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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

Soon after she returned home, her friend paid her a visit. While she stayed at Haworth, Miss Brontë wrote the letter from which the following extract is taken. The strong sense and right feeling displayed in it on the subject of friendship, sufficiently account for the constancy of affection which Miss Brontë earned from all those who once became her friends.
"July 21th, 1851.
". . . I could not help wondering whether Cornhill will ever change for me, as Oxford has changed for you. I have some pleasant associations connected with it now - will these alter their character some day?
"Perhaps they may - though I have faith to the contrary, because, I think, I do not exaggerate my partialities; I think I take faults along with excellences - blemishes together with beauties. And, besides, in the matter of friendship, I have observed that disappointment here arises chiefly, not from liking our friends too well, or thinking of them too highly, but rather from an over-estimate of their liking for and opinion of us; and that if we guard ourselves with sufficient scrupulousness of care from error in this direction, and can be content, and even happy to give more affection than we receive - can make just comparison of circumstances, and be severely accurate in drawing inferences thence, and never let self-love blind our eyes - I think we may manage to get through life with consistency and constancy, unembittered by that misanthropy which springs from revulsions of feeling. All this sounds a little metaphysical, but it is good sense if you consider it. The moral of it is, that if we would build on a sure foundation in friendship, we must love our friends for their sakes rather than for our own; we must look at their truth to themselves, full as much as their truth to us. In the latter case, every wound to self-love would be a cause of coldness; in the former, only some painful change in the friend's character and disposition - some fearful breach in his allegiance to his better self - could alienate the heart.
"How interesting your old maiden-cousin's gossip about your parents must have been to you; and how gratifying to find that the reminiscence turned on none but pleasant facts and characteristics! Life must, indeed, be slow in that little decaying hamlet amongst the chalk hills. After all, depend upon it, it is better to be worn out with work in a thronged community, than to perish of inaction in a stagnant solitude take this truth into consideration whenever you get tired of work and bustle."
I received a letter from her a little later than this; and though there is reference throughout to what I must have said in writing to her, all that it called forth in reply is so peculiarly characteristic, that I cannot prevail upon myself to pass it over without a few extracts: -
"Haworth, Aug. 6th, 1851.
"My DEAR MRS. GASKELL, - I was too much pleased with your letter, when I got it at last) to feel disposed to murmur now about the delay.
"About a fortnight ago, I received a letter from Miss Martineau; also a long letter, and treating precisely the same subjects on which yours dwelt, viz., the Exhibition and Thackeray's last lecture. It was interesting mentally to place the two documents side by side - to study the two aspects of mind - to view, alternately, the same scene through two mediums. Full striking was the difference; and the more striking because it was not the rough contrast of good and evil, but the more subtle opposition, the more delicate diversity of different kinds of good. The excellences of one nature resembled (I thought) that of some sovereign medicine - harsh, perhaps, to the taste, but potent to invigorate; the good of the other seemed more akin to the nourishing efficacy of our daily bread. It is not bitter; it is not lusciously sweet: it pleases, without flattering the palate; it sustains, without forcing the strength.
"I very much agree with you in all you say. For the sake of variety, I could almost wish that the concord of opinion were less complete.
"To begin with Trafalgar Square. My taste goes with yours and Meta's completely on this point. I have always thought it a fine site (and sight also). The view from the summit of those steps has ever struck me as grand and imposing - Nelson Column included the fountains I could dispense with. With respect, also, to the Crystal Palace, my thoughts are precisely yours.
"Then I feel sure you speak justly of Thackeray's lecture. You do well to set aside odious comparisons, and to wax impatient of that trite twaddle about 'nothing newness' - a jargon which simply proves, in those who habitually use it, a coarse and feeble faculty of appreciation; an inability to discern the relative value of originality and novelty; a lack of that refined perception which, dispensing with the stimulus of an ever-new subject, can derive sufficiency of pleasure from freshness of treatment. To such critics, the prime of a summer morning would bring no delight; wholly occupied with railing at their cook for not having provided a novel and piquant breakfast-dish, they would remain insensible to such influences as lie in sunrise, dew, and breeze: therein would be 'nothing new.'
"Is it Mr. ----'s family experience which has influenced your feelings about the Catholics? I own, I cannot be sorry for this commencing change. Good people - very good people - I doubt not, there are amongst the Romanists, but the system is not one which would have such sympathy as yours. Look at Popery taking off the mask in Naples!
