Part 1 out of 5
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_By the same Author:_
THE DIVINE FIRE
TWO SIDES OF A QUESTION
MR. AND MRS. NEVILL TYSON
ANN SEVERN AND THE FIELDINGS
ARNOLD WATERLOW: A LIFE
THE RECTOR OF WYCK
A CURE OF SOULS
HISTORY OF ANTHONY WARING
TALES TOLD BY SIMPSON
THE THREE BRONTES
My thanks are due, first and chiefly, to Mr. Clement K. Shorter who
placed all his copyright material at my disposal; and to Mr. G.M.
Williamson and Mr. Robert H. Dodd, of New York, for allowing me to draw
so largely from the Poems of Emily Bronte, published by Messrs. Dodd,
Mead, and Co. in 1902; also to Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton, the
publishers of the Complete Poems of Emily Bronte, edited by Mr. Shorter;
and to Mr. Alfred Sutro for permission to use his translation of _Wisdom
and Destiny_. Lastly, and somewhat late, to Mr. Arthur Symons for his
translation from St. John of the Cross. If I have borrowed from him more
than I had any right to without his leave, I hope he will forgive me.
THE THREE BRONTES
When six months ago Mr. Thomas Seccombe suggested that I should write a
short essay on "The Three Brontes" I agreed with some misgiving.
Yet that deed was innocent compared with what I have done now; and, in
any case, the series afforded the offender a certain shelter and
protection. But to come out like this, into the open, with _another_
Bronte book, seems not only a dangerous, but a futile and a fatuous
adventure. All I can say is that I did not mean to do it. I certainly
never meant to write so long a book.
It grew, insidiously, out of the little one. Things happened. New
criticisms opened up old questions. When I came to look carefully into
Mr. Clement Shorter's collection of the _Complete Poems of Emily
Bronte_, I found a mass of material (its existence I, at any rate, had
not suspected) that could not be dealt with in the limits of the
The book is, and can only be, the slightest of all slight appreciations.
None the less it has been hard and terrible for me to write it. Not only
had I said nearly all that I had to say already, but I was depressed at
the very start by that conviction of the absurdity of trying to say
anything at all, after all that has been said, about Anne, or Emily, or
Anne's case, perhaps, was not so difficult. For obvious reasons, Anne
Bronte will always be comparatively virgin soil. But it was impossible
to write of Charlotte after Mrs. Gaskell; impossible to say more of
Emily than Madame Duclaux has said; impossible to add one single little
fact to the vast material, so patiently amassed, so admirably arranged
by Mr. Clement Shorter. And when it came to appreciation there were Mr.
Theodore Watts-Dunton, Sir William Robertson Nicoll, Mr. Birrell, and
Mrs. Humphry Ward, lying along the ground. When it came to eulogy, after
Mr. Swinburne's _Note on Charlotte Bronte_, neither Charlotte nor Emily
have any need of praise.
And on Emily Bronte, M. Maeterlinck has spoken the one essential, the
one perfect and final and sufficient word. I have "lifted" it
unblushingly; for no other word comes near to rendering the unique, the
haunting, the indestructible impression that she makes.
So, because all the best things about the Brontes have been said
already, I have had to fall back on the humble day-labour of clearing
away some of the rubbish that has gathered round them.
Round Charlotte it has gathered to such an extent that it is difficult
to see her plainly through the mass of it. Much has been cleared away;
much remains. Mrs. Oliphant's dreadful theories are still on record. The
excellence of Madame Duclaux's monograph perpetuates her one serious
error. Mr. Swinburne's _Note_ immortalizes his. M. Heger was dug up
again the other day.
It may be said that I have been calling up ghosts for the mere fun of
laying them; and there might be something in it, but that really these
ghosts still walk. At any rate many people believe in them, even at this
time of day. M. Dimnet believes firmly that poor Mrs. Robinson was in
love with Branwell Bronte. Some of us still think that Charlotte was in
love with M. Heger. They cannot give him up any more than M. Dimnet can
give up Mrs. Robinson.
Such things would be utterly unimportant but that they tend to obscure
the essential quality and greatness of Charlotte Bronte's genius.
Because of them she has passed for a woman of one experience and of one
book. There is still room for a clean sweep of the rubbish that has been
In all this, controversy was unavoidable, much as I dislike its
ungracious and ungraceful air. If I have been inclined to undervalue
certain things--"the sojourn in Brussels", for instance--which others
have considered of the first importance, it is because I believe that it
is always the inner life that counts, and that with the Brontes it
If I have passed over the London period too lightly, it is because I
judge it extraneous and external. If I have tried, cruelly, to take from
Charlotte the little beige gown that she wore at Mr. Thackeray's
dinner-party, it is because her home-made garments seem to suit her
better. She is more herself in skirts that have brushed the moors and
kept some of the soil of Haworth in their hem.
I may seem to have exaggerated her homesickness for Haworth. It may be
said that Haworth was by no means Charlotte's home as it was Emily's. I
am aware that there were moments--hours--when she longed to get away
from it. I have not forgotten how Mary Taylor found her in such an hour,
not long after her return from Brussels, when her very flesh shrank from
the thought of her youth gone and "nothing done"; nothing before her but
long, empty years in Haworth. The fact remains that she was never happy
away from it, and that in Haworth her genius most certainly found itself
at home. And this particular tone of misery and unrest disappeared from
the moment when her genius declared itself, so that I am inclined to see
in it a little personal dissatisfaction, if you will, but chiefly the
unspeakable restlessness and misery of power unrecognized and
suppressed. "Nothing done!" That was her reiterated cry.
Again, if I have overlooked the complexities of Charlotte's character,
it is that the great lines that underlie it may be seen. In my heart I
agree with M. Dimnet that the Brontes were not simple. All the same, I
think that his admirable portrait of Charlotte is spoiled by his
attitude of pity for "_la pauvre fille_", as he persists in calling her.
I think he dwells a shade too much on her small asperities and
acidities, and on that "_ton de critique mesquine_", which he puts down
to her provincialism. No doubt there were moments of suffering and of
irritation, as well as moments of uncontrollable merriment, when
Charlotte lacked urbanity, but M. Dimnet has almost too keen an eye for
In making war on theories I cannot hope to escape a countercharge of
theorizing. Exception may be taken to my own suggestion as to the effect
of _Wuthering Heights_ on Charlotte Bronte's genius. If anybody likes to
fling it on the rubbish heap they may. I may have theorized a little too
much in laying stress on the supernatural element in _Wuthering
Heights_. It is because M. Dimnet has insisted too much on its
brutality. I may have exaggerated Emily Bronte's "mysticism". It is
because her "paganism" has been too much in evidence. It may be said
that I have no more authority for my belief that Emily Bronte was in
love with the Absolute than other people have for theirs, that
Charlotte was in love with M. Heger.
Finally, much that I have said about Emily Bronte's hitherto unpublished
poems is pure theory. But it is theory, I think, that careful
examination of the poems will make good. I may have here and there given
as a "Gondal" poem what is not a "Gondal" poem at all. Still, I believe,
it will be admitted that it is in the cycle of these poems, and not
elsewhere, that we should look for the first germs of _Wuthering
Heights_. The evidence only demonstrates in detail--what has never been
seriously contested--that the genius of Emily Bronte found its sources
_10th October, 1911._
The Three Brontes
It is impossible to write of the three Brontes and forget the place they
lived in, the black-grey, naked village, bristling like a rampart on the
clean edge of the moor; the street, dark and steep as a gully, climbing
the hill to the Parsonage at the top; the small oblong house, naked and
grey, hemmed in on two sides by the graveyard, its five windows flush
with the wall, staring at the graveyard where the tombstones, grey and
naked, are set so close that the grass hardly grows between. The church
itself is a burying ground; its walls are tombstones, and its floor
roofs the forgotten and the unforgotten dead.
A low wall and a few feet of barren garden divide the Parsonage from the
graveyard, a few feet between the door of the house and the door in the
wall where its dead were carried through. But a path leads beyond the
graveyard to "a little and a lone green lane", Emily Bronte's lane that
leads to the open moors.
It is the genius of the Brontes that made their place immortal; but it
is the soul of the place that made their genius what it is. You cannot
exaggerate its importance. They drank and were saturated with Haworth.
When they left it they hungered and thirsted for it; they sickened till
the hour of their return. They gave themselves to it with passion, and
their works ring with the shock and interchange of two immortalities.
Haworth is saturated with them. Their souls are henceforth no more to be
disentangled from its soul than their bodies from its earth. All their
poetry, their passion and their joy is there, in this place of their
tragedy, visible, palpable, narrow as the grave and boundless.
In the year eighteen-twenty the Reverend Patrick Bronte and his wife
Maria brought their six children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick
Branwell, Emily, and Anne, from Thornton, where they were born, to
Haworth. Mr. Bronte was an Irishman, a village schoolmaster who won,
marvellously, a scholarship that admitted him to Cambridge and the
Church of England. Tales have been told of his fathers and his
forefathers, peasants and peasant farmers of Ballynaskeagh in County
Down. They seem to have been notorious for their energy, eccentricity,
imagination, and a certain tendency to turbulence and excess. Tales have
been told of Mr. Bronte himself, of his temper, his egotism, his
selfishness, his fits of morose or savage temper. The Brontes'
biographers, from Mrs. Gaskell and Madame Duclaux[A] to Mr. Birrell,
have all been hard on this poor and unhappy and innocent old man. It is
not easy to see him very clearly through the multitude of tales they
tell: how he cut up his wife's silk gown in a fit of passion; how he
fired off pistols in a series of fits of passion; how, in still gloomier
and more malignant fits, he used to go for long solitary walks. And when
you look into the matter you find that the silk gown was, after all, a
cotton one, and that he only cut the sleeves out, and _then_ walked into
Keighley and brought a silk gown back with him instead; that when he
was a young man at Drumballyroney he practised pistol firing, not as a
safety valve for temper but as a manly sport, and that as a manly sport
he kept it up. As for solitary walks, there is really no reason why a
father should not take them; and if Mr. Bronte had insisted on
accompanying Charlotte and Emily in their walks, his conduct would have
been censured just the same, and, I think, with considerably more
reason. As it happened, Mr. Bronte, rather more than most fathers, made
companions of his children when they were little. This is not quite the
same thing as making himself a companion for them, and the result was a
terrific outburst of infant precocity; but this hardly justifies Mrs.
Gaskell and Madame Duclaux. They seem to have thought that they were
somehow appeasing the outraged spirits of Emily and Charlotte by
blackening their father and their brother; whereas, if anything could
give pain to Charlotte and Emily and innocent Anne in heaven, it would
be the knowledge of what Mrs. Gaskell and Madame Duclaux have done for
[Footnote A: A. Mary F. Robinson.]
There was injustice in all that zeal as well as indiscretion, for Mr.
Bronte had his good points as fathers go. Think what the fathers of the
Victorian era could be, and what its evangelical parsons often were; and
remember that Mr. Bronte was an evangelical parson, and the father of
Emily and Charlotte, not of a brood of gentle, immaculate Jane Austens,
and that he was confronted suddenly and without a moment's warning with
Charlotte's fame. Why, the average evangelical parson would have been
shocked into apoplexy at the idea of any child of his producing
_Wuthering Heights_ or _Jane Eyre_. Charlotte's fame would have looked
to him exceedingly like infamy. We know what Charles Kingsley, the least
evangelical of parsons, once thought of Charlotte. And we know what Mr.
Bronte thought of her. He was profoundly proud of his daughter's genius;
there is no record and no rumour of any criticism on his part, of any
remonstrance or amazement. He was loyal to Charlotte to the last days of
his life, when he gave her defence into Mrs. Gaskell's hands; for which
confidence Mrs. Gaskell repaid him shockingly.
