Part 2 out of 5
infallibly degrade their nature.... Lonely as I am, how should I be if
Providence had never given me courage to adopt a career...? How should I
be with youth past, sisters lost, a resident in a moorland parish where
there is not a single educated family? In that case I should have no
world at all. As it is, something like a hope and a motive sustains me
still. I wish all your daughters--I wish every woman in England, had
also a hope and a motive."
Whatever the views of Charlotte Bronte's heroines may or may not have
been, these were her own views--sober, sincere, and utterly
dispassionate. Mrs. Oliphant set them aside, either in criminal
carelessness, or with still more criminal deliberation, because they
interfered with her theory. They are certainly not the views of a woman
given to day-dreaming and window-gazing. Lucy Snowe may have had time
for window-gazing, but not Charlotte Bronte, what with her writing and
her dusting, sweeping, ironing, bed-making, and taking the eyes out of
the potatoes for poor old Tabby, who was too blind to see them.
Window-gazing of all things! Mrs. Oliphant could not have fixed upon a
habit more absurdly at variance with Charlotte's character.
For she was pure, utterly and marvellously pure from sentimentalism,
which was (and she knew it) the worst vice of the Victorian age. Mr.
Leslie Stephen said that, "Miss Bronte's sense of humour was but
feeble." It was robust enough when it played with sentimentalists. But
as for love, for passion, she sees it with a tragic lucidity that is
almost a premonition. And her attitude was by no means that of the
foredoomed spinster, making necessity her virtue. There was no
necessity. She had at least four suitors (quite a fair allowance for a
little lady in a lonely parish), and she refused them all. Twice in her
life, in her tempestuous youth, and at a crisis of her affairs, she
chose "dependence upon coarse employers" before matrimony. She was
shrewd, lucid, fastidious, and saw the men she knew without any glamour.
To the cold but thoroughly presentable Mr. Henry Nussey she replied
thus: "It has always been my habit to study the character of those among
whom I chance to be thrown, and I think I know yours and can imagine
what description of woman would suit you for a wife. The character
should not be too marked, ardent and original, her temper should be
mild, her piety undoubted, and her personal attractions sufficient to
please your eyes and gratify your just pride. As for me you do not know
me...." She was only three-and-twenty when she wrote that, with the
prospect of Stonegappe before her. For she had not, and could not have
for him, "that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for
him; and if ever I marry it must be in that light of adoration that I
will regard my husband". Later, in her worst loneliness she refused that
ardent Mr. Taylor, who courted her by the novel means of newspapers sent
with violent and unremitting regularity through the post. He represented
to some degree the larger life of intellectual interest. But he offended
her fastidiousness. She was sorry for the little man with his little
newspaper, and that was all. She refused several times the man she
ultimately married. He served a long apprenticeship to love, and
Charlotte yielded to his distress rather than to her own passion. She
describes her engaged state as "very calm, very expectant. What I taste
of happiness is of the soberest order. I trust to love my husband. I am
grateful for his tender love for me.... Providence offers me this
destiny. Doubtless then it is the best for me."
These are not the words, nor is this the behaviour of Mrs. Oliphant's
Charlotte Bronte, the forlorn and desperate victim of the obsession of
I do not say that Charlotte Bronte had not what is called a
"temperament"; her genius would not have been what it was without it;
she herself would have been incomplete; but there never was a woman of
genius who had her temperament in more complete subjection to her
character; and it is her character that you have to reckon with at every
The little legends and the little theories have gone far enough. And had
they gone no farther they would not have mattered much. They would at
least have left Charlotte Bronte's genius to its own mystery.
But her genius was the thing that irritated, the enigmatic, inexplicable
thing. Talent in a woman you can understand, there's a formula for
it--_tout talent de femme est un bonheur manque_. So when a woman's
talent baffles you, your course is plain, _cherchez l'homme_.
Charlotte's critics argued that if you could put your finger on the man
you would have the key to the mystery. This, of course, was arguing that
her genius was, after all, only a superior kind of talent; but some of
them had already begun to ask themselves, Was it, after all, anything
more? So they began to look for the man. They were certain by this time
that there was one.
The search was difficult; for Charlotte had concealed him well. But they
found him at last in M. Constantin Heger, the little Professor of the
Pensionnat de Demoiselles in the Rue d'Isabelle. Sir Wemyss Reid had
suggested a love-affair in Brussels to account for Charlotte's
depression, which was unfavourable to his theory of the happy life. Mr.
Leyland seized upon the idea, for it nourished his theory that Branwell
was an innocent lamb who had never caused his sisters a moment's misery.
They _made_ misery for themselves out of his harmless peccadilloes. Mr.
Angus Mackay in _The Brontes, Fact and Fiction_, gives us this fiction
for a fact. He is pleased with what he calls the "pathetic significance"
of his "discovery". There _was_ somebody, there had to be, and it had to
be M. Heger, for there wasn't anybody else. Mr. Mackay draws back the
veil with a gesture and reveals--the love-affair. He is very nice about
it, just as nice as ever he can be. "We see her," he says, "sore
wounded in her affections, but unconquerable in her will. The discovery
... does not degrade the noble figure we know so well.... The moral of
her greatest works--that conscience must reign absolute at whatever
cost--acquires a greater force when we realize how she herself came
through the furnace of temptation with marks of torture on her, but with
no stain on her soul."
This is all very well, but the question is: _Did_ Charlotte come through
a furnace? _Did_ she suffer from a great and tragic passion? It may have
been so. For all we know she may have been in fifty furnaces; she may
have gone from one fit of tragic passion to another. Only (apart from
gossip, and apart from the argument from the novels, which begs the
question) we have no evidence to prove it. What we have points all the
Gossip apart, believers in the tragic passion have nourished their
theory chiefly on that celebrated passage in a letter of Charlotte's to
Ellen Nussey: "I returned to Brussels after Aunt's death, prompted by
what then seemed an irresistible impulse. I was punished for my selfish
folly by a withdrawal for more than two years of happiness and peace of
Here we have the great disclosure. By "irresistible impulse" and
"selfish folly", Charlotte could only mean indulgence in an illegitimate
passion for M. Heger's society. Peace of mind bears but one
Mr. Clement Shorter, to his infinite credit, will have none of this. He
maintains very properly that the passage should be left to bear the
simple construction that Miss Nussey and Mr. Nicholls put upon it. But I
would go farther. I am convinced that not only does that passage bear
that construction, but that it will not bear the weight of any other.
In eighteen-forty-two Charlotte's aunt died, and Charlotte became the
head of her father's household. She left her father's house in a time of
trouble, prompted by "an irresistible impulse" towards what we should
now call self-development. Charlotte, more than two years later, in a
moment of retrospective morbidity, called it "selfish folly". In that
dark mid-Victorian age it was sin in any woman to leave her home if her
home required her. And with her aunt dead, and her brother Branwell
drowning his grief for his relative in drink, and her father going blind
and beginning in his misery to drink a little too, Charlotte felt that
her home did require her. Equally she felt that either Emily or she had
got to turn out and make a living, and since it couldn't possibly be
Emily it must be she. The problem would have been quite simple even for
Charlotte--but _she wanted to go_. Therefore her tender conscience
vacillated. When you remember that Charlotte Bronte's conscience was,
next to her genius, the largest, and at the same time the most delicate
part of her, and that her love for her own people was a sacred passion,
her words are sufficiently charged with meaning. A passion for M. Heger
is, psychologically speaking, superfluous. You can prove anything by
detaching words from their context. The letter from which that passage
has been torn is an answer to Ellen Nussey's suggestions of work for
Charlotte. Charlotte says "any project which infers the necessity of my
leaving home is impracticable to me. If I could leave home I should not
be at Haworth now. I know life is passing away, and I am doing nothing,
earning nothing--a very bitter knowledge it is at moments--but I see no
way out of the mist"; and so on for another line or two, and then:
"These ideas sting me keenly sometimes; but whenever I consult my
conscience it affirms that I am doing right in staying at home, and
bitter are its upbraidings when I yield to an eager desire for release."