"I have read the Saints' Tragedy. As a 'work of art' it seems to me far superior to either Alton Locke or Yeast. Faulty it may be, crude and unequal, yet there are portions where some of the deep chords of human nature are swept with a hand which is strong even while it falters. We see throughout (I think) that Elizabeth has not, and never bad, a mind perfectly sane. From the time that she was what she herself, in the exaggeration of her humility, calls 'an idiot girl,' to the hour when she lay moaning in visions on her dying bed, a slight craze runs through her whole existence. This is good: this is true. A sound mind, a healthy intellect, would have dashed the priest-power to the wall; would have defended her natural affections from his grasp, as a lioness defends her young; would have been as true to husband and children, as your leal-hearted little Maggie was to her Frank. Only a mind weak with some fatal flaw could have been influenced as was this poor saint's. But what anguish - what struggles! Seldom do I cry over books; but here, my eyes rained as I read. When Elizabeth turns her face to the wall - I stopped - there needed no more.
"Deep truths are touched on in this tragedy - touched on, not fully elicited; truths that stir a peculiar pity - a compassion hot with wrath, and bitter with pain. This is no poet's dream: we know that such things have been done; that minds have been thus subjugated, and lives thus laid waste.
"Remember me kindly and respectfully to Mr. Gaskell, and though I have not seen Marianne, I must beg to include her in the love I send the others. Could you manage to convey a small kiss to that dear, but dangerous little person, Julia? She surreptitiously possessed herself of a minute fraction of my heart, which has been missing, ever since I saw her. - Believe me, sincerely and affectionately yours,
The reference which she makes at the end of this letter is to my youngest little girl, between whom and her a strong mutual attraction existed. The child would steal her little hand into Miss Brontë's scarcely larger one, and each took pleasure in this apparently unobserved caress. Yet once when I told Julia to take and show her the way to some room in the house, Miss Brontë shrunk back: "Do not bid her do anything for me," she said; "it has been so sweet hitherto to have her rendering her little kindnesses spontaneously."
As illustrating her feelings with regard to children, I may give what she says in another of her letters to me.
"Whenever I see Florence and Julia again, I shall feel like a fond but bashful suitor, who views at a distance the fair personage to whom, in his clownish awe, he dare not risk a near approach. Such is the clearest idea I can give you of my feeling towards children I like, but to whom I am a stranger; - and to what children am I not a stranger? They seem to me little wonders; their talk, their ways are all matter of half-admiring, half-puzzled speculation."
The following is part of a long letter which I received from her, dated September 20th, 1851: -
". . . Beautiful are those sentences out of James Martineau's sermons; some of them gems most pure and genuine; ideas deeply conceived, finely expressed. I should like much to see his review of his sister's book. Of all the articles respecting which you question me, I have seen none, except that notable one in the Westminster on the Emancipation of Women. But why are you and I to think (perhaps I should rather say to feel) so exactly alike on some points that there can be no discussion between us? Your words on this paper express my thoughts. Well-argued it is, - clear, logical, - but vast is the hiatus of omission; harsh the consequent jar on every finer chord of the soul. What is this hiatus? I think I know; and, knowing, I will venture to say. I think the writer forgets there is such a thing as self-sacrificing love and disinterested devotion. When I first read the paper, I thought it was the work of a powerful-minded, clear-headed woman, who had a hard, jealous heart, muscles of iron, and nerves of bend leather; of a woman who longed for power, and had never felt affection. To many women affection is sweet, and power conquered indifferent - though we all like influence won. I believe J. S. Mill would make a hard, dry, dismal world of it; and yet he speaks admirable sense through a great portion of his article - especially when he says, that if there be a natural unfitness in women for men's employment, there is no need to make laws on the subject; leave all careers open; let them try; those who ought to succeed will succeed, or, at least, will have a fair chance - the incapable will fall back into their right place. He likewise disposes of the 'maternity' question very neatly. In short, J. S. Mill's head is, I dare say, very good, but I feel disposed to scorn his heart. You are right when you say that there is a large margin in human nature over which the logicians have no dominion; glad am I that it is so.
"I send by this post Ruskin's Stones of Venice, and I hope you and Meta will find passages in it that will please you. Some parts would be dry and technical were it not for the character, the marked individuality which pervades every page. I wish Marianne had come to speak to me at the lecture; it would have given me such pleasure. What you say of that small sprite Julia, amuses me much. I believe you don't know that she has a great deal of her mama's nature (modified) in her; yet I think you will find she has as she grows up.
"Will it not be a great mistake, if Mr. Thackeray should deliver his lectures at Manchester under such circumstances and conditions as will exclude people like you and Mr. Gaskell from the number of his audience? I thought his London-plan too narrow. Charles Dickens would not thus limit his sphere of action.