But he was the kind of figure that is irresistible to the caustic or
humorous biographer. There was something impotently fiery in him, as if
the genius of Charlotte and Emily had flicked him in irony as it passed
him by. He wound himself in yards and yards and yards of white cravat,
and he wrote a revolutionary poem called "Vision of Hell". It is easy to
make fun of his poems, but they were no worse, or very little worse,
than his son Branwell's, so that he may be pardoned if he thought
himself more important than his children. Many fathers of the Victorian
And he _was_ important as a temporary vehicle of the wandering creative
impulse. It struggled and strove in him and passed from him, choked in
yards and yards of white cravat, to struggle and strive again in
Branwell and in Anne. As a rule the genius of the race is hostile to the
creative impulse, and the creative impulse is lucky if it can pierce
through to one member of a family. In the Brontes it emerges at five
different levels, rising from abortive struggle to supreme
achievement--from Mr. Bronte to his son Branwell, from Branwell to Anne,
from Anne to Charlotte, and from Charlotte to Emily. And Maria, who
died, was an infant prodigy.
And Mr. Bronte is important because he was the tool used by their
destiny to keep Charlotte and Emily in Haworth.
The tragedy we are too apt to call their destiny began with their
babyhood, when the mother and six children were brought to Haworth
Parsonage and the prospect of the tombstones. They had not been there
eighteen months before the mother sickened and died horribly of cancer.
She had to be isolated as far as possible. The Parsonage house was not
large, and it was built with an extreme and straight simplicity; two
front rooms, not large, right and left of the narrow stone-flagged
passage, a bedroom above each, and between, squeezed into the small
spare space above the passage, a third room, no bigger than a closet and
without a fireplace. This third room is important in the story of the
Brontes, for, when their mother's illness declared itself, it was in
this incredibly small and insufferably unwholesome den that the five
little girls were packed, heaven knows how, and it was here that the
seeds of tuberculosis were sown in their fragile bodies. After their
mother's death the little fatal room was known as the children's study
(you can see, in a dreadful vision, the six pale little faces, pressed
together, looking out of the window on to the graves below). It was used
again as a night-nursery, and later still as the sleeping-place shared
by two, if not three, of the sisters, two of whom were tuberculous.
The mother died and was buried in a vault under the floor of the church,
not far from the windows of her house. Her sister, Miss Branwell, came
up from Penzance to look after the children. You can see this small,
middle-aged, early Victorian spinster, exiled for ever from the sunshine
of the town she loved, dragging out her sad, fastidious life in a cold
and comparatively savage country that she unspeakably disliked. She took
possession of the room her sister died in (it was the most cheerful room
in the house), and lived in it. Her nieces had to sit there with her
for certain hours while she taught them sewing and all the early
Victorian virtues. Their father made himself responsible for the rest of
their education, which he conducted with considerable vigour and
originality. Maria, the eldest, was the child of promise. Long before
Maria was eleven he "conversed" with her on "the leading topics of the
day, with as much pleasure and freedom as with any grown-up person".
For this man, so gloomy, we are told, and so morose, found pleasure in
taking his tiny children out on to the moors, where he entertained them
alternately with politics and tales of brutality and horror. At six
years old each little Bronte had its view of the political situation;
and it was not until a plague of measles and whooping-cough found out
their tender youth that their father realized how very young and small
and delicate they were, and how very little, after all, he understood
about a nursery. In a sudden frantic distrust of the climate of Haworth,
of Miss Branwell, and his own system, he made up his mind to send Maria
and Elizabeth and Charlotte and Emily to school.
And there was only one school within his means, the Clergy Daughters'
School, established at Cowan Bridge in an unwholesome valley. It has
been immortalized in _Jane Eyre_, together with its founder and patron,
the Reverend Carus Wilson. There can be no doubt that the early
Victorian virtues, self-repression, humility, and patience under
affliction, were admirably taught at Cowan Bridge. And if the carnal
nature of the Clergy Daughters resisted the militant efforts of Mr.
Carus Wilson, it was ultimately subdued by low diet and primitive
drainage working together in an unwholesome valley. Mr. Carus Wilson,
indeed, was inspired by a sublime antagonism to the claims of the
perishable body; but he seems to have pushed his campaign against the
flesh a bit too far, and was surprised at his own success when, one
after another, the extremely perishable bodies of those children were
laid low by typhus.
The fever did not touch the four little Brontes. They had another
destiny. Their seed of dissolution was sown in that small stifling room
at Haworth, and was reaped now at Cowan Bridge. First Maria, then
Elizabeth, sickened, and was sent home to die. Charlotte stayed on for a
while with Emily. She ran wild, and hung about the river, watching it,
and dabbling her feet and hands in the running water. Their doom waited
for Charlotte and for Emily.
There is no record of Elizabeth except that, like Anne Bronte, she was
"gentle". But Maria lived in Charlotte's passionate memory, and will
live for ever as Helen Burns, the school-fellow of Jane Eyre. Of those
five infant prodigies, she was the most prodigious. She was the first of
the children to go down into the vault under Haworth Church; you see her
looking back on her sad way, a small, reluctant ghost, lovely,
infantile, and yet maternal. Under her name on the flat tombstone a
verse stands, premonitory, prophetic, calling to her kindred: "Be ye
Charlotte was nine years old when her sisters died. Tragedy tells at
nine years old. It lived all her life in her fine nerves, reinforced by
shock after shock of terror and of anguish.
But for the next seven years, spent at the Parsonage without a break,
tragedy was quiescent. Day after day, year after year passed, and
nothing happened. And the children of the Parsonage, thrown on
themselves and on each other, were exuberantly happy. They had the
freedom of the moors, and of the worlds, as wild, as gorgeous, as
lonely, as immeasurable, which they themselves created. They found out
that they were not obliged to be the children of the Parsonage; they
could be, and they were, anything they chose, from the Duke of
Wellington down to citizens of Verdopolis. For a considerable number of
years they were the "Islanders". "It was in 1827" (Charlotte, at
thirteen, records the date with gravity--it was so important) "that our
plays were established: _Young Men_, June 1826; _Our Fellows_, July
1827; _The Islanders_, December 1827. These are our three great plays
that are not kept secret."
But there were secret plays, Emily's and Charlotte's; and these you
gather to be the shy and solitary flights of Emily's and Charlotte's
genius. They seem to have required absolutely no impulsion from without.
The difficult thing for these small children was to stop writing. Their
fire consumed them, and left their bodies ashen white, fragile as ashes.
And yet they were not, they could not have been, the sedentary,
unwholesome little creatures they might seem to be. The girls were kept
hard at work with their thin arms, brushing carpets, dusting furniture,
and making beds. And for play they tramped the moors with their brother;
they breasted the keen and stormy weather; the sun, the moon, the stars,
and the winds knew them; and it is of these fierce, radiant, elemental
things that Charlotte and Emily wrote as no women before them had ever
written. Conceive the vitality and energy implied in such a life; and
think, if you can, of these two as puny, myopic victims of the lust of
literature. It was from the impressions they took in those seven years
that their immortality was made.
And then, for a year and a half, Charlotte went to school again, that
school of Miss Wooler's at Roe Head, where Ellen Nussey found her, "a
silent, weeping, dark little figure in the large bay-window". She was
Two years later she went back to Miss Wooler's school as a teacher.
In the register of the Clergy Daughters' School there are two immortal
"Charlotte Bronte.... Left school, June 1st, 1825--Governess."
"Emily Bronte.... Left, June 1st, 1825. Subsequent career--Governess."
They did not question the arrangement. They were not aware of any other
destiny. They never doubted that the boy, Branwell, was the child of
promise, who was to have a glorious career. In order that he should have
it the sisters left Haworth again and again, forcing themselves to the
exile that destroyed them, and the work they hated. It was Charlotte and
Anne who showed themselves most courageous and determined in the
terrible adventure; Emily, who was courage and determination incarnate,
failed. Homesickness had become a disease with them, an obsession,
almost a madness. They longed with an immitigable longing for their
Parsonage-house, their graveyard, and their moors. Emily was consumed by
it; Anne languished; Charlotte was torn between it and her passion for
She took Emily back with her to Roe Head as a pupil, and Emily nearly
died of it. She sent Emily home, and little Anne, the last victim, took
Emily's place. She and Charlotte went with the school when it was
removed to Dewsbury Moor. Then Emily, who had nearly died of Roe Head,
shamed by Charlotte's and Anne's example, went to Halifax as a teacher
in Miss Patchett's Academy for Young Ladies. She was at Halifax--Halifax
of all places--for six months, and nearly died of Halifax. And after
that Charlotte and Anne set out on their careers as nursery-governesses.
It was all that they considered themselves fit for. Anne went to a Mrs.
Ingham at Blake Hall, where she was homesick and miserable. Charlotte
went to the Sidgwicks at Stonegappe near Skipton, where "one of the
pleasantest afternoons I spent--indeed, the only one at all
pleasant--was when Mr. Sidgwick walked out with his children, and I had
orders to follow a little way behind". You have an impression of years
of suffering endured at Stonegappe. As a matter of fact, Charlotte was
there hardly three months--May, June, July, eighteen-thirty-nine.
And most of the time their brother Branwell was either at Bradford or at
Haworth, dreaming of greatness, and drinking at the "Black Bull". The
"Black Bull" stands disastrously near to the Parsonage, at the corner of
the churchyard, with its parlour windows looking on the graves. Branwell
was the life and soul of every party of commercial travellers that
gathered there. Conviviality took strange forms at Haworth. It had a
Masonic Lodge of the Three Graces, with John Brown, the grave-digger,
for Worshipful Master. Branwell was at one and the same time secretary
to the Three Graces and to the Haworth Temperance Society. When he was
not entertaining bagmen, he was either at Bradford painting bad
portraits, or at Haworth pouring out verses, fearfully long, fatally
fluent verses, and writing hysterical letters to the editor of
One formidable letter (the third he sent) is headed in large letters:
"Sir, read what I write." It begins: "And would to Heaven you would
believe in me, for then you would attend to me and act upon it", and
ends: "You lost an able writer in James Hogg, and God grant you may get
one in Patrick Branwell Bronte." Another followed, headed: "Sir, read
now at last", and ending, "Condemn not unheard". In a final letter
Branwell inquires whether Mr. Blackwood thinks his magazine "so perfect
that no addition to its power would be either possible or desirable",
and whether it is pride that actuates him, or custom, or prejudice, and
conjures him: "Be a man, sir!"
Nothing came of it. Mr. Blackwood refused to be a man.
Yet Branwell had his chance. He went to London, but nothing came of it.
He went to Bradford and had a studio there, but nothing came of it. He
lived for a brief period in a small provincial Bohemia. It was his best
and happiest period, but nothing came of it beyond the letters and the
reams of verse he sent to Leyland the sculptor. There was something
brilliant and fantastic about the boy that fascinated Leyland. But a
studio costs money, and Branwell had to give his up and go back to
Haworth and the society of John Brown the stone-mason and grave-digger.
That John Brown was a decent fellow you gather from the fact that on a
journey to Liverpool he had charge of Branwell, when Branwell was at his
worst. They had affectionate names for each other. Branwell is the
Philosopher, John Brown is the Old Knave of Trumps. The whole trouble
with Branwell was that he could not resist the temptation of impressing
the grave-digger. He himself was impressed by the ironic union in the
Worshipful Master of conviviality and a sinister occupation.
A letter of Branwell's (preserved by the grave-digger in a quaint
devotion to his friend's memory) has achieved an immortality denied to
his "Effusions". Nothing having come of the "Effusions", Branwell, to
his infinite credit, followed his sisters' example, and became tutor
with a Mr. Postlethwaite. The irony of his situation pleased him, and
he wrote to the Old Knave of Trumps thus: "I took a half-year's farewell
of old friend whisky at Kendal on the night after I left. There was a
party of gentlemen at the Royal Hotel, and I joined them. We ordered in
supper and whisky-toddy as hot as hell! They thought I was a physician,
and put me in the chair. I gave several toasts that were washed down at
the same time till the room spun round and the candles danced in our
eyes.... I found myself in bed next morning with a bottle of porter, a
glass, and a corkscrew beside me. Since then I have not tasted anything
stronger than milk-and-water, nor, I hope, shall, till I return at
midsummer; when we will see about it. I am getting as fat as Prince
William at Springhead, and as godly as his friend Parson Winterbotham.