And then, the passage quoted _ad nauseam_, to support the legend of M.
A "total withdrawal for more than two years of happiness and peace of
mind". This letter is dated October 1846--more than two years since her
return from Brussels in January, eighteen-forty-four. In those two years
her father was threatened with total blindness, and her brother Branwell
achieved his destiny. The passage refers unmistakably to events at
Haworth. It is further illuminated by another passage from an earlier
letter. Ellen Nussey is going through the same crisis--torn between duty
to herself and duty to her people. She asks Charlotte's advice and
Charlotte gives judgment: "The right path is that which necessitates the
greatest sacrifice of self-interest." The sacrifice, observe, not of
happiness, not of passion, but of self-interest, the development of
self. It was self-development, and not passion, not happiness, that she
went to Brussels for.
And Charlotte's letters from Brussels--from the scene of passion in the
year of crisis, eighteen-forty-three--sufficiently reveal the nature of
the trouble there. Charlotte was alone in the Pensionnat without Emily.
Emily was alone at Haworth. The few friends she had in Brussels left
soon after her arrival. She was alone in Brussels, and her homesickness
was terrible. You can trace the malady in all its stages. In March she
writes: "I ought to consider myself well off, and to be thankful for my
good fortune. I hope I am thankful" (clearly she isn't thankful in the
least!), "and if I could always keep up my spirits and never feel lonely
or long for companionship or friendship, or whatever they call it, I
should do very well." In the same letter you learn that she is giving
English lessons to M. Heger and his brother-in-law, M. Chapelle. "If you
could see and hear the efforts I make to teach them to pronounce like
Englishmen, and their unavailing attempts to imitate, you would laugh to
all eternity." Charlotte is at first amused at the noises made by M.
Heger and his brother-in-law.
In May the noises made by Monsieur fail to amuse. Still, she is
"indebted to him for all the pleasure or amusement" that she had, and in
spite of her indebtedness, she records a "total want of companionship".
"I lead an easeful, stagnant, silent life, for which ... I ought to be
very thankful" (but she is not). May I point out that though you may be
"silent" in the first workings of a tragic and illegitimate passion, you
are not "stagnant", and certainly not "easeful".
At the end of May she finds out that Madame Heger does not like her, and
Monsieur is "wondrously influenced" by Madame. Monsieur has in a great
measure "withdrawn the light of his countenance", but Charlotte
apparently does not care. In August the _vacancies_ are at hand, and
everybody but Charlotte is going home. She is consequently "in low
spirits; earth and heaven are dreary and empty to me at this moment"....
"I can hardly write, I have such a dreary weight at my heart." But she
will see it through. She will stay some months longer "till I have
acquired German". And at the end: "Everybody is abundantly civil, but
homesickness comes creeping over me. I cannot shake it off." That was in
September, in M. Heger's absence. Later, she tells Emily how she went
into the cathedral and made "a real confession _to see what it was
like_". Charlotte's confession has been used to bolster up the theory of
the "temptation". Unfortunately for the theory it happened in
September, when M. Heger and temptation were not there. In October she
finds that she no longer trusts Madame Heger. At the same time "solitude
oppresses me to an excess". She gave notice, and M. Heger flew into a
passion and commanded her to stay. She stayed very much against, not her
conscience, but her will. In the same letter and the same connection she
says, "I have much to say--many little odd things, queer and puzzling
enough--which I do not like to trust to a letter, but which one day
perhaps, or rather one evening--if ever we should find ourselves by the
fireside at Haworth or Brookroyd, with our feet on the fender curling
our hair--I may communicate to you."
Charlotte is now aware of a situation; she is interested in it,
intellectually, not emotionally.
In November: "Twinges of homesickness cut me to the heart, now and
then." On holidays "the silence and loneliness of all the house weighs
down one's spirits like lead.... Madame Heger, good and kind as I have
described her" (_i.e._ for all her goodness and kindness), "never comes
near me on these occasions." ... "She is not colder to me than she is to
the other teachers, but they are less dependent on her than I am." But
the situation is becoming clearer. Charlotte is interested. "I fancy I
begin to perceive the reason of this mighty distance and reserve; it
sometimes makes me laugh, and at other times nearly cry. When I am sure
of it I will tell you."
There can be no doubt that before she left Brussels Charlotte was sure;
but there is no record of her ever having told.
The evidence from the letters is plain enough. But the first thing that
the theorist does is to mutilate letters. He suppresses all those parts
of a correspondence which tell against his theory. When these torn and
bleeding passages are restored piously to their contexts they are
destructive to the legend of tragic passion. They show (as Mr. Clement
Shorter has pointed out) that throughout her last year at Brussels
Charlotte Bronte saw hardly anything of M. Heger. They also show that
before very long Charlotte had a shrewd suspicion that Madame had
arranged it so, and that it was not so much the absence of Monsieur that
disturbed her as the extraordinary behaviour of Madame. And they show
that from first to last she was incurably homesick.
Now if Charlotte had been in any degree, latently, or increasingly, or
violently in love with M. Heger, she would have been as miserable as you
like in M. Heger's house, but she would not have been homesick; she
would not, I think, have worried quite so much about Madame's behaviour;
and she would have found the clue to it sooner than she did.
To me it is all so simple and self-evident that, if the story were not
revived periodically, if it had not been raked up again only the other
day,[A] there would be no need to dwell upon anything so pitiful and
[Footnote A: See _The Key to the Bronte Works_, by J. Malham-Dembleby,
It rests first and foremost on gossip, silly, pitiful gossip and
conjecture. Gossip in England, gossip in Brussels, conjecture all round.
Above all, it rests on certain feline hints supplied by Madame Heger and
her family. Charlotte's friends were always playfully suspecting her of
love-affairs. They could never put their fingers on the man, and they
missed M. Heger. It would never have occurred to their innocent
mid-Victorian minds to suspect Charlotte of an attachment to a married
man. It would not have occurred to Charlotte to suspect herself of it.
But Madame Heger was a Frenchwoman, and she had not a mid-Victorian
mind, and she certainly suspected Charlotte of an attachment, a flagrant
attachment, to M. Heger. It is well known that Madame made statements to
that effect, and it is admitted on all hands that Madame had been
jealous. It may fairly be conjectured that it was M. Heger and not
Charlotte who gave her cause, slight enough in all conscience, but
sufficient for Madame Heger. She did not understand these Platonic
relations between English teachers and their French professors. She had
never desired Platonic relations with anybody herself, and she saw
nothing but annoyance in them for everybody concerned. Madame's attitude
is the clue to the mystery, the clue that Charlotte found. She accused
the dead Charlotte of an absurd and futile passion for her husband; she
stated that she had had to advise the living Charlotte to moderate the
ardour of her admiration for the engaging professor; but the truth, as
Charlotte in the end discovered, was that for a certain brief period
Madame was preposterously jealous. M. Heger confessed as much when he
asked Charlotte to address her letters to him at the Athenee Royale
instead of the Pensionnat. The correspondence, he said, was disagreeable
to his wife.