"You charge me to write about myself. What can I say on that precious topic? My health is pretty good. My spirits are not always alike. Nothing happens to me. I hope and expect little in this world, and am thankful that I do not despond and suffer more. Thank you for inquiring after our old servant,' she is pretty well; the little shawl, etc., pleased her much. Papa likewise, I am glad to say, is pretty well; with his and my kindest regards to you and Mr. Gaskell - Believe me sincerely and affectionately yours,
Before the autumn was far advanced, the usual effects of her solitary life, and of the unhealthy situation of Haworth Parsonage, began to appear in the form of sick headaches, and miserable, starting, wakeful nights. She does not dwell on this in her letters; but there is an absence of all cheerfulness of tone, and an occasional sentence forced out of her, which imply far more than many words could say. There was illness all through the Parsonage household-taking its accustomed forms of lingering influenza and low fever; she herself was outwardly the strongest of the family, and all domestic exertion fell for a time upon her shoulders.
"Sept. 26th.
"As I laid down your letter, after reading with interest the graphic account it gives of a very striking scene, I could not help feeling with renewed force a truth, trite enough, yet ever impressive; viz., that it is good to be attracted out of ourselves - to be forced to take a near view of the sufferings, the privations, the efforts, the difficulties of others. If we ourselves live in fulness of content, it is well to be reminded that thousands of our fellow-creatures undergo a different lot; it is well to have sleepy sympathies excited, and lethargic selfishness shaken up. If, on the other hand, we be contending with the special grief, - the intimate trial, - the peculiar bitterness with which God has seen fit to mingle our own cup of existence, - it is very good to know that our overcast lot is not singular; it stills the repining word and thought, - it rouses the flagging strength, to have it vividly set before us that there are countless afflictions in the world, each perhaps rivalling - some surpassing - the private pain over which we are too prone exclusively to sorrow.
"All those crowded emigrants had their troubles, - their untoward causes of banishment; you, the looker-on, had 'your wishes and regrets,' - your anxieties, alloying your home happiness and domestic bliss; and the parallel might be pursued further, and still it would be true, - still the same; a thorn in the flesh for each; some burden, some conflict for all.
"How far this state of things is susceptible of amelioration from changes in public institutions, - alterations in national habits, - may and ought to be earnestly considered: but this is a problem not easily solved. The evils, as you point them out, are great, real, and most obvious; the remedy is obscure and vague; yet for such difficulties as spring from over-competition, emigration must be good; the new life in a new country must give a new lease of hope; the wider field, less thickly peopled, must open a new path for endeavour. But I always think great physical powers of exertion and endurance ought to accompany such a step. . . . I am truly glad to hear that an original writer has fallen in your way. Originality is the pearl of great price in literature, - the rarest, the most precious claim by which an author can be recommended. Are not your publishing prospects for the coming season tolerably rich and satisfactory? You inquire after 'Currer Bell.' It seems to me that the absence of his name from your list of announcements will leave no blank, and that he may at least spare himself the disquietude of thinking he is wanted when it is certainly not his lot to appear.
"Perhaps Currer Bell has his secret moan about these matters; but if so, he will keep it to himself. It is an affair about which no words need be wasted, for no words can make a change: it is between him and his position, his faculties and his fate."
My husband and I were anxious that she should pay us a visit before the winter had set completely in; and she thus wrote, declining our invitation: -
"Nov. 6th.
"If anybody would tempt me from home, you would; but, just now, from home I must not, will not go. I feel greatly better at present than I did three weeks ago. For a month or six weeks about the equinox (autumnal or vernal) is a period of the year which, I have noticed, strangely tries me. Sometimes the strain falls on the mental, sometimes on the physical part of me; I am ill with neuralgic headache, or I am ground to the dust with deep dejection of spirits (not, however, such dejection but I can keep it to myself). That weary time has, I think and trust, got over for this year. It was the anniversary of my poor brother's death, and of my sister's failing health: I need say no more.
"As to running away from home every time I have a battle of this sort to fight, it would not do besides, the 'weird' would follow. As to shaking it off, that cannot be. I have declined to go to Mrs. ----, to Miss Martineau, and now I decline to go to you. But listen do not think that I throw your kindness away; or that it fails of doing the good you desire. On the contrary, the feeling expressed in your letter, - proved by your invitation - goes right home where you would have it to go, and heals as you would have it to heal.
"Your description of Frederika Bremer tallies exactly with one I read somewhere, in I know not what book. I laughed out when I got to the mention of Frederika's special accomplishment, given by you with a distinct simplicity that, to my taste, is what the French would call 'impayable.' Where do you find the foreigner who is without some little drawback of this description? It is a pity."