My hand shakes no longer. I ride to the banker's at Ulverston with Mr.
Postlethwaite, and sit drinking tea, and talking scandal with old
ladies. As for the young ones! I have one sitting by me just
now--fair-faced, blue-eyed, dark-haired, sweet eighteen--she little
thinks the devil is so near her!"--and a great deal more in the same
silly, post-Byronic strain.
In his postscript Branwell says: "Of course you won't show this letter",
and of course John Brown showed it all round. It was far too good to be
kept to himself; John Brown's brother thought it so excellent that he
committed it to memory. This was hard on Branwell. The letter is too
fantastic to be used against him as evidence of his extreme depravity,
but it certainly lends some support to Mrs. Gaskell's statements that he
had begun already, at two-and-twenty, to be an anxiety to his family.
Haworth, that schooled his sisters to a high and beautiful austerity,
was bad for Branwell.
He stayed with Mr. Postlethwaite for a month longer than Charlotte
stayed with the Sidgwicks.
Then, for a whole year, Charlotte was at Haworth, doing housemaid's
work, and writing poems, and amusing herself at the expense of her
father's curates. She had begun to find out the extent to which she
could amuse herself. She also had had "her chance". She had refused two
offers of marriage, preferring the bondage and the exile that she knew.
Nothing more exhilarating than a proposal that you have rejected. Those
proposals did Charlotte good. But it was not marriage that she wanted.
She found it (for a year) happiness enough to be at Haworth, to watch
the long comedy of the curates as it unrolled itself before her. She saw
most things that summer (her twenty-fifth) with the ironic eyes of the
comic spirit, even Branwell. She wrote to Miss Nussey: "A distant
relation of mine, one Patrick Boanerges, has set off to seek his fortune
in the wild, wandering, knight-errant-like capacity of clerk on the
Leeds and Manchester Railroad." And she goes on to chaff Miss Nussey
about Celia Amelia, the curate. "I know Mrs. Ellen is burning with
eagerness to hear something about W. Weightman, whom she adores in her
heart, and whose image she cannot efface from her memory."
Some of her critics, including Mrs. Oliphant (far less indulgent than
the poor curates who forgave her nobly), have grudged Charlotte her
amusement. There is nothing, from her fame downwards, that Mrs. Oliphant
did not grudge her. Mr. Birrell sternly disapproves; even Mr. Swinburne,
at the height of his panegyric, is put off. Perhaps Charlotte's humour
was not her most attractive quality; but nobody seems to have seen the
pathos and the bravery of it. Neither have they seen that Miss Nussey
was at the bottom of its worst development, the "curate-baiting". Miss
Nussey used to go and stay at Haworth for weeks at a time. Haworth was
not amusing, and Miss Nussey had to be amused. All this school-girlish
jesting, the perpetual and rather tiresome banter, was a playing down to
Miss Nussey. It was a kind of tender "baiting" of Miss Nussey, who had
tried on several occasions to do Charlotte good. And it was the natural,
healthy rebound of the little Irish _gamine_ that lived in Charlotte
Bronte, bursting with cleverness and devilry. I, for my part, am glad to
think that for one happy year she gave it full vent.
She was only twenty-four. Even as late as the mid-Victorian era to be
twenty-four and unmarried was to be middle-aged. But (this cannot be too
much insisted on) Charlotte Bronte was the revolutionist who changed all
that. She changed it not only in her novels but in her person. Here
again she has been misrepresented. There are no words severe enough for
Mrs. Oliphant's horrible portrait of her as a plain-faced, lachrymose,
middle-aged spinster, dying, visibly, to be married, obsessed for ever
with that idea, for ever whining over the frustration of her sex. What
Mrs. Oliphant, "the married woman", resented in Charlotte Bronte, over
and above her fame, was Charlotte's unsanctioned knowledge of the
mysteries, her intrusion into the veiled places, her unbaring of the
virgin heart. That her genius was chiefly concerned in it does not seem
to have occurred to Mrs. Oliphant, any more than it occurred to her to
notice the impression that Charlotte Bronte made on her male
contemporaries. It is doubtful if one of them thought of her as Mrs.
Oliphant would have us think. They gave her the tender, deferent
affection they would have given to a charming child. Even the very
curates saw in her, to their amazement, the spirit of undying youth.
Small as a child, and fragile, with soft hair and flaming eyes, and
always the pathetic, appealing plainness of a plain child, with her
child's audacity and shyness, her sudden, absurd sallies and retreats,
she had a charm made the more piquant by her assumption of austerity.
George Henry Lewes was gross and flippant, and he could not see it;
Branwell's friend, Mr. Grundy, was Branwell's friend, and he missed it.
Mrs. Oliphant ranges herself with Mr. Grundy and George Henry Lewes.
But Charlotte's fun was soon over, and she became a nursery-governess
again at Mrs. White's, of Rawdon. Anne was with Mrs. Robinson, at Thorp
Emily was at Haworth, alone.
That was in eighteen-forty-one. Years after their death a little black
box was found, containing four tiny scraps of paper, undiscovered by
Charlotte when she burnt every line left by Anne and Emily except their
poems. Two of these four papers were written by Emily, and two by Anne;
each sister keeping for the other a record of four years. They begin in
eighteen-forty-one. Emily was then twenty-four and Anne a year and a
half younger. Nothing can be more childlike, more naive. Emily heads her
A PAPER to be opened
when Anne is
25 years old,
or my next birthday after
all be well.
Emily Jane Bronte. July the 30th, 1841.
She says: "It is Friday evening, near nine o'clock--wild rainy weather.
I am seated in the dining-room, having just concluded tidying our
desk-boxes, writing this document. Papa is in the parlour--Aunt upstairs
in her room.... Victoria and Adelaide are ensconced in the peat-house.
Keeper is in the kitchen--Hero in his cage."
Having accounted for Victoria and Adelaide, the tame geese, Keeper, the
dog, and Hero, the hawk, she notes the whereabouts of Charlotte,
Branwell, and Anne. And then (with gravity):
"A scheme is at present in agitation for setting us up in a school of
our own."... "This day four years I wonder whether we shall be dragging
on in our present condition or established to our hearts' content."
Then Emily dreams her dream.
"I guess that on the time appointed for the opening of this paper we,
_i.e._ Charlotte, Anne, and I, shall be all merrily seated in our own
sitting-room in some pleasant and flourishing seminary, having just
gathered in for the midsummer holiday. Our debts will be paid off and we
shall have cash in hand to a considerable amount. Papa, Aunt, and
Branwell, will either have been or be coming to visit us."
And Anne writes with equal innocence (it is delicious, Anne's diary):
"Four years ago I was at school. Since then I have been a governess at
Blake Hall, left it, come to Thorp Green, and seen the sea and York
Minster."... "We have got Keeper, got a sweet little cat and lost it,
and also got a hawk. Got a wild goose which has flown away, and three
tame ones, one of which has been killed."
It is Emily who lets out the dreary secret of the dream--the debts which
could not be paid; probably Branwell's.
But the "considerable amount of cash in hand" was to remain a dream.
Nothing came of Branwell's knight-errantry. He muddled the accounts of
the Leeds and Manchester Railroad and was sent home. It was not good for
Branwell to be a clerk at a lonely wayside station. His disaster, which
they much exaggerated, was a shock to the three sisters. They began to
have misgivings, premonitions of Branwell's destiny.
And from Mrs. White's at Rawdon, Charlotte sends out cry after desolate
cry. Again we have an impression of an age of exile, but really the
exile did not last long, not much longer than Emily's imprisonment in
the Academy for Young Ladies, nothing like so long as Anne's miserable
The exile really began in 'forty-two, when Charlotte and Emily left
England for Brussels and Madame Heger's Pensionnat de Demoiselles in the
Rue d'Isabelle. It is supposed to have been the turning-point in
Charlotte's career. She was then twenty-six, Emily twenty-four.
It is absurd and it is pathetic, but Charlotte's supreme ambition at
that time was to keep a school, a school of her own, like her friend
Miss Wooler. There was a great innocence and humility in Charlotte. She
was easily taken in by any of those veiled, inimical spectres of the
cross-roads that youth mistakes for destiny. She must have refused to
look too closely at the apparition; it was enough for her that she saw
in it the divine thing--liberty. Her genius was already struggling in
her. She had begun to feel under her shoulders the painful piercing of
her wings. Her friend, Mary Taylor, had written to her from Brussels
telling her of pictures and cathedrals. Charlotte tells how it woke her
up. "I hardly know what swelled in my breast as I read her letter: such
a vehement impatience of restraint and steady work; such a strong wish
for wings--wings such as wealth can furnish; such an urgent desire to
see, to know, to learn; something internal seemed to expand bodily for a
minute. I was tantalized by the consciousness of faculties unexercised."
But Charlotte's "wings" were not "such as wealth can furnish". They were
to droop, almost to die, in Brussels.
Emily was calmer. Whether she mistook it for her destiny or not, she
seems to have acquiesced when Charlotte showed her the veiled figure at
the cross-roads, to have been led blindfold by Charlotte through the
"streaming and starless darkness" that took them to Brussels. The rest
she endured with a stern and terrible resignation. It is known from her
letters what the Pensionnat was to Charlotte. Heaven only knows what it
must have been to Emily. Charlotte, with her undying passion for
knowledge and the spectacle of the world, with her psychological
interest in M. Heger and his wife, Charlotte hardly came out of it with
her soul alive. But Emily was not interested in M. Heger nor in his
wife, nor in his educational system. She thought his system was no good
and told him so. What she thought of his wife is not recorded.
Then, in their first year of Brussels, their old aunt, Miss Branwell,
died. That was destiny, the destiny that was so kind to Emily. It sent
her and her sister back to Haworth and it kept her there. Poor Anne was
fairly launched on her career; she remained in her "situation", and
somebody had to look after Mr. Bronte and the house. Things were going
badly and sadly at the Parsonage. Branwell was there, drinking; and
Charlotte was even afraid that her father ... also sometimes ...
She left Emily to deal with them and went back to Brussels as a pupil
teacher, alone. She went in an agony of self-reproach, desiring more and
more knowledge, a perfect, inalienable, indestructible possession of
the German language, and wondering whether it were right to satisfy that
indomitable craving. By giving utterance to this self-reproach, so
passionate, so immense, so disproportioned to the crime, the innocent
Charlotte laid herself open to an unjust suspicion. Innocent and unaware
she went, and--it is her own word--she was "punished" for it.
Nothing that she had yet known of homesickness could compare with that
last year of solitary and unmitigated exile. It is supposed, even by the
charitable, that whatever M. Heger did or did not do for Charlotte, he
did everything for her genius. As a matter of fact, it was at Brussels
that she suffered the supreme and ultimate abandonment. She no longer
felt the wild unknown thing stirring in her with wings. So little could
M. Heger do for it that it refused to inhabit the same house with him.
She records the result of that imprisonment a few weeks after her
release: "There are times now when it appears to me as if all my ideas
and feelings, except a few friendships and affections, are changed from
what they used to be; something in me, which used to be enthusiasm, is
tamed down and broken."
At Brussels surely enlightenment must have come to her. She must have
seen, as Emily saw, that in going that way, she had mistaken and done
violence to her destiny.
She went back to Haworth where it waited for her, where it had turned
even the tragedy of her family to account. Everything conspired to keep
her there. The school was given up. She tells why. "It is on Papa's
account; he is now, as you know, getting old, and it grieves me to tell
you that he is losing his sight. I have felt for some months that I
ought not to be away from him; and I feel now that it would be too
selfish to leave (at least as long as Branwell and Anne are absent) to
pursue selfish interests of my own. With the help of God I will try to
deny myself in this matter, and to wait."
And with the help of God she waited.