Why, in Heaven's name, disagreeable, if Madame Heger suspected Charlotte
of an absurd and futile passion? And why should Madame Heger have been
jealous of an absurd and futile woman, a woman who had seen so little of
Madame Heger's husband, and who was then in England? I cannot agree with
Mr. Shorter that M. Heger regarded Charlotte with indifference. He was a
Frenchman, and he had his vanity, and no doubt the frank admiration of
his brilliant pupil appealed to it vividly in moments of conjugal
depression. Charlotte herself must have had some attraction for M.
Heger. Madame perceived the appeal and the attraction, and she was
jealous; therefore her interpretation of appearances could not have been
so unflattering to Charlotte as she made out. Madame, in fact,
suspected, on her husband's part, the dawning of an attachment. We know
nothing about M. Heger's attachment, and we haven't any earthly right to
know; but from all that is known of M. Heger it is certain that, if it
was not entirely intellectual, not entirely that "_affection presque
paternelle_" that he once professed, it was entirely restrained and
innocent and honourable. It is Madame Heger with her jealousy who has
given the poor gentleman away. Monsieur's state of mind--extremely
temporary--probably accounted for "those many odd little things, queer
and puzzling enough", which Charlotte would not trust to a letter;
matter for curl-paper confidences and no more.
Of course there is the argument from the novels, from _The Professor_,
from _Jane Eyre_, from _Villette_. I have not forgotten it. But really
it begs the question. It moves in an extremely narrow and an extremely
vicious circle. Jane Eyre was tried in a furnace of temptation,
therefore Charlotte must have been tried. Lucy Snowe and Frances Henri
loved and suffered in Brussels. Therefore Charlotte must have loved and
suffered there. And if Charlotte loved and suffered and was tried in a
furnace of temptation, that would account for Frances and for Lucy and
No; the theorists who have insisted on this tragic passion have not
reckoned with Charlotte Bronte's character, and its tremendous power of
self-repression. If at Brussels any disastrous tenderness had raised its
head it wouldn't have had a chance to grow an inch. But Charlotte had
large and luminous ideas of friendship. She was pure, utterly pure from
all the illusions and subtleties and corruptions of the sentimentalist,
and she could trust herself in friendship. She brought to it ardours and
vehemences that she would never have allowed to love. If she let herself
go in her infrequent intercourse with M. Heger, it was because she was
so far from feeling in herself the possibility of passion. That was why
she could say, "I think, however long I live, I shall not forget what
the parting with M. Heger cost me. It grieved me so much to grieve him
who has been so true, kind, and disinterested a friend." That was how
she could bring herself to write thus to Monsieur: "_Savez-vous ce que je
ferais, Monsieur? J'ecrirais un livre et je le dedierais a mon maitre de
litterature, au seul maitre que j'aie jamais eu--a vous Monsieur! Je
vous ai dit souvent en francais combien je vous respecte, combien je
suis redevable a votre bonte a vos conseils. Je voudrais le dire une
fois en anglais ... le souvenir de vos bontes ne s'effacera jamais de ma
memoire, et tant que ce souvenir durera le respect que vous m'avez
inspire durera aussi._" For "_je vous respecte_" we are not entitled to
read "_je vous aime_". Charlotte was so made that kindness shown her
moved her to tears of gratitude. When Charlotte said "respect" she meant
it. Her feeling for M. Heger was purely what Mr. Matthew Arnold said
religion was, an affair of "morality touched with emotion". All her
utterances, where there is any feeling in them, no matter what, have a
poignancy, a vibration which is Brontesque and nothing more. And this
Brontesque quality is what the theorists have (like Madame Heger, and
possibly Monsieur) neither allowed for nor understood.
* * * * *
For this "fiery-hearted Vestal", this virgin, sharp-tongued and
sharper-eyed, this scorner of amorous curates, had a genius for
friendship. This genius, like her other genius, was narrow in its range
and opportunity, and for that all the more ardent and intense. It fed on
what came to its hand. It could even grow, like her other genius, with
astounding vitality out of strange and hostile soil. She seems to have
had many friends, obscure and great; the obscure, the Dixons, the
Wheelrights, the Taylors, the Nusseys, out of all proportion to the
great. But properly speaking she had only two friends, Mary Taylor and
Ellen Nussey, the enchanting, immortal "Nel".
There _is_ something at first sight strange and hostile about Mary
Taylor, the energetic, practical, determined, terribly robust person you
see so plainly trying, in the dawn of their acquaintance, to knock the
nonsense out of Charlotte. Mary Taylor had no appreciation of the
Brontesque. When Charlotte told Mary Taylor that at Cowan Bridge she
used to stand in the burn on a stone to watch the water flow by, Mary
Taylor told Charlotte that she should have gone fishing. When _Jane
Eyre_ appeared she wrote to Charlotte in a strain that is amusing to
posterity. There is a touch of condescension in her praise. She is
evidently surprised at anything so great coming out of Charlotte. "It
seemed to me incredible that you had actually written a book." "You are
very different from me," she says, "in having no doctrine to preach. It
is impossible to squeeze a moral out of your production." She is
thinking of his prototype when she criticizes the character of St. John
Rivers. "A missionary either goes into his office for a piece of bread,
or he goes for enthusiasm, and that is both too good and too bad a
quality for St. John. It's a bit of your absurd charity to believe in
such a man." As an intellectual woman Mary Taylor realized Charlotte
Bronte's intellect, but it is doubtful if she ever fully realized what,
beyond an intellect, she had got hold of in her friend. She was a woman
of larger brain than Ellen Nussey, she was loyal and warm-hearted to the
last degree, but it was not given to her to see in Charlotte Bronte what
Ellen Nussey, little as you would have expected it, had seen. She did
not keep her letters. She burnt them "in a fit of caution", which may
have been just as well.
But Mary Taylor is important. She had, among her more tender qualities,
an appalling frankness. It was she who told poor little Charlotte that
she was very ugly. Charlotte never forgot it. You can feel in her
letters, in her novels, in her whole nature, the long reverberation of
the shock. She said afterwards: "You did me a great deal of good,
Polly," by which she meant that Polly had done her an infinity of harm.
Her friends all began by trying to do her good. Even Ellen Nussey tried.