A visit from Miss Wooler at this period did Miss Brontë much good for the time. She speaks of her guest's company as being very pleasant, "like good wine," both to her father and to herself. But Miss Wooler could not remain with her long; and then again the monotony of her life returned upon her in all its force; the only events of her days and weeks consisting in the small changes which occasional letters brought. It must be remembered that her health was often such as to prevent her stirring out of the house in inclement or wintry weather. She was liable to sore throat, and depressing pain at the chest, and difficulty of breathing, on the least exposure to cold.
A letter from her late visitor touched and gratified her much; it was simply expressive of gratitude for attention and kindness shown to her, but it wound up by saying that she had not for many years experienced so much enjoyment as during the ten days passed at Haworth. This little sentence called out a wholesome sensation of modest pleasure in Miss Brontë's mind; and she says, "it did me good."
I find, in a letter to a distant friend, written about this time, a retrospect of her visit to London. It is too ample to be considered as a mere repetition of what she had said before; and, besides, it shows that her first impressions of what she saw and heard were not crude and transitory, but stood the tests of time and afterthought.
"I spent a few weeks in town last summer, as you have heard; and was much interested by many things I heard and saw there. What now chiefly dwells in my memory are Mr. Thackeray's lectures, Mademoiselle Rachel's acting, D'Aubigne's, Melville's, and Maurice's preaching, and the Crystal Palace.
"Mr. Thackeray's lectures you will have seen mentioned and commented on in the papers; they were very interesting. I could not always coincide with the sentiments expressed, or the opinions broached; but I admired the gentlemanlike ease, the quiet humour, the taste, the talent, the simplicity, and the originality of the lecturer.
"Rachel's acting transfixed me with wonder, enchained me with interest, and thrilled me with horror. The tremendous force with which she expresses the very worst passions in their strongest essence forms an exhibition as exciting as the bull fights of Spain, and the gladiatorial combats of old Rome, and (it seemed to me) not one whit more moral than these poisoned stimulants to popular ferocity. It is scarcely human nature that she shows you; it is something wilder and worse; the feelings and fury of a fiend. The great gift of genius she undoubtedly has; but, I fear, she rather abuses it than turns it to good account.
"With all the three preachers I was greatly pleased. Melville seemed to me the most eloquent, Maurice the most in earnest; had I the choice, it is Maurice whose ministry I should frequent.
"On the Crystal Palace I need not comment. You must already have heard too much of it. It struck me at the first with only a vague sort of wonder and admiration; but having one day the privilege of going over it in company with an eminent countryman of yours, Sir David Brewster, and hearing, in his friendly Scotch accent, his lucid explanation of many things that had been to me before a sealed book, I began a little better to comprehend it, or at least a small part of it: whether its final results will equal expectation, I know not."
Her increasing indisposition subdued her at last, in spite of all her efforts of reason and will. She tried to forget oppressive recollections in writing. Her publishers were importunate for a new book from her pen. Villette was begun, but she lacked power to continue it.
"It is not at all likely" (she says) "that my book will be ready at the time you mention. If my health is spared, I shall get on with it as fast as is consistent with its being done, if not well, yet as well as I can do it. Not one whit faster. When the mood leaves me (it has left me now, without vouchsafing so much as a word or a message when it will return) I put by the MS. and wait till it comes back again. God knows, I sometimes have to wait long - very long it seems to me. Meantime, if I might make a request to you, it would be this. Please to say nothing about my book till it is written, and in your hands. You may not like it. I am not myself elated with it as far as it is gone, and authors, you need not be told, are always tenderly indulgent, even blindly partial to their own. Even if it should turn out reasonably well, still I regard it as ruin to the prosperity of an ephemeral book like a novel, to be much talked of beforehand, as if it were something great. People are apt to conceive, or at least to profess, exaggerated expectation, such as no performance can realise; then ensue disappointment and the due revenge, detraction, and failure. If when I write, I were to think of the critics who, I know, are waiting for Currer Bell, ready 'to break all his bones or ever he comes to the bottom of the den,' my hand would fall paralysed on my desk. However, I can but do my best, and then muffle my head in the mantle of Patience, and sit down at her feet and wait."
The "mood" here spoken of did not go off; it had a physical origin. Indigestion, nausea, headache, sleeplessness, - all combined to produce miserable depression of spirits. A little event which occurred about this time, did not tend to cheer her. It was the death of poor old faithful Keeper, Emily's dog. He had come to the Parsonage in the fierce strength of his youth. Sullen and ferocious he had met with his master in the indomitable Emily. Like most dogs of his kind, he feared, respected, and deeply loved her who subdued him. He had mourned her with the pathetic fidelity of his nature, falling into old age after her death. And now, her surviving sister wrote: "Poor old Keeper died last Monday morning, after being ill one night; he went gently to sleep; we laid his old faithful head in the garden. Flossy (the 'fat curly-haired dog') is dull, and misses him. There was something very sad in losing the old dog; yet I am glad he met a natural fate. People kept hinting he ought to be put away, which neither papa nor I liked to think of."