There are three significant entries in Emily's sealed paper for
eighteen-forty-five. "Now I don't desire a school at all, and none of us
have any great longing for it." "I am quite contented for myself ...
seldom or never troubled with nothing to do and merely desiring that
everybody could be as comfortable as myself and as undesponding, and
then we should have a very tolerable world of it." "I have plenty of
work on hand, and writing...." This, embedded among details of an
incomparable innocence: "We have got Flossy; got and lost Tiger; lost
the hawk, Hero, which, with the geese, was given away, and is doubtless
And Anne, as naive as a little nun, writes in _her_ sealed paper: "Emily
is upstairs ironing. I am sitting in the dining-room in the
rocking-chair before the fire with my feet on the fender. Papa is in the
parlour. Tabby and Martha are, I think, in the kitchen. Keeper and
Flossy are, I do not know where. Little Dick is hopping in his cage."
And then, "Emily ... is writing some poetry.... I wonder what it is
That is the only clue to the secret that is given. These childlike
diaries are full of the "Gondal Chronicles",[A] an interminable fantasy
in which for years Emily collaborated with Anne. They flourished the
"Gondal Chronicles" in each other's faces, with positive bravado, trying
to see which could keep it up the longer. Under it all there was a
mystery; for, as Charlotte said of their old play, "Best plays were
secret plays," and the sisters kept their best hidden. And then suddenly
the "Gondal Chronicles" were dropped, the mystery broke down. All three
of them had been writing poems; they had been writing poems for years.
Some of Emily's dated from her first exile at Roe Head. Most of Anne's
sad songs were sung in her house of bondage. From Charlotte, in her
Brussels period, not a line.
[Footnote A: See _supra_, pp. 193 to 209.]
But at Haworth, in the years that followed her return and found her
free, she wrote nearly all her maturer poems (none of them were
excessively mature): she wrote _The Professor_, and close upon _The
Professor_, _Jane Eyre_. In the same term that found her also, poor
child, free, and at Haworth, Anne wrote _Agnes Grey_ and _The Tenant of
And Emily wrote _Wuthering Heights_.
They had found their destiny--at Haworth.
* * * * *
Every conceivable theory has been offered to account for the novels that
came so swiftly and incredibly from these three sisters. It has been
said that they wrote them merely to pay their debts when they found that
poems did not pay. It would be truer to say that they wrote them because
it was their destiny to write them, and because their hour had come, and
that they published them with the dimmest hope of a return.
Before they knew where they were, Charlotte found herself involved in
what she thought was a businesslike and masculine correspondence with
The _Poems_ by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, appeared first, and
nothing happened. _The Professor_ travelled among publishers, and
nothing happened. Then, towards the end of the fourth year there came
_Jane Eyre_, and Charlotte was famous.
But not Emily. _Wuthering Heights_ appeared also, and nothing happened.
It was bound in the same volume with Anne's humble tale. Its lightning
should have scorched and consumed _Agnes Grey_, but nothing happened.
Ellis and Acton Bell remained equals in obscurity, recognized only by
their association with the tremendous Currer. When it came to publishing
_The Tenant of Wildfell Hall_, and association became confusion,
Charlotte and Anne went up to London to prove their separate identity.
Emily stayed at Haworth, superbly indifferent to the proceedings. She
was unseen, undreamed of, unrealized, and in all her life she made no
But, in a spirit of reckless adventure, Charlotte and Anne walked the
seven miles to Keighley on a Friday evening in a thunderstorm, and took
the night train up. On the Saturday morning they appeared in the office
at Cornhill to the amazement of Mr. George Smith and Mr. Williams. With
childlike innocence and secrecy they hid in the Chapter Coffee-house in
Paternoster Row, and called themselves the Misses Brown. When
entertainment was offered them, they expressed a wish to hear Dr. Croly
preach. They did not hear him; they only heard _The Barber of Seville_
at Covent Garden. They tried, with a delicious solemnity, to give the
whole thing an air of business, but it was really a breathless,
infantile escapade of three days. Three days out of four years.
* * * * *
And in those four years poor Branwell's destiny found him also. After
many minor falls and penitences and relapses, he seemed at length to
have settled down. He had been tutor for two and a half years with the
Robinsons at Thorp Green, in the house where Anne was a governess. He
was happy at first; an ominous happiness. Then Anne began to be aware of
Mr. Birrell has said rather unkindly that he has no use for this young
man. Nobody had any use for him. Not the editors to whom he used to
write so hysterically. Not the Leeds and Manchester Railroad Company.
And certainly not Mrs. Robinson, the lady for whom he conceived that
insane and unlawful passion which has been made to loom so large in the
lives of the Brontes. After all the agony and indignation that has
gathered round this episode, it is clear enough now, down to the last
sordid details. The feverish, degenerate, utterly irresponsible Branwell
not only declared his passion, but persuaded himself, against the
evidence of his senses, that it was returned. The lady (whom he must
have frightened horribly) told her husband, who instantly dismissed
Branwell never got over it.
He was destined to die young, and, no doubt, if there had been no Mrs.
Robinson, some other passion would have killed him. Still, it may be
said with very little exaggeration that he died of it. He had not
hitherto shown any signs of tuberculosis. It may be questioned whether
without this predisposing cause he would have developed it. He had had
his chance to survive. _He_ had never been packed, like his sisters,
first one of five, then one of three, into a closet not big enough for
one. But he drank harder after the Robinson affair than he had ever
drunk before, and he added opium to drink. Drink and opium gave
frightful intensity to the hallucination of which, in a sense, he died.
It took him more than three years, from July, eighteen-forty-five, the
date of his dismissal, to September, eighteen-forty-eight, the date of
The Incumbent of Haworth has been much blamed for his son's
shortcomings. He has been charged with first spoiling the boy, and then
neglecting him. In reality his only error (a most unusual one in an
early Victorian father) was that he believed in his son's genius. When
London and the Royal Academy proved beyond him he had him taught at
Bradford. He gave him a studio there. He had already given him an
education that at least enabled him to obtain tutorships, if not to keep
them. The Parsonage must have been a terrible place for Branwell, but it
was not in the Vicar's power to make it more attractive than the Bull
Inn. Branwell was not a poet like his sisters, and moors meant nothing
to him. To be sure, when he went into Wales and saw Penmaenmawr, he
wrote a poem about it. But the poem is not really about Penmaenmawr. It
is all about Branwell; Penmaenmawr _is_ Branwell, a symbol of his
colossal personality and of his fate. For Branwell was a monstrous
egoist. He was not interested in his sisters or in his friends, or
really in Mrs. Robinson. He was interested only in himself. What could a
poor vicar do with a son like that? There was nothing solid in Branwell
that you could take hold of and chastise. There was nothing you could
appeal to. His affection for his family was three-fourths
sentimentalism. Still, what the Vicar could do he did do. When Branwell
was mad with drink and opium he never left him. There is no story more
grim and at the same time more poignant and pathetic than that which
Mrs. Gaskell tells of his devotion to his son in this time of the boy's
ruin. Branwell slept in his father's room. He would doze all day, and
rage all night, threatening his father's life. In the morning he would
go to his sisters and say: "The poor old man and I have had a terrible
night of it. He does his best, the poor old man, but it is all over with
me." He died in his father's arms while Emily and little Anne looked on.
They say that he struggled to his feet and died standing, to prove the
strength of his will; but some biographer has robbed him of this poor
splendour. It was enough for his sisters--and it should be enough for
anybody--that his madness left him with the onset of his illness, and
that he went from them penitent and tender, purified by the mystery and
miracle of death.
That was on Sunday, the twenty-fourth of September. From that day Emily
sickened. She caught cold at Branwell's funeral. On September the
thirtieth she was in church listening to his funeral sermon. After that,
she never crossed the threshold of the Parsonage till in December her
dead body was carried over it, to lie beside her brother under the
In October, a week or two after Branwell's death, Charlotte wrote:
"Emily has a cold and cough at present." "Emily's cold and cough are
very obstinate. I fear she has pain in her chest, and I sometimes catch
a shortness in her breathing when she has moved at all quickly." In
November: "I told you Emily was ill, in my last letter. She has not
rallied yet. She is very ill.... I think Emily seems the nearest thing
to my heart in all the world." And in December: "Emily suffers no more
from pain or weakness now ... there is no Emily in time, or on earth
now.... We are very calm at present. Why should we be otherwise? The
anguish of seeing her suffer is over; the spectacle of the pains of
death is gone by: the funeral day is past. We feel she is at peace. No
need to tremble for the hard frost and the keen wind. Emily does not
feel them. She died in a time of promise.... But it is God's will, and
the place where she has gone is better than that which she has left."
It could have been hardly daylight on the moors the morning when
Charlotte went out to find that last solitary sprig of heather which she
laid on Emily's pillow for Emily to see when she awoke. Emily's eyes
were so drowsed with death that she could not see it. And yet it could
not have been many hours later when a fire was lit in her bedroom, and
she rose and dressed herself. Madame Duclaux[A] tells how she sat before
the fire, combing her long, dark hair, and how the comb dropped from her
weak fingers, and fell under the grate. And how she sat there in her
mortal apathy; and how, when the servant came to her, she said dreamily:
"Martha, my comb's down there; I was too weak to stoop and pick it up."
[Footnote A: "Emily Bronte": _Eminent Women Series_.]
She dragged herself down to the sitting-room, and died there, about two
o'clock. She must have had some horror of dying in that room of death
overhead; for, at noon, when the last pains seized her, she refused to
be taken back to it. Unterrified, indomitable, driven by her immortal
passion for life, she fought terribly. Death took her as she tried to
rise from the sofa and break from her sisters' arms that would have laid
her there. Profoundly, piteously alienated, she must have felt that Anne
and Charlotte were in league with death; that they fought with her and
bound her down; and that in her escape from them she conquered.
Another month and Anne sickened. As Emily died of Branwell's death, so
Emily's death hastened Anne's. Charlotte wrote in the middle of
January: "I can scarcely say that Anne is worse, nor can I say she is
better.... The days pass in a slow, dull march: the nights are the test;
the sudden wakings from restless sleep, the revived knowledge that one
lies in her grave, and another, not at my side, but in a separate and
sick bed." And again in March: "Anne's decline is gradual and
fluctuating, but its nature is not doubtful." And yet again in April:
"If there were no hope beyond this world ... Emily's fate, and that
which threatens Anne, would be heartbreaking. I cannot forget Emily's
death-day; it becomes a more fixed, a darker, a more frequently
recurring idea in my mind than ever. It was very terrible. She was torn,
conscious, panting, reluctant, though resolute, out of a happy life."
Mrs. Oliphant has censured Emily Bronte for the manner of her dying. She
might as well have censured Anne for drawing out the agony. For Anne was
gentle to the end, utterly submissive. She gave death no trouble. She
went, with a last hope, to Scarborough, and died there at the end of
May. She was buried at Scarborough, where she lies alone. It is not easy
to believe that she had no "preference for place", but there is no doubt
that even to that choice of her last resting-place she would have
"I got here a little before eight o'clock. All was clean and bright,
waiting for me. Papa and the servants were well, and all received me
with an affection that should have consoled. The dogs seemed in strange
ecstasy. I am certain that they regarded me as the harbinger of others.
The dumb creatures thought that as I was returned, those who had been so
long absent were not far behind.... I felt that the house was all
silent, the rooms were all empty. I remembered where the three were
laid--in what narrow, dark dwellings--never more to reappear on
earth.... I cannot help thinking of their last days, remembering their
sufferings, and what they said and did, and how they looked in mortal
affliction.... To sit in a lonely room, the clock ticking loud through a
still house...." Charlotte could see nothing else before her.
It was July. She had come home after a visit to Miss Nussey.
In that month she wrote that chapter of _Shirley_ which is headed "The
Valley of the Shadow". The book (begun more than eighteen months before)
fairly quivers with the shock that cut it in two.
It was finished somewhere in September of that year of Anne's death.
Charlotte went up to London. She saw Thackeray. She learned to accept
the fact of her celebrity.