Charlotte is very kindly cautioned against being "tempted by the
fondness of my sisters to consider myself of too much importance", and
in a parenthesis Ellen Nussey begs her not to be offended. "Oh, Ellen,"
Charlotte writes, "do you think I could be offended by any good advice
you may give me?" She thanks her heartily, and loves her "if possible
all the better for it". Ellen Nussey in her turn asks Charlotte to tell
her of her faults and "cease flattering her". Charlotte very sensibly
refuses; and it is not till she has got away from her sisters that her
own heart-searchings begin. They are mainly tiresome, but there is a
flash of revelation in her reply to "the note you sent me with the
umbrella". "My darling, if I were like you, I should have to face
Zionwards, though prejudice and error might occasionally fling a mist
over the glorious vision before me, for with all your single-hearted
sincerity you have your faults, but _I_ am not like you. If you knew my
thoughts; the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at
times eats me up, and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly
insipid, you would pity me, and I dare say despise me." Miss Nussey
writes again, and Charlotte trembles "all over with excitement" after
reading her note. "I will no longer shrink from your question," she
replies. "I _do_ wish to be better than I am. I pray fervently sometimes
to be made so ... this very night I will pray as you wish me."
But Charlotte is not in the least like Ellen Nussey, and she still
refuses to be drawn into any return of this dangerous play with a
friend's conscience and her nerves. "I will not tell you all I think and
feel about you, Ellen. I will preserve unbroken that reserve which alone
enables me to maintain a decent character for judgment; but for that, I
should long ago have been set down by all who knows me as a Frenchified
fool. You have been very kind to me of late, and gentle, and you have
spared me those little sallies of ridicule, which, owing to my miserable
and wretched touchiness of character, used formerly to make me wince, as
if I had been touched with hot iron. Things that nobody else cares for
enter into my mind and rankle there like venom. I know these feelings
are absurd, and therefore I try to hide them, but they only sting the
deeper for concealment. I'm an idiot!"
Miss Nussey seems to have preserved her calm through all the excitement
and to have never turned a hair. But nothing could have been worse for
Charlotte than this sort of thing. It goes on for years. It began in
eighteen-thirty-three, the third year of their friendship, when she was
seventeen. In 'thirty-seven it is at its height. Charlotte writes from
Dewsbury Moor: "If I could always live with you, if your lips and mine
could at the same time drink the same draught at the same pure fountain
of mercy, I hope, I trust, I might one day become better, far better
than my evil, wandering thoughts, my corrupt heart, cold to the spirit
and warm to the flesh, will now permit me to be. I often plan the
pleasant life we might lead, strengthening each other in the power of
self-denial, that hallowed and glowing devotion which the past Saints of
God often attained to."
Now a curious and interesting thing is revealed by this correspondence.
These religious fervours and depressions come on the moment Charlotte
leaves Haworth and disappear as soon as she returns. All those letters
were written from Roe Head or Dewsbury Moor, while the Haworth letters
of the same period are sane and light-hearted. And when she is fairly
settled at Haworth, instead of emulating the Saints of God, she and Miss
Nussey are studying human nature and the art of flirtation as exhibited
by curates. Charlotte administers to her friend a formidable amount of
worldly wisdom, thus avenging herself for the dance Miss Nussey led her
round the throne of grace.
For, though that morbid excitement and introspection belonged solely to
Charlotte's days of exile, Miss Nussey was at the bottom of it. Mary
Taylor would have been a far robuster influence. But Charlotte's
friendship for Mary Taylor, warm as it was, strikes cold beside her
passionate affection for Ellen Nussey. She brought her own fire to that,
and her own extraordinary capacity for pain. Her letters show every
phase of this friendship, its birth, its unfolding; and then the sudden
leaping of the flame, its writhing and its torture. She writes with a
lover's ardour and impatience. "Write to me very soon and dispel my
uncertainty, or I shall get impatient, almost irritable." "I read your
letter with dismay. Ellen--what shall I do without you? Why are we to be
denied each other's society? It is an inscrutable fatality.... Why are
we to be divided?" (She is at Roe Head, and Roe Head suggests the
answer.) "Surely, Ellen, it must be because we are in danger of loving
each other too well--of losing sight of the _Creator_ in idolatry of the
_creature_." She prays to be resigned, and records "a sweet, placid
sensation like those that I remember used to visit me when I was a
little child, and on Sunday evenings in summer stood by the window
reading the life of a certain French nobleman who attained a purer and
higher degree of sanctity than has been known since the days of the
Early Martyrs. I thought of my own Ellen--" "I wish I could see you, my
darling; I have lavished the warmest affections of a very hot tenacious
heart upon you; if you grow cold, it is over." She was only twenty-one.
A few more years and the leaping and the writhing and the torture cease,
the fire burns to a steady, inextinguishable glow. There is gaiety in
Charlotte's tenderness. She is "infuriated" on finding a jar in her
trunk. "At first I hoped it was empty, but when I found it heavy and
replete, I could have hurled it all the way back to Birstall. However,
the inscription A.B. softened me much. You ought first to be tenderly
kissed, and then as tenderly whipped. Emily is just now sitting on the
floor of the bedroom where I am writing, looking at her apples. She
smiled when I gave them and the collar as your presents, with an
expression at once well pleased and slightly surprised."
The religious fervours and the soul-searchings have ceased long ago, so
has Miss Nussey's brief spiritual ascendency. But the friendship and the
letters never cease. They go on for twenty years, through exile and
suffering, through bereavement, through fame and through marriage,
uninterrupted and, except for one brief period, unabridged. There is
nothing in any biography to compare with those letters to Ellen Nussey.
If Charlotte Bronte had not happened to be a great genius as well as a
great woman, they alone would have furnished forth her complete
biography. There is no important detail of her mere life that is not
given in them. Mrs. Gaskell relied almost entirely on them, and on
information supplied to her by Miss Nussey. And each critic and
biographer who followed her, from Sir Wemyss Reid to Mr. Clement
Shorter, drew from the same source. Miss Nussey was almost the only safe
repository of material relating to Charlotte Bronte. She had possessed
hundreds of her letters and, with that amiable weakness which was the
defect of her charming quality, she was unable to withhold any of them
from the importunate researcher. There seems to have been nothing,
except one thing, that Charlotte did not talk about to Miss Nussey when
they sat with their feet on the fender and their hair in curl-papers.
That one thing was her writing. It is quite possible that in those
curl-paper confidences Miss Nussey learnt the truth about Charlotte's
friend, M. Heger. She never learnt anything about Charlotte's genius. In
everything that concerned her genius Charlotte was silent and secret
with her friend. That was the line, the very sharp and impassable line
she drew between her "dear, _dear_ Ellen", her "dearest Nel", and her
sisters, Anne and Emily. The freemasonry of friendship ended there. You
may search in vain through even her later correspondence with Miss
Nussey for any more than perfunctory and extraneous allusions to her
works. It was as if they had never been. Every detail of her daily life
is there, the outer and the inner things, the sewing and ironing and
potato-peeling, together with matters of the heart and soul, searchings,
experiences, agonies; the figures of her father, her brother, her
sisters, move there, vivid and alive; and old Tabby and the curates; and
the very animals, Keeper and Flossie, and the little black cat, Tom,
that died and made Emily sorry; but of the one thing not a word. The
letters to Ellen Nussey following the publication of _Jane Eyre_ are all
full of gossip about Miss Ringrose and the Robinsons. Presently Ellen
hears a rumour of publication. Charlotte repudiates it and friction
Charlotte writes: "Dear Ellen,--write another letter and explain that
note of yours distinctly.... Let me know what you heard, and from whom
you heard it. You do wrong to feel pain from any circumstance, or to
suppose yourself slighted...." "Dear Ellen,--All I can say to you about
a certain matter is this: the report ... must have had its origin in
some absurd misunderstanding. I have given _no one_ a right to affirm or
hint in the most distant manner that I am publishing (humbug!). Whoever
has said it--if anyone has, which I doubt--is no friend of mine. Though
twenty books were ascribed to me, I should own none. I scout the idea
utterly. Whoever, after I have distinctly rejected the charge, urges it
upon me, will do an unkind and ill-bred thing." If Miss Nussey is asked,
she is authorized by Miss Bronte to say, "that she repels and disowns
every accusation of the kind. You may add, if you please, that if anyone
has her confidence, you believe you have, and she has made no drivelling
confessions to you on that subject." "Dear Ellen,--I shall begin by
telling you that you have no right to be angry at the length of time I
have suffered to slip by since receiving your last, without answering
it; because you have often kept me waiting much longer, and having made
this gracious speech, thereby obviating reproaches, I will add that I
think it a great shame, when you receive a long and thoroughly
interesting letter, full of the sort of details you fully relish, to
read the same with selfish pleasure, and not even have the manners to
thank your correspondent, and express how very much you enjoyed the
narrative. I _did_ enjoy the narrative in your last very keenly....