When Miss Brontë wrote this, on December 8th, she was suffering from a bad cold, and pain in her side. Her illness increased, and on December 17th, she - so patient, silent, and enduring of suffering - so afraid of any unselfish taxing of others - had to call to her friend for help:
"I cannot at present go to see you, but I would be grateful if you could come and see me, even were it only for a few days. To speak truth, I have put on but a poor time of it during this month past. I kept hoping to be better, but was at last obliged to have recourse to a medical man. Sometimes I have felt very weak and low, and longed much for society, but could not persuade myself to commit the selfish act of asking you merely for my own relief. The doctor speaks encouragingly, but as yet I get no better. As the illness has been coming on for a long time, it cannot, I suppose, be expected to disappear all at once. I am not confined to bed, but I am weak, - have had no appetite for about three weeks - and my nights are very bad. I am well aware myself that extreme and continuous depression of spirits has had much to do with the origin of the illness; and I know a little cheerful society would do me more good than gallons of medicine. If you can come, come on Friday. Write to-morrow and say whether this be possible, and what time you will be at Keighley, that I may send the gig. I do not ask you to stay long; a few days is all I request."
Of course, her friend went; and a certain amount of benefit was derived from her society, always so grateful to Miss Brontë. But the evil was now too deep-rooted to be more than palliated for a time by "the little cheerful society" for which she so touchingly besought.
A relapse came on before long. She was very ill, and the remedies employed took an unusual effect on her peculiar sensitiveness of constitution. Mr. Brontë was miserably anxious about the state of his only remaining child, for she was reduced to the last degree of weakness, as she had been unable to swallow food for above a week before. She rallied, and derived her sole sustenance from half-a-tea-cup of liquid, administered by tea-spoonfuls, in the course of the day. Yet she kept out of bed, for her father's sake, and struggled in solitary patience through her worst hours.
When she was recovering, her spirits needed support, and then she yielded to her friend's entreaty that she would visit her. All the time that Miss Brontë's illness had lasted, Miss ---- had been desirous of coming to her; but she refused to avail herself of this kindness, saying, that "it was enough to burden herself; that it would be misery to annoy another;" and, even at her worst time, she tells her friend, with humorous glee, how coolly she had managed to capture one of Miss ----'s letters to Mr. Brontë, which she suspected was of a kind to aggravate his alarm about his daughter's state, "and at once conjecturing its tenor, made its contents her own."
Happily for all parties, Mr. Brontë was wonderfully well this winter; good sleep, good spirits, and an excellent steady appetite, all seemed to mark vigour; and in such a state of health, Charlotte could leave him to spend a week with her friend, without any great anxiety.
She benefited greatly by the kind attentions and cheerful society of the family with whom she went to stay. They did not care for her in the least as "Currer Bell," but had known and loved her for years as Charlotte Brontë. To them her invalid weakness was only a fresh claim upon their tender regard, from the solitary woman, whom they had first known as a little, motherless school-girl.
Miss Brontë wrote to me about this time, and told me something of what she had suffered.
"Feb. 6th, 1852.
"Certainly, the past winter has been to me a strange time; had I the prospect before me of living it over again, my prayer must necessarily be, 'Let this cup pass from me.' That depression of spirits, which I thought was gone by when I wrote last, came back again with a heavy recoil; internal congestion ensued, and then inflammation. I had severe pain in my right side, frequent burning and aching in my chest; sleep almost forsook me, or would never come, except accompanied by ghastly dreams; appetite vanished, and slow fever was my continual companion. It was some time before I could bring myself to have recourse to medical advice. I thought my lungs were affected, and could feel no confidence in the power of medicine. When, at last, however, a doctor was consulted, he declared my lungs and chest sound, and ascribed all my sufferings to derangement of the liver, on which organ it seems the inflammation had fallen. This information was a great relief to my dear father, as well as to myself; but I had subsequently rather sharp medical discipline to undergo, and was much reduced. Though not yet well, it is with deep thankfulness that I can say, I am greatly better. My sleep, appetite, and strength seem all returning."
It was a great interest to her to be allowed an ear]y reading of Esmond; and she expressed her thoughts on the subject, in a criticising letter to Mr. Smith, who had given her this privilege.
"Feb. 14th, 1852.