Somehow the years passed, the years of Charlotte's continuous celebrity,
and of those literary letters that take so disproportionate a part in
her correspondence that she seems at last to have forgotten; she seems
to belong to the world rather than to Haworth. And the world seems full
of Charlotte; the world that had no place for Emily. And yet _Wuthering
Heights_ had followed _Shirley_. It had been republished with
Charlotte's introduction, her vindication of Emily. It brought more fame
for Charlotte, but none--yet--for Emily.
Two years later came _Villette_. Charlotte went up to London a second
time and saw Thackeray again. And there were more letters, the admirable
but slightly self-conscious letters of the literary woman, artificially
assured. They might deceive you, only the other letters, the letters to
Ellen Nussey go on; they come palpitating with the life of Charlotte
Bronte's soul that had in it nothing of the literary taint. You see in
them how, body and soul, Haworth claims her and holds her, and will not
let her go.
Nor does she desire now to be let go. Her life at Haworth is part of
Emily's life; it partakes of the immortality of the unforgotten dead.
London and Thackeray, the Smiths, Mrs. Gaskell, and Miss Martineau, Sir
John and Lady Kay-Shuttleworth, her celebrity and the little train of
cheerful, unfamiliar circumstances, all these things sink into
insignificance beside it. They are all extraneous somehow, and out of
keeping. Nothing that her biographers have done (when they have done
their worst) can destroy or even diminish the effect her life gives of
unity, of fitness, of profound and tragic harmony. It was Mrs. Gaskell's
sense of this effect that made her work a masterpiece.
And in her marriage, at Haworth, to her father's curate, Arthur
Nicholls, the marriage that cut short her life and made an end of her
celebrity, Charlotte Bronte followed before all things her instinct for
fitness, for unity, for harmony. It was exquisitely in keeping. It did
no violence to her memories, her simplicities and sanctities. It found
her in the apathy of exhaustion, and it was yet one with all that was
passionate in her and undying. She went to it one morning in May, all
white and drooping, in her modest gown and that poor little bridal
bonnet with its wreath of snowdrops, symbolic of all the timidities, the
reluctances, the cold austerities of spring roused in the lap of winter,
and yet she found in it the secret fire of youth. She went to it afraid;
and in her third month of marriage she still gives a cry wrung from the
memory of her fear. "Indeed, indeed, Nell, it is a solemn and strange
and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife."
And yet for all that, after London, after fame and friendships in which
her dead had no share, her marriage was not the great departure; it was
the great return. It was the outcome of all that had gone before it; the
fruit of painful life, which is recognition, acceptance, the final trust
in destiny. There were to be no more false starts, no more veiled ghosts
of the cross-roads, pointing the disastrous way.
And in its abrupt and pitiful end her life rang true; it sustained the
tragic harmony. It was the fulfilment of secret prophecies, forebodings,
premonitions, of her reiterated "It was not to be." You may say that in
the end life cheated and betrayed her.
And inevitably; for she had loved life, not as Emily loved it, like an
equal, with power over it and pride and an unearthly understanding,
virgin and unafraid. There was something slightly subservient,
consciously inferior, in Charlotte's attitude to life. She had loved it
secretly, with a sort of shame, with a corroding passion and incredulity
and despair. Such natures are not seldom victims of the power they would
propitiate. It killed her in her effort to bring forth life.
When the end came she could not realize it. For the first time she was
incredulous of disaster. She heard, out of her last stupor, her husband
praying that God would spare her, and she whispered, "Oh, I am not going
to die, am I? He will not separate us; we have been so happy."
You can see her youth rising up beside that death-bed and answering,
"That is why."
And yet, could even Charlotte's youth have been so sure as to the
cheating and betrayal? That happiness of hers was cut short in the
moment of its perfection. She was not to suffer any disenchantment or
decline; her love was not to know any cold of fear or her genius any
fever of frustration. She was saved the struggle we can see before her.
Arthur Nicholls was passionately fond of Charlotte. But he was hostile
to Charlotte's genius and to Charlotte's fame. A plain, practical,
robust man, inimical to any dream. He could be adorably kind to a sick,
submissive Charlotte. Would he have been so tender to a Charlotte in
revolt? She was spared the torture of the choice between Arthur Nicholls
and her genius. We know how she would have chosen. It is well for her,
and it is all one to literature, that she died, not "in a time of
promise", but in the moment of fulfilment.
* * * * *
No. Of these tragic Brontes the most tragic, the most pitiful, the most
mercilessly abused by destiny, was Anne. An interminable, monstrous
exile is the impression we get of Anne's life in the years of her
girlhood. There is no actual record of them. Nobody kept Anne's letters.
We never hear her sad voice raised in self-pity or revolt. It is
doubtful if she ever raised it. She waited in silence and resignation,
and then told her own story in _Agnes Grey_. But her figure remains dim
in her own story and in the classic "Lives". We only know that she was
the youngest, and that, unlike her sisters, she was pretty. She had
thick brown curling hair, and violet-blue eyes, and delicate dark
eyebrows, and a skin rose and white for her sisters' sallow, that must
have given some ominous hint of fever. This delicate thing was broken on
the wheel of life. They say of Anne perpetually that she was "gentle".
In Charlotte's sketch of her she holds her pretty head high, her eyes
gaze straight forward, and you wonder whether, before the breaking
point, she was always as gentle as they say. But you never see her in
any moment of revolt. Her simple poems, at their bitterest, express no
more than a frail agony, an innocent dismay. That little raising of the
head in conscious rectitude is all that breaks the long plaint of _Agnes
There is no piety in that plaint. It is purely pagan; the cry of youth
cheated of its desire. Life brought her no good gifts beyond the slender
ineffectual beauty that left her undesired. Her tremulous, expectant
womanhood was cheated. She never saw so much as the flying veil of joy,
or even of such pale, uninspired happiness as she dreamed in _Agnes
Grey_. She was cheated of her innocent dream.
And by an awful irony her religion failed her. She knew its bitterness,
its terrors, its exactions. She never knew its ecstasies, its flaming
mysteries, nor, even at her very last, its consolations. Her tender
conscience drew an unspeakable torment from the spectacle of her
For it was on Anne, who had no genius to sustain her, that poor
Branwell, with the burden of his destiny, weighed most hard. It was Anne
at Thorp Green who had the first terrible misgivings, the intolerable
That wretched story is always cropping up again. The lady whom Mrs.
Gaskell, with a murderous selection of adjectives, called "that mature
and wicked woman", has been cleared as far as evidence and common sense
could clear her. But the slander is perpetually revived. It has always
proved too much for the Bronte biographers. Madame Duclaux published it
again twenty years after, in spite of the evidence and in spite of Mrs.
Gaskell's retractation. You would have thought that Branwell might have
been allowed to rest in the grave he dug for himself so well. But no,
they will not let him rest. Branwell drank, and he ate opium; and, as if
drink and opium and erotic madness were not enough, they must credit
him with an open breach of the seventh commandment as well. M. Dimnet,
the most able of recent critics of the Brontes, thinks and maintains
against all evidence that there was more in it than Branwell's madness.
He will not give up the sordid tragedy _a trois_. He thinks he knows
what Anne thought of Branwell's behaviour, and what awful secret she was
hinting at, and what she told her sisters when she came back to Haworth.
He argues that Anne Bronte saw and heard things, and that her testimony
is not to be set aside.
What did Anne Bronte see and hear? She saw her brother consumed by an
illegitimate passion; a passion utterly hopeless, given the nature of
the lady. The lady had been kind to Anne, to Branwell she had been
angelically kind. Anne saw that his behaviour was an atrocious return
for her kindness. Further than that the lady hardly counted in Anne's
vision. Her interest was centred on her brother. She saw him taking
first to drink and then to opium. She saw that he was going mad, and he
did go mad. One of the most familiar symptoms of morphia mania is a
tendency to erotic hallucinations of the precise kind that Branwell
suffered from. Anne was unable to distinguish between such a
hallucination and depravity. But there is not a shadow of evidence that
she thought what M. Dimnet thinks, or that if she had thought it she
made Charlotte and Emily think it too. Branwell's state was quite enough
in itself to break their hearts. His letters to Leyland, to John Brown,
the sexton, to Francis Grundy, record with frightful vividness every
phase of his obsession.
It is inconceivable that such letters should have been kept, still more
inconceivable that they should have been published. It is inconceivable
that Mrs. Gaskell should have dragged the pitiful and shameful figure
into the light. Nobody can save poor Branwell now from the dreadful
immortality thrust on him by his enemies and friends with equal zeal.
All that is left to us is a merciful understanding of his case.
Branwell's case, once for all, was purely pathological. There was
nothing great about him, not even his passion for Mrs. Robinson.
Properly speaking, it was not a passion at all, it was a disease.
Branwell was a degenerate, as incapable of passion as he was of poetry.
His sisters, Anne and Charlotte, talked with an amazing innocence about
Branwell's vices. Simple and beautiful souls, they never for a moment
suspected that his worst vice was sentimentalism. In the beginning,
before it wrecked him, nobody enjoyed his own emotions more than
Branwell. At his worst he wallowed voluptuously in the torments of
frustration. At the end, what with drink and what with opium, he was
undoubtedly insane. His letters are priceless pathological documents.
They reveal all the workings of his peculiar mania. He thinks everybody
is plotting to keep him from Mrs. Robinson. Faced at every turn with the
evidence of this lady's complete indifference, he gives it all a lunatic
twist to prove the contrary. He takes the strangest people into his
confidence, John Brown, the sexton, and the Robinsons' coachman. Queer
flames of lucidity dart here and there through this madness: "The
probability of her becoming free to give me herself and estate ever rose
to drive away the prospect of her decline under her present grief." "I
had reason to hope that ere very long I should be the husband of a lady
whom I loved best in the world, and with whom, in more than competence,
I might live at leisure to try to make myself a name in the world of
posterity, without being pestered by the small but countless
botherments, which, like mosquitoes, sting us in the world of work-day
toil. That hope and herself are gone--she to wither into patiently
pining decline--_it_ to make room for drudgery." It is all sordid as
well as terrible. We have no right to know these things. Mrs. Oliphant
is almost justified in her protest against Charlotte as the first to
betray her brother.
But did Charlotte betray Branwell? Not in her letters. She never
imagined--how could she?--that those letters would be published. Not in
her novels. Her novels give no portrait of Branwell and no hint that
could be easily understood. It is in her prefaces to her sisters' novels
that he appears, darkly. Charlotte, outraged by the infamous article in
the _Quarterly_, was determined that what had been said of her should
never be said of Anne and Emily. She felt that their works offered
irresistible provocation to the scandalous reviewer. She thought it
necessary to explain how they came by their knowledge of evil.
This vindication of her sisters is certainly an indictment of her
brother to anybody who knew enough to read between the lines. Charlotte
may have innocently supposed that nobody knew or ever would know enough.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Gaskell knew; and when it came to vindicating
Charlotte, she considered herself justified in exposing Charlotte's
brother because Charlotte herself had shown her the way.
But Charlotte might have spared her pains. Branwell does not account for
Heathcliff any more than he accounts for Rochester. He does not even
account for Huntingdon in poor Anne's novel. He accounts only for
himself. He is important chiefly in relation to the youngest of the
Brontes. Oddly enough, this boy, who was once thought greater than his
sister Emily, was curiously akin to the weak and ineffectual Anne. He
shows the weird flickering of the flame that pulsed so feebly and
intermittently in her. He had Anne's unhappy way with destiny, her knack
of missing things. She had a touch of his morbidity. He was given to
silences which in anybody but Anne would have been called morose. It was
her fate to be associated with him in the hour and in the scene of his
disgrace. And he was offered up unwittingly by Charlotte as a sacrifice
to Anne's virtue.