Which of the Miss Woolers did you see at Mr. Allbutts?"
A beautiful but most unequal friendship. "The sort of details you fully
relish--" How that phrase must have rankled! You can hear the passionate
protest: "Those details are not what I relish in the least. Putting me
off with your Woolers and your Allbutts! If only you had told me about
_Jane Eyre_!" For it turned out that all the time Mary Taylor had been
told. The inference was that Mary Taylor, with her fits of caution,
could be trusted.
This silence of Charlotte's must have been most painful and
incomprehensible to the poor Ellen who was Caroline Helstone. She had
been the first to divine Charlotte's secret; for she kept the letters.
She must have felt like some tender and worshipping wife to whom all
doors in the house of the beloved are thrown open, except the door of
the sanctuary, which is persistently slammed in her charming face. There
must have come to her moments of terrible insight when she felt the
danger and the mystery of the flaming spirit she had tried to hold. But
Charlotte's friend can wear her half-pathetic immortality with grace.
She could at least say: "She told me things she never told anyone else.
I have hundreds of her letters. And I had her heart."
* * * * *
Nothing so much as this correspondence reveals the appalling solitude in
which the Brontes lived. Here is their dearest and most intimate friend,
and she is one to whom they can never speak of the thing that interested
them most. No doubt "our best plays mean secret plays"; but Charlotte,
at any rate, suffered from this secrecy. There was nothing to counteract
Miss Nussey's direful influence on her spiritual youth. "Papa" highly
approved of the friendship. He wished it to continue, and it did; and it
was the best that Charlotte had. I know few things more pathetic than
the cry that Charlotte, at twenty-one, sent out of her solitude (with
some verses) to Southey and to Wordsworth. Southey told her that,
"Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not
to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure
will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To
those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be
less eager for celebrity." A sound, respectable, bourgeois opinion so
far, but Southey went farther. "Write poetry for its own sake," he said;
and he could hardly have said better. Charlotte treasured the letter,
and wrote on the cover of it, "Southey's advice, to be kept for ever."
Wordsworth's advice, I am sorry to say, provoked her to flippancy.
And that, out of the solitude, was all. Not the ghost, not the shadow of
an Influence came to the three sisters. There never was genius that owed
so little to influence as theirs.
I know that in Charlotte's case there is said to have been an Influence.
An Influence without which she would have remained for ever in
obscurity, with _Villette_, with _Shirley_, with _Jane Eyre_, with _The
Professor_, unborn, unconceived.
Need I say that the Influence is--M. Heger?
"The sojourn in Brussels," says Mr. Clement Shorter, "made Miss Bronte
an author," and he is only following Sir Wemyss Reid, who was the first
to establish Brussels as the turning-point. Mr. Shorter does not believe
in M. Heger as the inspirer of passion, but he does believe in him as
the inspirer of genius. He thinks it exceedingly probable that had not
circumstances led Charlotte Bronte to spend some time at Brussels not
only would "the world never have heard of her", but it would never have
heard of her sisters. He is quite certain about Charlotte anyhow; she
could not have "arrived" had she not met M. Heger. "She went," he says,
"to Brussels full of the crude ambitions, the semi-literary impulses
that are so common on the fringe of the writing world. She left Brussels
a woman of genuine cultivation, of educated tastes, armed with just the
equipment that was to enable her to write the books of which two
generations of her countrymen have been justly proud."
This is saying that Charlotte Bronte had no means of expression before
she wrote _devoirs_ under M. Heger. True, her genius did not find itself
until after she left Brussels, that is to say, not until she was nearly
thirty. I have not read any of her works as Lord Charles Albert Florian
Wellesley, and I do not imagine they were works of genius. But that only
means that Charlotte Bronte's genius took time. She was one of those
novelists who do not write novels before they are nearly thirty. But she
could write. Certain fragments of her very earliest work show that from
the first she had not only the means, but very considerable mastery of
expression. What is more, they reveal in germ the qualities that marked
her style in its maturity. Her styles rather, for she had several. There
is her absolutely simple style, in which she is perfect; her didactic
style, her fantastic style, which are mere temporary aberrations; and
her inspired style, in which at her worst she is merely flamboyant and
redundant, and at her best no less than perfect. You will find a faint,
embryonic foreshadowing of her perfections in the fragments given by
Mrs. Gaskell. There is THE HISTORY OF THE YEAR 1829, beginning: "Once
Papa lent my sister Maria a book. It was an old geography book; she
wrote on its blank leaf, "Papa lent me this book." This book is a
hundred and twenty years old; it is at this moment lying before me.
While I write this I am in the kitchen of the Parsonage, Haworth; Tabby,
the servant, is washing up the breakfast things, and Anne, my youngest
sister (Maria was my eldest), is kneeling on a chair, looking at some
cakes, which Tabby has been baking for us." You cannot beat that for
pure simplicity of statement. There is another fragment that might have
come straight out of _Jane Eyre_. "One night, about the time when the
cold sleet and stormy fogs of November are succeeded by the snowstorms
and high piercing night-winds of confirmed winter, we were all sitting
round the warm, blazing kitchen fire, having just concluded a quarrel
with Tabby concerning the propriety of lighting a candle, from which she
came off victorious, no candle having been produced." And there is a
dream-story that Mr. Clement Shorter gives. She is in the "Mines of
Cracone", under the floor of the sea. "But in the midst of all this
magnificence I felt an indescribable sense of fear and terror, for the
sea raged above us, and by the awful and tumultuous noises of roaring
winds and dashing waves, it seemed as if the storm was violent. And now
the massy pillars groaned beneath the pressure of the ocean, and the
glittering arches seemed about to be overwhelmed. When I heard the
rushing waters and saw a mighty flood rolling towards me I gave a loud
shriek of terror." The dream changes: she is in a desert full of barren
rocks and high mountains, where she sees "by the light of his own fiery
eyes a royal lion rousing himself from his kingly slumbers. His terrible
eye was fixed upon me, and the desert rang, and the rocks echoed with
the tremendous roar of fierce delight which he uttered as he sprang
towards me." And there is her letter to the editor of one of their
_Little Magazines_: "Sir,--It is well known that the Genii have declared
that unless they perform certain arduous duties every year, of a
mysterious nature, all the worlds in the firmament will be burnt up, and
gathered together in one mighty globe, which will roll in solitary
splendour through the vast wilderness of space, inhabited only by the
four high princes of the Genii, till time shall be succeeded by
Eternity; and the impudence of this is only to be paralleled by another
of their assertions, namely, that by their magic might they can reduce
the world to a desert, the purest waters to streams of livid poison, and
the clearest lakes to stagnant water, the pestilential vapours of which
shall slay all living creatures, except the bloodthirsty beast of the
forest, and the ravenous bird of the rock. But that in the midst of this
desolation the palace of the chief Genii shall rise sparkling in the
wilderness, and the horrible howl of their war-cry shall spread over the
land at morning, at noontide, and at night; but that they shall have
their annual feast over the bones of the dead, and shall yearly rejoice
with the joy of victors. I think, sir, that the horrible wickedness of
this needs no remark, and therefore I hasten to subscribe myself, etc."