"MY DEAR SIR, - It has been a great delight to me to read Mr. Thackeray's work; and I so seldom now express my sense of kindness that, for once, you must permit me, without rebuke, to thank you for a pleasure so rare and special. Yet I am not going to praise either Mr. Thackeray or his book. I have read, enjoyed, been interested, and, after all, feel full as much ire and sorrow as gratitude and admiration. And still one can never lay down a book of his without the last two feelings having their part, be the subject or treatment what it may. In the first half of the book, what chiefly struck me was the wonderful manner in which the writer throws himself into the spirit and letters of the times whereof he treats; the allusions, the illustrations, the style, all seem to me so masterly in their exact keeping, their harmonious consistency, their nice, natural truth, their pure exemption from exaggeration. No second-rate imitator can write in that way; no coarse scene-painter can charm us with an allusion so delicate and perfect. But what bitter satire, what relentless dissection of diseased subjects! Well, and this, too, is right, or would be right, if the savage surgeon did not seem so fiercely pleased with his work. Thackeray likes to dissect an ulcer or an aneurism; he has pleasure in putting his cruel knife or probe into quivering, living flesh. Thackeray would not like all the world to be good; no great satirist would like society to be perfect.
"As usual, he is unjust to women; quite unjust. There is hardly any punishment he does not deserve for making Lady Castlewood peep through a keyhole, listen at a door, and be jealous of a boy and a milkmaid. Many other things I noticed that, for my part, grieved and exasperated me as I read; but then, again, came passages so true, so deeply thought, so tenderly felt, one could not help forgiving and admiring
. . . . . . . . . . . .
But I wish he could be told not to care much for dwelling on the political or religious intrigues of the times. Thackeray, in his heart, does not value political or religious intrigues of any age or date. He likes to show us human nature at home, as he himself daily sees it; his wonderful observant faculty likes to be in action. In him this faculty is a sort of captain and leader; and if ever any passage in his writings lacks interest, it is when this master-faculty is for a time thrust into a subordinate position. I think such is the case in the former half of the present volume. Towards the middle, he throws off restraint, becomes himself, and is strong to the close. Everything now depends on the second and third volumes. If, in pith and interest, they fall short of the first, a true success cannot ensue. If the continuation be an improvement upon the commencement, if the stream gather force as it rolls, Thackeray will triumph. Some people have been in the habit of terming him the second writer of the day; it just depends on himself whether or not these critics shall be justified in their award. He need not be the second. God made him second to no man. If I were he, I would show myself as I am, not as critics report me; at any rate, I would do my best. Mr. Thackeray is easy and indolent, and seldom cares to do his best. Thank you once more; and believe me yours sincerely,
Miss Brontë's health continued such, that she could not apply herself to writing as she wished, for many weeks after the serious attack from which she had suffered. There was not very much to cheer her in the few events that touched her interests during this time. She heard in March of the death of a friend's relation in the Colonies; and we see something of what was the corroding dread at her heart.
"The news of E----'s death came to me last week in a letter from M----; a long letter, which wrung my heart so, in its simple, strong, truthful emotion, I have only ventured to read it once. It ripped up half-scarred wounds with terrible force. The death-bed was just the same, - breath failing, etc. She fears she shall now, in her dreary solitude, become a 'stern, harsh, selfish woman.' This fear struck home; again and again have I felt it for myself, and what is my position to M----'s? May God help her, as God only can help!"
Again and again, her friend urged her to leave home; nor were various invitations wanting to enable her to do this, 'when these constitutional accesses of low spirits preyed too much upon her in her solitude. But she would not allow herself any such indulgence, unless it became absolutely necessary from the state of her health. She dreaded the perpetual recourse to such stimulants as change of scene and society, because of the reaction that was sure to follow. As far as she could see, her life was ordained to be lonely, and she must subdue her nature to her life, and, if possible, bring the two into harmony. When she could employ herself in fiction, all was comparatively well. The characters were her companions in the quiet hours, which she spent utterly alone, unable often to stir out of doors for many days together. The interests of the persons in her novels supplied the lack of interest in her own life; and Memory and Imagination found their appropriate work, and ceased to prey upon her vitals. But too frequently she could not write, could not see her people, nor hear them speak; a great mist of head-ache had blotted them out; they were non-existent to her.
This was the case all through the present spring; and anxious as her publishers were for its completion, Villette stood still. Even her letters to her friend are scarce and brief. Here and there I find a sentence in them which can be extracted, and which is worth preserving.
