their best or worst to write me down. I explained to him over and over again, that my occasional silence was only failure of the power to talk, never of the will. . . .
"Thackeray is a Titan of mind. His presence and powers impress one deeply in an intellectual sense; I do not see him or know him as a man. All the others are subordinate. I have esteem for some, and, I trust, courtesy for all. I do not, of course, know what they thought of me, but I believe most of them expected me to come out in a more marked, eccentric, striking light. I believe they desired more to admire and more to blame. I felt sufficiently at my ease with all but Thackeray; with him I was fearfully stupid."
She returned to her quiet home, and her noiseless daily duties. Her father had quite enough of the spirit of hero-worship in him to make him take a vivid pleasure in the accounts of what she had heard and whom she had seen. It was on the occasion of one of her visits to London that he had desired her to obtain a sight of Prince Albert's armoury, if possible. I am not aware whether she managed to do this; but she went to one or two of the great national armouries in order that she might describe the stern steel harness and glittering swords to her father, whose imagination was forcibly struck by the idea of such things; and often afterwards, when his spirits flagged and the languor of old age for a time got the better of his indomitable nature, she would again strike on the measure wild, and speak about the armies of strange weapons she had seen in London, till he resumed his interest in the old subject, and was his own keen, warlike, intelligent self again.
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