Puerile, if you like, and puerile all the stuff that Charlotte Bronte
wrote before eighteen-forty-six; but her style at thirteen, in its very
rhythms and cadences, is the unmistakable embryo of her style at thirty;
and M. Heger no more cured her of its faults that he could teach her its
splendours. Something that was not Brussels made Miss Bronte a
prodigious author at thirteen. The mere mass of her _Juvenilia_
testifies to a most ungovernable bent. Read the list of works, appalling
in their length, which this child produced in a period of fifteen
months; consider that she produced nothing but melancholy letters during
her "sojourn in Brussels"; and compare M. Heger's academic precepts with
her practice, with the wild sweep and exuberance of her style when she
has shaken him off, and her genius gets possession of her.
I know there is a gulf fixed between Currer Bell and Charles Townsend,
who succeeded Lord Charles Albert Florian Wellesley and the Marquis of
Douro, about eighteen-thirty-eight; but it is bridged by the later
_Poems_ which show Charlotte's genius struggling through a wrong medium
to the right goal. She does not know--after the sojourn in Brussels she
does not yet know--that her right medium is prose. She knew no more than
she knew in November, eighteen-forty-one, when, on the eve of her flight
from Haworth, she writes: "The plain fact is, I was not, I am not now,
certain of my destiny." It was not until two years after she had
returned to Haworth that she received her certainty. For posterity,
overpowered by the labour of the Bronte specialists, it may seem as if
Charlotte Bronte's genius owed everything to her flight from Haworth. In
reality her flight merely coincided with the inevitable shooting of its
wings; and the specialists have mistaken coincidence for destiny.
Heaven only knows what would have happened to her genius if, blind to
her destiny, she had remained in Brussels. For, once there, its
wing-feathers left off growing. Its way was blocked by every conceivable
hostile and obstructive thing. Madame Heger was hostile, and Monsieur, I
think, purely obstructive. Emily saw through him, and denounced his
method as fatal to all originality. Charlotte, to be sure, called him
"my dear master, the only master that I ever had", but if that was not
her "absurd charity", it was only her Brontesque way. There was no sense
in which he was her master. He taught her French; to the very last the
habit of using "a few French words" was the King Charles's head in her
manuscripts; and the French he taught her did her harm. The restraint he
could and would have taught her she never learnt until her genius had
had, in defiance and in spite of him, its full fling.
And what a fling! It is the way of genius to look after itself. In spite
of obstacles, Charlotte Bronte's took hold of every man and woman that
crossed and barred its path, and ultimately it avenged itself on
Monsieur and on Madame Heger. Those two were made for peaceful,
honourable conjugal obscurity, but it was their luck to harbour a
half-fledged and obstructed genius in their Pensionnat, a genius
thirsting for experience; and somehow, between them, they contrived to
make it suffer. That was their tragedy. Monsieur's case is pitiful; for
he was kind and well-meaning, and he was fond of Charlotte; and yet,
because of Charlotte, there is no peace for him in the place where he
has gone. Her genius has done with him, but her ghost, like some malign
and awful destiny, pursues him. No sooner does he sink back quiet in his
grave than somebody unearths him. Why cannot he be allowed to rest, once
for all, in his amiable unimportance? He became, poor man, important
only by the use that Charlotte's genius made of him. It seized him as it
would have seized on any other interesting material that came its way.
Without him we might have had another Rochester, and we should not have
had any Paul Emanuel, which would have been a pity; that is all.
There is hardly any hope that Bronte specialists will accept this view.
For them the sojourn in Brussels will still stand as the turning-point
in Charlotte Bronte's career. Yet for her, long afterwards, Brussels
must have stood as the danger threatening it. She would have said, I
think, that her sojourn in Haworth was the turning-point. It was destiny
that turned Emily back to Haworth from the destruction that waited for
her at Brussels, so that she conceived and brought forth _Wuthering
Heights_; her own destiny that she secretly foreknew, consoling and
beneficent. And, no doubt, it was destiny of a sort, unforeknown,
deceitful, apparently malignant, that sent Charlotte back again to
Brussels after her aunt's death. It wrung from her her greatest book,
_Villette_. But Haworth, I think, would have wrung from her another and
perhaps a greater.
For the first-fruits of the sojourn in Brussels was neither _Villette_
nor _Jane Eyre_, but _The Professor_. And _The Professor_ has none of
the qualities of _Jane Eyre_ or of _Villette_; it has none of the
qualities of Charlotte's later work at all; above all, none of that
master quality which M. Heger is supposed to have specially evoked.
Charlotte, indeed, could not well have written a book more destructive
to the legend of the upheaval, the tragic passion, the furnace of
temptation and the flight. Nothing could be less like a furnace than the
atmosphere of _The Professor_. From the first page to the last there is
not one pulse, not one breath of passion in it. The bloodless thing
comes coldly, slowly tentatively, from the birth. It is almost as frigid
as a _devoir_ written under M. Heger's eye. The theorists, I notice, are
careful not to draw attention to _The Professor_; and they are wise, for
attention drawn to _The Professor_ makes sad work of their theory.
Remember, on the theory, Charlotte Bronte has received her great
awakening, her great enlightenment; she is primed with passion; the
whole wonderful material of _Villette_ is in her hand; she has before
her her unique opportunity. You ought, on the theory, to see her
hastening to it, a passionate woman, pouring out her own one and supreme
experience, and, with the brand of Brussels on her, never afterwards
really doing anything else. Whereas the first thing the impassioned
Charlotte does (after a year of uninspired and ineffectual poetizing) is
to sit down and write _The Professor_; a book, remarkable not by any
means for its emotion, but for its cold and dispassionate observation.
Charlotte eliminates herself, and is Crimsworth in order that she may
observe Frances Henri the more dispassionately. She is inspired solely
by the analytic spirit, and either cannot, or will not, let herself go.
But she does what she meant to do. She had it in mind to write, not a
great work of imagination, but a grey and sober book, and a grey and
sober book is what she writes. A book concerned only with things and
people she has seen and known; a book, therefore, from which passion and
the poetry that passion is must be rigidly excluded, as belonging to
the region of things not, strictly speaking, known. It is as if she had
written _The Professor_ in rivalry with her sister Anne, both of them
austerely determined to put aside all imagination and deal with
experience and experience alone. Thus you obtain sincerity, you obtain
truth. And with nothing but experience before her, she writes a book
that has no passion in it, a book almost as bloodless and as gentle as
her sister Anne's.