* * * * *
Like Branwell, Anne had no genius. She shows for ever gentle, and, in
spite of an unconquerable courage, conquered. And yet there was more in
her than gentleness. There was, in this smallest and least considerable
of the Brontes, an immense, a terrifying audacity. Charlotte was bold,
and Emily was bolder; but this audacity of Anne's was greater than
Charlotte's boldness or than Emily's, because it was willed, it was
deliberate, open-eyed; it had none of the superb unconsciousness of
genius. Anne took her courage in both hands when she sat down to write
_The Tenant of Wildfell Hall_. There are scenes, there are situations,
in Anne's amazing novel, which for sheer audacity stand alone in
mid-Victorian literature, and which would hold their own in the
literature of revolt that followed. It cannot be said that these scenes
and situations are tackled with a master-hand. But there is a certain
grasp in Anne's treatment, and an astonishing lucidity. Her knowledge of
the seamy side of life was not exhaustive. But her diagnosis of certain
states, her realization of certain motives, suggests Balzac rather than
any of the Brontes. Thackeray, with the fear of Mrs. Grundy before his
eyes, would have shrunk from recording Mrs. Huntingdon's ultimatum to
her husband. The slamming of that bedroom door fairly resounds through
the long emptiness of Anne's novel. But that door is the _crux_ of the
situation, and if Anne was not a genius she was too much of an artist to
sacrifice her _crux_.
And not only was Anne revolutionary in her handling of moral situations,
she was an insurgent in religious thought. Not to believe in the dogma
of eternal punishment was, in mid-Victorian times and evangelical
circles, to be almost an atheist. When, somewhere in the late
'seventies, Dean Farrar published his _Eternal Hope_, that book fell
like a bomb into the ranks of the orthodox. But long before Dean
Farrar's book Anne Bronte had thrown her bomb. There are two pages in
_The Tenant of Wildfell Hall_ that anticipate and sum up his now
innocent arguments. Anne fairly let herself go here. And though in her
"Word to the Elect" (who "may rejoice to think themselves secure") she
None shall sink to everlasting woe
Who have not well deserved the wrath of Heaven,
she presently relents, and tacks on a poem in a lighter measure,
expressing her hope
That soon the wicked shall at last
Be fitted for the skies;
And when their dreadful doom is past
To light and life arise.
It is said (Charlotte said it) that Anne suffered from religious
melancholy of a peculiarly dark and Calvinistic type. I very much
suspect that Anne's melancholy, like Branwell's passion, was
pathological, and that what her soul suffered from was religious doubt.
She could not reach that height where Emily moved serenely; she could
not see that
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts: unutterably vain.
There was a time when her tremulous, clinging faith was broken by
contact with Emily's contempt for creeds. When Anne was at Haworth she
and Emily were inseparable. They tramped the moors together. With their
arms round each other's shoulders, they paced up and down the parlour of
the Parsonage. They showed the mysterious attraction and affinity of
opposites. Anne must have been fascinated, and at the same time
appalled, by the radiant, revealing, annihilating sweep of Emily's
thought. She was not indifferent to creeds. But you can see her fearful
and reluctant youth yielding at last to Emily's thought, until she
caught a glimpse of the "repose" beyond the clash of "conquered good and
conquering ill". You can see how the doctrine of eternal punishment went
by the board; how Anne, who had gone through agonies of orthodox fear on
account of Branwell, must have adjusted things somehow, and arrived at
peace. Trust in "the merits of the Redeemer" is, after all, trust in the
Immensity beyond Redeemer and redeemed. Of this trust she sang in a
voice, like her material voice, fragile, but sweet and true. She sang
naively of the "Captive Dove" that makes unheard its "joyless moan", of
"the heart that Nature formed to love", pining, "neglected and alone".
She sang of the "Narrow Way", "Be it," she sings, "thy constant aim
"To labour and to love,
To pardon and endure,
To lift thy heart to God above,
And keep thy conscience pure."
She hears the wind in an alien wood and cries for the Parsonage garden,
and for the "barren hills":
Where scarce the scattered, stunted trees
Can yield an answering swell,
But where a wilderness of heath
Returns the sound as well.
For yonder garden, fair and wide,
With groves of evergreen,
Long winding walks, and borders trim
And velvet lawns between.
Restore to me that little spot,
With grey hills compassed round,
Where knotted grass neglected lies,
And weeds usurp the ground.
For she, too, loved the moors; and through her love for them she wrote
two perfect lines when she called on Memory to
Forever hang thy dreamy spell
Round mountain star and heather-bell.
The critics, the theorists, the tale-mongers, have left Anne quiet in
that grave on the sea-coast, where she lies apart. Her gentle
insignificance served her well.
* * * * *
But no woman who ever wrote was more criticized, more spied upon, more
lied about, than Charlotte. It was as if the singular purity and poverty
of her legend offered irresistible provocation. The blank page called
for the scribbler. The silence that hung about her was dark with
challenge; it was felt to be ambiguous, enigmatic. Reserve suggests a
reservation, something hidden and kept back from the insatiable public
with its "right to know". Mrs. Gaskell with all her indiscretions had
not given it enough. The great classic _Life of Charlotte Bronte_ was,
after all, incomplete. Until something more was known about her,
Charlotte herself was incomplete. It was nothing that Mrs. Gaskell's
work was the finest, tenderest portrait of a woman that it was ever
given to a woman to achieve; nothing that she was not only recklessly
and superbly loyal to Charlotte, but that in her very indiscretions she
was, as far as Charlotte was concerned, incorruptibly and profoundly
Since Mrs. Gaskell's time, other hands have been at work on Charlotte,
improving Mrs. Gaskell's masterpiece. A hundred little touches have been
added to it. First, it was supposed to be too tragic, too deliberately
and impossibly sombre (that sad book of which Charlotte's friend, Mary
Taylor, said that it was "not so gloomy as the truth"). So first came
Sir Wemyss Reid, conscientiously working up the high lights till he got
the values all wrong. "If the truth must be told," he says, "the life of
the author of _Jane Eyre_ was by no means so joyless as the world now
believes it to have been." And he sets out to give us the truth. But all
that he does to lighten the gloom is to tell a pleasant story of how
"one bright June morning in 1833, a handsome carriage and pair is
standing opposite the 'Devonshire Arms' at Bolton Bridge". In the
handsome carriage is a young girl, Ellen Nussey, waiting for Charlotte
Bronte and her brother and sisters to go with her for a picnic to Bolton
"Presently," says Sir Wemyss Reid, "on the steep road which stretches
across the moors to Keighley, the sound of wheels is heard, mingled with
the merry speech and merrier laughter of fresh young voices. Shall we go
forward unseen," he asks, "and study the approaching travellers whilst
they are still upon the road? Their conveyance is no handsome carriage,
but a rickety dog-cart, unmistakably betraying its neighbourship to the
carts and ploughs of some rural farmyard. The horse, freshly taken from
the fields, is driven by a youth who, in spite of his countrified dress,
is no mere bumpkin. His shock of red hair hangs down in somewhat ragged
locks behind his ears, for Branwell Bronte esteems himself a genius and
a poet, and, following the fashion of the times, has that abhorrence of
the barber's shears which genius is supposed to affect. But the lad's
face is a handsome and striking one, full of Celtic fire and humour,
untouched by the slightest shade of care, hopeful, promising, even
brilliant. How gaily he jokes with his three sisters; with what
inexhaustible volubility he pours out quotations from his favourite
poets, applying them to the lovely scenes around him; and with what a
mischievous delight in his superior nerve and mettle, he attempts the
feats of charioteering, which fill the heart of the youngest of the
party with sudden terrors! Beside him, in a dress of marvellous
plainness, and ugliness, stamped with the brand "home-made" in
characters which none can mistake, is the eldest of the sisters.
Charlotte is talking too; there are bright smiles upon her face; she is
enjoying everything around her, the splendid morning, the charms of
leafy trees and budding roses, and the ever musical stream; most of all,
perhaps, the charm of her brother's society, and the expectation of that
coming meeting with her friends, which is so near at hand. Behind sits a
pretty little girl, with fine complexion and delicate regular features,
whom the stranger would pick out as the beauty of the company, and a
tall, rather angular figure, clad in a dress exactly resembling
Charlotte's. Emily Bronte does not talk so much as the rest of the
party, but her wonderful eyes, brilliant and unfathomable as the pool at
the foot of a waterfall, but radiant also with a wealth of tenderness
and warmth, show how her soul is expanding under the influences of the
scene; how quick she is to note the least prominent of the beauties
around her, how intense is her enjoyment of the songs of the birds, the
brilliancy of the sunshine, the rich scent of the flower-bespangled
hedgerows. If she does not, like Charlotte and Anne, meet her brother's
ceaseless flood of sparkling words with opposing currents of speech, she
utters a strange, deep guttural sound which those who know her best
interpret as the language of a joy too deep for articulate expression.
Gaze at them as they pass you in the quiet road, and acknowledge that,
in spite of their rough and even uncouth exteriors, a happier four could
hardly be met with in this favourite haunt of pleasure-seekers during a
long summer's day."
And you do gaze at them and are sadder, if anything, than you were
before. You see them, if anything, more poignantly. You see their
cheerful biographer doing all he knows, and the light he shoots across
the blackness only makes it blacker.
Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi di tempo felice
and in the end the biographer with all his cheerfulness succumbs to the
tradition of misery, and even adds a dark contribution of his own, the
suggestion of an unhappy love-affair of Charlotte's.
After Sir Wemyss Reid came Mr. Francis Grundy with _his_ little
pictures, _Pictures of the Past_, presenting a dreadfully unattractive
Then came Mr. Leyland, following Mr. Grundy, with his glorification of
Branwell and his hint that Charlotte made it very hard at home for the
poor boy. He repeats the story that Branwell told Mr. George Searle
Phillips, how he went to see a dying girl in the village, and sat with
her half an hour, and read a psalm to her and a hymn, and how he felt
like praying with her too, but he was not "good enough", how he came
away with a heavy heart and fell into melancholy musings. "Charlotte
observed my depression," Branwell said, "and asked what ailed me. So I
told her. She looked at me with a look which I shall never forget if I
live to be a hundred years old--which I never shall. It was not like
her at all. It wounded me as if someone had struck me a blow in the
mouth. It involved ever so many things in it. It ran over me,
questioning and examining, as if I had been a wild beast. It said, 'Did
my ears deceive me, or did I hear aright?' And then came the painful,
baffled expression, which was worse than all. It said, 'I wonder if
that's true?' But, as she left the room, she seemed to accuse herself of
having wronged me, and smiled kindly upon me, and said, 'She is my
little scholar, and I will go and see her.' I replied not a word. I was
too much cut up! When she was gone, I came over here to the 'Black Bull'
and made a note of it...."
You see the implication? It was Charlotte who drove him to the "Black
Bull". That was Branwell's impression of Charlotte. Just the sort of
impression that an opium-eater would have of a beloved sister.
But Branwell's impression was good enough for Madame Duclaux to found
her theory on. Her theory is that Charlotte was inferior to Emily in
tenderness. It may well be so, and yet Charlotte would remain above most
women tender, for Emily's wealth would furnish forth a score of sisters.
The simple truth is that Charlotte had nerves, and Branwell was
extremely trying. And it is possible that Emily had less to bear, that
in her detachment she was protected more than Charlotte from Branwell at
Meanwhile tales were abroad presenting Charlotte in the queerest lights.
There is that immortal story of how Thackeray gave a party for Currer
Bell at his house in Young Street, and how Currer Bell had a headache
and lay on a sofa in the back drawing-room, and refused to talk to
anybody but the governess; and how Thackeray at last, very late, with a
finger on his lip, stole out of the house and took refuge in his club.
No wonder if this quaint and curious Charlotte survived in the memory
of Thackeray's daughter. But, even apart from the headache, you can see
how it came about, how the sight of the governess evoked Charlotte
Bronte's unforgotten agony. She saw in the amazed and cheerful lady her
own sad youth, slighted and oppressed, solitary in a scene of
gaiety--she could not have seen her otherwise--and her warm heart rushed
out to her. She was determined that that governess should have a happy
evening if nobody else had. Her behaviour was odd, if you like, it was
even absurd, but it had the sublimity of vicarious expiation. Has anyone
ever considered its significance, the magnitude of her deed? For
Charlotte, to be the guest of honour on that brilliant night, in the
house of Thackeray, her divinity, was to touch the topmost height of
fame. And she turned her back on the brilliance and the fame and the
face of her divinity, and offered herself up in flames as a sacrifice
for all the governesses that were and had ever been and would be.