"M----'s letter is very interesting; it shows a mind one cannot but truly admire. Compare its serene trusting strength, with poor ----'s vacillating dependence. When the latter was in her first burst of happiness, I never remember the feeling finding vent in expressions of gratitude to God. There was always a continued claim upon your sympathy in the mistrust and doubt she felt of her own bliss. M---- believes; her faith is grateful and at peace; yet while happy in herself, how thoughtful she is for others!"
"March 23rd, 1852.
"You say, dear E----, that you often wish I would chat on paper, as you do. How can I? Where are my materials? Is my life fertile in subjects of chat? What callers do I see? What visits do I pay? No, you must chat, and I must listen, and say ' Yes,' and ' No,' and 'Thank you!' for five minutes' recreation.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
"I am amused at the interest you take in politics. Don't expect to rouse me; to me, all ministries and all oppositions seem to be pretty much alike. D'Israeli was factious as leader of the Opposition; Lord John Russell is going to be factious, now that he has stepped into D'Israeli's shoes. Lord Derby's 'Christian love and spirit,' is worth three half-pence farthing."
"March 25th, 1852.
"MY DEAR SIR, - Mr. Smith intimated a short time since, that he had some thoughts of publishing a reprint of Shirley. Having revised the work, I now enclose the errata. I have likewise sent off to-day, per rail, a return-box of Cornhill books.
"I have lately read with great pleasure, The Two Families. This work, it seems, should have reached me in January; but owing to a mistake, it was detained at the Dead Letter Office, and lay there nearly two months. I liked the commencement very much; the close seemed to me scarcely equal to Rose Douglas. I thought the authoress committed a mistake in shifting the main interest from the two personages on whom it first rests - viz., Ben Wilson and Mary - to other characters of quite inferior conception. Had she made Ben and Mary her hero and heroine, and continued the development of their fortunes and characters in the same truthful natural vein in which she commences it, an excellent, even an original, book might have been the result. As for Lilias and Ronald, they are mere romantic figments, with nothing of the genuine Scottish peasant about them; they do not even speak the Caledonian dialect; they palaver like a fine lady and gentleman.
"I ought long since to have acknowledged the gratification with which I read Miss Kavanagh's Women of Christianity. Her charity and (on the whole) her impartiality are very beautiful. She touches, indeed, with too gentle a hand the theme of Elizabeth of Hungary; and, in her own mind, she evidently misconstrues the fact of Protestant charities seeming to be fewer than Catholic. She forgets, or does not know, that Protestantism is a quieter creed than Romanism; as it does not clothe its priesthood in scarlet, so neither does it set up its good women for saints, canonise their names, and proclaim their good works. In the records of man, their almsgiving will not perhaps be found registered, but Heaven has its account as well as earth.
"With kind regards to yourself and family, who, I trust, have all safely weathered the rough winter lately past, as well as the east winds, which are still nipping our spring in Yorkshire, - I am, my dear Sir, yours sincerely,
"April 3rd, 1852.
"MY DEAR SIR, - The box arrived quite safely, and I very much thank you for the contents, which are most kindly selected.
"As you wished me to say what I thought of The School for Fathers, I hastened to read it. The book seems to me clever, interesting, very amusing, and likely to please generally. There is a merit in the choice of ground, which is not yet too hackneyed; the comparative freshness of subject, character, and epoch give the tale a certain attractiveness. There is also, I think, a graphic rendering of situations, and a lively talent for describing whatever is visible and tangible - what the eye meets on the surface of things. The humour appears to me such as would answer well on the stage; most of the scenes seem to demand dramatic accessories to give them their full effect. But I think one cannot with justice bestow higher praise than this. To speak candidly, I felt, in reading the tale, a wondrous hollowness in the moral and sentiment; a strange dilettante shallowness in the purpose and feeling. After all, 'Jack' is not much better than a 'Tony Lumpkin,' and there is no very great breadth of choice between the clown he is and the fop his father would have made him. The grossly material life of the old English fox-hunter, and the frivolous existence of the fine gentleman present extremes, each in its way so repugnant, that one feels half inclined to smile when called upon to sentimentalise over the lot of a youth forced to pass from one to the other; torn from the stables, to be ushered perhaps into the ball-room. Jack dies mournfully indeed, and you are sorry for the poor fellow's untimely end; but you cannot forget that, if he had not been thrust into the way of Colonel Penruddock's weapon, he might possibly have broken his neck in a fox-hunt. The character of Sir Thomas Warren is excellent; consistent throughout. That of Mr. Addison not bad, but sketchy, a mere outline - wanting colour and finish. The man's portrait is there, and his costume, and fragmentary anecdotes of his life; but where is the man's nature - soul and self? I say nothing about the female characters - not one word; only that Lydia seems to me like a pretty little actress, prettily dressed gracefully appearing and disappearing, and reappearing in a genteel comedy, assuming the proper sentiments of her part with all due tact and naivete, and - that is all.