Let us not disparage _The Professor_. Charlotte herself did not
disparage it. In her Preface she refused to solicit "indulgence for it
on the plea of a first attempt. A first attempt," she says, "it
certainly was not, as the pen which wrote it had been previously worn in
a practice of some years." In that Preface she shows plainly that at the
very outset of her career she had no sterner critic than herself; that
she was aware of her sins and her temptations, and of the dangers that
lurked for her in her imaginative style. "In many a crude effort,
destroyed almost as soon as composed, I had got over any such taste as I
might have had for ornamented and decorated composition, and come to
prefer what was plain and homely." Observe, it is not to the lessons of
the "master", but to the creation and destruction that went on at
Haworth that she attributes this purgation. She is not aware of the
extent to which she can trust her genius, of what will happen when she
has fairly let herself go. She is working on a method that rules her
choice of subject. "I said to myself that my hero should work his way
through life, as I had seen real, living men work theirs--that he should
never get a shilling that he had not earned--that no sudden turns should
lift him in a moment to wealth and high station; that whatever small
competency he might gain should be won by the sweat of his brow; that
before he could find so much as an arbour to sit down in, he should
master at least half the ascent of the Hill Difficulty; that he should
not marry even a beautiful girl or a lady of rank."
There was no fine madness in that method; but its very soundness and
sanity show the admirable spirit in which Charlotte Bronte approached
her art. She was to return to the method of _The Professor_ again and
yet again, when she suspected herself of having given imagination too
loose a rein. The remarkable thing was that she should have begun with
And in some respects _The Professor_ is more finished, better
constructed than any of her later books. There is virtue in its extreme
sobriety. Nothing could be more delicate and firm than the drawing of
Frances Henri; nothing in its grey style more admirable than the scene
where Crimsworth, having found Frances in the cemetery, takes her to her
home in the Rue Notre Dame aux Neiges.
"Stepping over a little mat of green wool, I found myself in a small
room with a painted floor and a square of green carpet in the middle;
the articles of furniture were few, but all bright and exquisitely
clean--order reigned through its narrow limits--such order as it suited
my punctilious soul to behold.... Poor the place might be; poor truly it
was, but its neatness was better than elegance, and had but a bright
little fire shone on that clean hearth, I should have deemed it more
attractive than a palace. No fire was there, however, and no fuel laid
ready to light; the lace-mender was unable to allow herself that
indulgence.... Frances went into an inner room to take off her bonnet,
and she came out a model of frugal neatness, with her well-fitting black
stuff dress, so accurately defining her elegant bust and taper waist,
with her spotless white collar turned back from a fair and shapely
neck, with her plenteous brown hair arranged in smooth bands on her
temples and in a large Grecian plait behind: ornaments she had
none--neither brooch, ring, nor ribbon; she did well enough without
them--perfection of fit, proportion of form, grace of carriage,
agreeably supplied their place." Frances lights a fire, having fetched
wood and coal in a basket.
"'It is her whole stock, and she will exhaust it out of hospitality,'
"'What are you going to do?' I asked: 'not surely to light a fire this
hot evening? I shall be smothered.'
"'Indeed, Monsieur, I feel it very chilly since the rain began; besides,
I must boil the water for my tea, for I take tea on Sundays; you will be
obliged to bear the heat.'"
And Frances makes the tea, and sets the table, and brings out her
pistolets, and offers them to Monsieur, and it is all very simple and
idyllic. So is the scene where Crimsworth, without our knowing exactly
how he does it, declares himself to Frances. The dialogue is half in
French, and does not lend itself to quotation, but it compares very
favourably with the more daring comedy of courtship in _Jane Eyre_.
Frances is delicious in her very solidity, her absence of abandonment.
She refuses flatly to give up her teaching at Crimsworth's desire,
Crimsworth, who will have six thousand francs a year.
"'How rich you are, Monsieur!' And then she stirred uneasily in my arms.
'Three thousand francs!' she murmured, 'while I get only twelve
hundred!' She went on faster. 'However, it must be so for the present;
and, Monsieur, were you not saying something about my giving up my
place? Oh no! I shall hold it fast'; and her little fingers emphatically
tightened on mine.
"'Think of marrying you to be kept by you, Monsieur! I could not do it;
and how dull my days would be! You would be away teaching in close,
noisy schoolrooms, from morning till evening, and I should be lingering
at home, unemployed and solitary. I should get depressed and sullen, and
you would soon tire of me.'
"'Frances, you could yet read and study--two things you like so well.'
"'Monsieur, I could not; I like contemplative life, but I like an active
better; I must act in some way, and act with you. I have taken notice,
Monsieur, that people who are only in each other's company for
amusement, never really like each other so well, or esteem each other so
highly, as those who work together, and perhaps suffer together!'"
To which Crimsworth replies, "You speak God's truth, and you shall have
your own way, for it is the best way."
There is far more common sense than passion in the solid little Frances
and her apathetic lover. It is Frances Henri's situation, not her
character, that recalls so irresistibly Lucy Snowe. Frances has neither
Lucy's temperament, nor Lucy's terrible capacity for suffering. She
suffers through her circumstances, not through her temperament. The
motives handled in _The Professor_ belong to the outer rather than the
inner world; the pressure of circumstance, bereavement, poverty, the
influences of alien and unloved surroundings, these are the springs that
determine the drama of Frances and of Crimsworth. Charlotte is
displaying a deliberate interest in the outer world and the material
event. She does not yet know that it is in the inner world that her
great conquest and dominion is to be. The people in this first novel are
of the same family as the people in _Jane Eyre_, in _Shirley_, in
_Villette_. Crimsworth is almost reproduced in Louis Moore. Yorke
Hunsden is the unmistakable father of Mr. Yorke and Rochester; Frances,
a pale and passionless sister of Jane Eyre, and a first cousin of Lucy.
Yet, in spite of these relationships, _The Professor_ stands alone. In
spite of its striking resemblance to _Villette_ there is no real, no
spiritual affinity. And the great gulf remains fixed between _The
Professor_ and _Jane Eyre_.
This difference lies deeper than technique. It is a difference of
vision, of sensation. The strange greyness of _The Professor_, its
stillness, is not due altogether to Charlotte's deliberate intention. It
is the stillness, the greyness of imperfect hearing, of imperfect
seeing. I know it has one fine piece of word-painting, but not one that
can stand among Charlotte Bronte's masterpieces in this kind.
Here it is. "Already the pavement was drying; a balmy and fresh breeze
stirred the air, purified by lightning; I left the west behind me, where
spread a sky like opal, azure inmingled with crimson; the enlarged sun,
glorious in Tyrian dyes, dipped his brim already; stepping, as I was,
eastward, I faced a vast bank of clouds, but also I had before me the
arch of an even rainbow; a perfect rainbow--high, wide, vivid. I looked
long; my eye drank in the scene, and I suppose my brain must have
absorbed it; for that night, after lying awake in pleasant fever a long
time, watching the silent sheet-lightning, which still played among the
retreating clouds, and flashed silvery over the stars, I at last fell
asleep; and then in a dream was reproduced the setting sun, the bank of
clouds, the mighty rainbow. I stood, methought, on a terrace; I leaned
over a parapeted wall; there was space below me, depth I could not
fathom, but hearing an endless splash of waves, I believed it to be the
sea; sea spread to the horizon; sea of changeful green and intense blue;
all was soft in the distance; all vapour-veiled. A spark of gold
glistened on the line between water and air, floated up, appeared,
enlarged, changed; the object hung midway between heaven and earth,
under the arch of the rainbow; the soft but dark clouds diffused behind.