And after the fine stories came the little legends--things about
Charlotte when she was a governess herself at Mrs. Sidgwick's, and the
tittle-tattle of the parish. One of the three curates whom Charlotte
made so shockingly immortal avenged himself for his immortality by
stating that the trouble with Charlotte was that she _would_ fight for
mastery in the parish. Who can believe him? If there is one thing that
seems more certain than another it is Charlotte's utter indifference to
parochial matters. But Charlotte was just, and she may have objected to
the young man's way with the Dissenters; we know that she did very
strongly object to Mr. William Weightman's way. And that, I imagine, was
the trouble between Charlotte and the curates.
As for the Sidgwicks, Charlotte's biographers have been rather hard on
them. Mr. Leslie Stephen calls them "coarse employers". They were
certainly not subtle enough to divine the hidden genius in their sad
little governess. It was, I imagine, Charlotte's alien, enigmatic face
that provoked a little Sidgwick to throw a Bible at her. She said Mrs.
Sidgwick did not know her, and did not "intend to know her". She might
have added that if she _had_ intended Mrs. Sidgwick could not possibly
have known her. And when the Sidgwicks said (as they did say to their
cousin, Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson) that if Miss Bronte "was invited
to walk to church with them, she thought she was being ordered about
like a slave; if she was not invited she imagined she was being excluded
from the family circle", that was simply their robust view of the
paralysed attitude of a shy girl among strangers, in an agony of fear
lest she should cut in where she was not wanted.
And allowances must be made for Mrs. Sidgwick. She was, no doubt,
considerably annoyed at finding that she had engaged a thoroughly
incompetent and apparently thoroughly morbid young person who had
offered herself as a nursery-governess and didn't know how to keep order
in the nursery. Naturally there was trouble at Stonegappe. Then one fine
day Mrs. Sidgwick discovered that there was, after all, a use for that
incomprehensible and incompetent Miss Bronte. Miss Bronte had a gift.
She could sew. She could sew beautifully. Her stitching, if you would
believe it, was a dream. And Mrs. Sidgwick saw that Miss Bronte's one
talent was not lodged in her useless. So Charlotte sat alone all evening
in the schoolroom at Stonegappe, a small figure hidden in pure white,
billowy seas of muslin, and lamented thus: "She cares nothing in the
world about me except to contrive how the greatest possible quantity of
labour may be squeezed out of me, and to that end she overwhelms me
with oceans of needlework, yards of cambric to hem, muslin night-caps
to make, and above all things, dolls to dress." And Mrs. Sidgwick
complained that Charlotte did not love the children, and forgot how
little she liked it when the children loved Charlotte, and was unaware,
poor lady, that it was recorded of her, and would be recorded to all
time, that she had said, "Love the _governess_, my dear!" when her
little impulsive boy put his hand in Charlotte's at the dinner-table,
and cried "I love 'ou, Miss Bronte." It was the same little, impulsive
boy who threw the Bible at Charlotte, and also threw a stone which hit
No wonder that Miss Bronte's one and only "pleasant afternoon" was when
Mr. Sidgwick went out walking in his fields with his children and his
Newfoundland dog, and Charlotte (by order) followed and observed him
Of course, all these old tales should have gone where Mrs. Sidgwick's
old muslin caps went; but they have not, and so it has got about that
Charlotte Bronte was not fond of children. Even Mr. Swinburne, at the
height of his magnificent eulogy, after putting crown upon crown upon
her head, pauses and wonders: had she any love for children? He finds in
her "a plentiful lack of inborn baby-worship"; she is unworthy to
compare in this with George Eliot, "the spiritual mother of Totty, of
Eppie, and of Lillo". "The fiery-hearted Vestal of Haworth," he says,
"had no room reserved in the palace of her passionate and high-minded
imagination as a nursery for inmates of such divine and delicious
quality." There was little Georgette in _Villette_, to say nothing of
Polly, and there was Adele in _Jane Eyre_. But Mr. Swinburne had
forgotten about little Georgette. Like George Henry Lewes he is
"well-nigh moved to think one of the most powerfully and exquisitely
written chapters in _Shirley_ a chapter which could hardly have been
written at all by a woman, or, for that matter, by a man, of however
noble and kindly a nature, in whom the instinct, or nerve, or organ of
love for children was even of average natural strength and sensibility";
so difficult was it for him to believe in "the dread and repulsion felt
by a forsaken wife and tortured mother for the very beauty and dainty
sweetness of her only new-born child, as recalling the cruel, sleek
charm of the human tiger that had begotten it". And so he crowns her
with all crowns but that of "love for children". He is still tender to
her, seeing in her that one monstrous lack; he touches it with sorrow
and a certain shame.
Mr. Birrell follows him. "Miss Bronte," he says with confidence, "did
not care for children. She had no eye for them. Hence it comes about
that her novel-children are not good." He is moved to playful sarcasm
when he tells how in August of eighteen-fifty-three "Miss Bronte
suffered a keen disappointment". She went to Scotland with some friends
who took their baby with them. The parents thought the baby was ill when
it wasn't, and insisted on turning back, and Charlotte had to give up
her holiday. "All on account of a baby," says Mr. Birrell, and refers
you to Charlotte's letter on the subject, implying that it was
cold-blooded. The biographer can quote letters for his purpose, and Mr.
Birrell omits to tell us that Charlotte wrote "had any evil consequences
followed a prolonged stay, I should never have forgiven myself". You are
to imagine that Charlotte could have forgiven herself perfectly well,
for Charlotte "did not care for children".
Mrs. Oliphant does not echo that cry. She was a woman and knew better.
For I believe that here we touch the very heart of the mystery that was
Charlotte Bronte. We would have no right to touch it, to approach it,
were it not that other people have already violated all that was most
sacred and most secret in that mystery, and have given the world a
defaced and disfigured Charlotte Bronte. I believe that this love of
children which even Mr. Swinburne has denied to her, was the key to
Charlotte's nature. We are face to face here, not with a want in her,
but with an abyss, depth beyond depth of tenderness and longing and
frustration, of a passion that found no clear voice in her works,
because it was one with the elemental nature in her, undefined,
She was afraid of children; she was awkward with them; because such
passion has shynesses, distances, and terrors unknown to the average
comfortable women who become happy mothers. It has even its perversions,
when love hardly knows itself from hate. Such love demands before all
things possession. It cries out for children of its own flesh and blood.
I believe that there were moments when it was pain for Charlotte to see
the children born and possessed by other women. It must have been agony
to have to look after them, especially when the rule was that they were
not to "love the governess".
The proofs of this are slender, but they are sufficient. There is little
Georgette, the sick child that Lucy nurses in the Pensionnat: "Little
Georgette still piped her plaintive wail, appealing to me by her
familiar term, 'Minnie, Minnie, me very poorly!' till my heart ached."
... "I affected Georgette; she was a sensitive and loving child; to hold
her in my lap, or carry her in my arms, was to me a treat. To-night she
would have me lay my head on the pillow of her crib; she even put her
little arms round my neck. Her clasp and the nestling action with which
she pressed her cheek to mine made me almost cry with a sort of tender
Once during a spring-cleaning at Upperwood House Charlotte was Mrs.
White's nursemaid as well as her governess, and she wrote: "By dint of
nursing the fat baby it has got to know me and be fond of me. I suspect
myself of growing rather fond of it." Years later she wrote to Mrs.
Gaskell, after staying with her: "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."
Mrs. Gaskell tells us that there was "a strong mutual attraction"
between Julia, her youngest little girl, and Charlotte Bronte. "The
child," she says, "would steal her little hand into Miss Bronte's
scarcely larger one, and each took pleasure in this apparently
unobserved caress." May I suggest that children do not steal their
little hands into the hands of people who do not care for them? Their
instinct is infallible.
Charlotte Bronte tried to give an account of her feeling for children;
it was something like the sacred awe of the lover. "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?"
Extraordinary that Charlotte's critics have missed the pathos of that
_cri de coeur_. It is so clearly an echo from the "house of bondage",
where Charlotte was made a stranger to the beloved, where the beloved
threw stones and Bibles at her. You really have to allow for the shock
of an experience so blighting. It is all part of the perversity of the
fate that dogged her, that her feeling should have met with that
reverse. But it was there, guarded with a certain shy austerity. She
"suspected" herself of getting rather fond of the baby.
She hid her secret even from herself, as women will hide these things.
But her dreams betrayed her after the way of dreams. Charlotte's dream
(premonitory, she thought, of trouble) was that she carried a little
crying child, and could not still its cry. "She described herself," Mrs.
Gaskell says, "as having the most painful sense of pity for the little
thing, lying _inert_, as sick children do, while she walked about in
some gloomy place with it, such as the aisle of Haworth Church." This
dream she gives to _Jane Eyre_, unconscious of its profound significance
and fitness. It is a pity that Mr. Swinburne did not pay attention to
All her life, I think, she suffered because of the perpetual insurgence
of this secret, impassioned, maternal energy. Hence the sting of Lewes's
famous criticism, beginning: "The grand function of woman, it must
always be remembered" (as if Charlotte had forgotten it!) "is
Maternity"; and, working up from his criticism of that chapter in
_Shirley_ to a climax of adjuration: "Currer Bell, if under your heart
had ever stirred a child; if to your bosom a babe had ever been
pressed--that mysterious part of your being, towards which all the rest
of it was drawn, in which your whole soul was transported and
absorbed--never could you have _imagined_ such a falsehood as that!" It
was impossible for Charlotte to protest against anything but the
abominable bad taste of Lewes's article, otherwise she might have told
him that she probably knew rather more about those mysteries than he
did. It was she who gave us that supreme image of disastrous love. "I
looked at my love; it shivered in my heart like a suffering child in a
And this woman died before her child was born.
* * * * *
Then there is Mrs. Oliphant again. Though she was not one of those who
said Charlotte Bronte was not fond of children, though she would have
died rather than have joined Lewes in his unspeakable cry against her,
Mrs. Oliphant made certain statements in no better taste than his. She
suggests that Charlotte, fond or not fond of children, was too fond of
matrimonial dreams. Her picture (the married woman's picture) is of an
undesired and undesirable little spinster pining visibly and shamelessly
in a parsonage. She would have us believe that from morning till night,
from night till morning, Charlotte Bronte in the Parsonage thought of
nothing but of getting married, that her dreams pursued, ruthlessly, the
casual visitor. The hopelessness of the dream, the undesirability of
Charlotte, is what makes her so irresistible to her sister novelist.
There was "one subject", she says, "which Charlotte Bronte had at her
command, having experienced in her own person, and seen her nearest
friends under the experience, of that solitude and longing of women of
which she has made so remarkable an exposition. The long silence of life
without an adventure or a change, the forlorn gaze out of windows which
never show anyone coming who can rouse the slightest interest in the
mind, the endless years and days which pass and pass, carrying away the
bloom, extinguishing the lights of youth, bringing a dreary middle age
before which the very soul shrinks, while yet the sufferer feels how
strong is the current of life in her own veins, and how capable she is
of all the active duties of existence--this was the essence and soul of
the existence she knew best. Was there no help for it? Must the women
wait and see their lives thrown away, and have no power to save
"The position," she goes on, "in itself so tragic, is one which can
scarcely be expressed without calling forth inevitable ridicule, a laugh
at the best, more often a sneer, at the women whose desire for a husband
is thus betrayed. Shirley and Caroline Helstone both cried out for that
husband with an indignation, a fire and impatience, a sense of wrong and
injury, which stopped the laugh for the moment. It might be ludicrous,
but it was horribly genuine and true." (This is more than can be said of
Mrs. Oliphant's view of the adorable Shirley Keeldar who was Emily
Bronte. It is ludicrous enough, and it may be genuine, but it is
certainly not true.) But Mrs. Oliphant is careful not to go too far.
