Most of us know the basic facts of Charlotte Brontë’s life. Raised in an isolated Yorkshire parsonage; lost two sisters to illnesses contracted at boarding school; later worked as a governess. Shared an elaborate invented world with her talented siblings; wrote novels, with her sisters Emily and Anne, that were published under male pseudonyms. Brother Branwell drank himself to death; Emily and Anne died of consumption. Charlotte married late and died at the age of 39. A woman of limited means, shy, myopic, socially isolated and living in the straight-laced society of Victorian England, Charlotte penned the spirited, passionate Jane Eyre. Anyone who has ever written a Gothic romance, or enjoyed reading one, owes her a debt for creating that unforgettable prototype.
The facts of Charlotte’s life are sobering – she lost all three younger siblings within a year. But the facts don’t tell the full story. I’ve just finished reading a book called The Brontës: A Life in Letters by Juliet Barker. It contains selections from Charlotte’s letters – we can be glad that her friend, Ellen Nussey, chose to break a promise to Charlotte’s husband that she would burn the many missives Charlotte wrote to her – and correspondence to Charlotte from friends, family and business contacts.
The book was a revelation. I’ll never read Jane Eyre in quite the same way again after seeing Charlotte’s description of having to beg for time off for a brief visit home, or being forced spend hours sewing by poor light when employed as a governess. Plain, quiet Jane with her powerful sense of justice and her internal passions was clearly created in a mould very close to the author’s. As for the judgmental remarks by literary figures about Charlotte’s deficiencies as a conversationalist, I knew exactly how the poor woman must have felt, thrown into London society and trotted out as that interesting rarity, a lady novelist.
I was surprised to learn that Charlotte had several marriage proposals over the years; she was firm in her refusals. Her passion for Monsieur Heger, married head of the school in Brussels where she went to study, was not reciprocated. After Charlotte returned to England, Heger forbade her to write him more than two letters per year. She poured her feelings into her novel The Professor – which her publishers turned down – and its later incarnation, Villette.
The Victorian readership was shocked by the depictions of intense relationships and unconventional behavior in the Brontës’ novels. Charlotte kept her career as a published writer secret from almost all her acquaintance for years, continuing to use the pseudonym Currer Bell. Several staff at her publishers, Smith, Elder and Co, conducted ongoing correspondence with her. At times Charlotte’s letters to director George Smith verged on flirtatious. When Smith got engaged, she wrote him a curt, wounded note of congratulation. These men supported Charlotte during her writing career, shepherding her through the challenges of London visits and accommodating her in their family homes. Their evident respect and affection for her are a highlight of the correspondence.
Despite her retiring temperament, Charlotte could stand up for herself. She was annoyed and offended when introduced to a literary gathering by Thackeray as ‘Jane Eyre.’ Too polite to make any comment in company, afterwards she tore strips off the great man for his patronizing behavior.
Charlotte was no pushover as a businesswoman. The letters show her trying to get her sisters’ books re-released (she succeeded) and questioning the advance paid by their previous publisher. She did travel beyond the environs of Haworth, going to the Lake District and to Scotland as well as London. Like most of us, she had fallow periods in her writing and was shattered by negative reviews.
At the age of 38, after outliving all her siblings, Charlotte married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. I’d assumed they wed for convenience, but Charlotte’s letters show that she loved married life and basked in her husband’s attentions. That makes it especially poignant that she died before they’d been together a year.
This book reminded me that real life produces stories as sad and romantic as any novel. It also struck me that with the disappearance of the art of letter writing we are losing a particularly effective record of social history – a means of filling in the emotional truth behind the facts. Personal letters allow a finely nuanced expression of our life journeys; of its nature, such a letter is both a social interaction and a snapshot of time and culture. Could Charlotte express her heartbreak over M. Heger in an text message? Hardly. Might she write of her desolation at the deaths of her siblings in an email? I don’t think so. With the dawn of electronic communications, we may have lost a lot more than we realize. Who will be reading our blogs in 150 years’ time?
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