"Your description of the model man of business is true enough, I doubt not; but we will not fear that society will ever be brought quite to this standard; human nature (bad as it is) has, after all, elements that forbid it. But the very tendency to such a consummation - the marked tendency, I fear, of the day - produces, no doubt, cruel suffering. Yet, when the evil of competition passes a certain limit, must it not in time work its own cure? I suppose it will, but then through some convulsed crisis, shattering all around it like an earthquake. Meantime, for how many is life made a struggle; enjoyment and rest curtailed; labour terribly enhanced beyond almost what nature can bear! I often think that this world would be the most terrible of enigmas, were it not for the firm belief that there is a world to come, where conscientious effort and patient pain will meet their reward. - Believe me, my dear Sir, sincerely yours,
A letter to her old Brussels schoolfellow gives a short retrospect of the dreary winter she had passed through.
"Haworth, April 12th, 1852.
". . . I struggled through the winter, and the early part of the spring, often with great difficulty. My friend stayed with me a few days in the early part of January; she could not be spared longer. I was better during her visit, but had a relapse soon after she left me, which reduced my strength very much. It cannot be denied that the solitude of my position fearfully aggravated its other evils. Some long stormy days and nights there were, when I felt such a craving for support and companionship as I cannot express. Sleepless, I lay awake night after night, weak and unable to occupy myself. I sat in my chair day after day, the saddest memories my only company. It was a time I shall never forget; but God sent it, and it must have been for the best.
"I am better now; and very grateful do I feel for the restoration of tolerable health; but, as if there was always to be some affliction, papa, who enjoyed wonderful health during the whole winter, is ailing with his spring attack of bronchitis. I earnestly trust it may pass over in the comparatively ameliorated form in which it has hitherto shown itself.
"Let me not forget to answer your question about the cataract. Tell your papa that my father was seventy at the time he underwent an operation; he was most reluctant to try the experiment; could not believe that, at his age, and with his want of robust strength, it would succeed. I was obliged to be very decided in the matter, and to act entirely on my own responsibility. Nearly six years have now elapsed since the cataract was extracted (it was not merely depressed); he has never once during that time regretted the step, and a day seldom passes that he does not express gratitude and pleasure at the restoration of that inestimable privilege of vision whose loss he once knew."
I had given Miss Brontë in one of my letters, an outline of the story on which I was then engaged, and in reply she says: -
"The sketch you give of your work (respecting which I am, of course, dumb) seems to me very noble; and its purpose may be as useful in practical result as it is high and just in theoretical tendency. Such a book may restore hope and energy to many who thought they had forfeited their right to both; and open a clear course for honourable effort to some who deemed that they and all honour had parted company in this world.
"Yet - hear my protest!
"Why should she die? Why are we to shut up the book weeping?
"My heart fails me already at the thought of the pang it will have to undergo. And yet you must follow the impulse of your own inspiration. If that commands the slaying of the victim, no bystander has a right to put out his hand to stay the sacrificial knife: but I hold you a stern priestess in these matters."
As the milder weather came on, her health improved, and her power of writing increased. She set herself with redoubled vigour to the work before her; and denied herself pleasure for the purpose of steady labour. Hence she writes to her friend: -
"May 11th.
"DEAR E----, ----I must adhere to my resolution of neither visiting nor being visited at present. Stay you quietly at B., till you go to S., as I shall stay at Haworth; as sincere a farewell can be taken with the heart as with the lips, and perhaps less painful. I am glad the weather is changed; the return of the south-west wind suits me; but I hope you have no cause to regret the departure of your favourite east wind. What you say about ---- does not surprise me; I have had many little notes (whereof I answer about one in three) breathing the same spirit, - self and child the sole all-absorbing topics, on which the changes are rung even to weariness. But I suppose one must not heed it, or think the case singular. Nor, I am afraid, must one expect her to improve. I read in a French book lately, a sentence to this effect, that 'marriage might be defined as the state of two-fold selfishness.' Let the single therefore take comfort. Thank you for Mary's letter. She does seem most happy; and I cannot tell you how much more real, lasting, and better-warranted her happiness seems than ever ----'s did. I think so much of it is in herself, and her own serene, pure, trusting, religious nature. ----'s always gives me the idea of a vacillating, unsteady rapture, entirely dependent on circumstances with all their fluctuations. If Mary lives to be a mother, you will then see a greater difference.
" I wish you, dear E., all health and enjoyment in your visit; and, as far as one can judge at present, there seems a fair prospect of the wish being realised. - Yours sincerely,
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