"Note," she says, "there was nothing sensual about these young women. It
was life they wanted; they knew nothing of the grosser thoughts which
the world with its jeers attributes to them: of such thoughts they were
unconscious in a primitive innocence which, perhaps, only women
understand." Yet she characterizes their "outcry" as "indelicate". "All
very well to talk of women working for their living, finding new
channels for themselves, establishing their independence. How much have
we said of all that" (Mrs. Oliphant thinks that she is rendering
Charlotte Bronte's thought), "endeavouring to persuade ourselves!
Charlotte Bronte had the courage of her opinions. It was not education
nor a trade that her women wanted. It was not a living, but their share
in life.... Miss Bronte herself said correct things" (observe that
insincerity is insinuated here) "about the protection which a trade is
to a woman, keeping her from a mercenary marriage; but this was not in
the least the way of her heroines." (Why, you naturally wonder, should
it have been?) "They wanted to be happy, no doubt, but above all things
they wanted their share in life, to have their position by the side of
men, which alone confers a natural equality, to have their shoulder to
the wheel, their hands on the reins of common life, to build up the
world and link the generations each to each." (And very proper of them,
too.) "In her philosophy, marriage was the only state which procured
this, and if she did not recommend a mercenary marriage she was at least
very tolerant about its conditions, insisting less upon love than was to
be expected" (!) "and with a covert conviction in her mind, that if not
one man, then another was better than any complete abandonment of the
larger path. Lucy Snowe for a long time had her heart very much set on
Dr. John and his placid breadth of Englishism; but when she finally
found out that to be impossible her tears were soon dried by the
prospect of Paul Emanuel, so unlike him, coming into his place."
The obvious answer to all this is that Charlotte Bronte was writing in
the mid-Victorian age, about mid-Victorian women, the women whom she saw
around her; writing, without any "philosophy" or "covert conviction", in
the days before emancipation, when marriage was the only chance of
independence that a woman had. It would have been marvellous, if she had
not had her sister Emily before her, that in such an age she should have
conceived and created Shirley Keeldar. As for poor little Lucy with her
two men, she is not the first heroine who mistook the false dawn for the
true. Besides, Miss Bronte's "philosophy" was exactly the opposite to
that attributed to her, as anybody may see who reads _Shirley_. In
these matters she burned what her age adored, and adored what it burned,
a thorough revolutionary.
But this is not the worst. Mrs. Oliphant professes to feel pity for her
victim. "Poor Charlotte Bronte! She has not been as other women,
protected by the grave from all betrayal of the episodes in her own
life." (You would imagine they were awful, the episodes in Charlotte
Bronte's life.) "Everybody has betrayed her, and all she thought about
this one, and that, and every name that was ever associated with hers.
There was a Mr. Taylor from London, about whom she wrote with great
freedom to her friend, Miss Nussey, telling how the little man had come,
how he had gone away without any advance in the affairs, how a chill
came over her when he appeared and she found him much less attractive
than when at a distance, yet how she liked it as little when he went
away, and was somewhat excited about his first letter, and even went so
far as to imagine with a laugh that there might possibly be a dozen
little Joe Taylors before all was over."
This is atrocious. But the malice and bad taste of it are nothing to the
gross carelessness and ignorance it reveals--ignorance of facts and
identities and names. Charlotte's suitor was Mr. James Taylor and not
Joe. Joe, the brother of her friend, Mary Taylor, was married already to
a lady called Amelia, and it is of Joe and his Amelia that Charlotte
writes. "She must take heart" (Amelia had been singularly unsuccessful),
"there may yet be a round dozen of little Joe Taylors to look after--run
after--to sort and switch and train up in the way they should go."
Of Mr. James Taylor she writes more decorously. Miss Nussey, as usual,
had been thinking unwarrantable things, and had made a most unbecoming
joke about Jupiter and Venus, which outraged Charlotte's "common
sense". "The idea of the little man," says Charlotte, "shocks me less.
He still sends his little newspaper; and the other day there came a
letter of a bulk, volume, pith, judgment and knowledge, fit to have been
the product of a giant. You may laugh as much and as wickedly as you
please, but the fact is, there is a quiet constancy about this, my
diminutive and red-haired friend, which adds a foot to his stature,
turns his sandy locks dark, and altogether dignifies him a good deal in
my estimation." This is all she says by way of appreciation. She says
later, "His manners and his personal appearance scarcely pleased me more
than at the first interview.... I feel that in his way he has a regard
for me; a regard which I cannot bring myself entirely to reciprocate in
kind, and yet its withdrawal leaves a painful blank." Miss Nussey
evidently insists that Charlotte's feelings are engaged this time,
arguing possibly from the "painful blank"; and Charlotte becomes
explicit. She speaks of the disadvantages of the alleged match, and we
gather that Miss Nussey has been urging her to take the little man. "But
there is another thing which forms a barrier more difficult to pass than
any of these. Would Mr. Taylor and I ever suit? Could I ever feel for
him enough love to accept him as a husband? Friendship--gratitude--esteem
I have, but each moment he came near me, and that I could see his eyes
fastened on me, my veins ran ice. Now that he is away, I feel far
more gently to him; it is only close by that I grow rigid--stiffening
with a strange mixture of apprehension and anger--which nothing
softens but his retreat, and a perfect subduing of his manner."
And again, "my conscience, I can truly say, does not _now_ accuse
me of having treated Mr. Taylor with injustice or unkindness ...
but with every disposition and with every wish, with every intention
even to look on him in the most favourable point of view at his last
visit, it was impossible to me in my inward heart to think of him as one
that might one day be acceptable as a husband." Could anything be _more_
explicit? There is a good deal more of it. After one very searching
criticism of Mr. Taylor: "One does not like to say these things, but one
had better be honest." And of her honesty Charlotte's letters on this
subject leave no doubt. There is not the smallest ground for supposing
that even for a moment had she thought of Mr. James Taylor as "one that
one day might be acceptable", much less is there for Mr. Clement
Shorter's suggestion that if he had come back from Bombay she would have
But Joe or James, it is all one to Mrs. Oliphant, with her theory of
Charlotte Bronte. "For her and her class, which did not speak of it,
everything depended upon whether the women married or did not marry.
Their thoughts were thus artificially fixed to one point in the
horizon." The rest is repetition, ending in the astounding verdict: "The
seed she thus sowed has come to many growths that would have appalled
Charlotte Bronte. But while it would be very unjust to blame her for the
vagaries that have followed, and to which nothing could be less
desirable than any building of the house or growth of the race, any
responsibility or service, we must still believe that it was she who
drew the curtain first aside and opened the gates to imps of evil
meaning, polluting and profaning the domestic hearth."
That is Mrs. Oliphant on Charlotte Bronte.
And even Mr. Clement Shorter, who has dealt so admirably with outrageous
legends, goes half the way with the detractor. He has a theory that
Charlotte Bronte was a woman of morbid mood, "to whom the problem of sex
appealed with all its complications", and that she "dwelt continually on
the problem of the ideal mate".
Now Charlotte may have dreamed of getting married (there have been more
criminal dreams); she may have brooded continually over the problem of
the ideal mate, only of all these dreams and broodings there is not one
atom of evidence--not one. Not a hint, not a trace, either in her
character as we know it, or in her very voluminous private
correspondence. The facts of her life disprove it. Her letters to Ellen
Nussey (never meant for publication) reveal the workings of Charlotte's
feminine mind when applied to "the sex problem"; a mind singularly
wholesome and impersonal, and singularly detached. Charlotte is full of
lights upon this awful subject of matrimony, which, by the way, had
considerably more interest for Miss Nussey than it had for her. In fact,
if it had not been for Miss Nussey it would not have appeared so often
as it did in Charlotte's letters. If you pay attention to the context (a
thing that theorists never do) you see, what is indeed obvious, that a
large portion of Charlotte Bronte's time was taken up in advising and
controlling Ellen Nussey, that amiable and impulsive prototype of
Caroline Helstone. She is called upon in all Miss Nussey's hours of
crisis, and there seem to have been a great many of them. "Do not," she
writes, "be over-persuaded to marry a man you can never respect--I do
not say _love_, because I think if you can respect a person before
marriage, moderate love at least will come after; and as to intense
passion, I am convinced that that is no desirable feeling. In the first
place, it seldom or never meets with a requital; and in the second
place, if it did, the feeling would be only temporary; it would last the
honeymoon, and then, perhaps, give place to disgust, or indifference,
worse perhaps than disgust. Certainly this would be the case on the
man's part; and on the woman's--God help her if she is left to love
passionately and alone.
"I am tolerably well convinced that I shall never marry at all."
And again, to Miss Nussey, six months later: "Did you not once say to me
in all childlike simplicity, 'I thought, Charlotte, no young lady should
fall in love till the offer was actually made'? I forgot what answer I
made at the time, but I now reply, after due consideration, Right as a
glove, the maxim is just, and I hope you will always attend to it. I
will even extend and confirm it: no young lady should fall in love till
the offer has been made, accepted, the marriage ceremony performed, and
the first half-year of wedded life has passed away. A woman may then
begin to love, but with great precaution, very coolly, very moderately,
very rationally. If she ever loves so much that a harsh word or a cold
look cuts her to the heart, she is a fool. If she ever loves so much
that her husband's will is her law, and that she has got into a habit of
watching his looks in order that she may anticipate his wishes, she will
soon be a neglected fool. Did I not tell you of an instance...?"
What could be more lucid, more light-hearted, and more sane? And if
Charlotte is suspicious of the dangers of her own temperament, that only
proves her lucidity and sanity the more.
Later, at Brussels, when confronted with "three or four people's" idea
that "the future _epoux_ of Miss Bronte is on the Continent", she
defends herself against the "silly imputation". "Not that it is a crime
to marry, or a crime to wish to be married; but it is an imbecility,
which I reject with contempt, for women, who have neither fortune nor
beauty, to make marriage the principal object of their wishes and hopes,
and the aim of all their actions; not to be able to convince themselves
that they are unattractive, and that they had better be quiet, and think
of other things than wedlock." Can anything be clearer?
So much for herself. But she has to deal with Miss Nussey, in
difficulties again, later: "Papa has two or three times expressed a fear
that since Mr. ---- paid you so much attention, he will, perhaps, have
made an impression on your mind which will interfere with your comfort.
I tell him I think not, as I believe you to be mistress of yourself in
those matters. Still, he keeps saying that I am to write to you and
dissuade you from thinking of him. I never saw Papa make himself so
uneasy about a thing of the kind before; he is usually very sarcastic on
"Mr. ---- be hanged! I never thought very well of him, and I am much
disposed to think very ill of him at this blessed minute. I have
discussed the subject fully, for where is the use of being mysterious
and constrained?--it is not worth while."
And yet again it is Ellen Nussey. "Ten years ago I should have laughed
at your account of the blunder you made in mistaking the bachelor doctor
of Bridlington for a married man. I should have certainly thought you
scrupulous over-much, and wondered how you could possibly regret being
civil to a decent individual merely because he happened to be single
instead of double. Now, however, I can perceive that your scruples are
founded on common sense. I know that if women wish to escape the stigma
of husband-seeking, they must act and look like marble or clay--cold,
expressionless, bloodless; for every appearance of feeling, of joy,
sorrow, friendliness, antipathy, admiration, disgust, are alike
construed by the world into the attempt to" (I regret to say that
Charlotte wrote) "to hook a husband."
Later, she has to advise her friend Mr. Williams as to a career for his
daughter Louisa. And here she is miles ahead of her age, the age that
considered marriage the only honourable career for a woman. "Your
daughters--no more than your sons--should be a burden on your hands.
Your daughters--as much as your sons--should aim at making their way
honourably through life. Do you not wish to keep them at home? Believe
me, teachers may be hard-worked, ill-paid and despised, but the girl who
stays at home doing nothing is worse off than the hardest-wrought and
worst-paid drudge of a school. Whenever I have seen, not merely in
humble but in affluent houses, families of daughters sitting waiting to
be married, I have pitied them from my heart. It is doubtless well--very
well--if Fate decrees them a happy marriage; but, if otherwise, give
their existence some object, their time some occupation, or the
peevishness of disappointment, and the listlessness of idleness will