It hovered as on wings; pearly, fleecy, gleaming air streamed like
raiment round it; light, tinted with carnation, coloured what seemed
face and limbs; a large star shone with still lustre on an angel's
forehead--" But the angel ruins it.
And this is all, and it leaves the dreariness more dreary. In _The
Professor_ you wander through a world where there is no sound, no
colour, no vibration; a world muffled and veiled in the stillness and
the greyness of the hour before dawn. It is the work of a woman who is
not perfectly alive. So far from having had her great awakening,
Charlotte is only half awake. Her intellect is alert enough and avid,
faithful and subservient to the fact. It is her nerves and senses that
are asleep. Her soul is absent from her senses.
* * * * *
But in _Jane Eyre_, she is not only awakened, but awake as she has never
been awake before, with all her virgin senses exquisitely alive, every
nerve changed to intense vibration. Sometimes she is perniciously awake;
she is doing appalling things, things unjustifiable, preposterous;
things that would have meant perdition to any other writer; she sees
with wild, erroneous eyes; but the point is that she sees, that she
keeps moving, that from the first page to the last she is never once
asleep. To come to _Jane Eyre_ after _The Professor_ is to pass into
another world of feeling and of vision.
It is not the difference between reality and unreality. _The Professor_
is real enough, more real in some minor points--dialogue, for
instance--than _Jane Eyre_. The difference is that _The Professor_ is a
transcript of reality, a very delicate and faithful transcript, and
_Jane Eyre_ is reality itself, pressed on the senses. The pressure is so
direct and so tremendous, that it lasts through those moments when the
writer's grip has failed.
For there are moments, long moments of perfectly awful failure in _Jane
Eyre_. There are phrases that make you writhe, such as "the etymology of
the mansion's designation", and the shocking persistency with which
Charlotte Bronte "indites", "peruses", and "retains". There are whole
scenes that outrage probability. Such are the scenes, or parts of
scenes, between Jane and Rochester during the comedy of his courtship.
The great orchard scene does not ring entirely true. For pages and pages
it falters between passion and melodrama; between rhetoric and the _cri
de coeur_. Jane in the very thick of her emotion can say, "I have
talked, face to face, with what I reverence, with what I delight
in--with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have known you,
Mr. Rochester, and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I
absolutely must be torn from you for ever. I see the necessity for
departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death." And the
comedy is worse. Jane elaborates too much in those delicious things she
says to Rochester. Rochester himself provokes the parodist. (Such
manners as Rochester's were unknown in mid-Victorian literature.)
"He continued to send for me punctually the moment the clock struck
seven; though when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed
terms as 'love' and 'darling' on his lips: the best words at my disposal
were 'provoking', 'malicious elf,' 'sprite', 'changeling', etc. For
caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch
on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. It was
all right: at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to
anything more tender."
Yet there is comedy, pure comedy in those scenes, though never
sustained, and never wrought to the inevitable dramatic climax. Jane is
delightful when she asks Rochester whether the frown on his forehead
will be his "married look", and when she tells him to make a
dressing-gown for himself out of the pearl-grey silk, "and an infinite
series of waistcoats out of the black satin". _The Quarterly_ was much
too hard on the earlier _cadeau_ scene, with Rochester and Jane and
Adele, which is admirable in its suggestion of Jane's shyness and
_"'N'est-ce pas, Monsieur, qu'il y a un cadeau pour Mademoiselle Eyre,
dans votre petit coffre?'"_
"'Who talks of _cadeaux_?' said he gruffly; 'did you expect a present,
Miss Eyre? Are you fond of presents?' and he searched my face with eyes
that I saw were dark, irate, and piercing.
"'I hardly know, sir; I have little experience of them; they are
generally thought pleasant things.'"
Charlotte Bronte was on her own ground there. But you tremble when she
leaves it; you shudder throughout the awful drawing-room comedy of
Blanche Ingram. Blanche says to her mother: "Am I right, Baroness Ingram
of Ingram Park?" And her mother says to Blanche, "My lily-flower, you
are right now, as always." Blanche says to Rochester, "Signor Eduardo,
are you in voice to-night?" and he, "Donna Bianca, if you command it, I
will be." And Blanche says to the footman, "Cease that chatter,
blockhead, and do my bidding."
That, Charlotte's worst lapse, is a very brief one, and the scene
itself is unimportant. But what can be said of the crucial scene of the
novel, the tremendous scene of passion and temptation? There _is_
passion in the scene before it, between Jane and Rochester on the
afternoon of the wedding-day that brought no wedding.
"'Jane, I never meant to wound you thus. If the man who had but one
little ewe lamb that was dear to him as a daughter, that ate of his
bread, and drank of his cup, and lay in his bosom, had by some mistake
slaughtered it at the shambles, he would not have rued his bloody
blunder more than I now rue mine. Will you ever forgive me?'... 'You
know I am a scoundrel, Jane?' ere long he inquired wistfully, wondering,
I suppose, at my continued silence and tameness; the result of weakness
rather than of will.
"'Then tell me so roundly and sharply--don't spare me.'
"'I cannot; I am tired and sick. I want some water.'
"He heaved a sort of shuddering sigh, and, taking me in his arms,
carried me downstairs."
But there are terrible lapses. After Rochester's cry, "'Jane, my little
darling ... If you were mad, do you think I should hate you,'" he
elaborates his idea and he is impossible: "'Your mind is my treasure,
and if it were broken it would be my treasure still; if you raved, my
arms should confine you and not a strait waistcoat--your grasp, even in
fury, would have a charm for me; if you flew at me as wildly as that
woman did this morning, I should receive you in an embrace at least as
fond as it would be restrictive.'"
And in the final scene of temptation there is a most curious mingling of
reality and unreality, of the passion which is poetry, and the poetry
which is not passion.
"'Never,' said he, as he ground his teeth, 'never was anything so frail,
and so indomitable. A mere reed she feels in my hand!' And he shook me
with the force of his hold. 'I could bend her with my finger and thumb;
and what good would it do if I bent, if I uptore, if I crushed her?
Consider that eye: consider the resolute, wild, free thing looking out
of it, defying me, with more than courage--with a stern triumph.
Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it--the savage, beautiful
creature! If I tear, if I rend the slight prison, my outrage will only
let the captive loose. Conqueror I might be of the house; but the inmate
would escape to heaven before I could call myself possessor of its clay
dwelling-place. And it is you, spirit--with will and energy, and virtue
and purity--that I want: not alone your brittle frame. Of yourself, you
could come with soft flight and nestle against my heart, if you would;
seized against your will you will elude the grasp like an essence--you
will vanish ere I inhale your fragrance. Oh, come, Jane, come!'"
It is the crucial scene of the book; and with all its power, with all
its vehemence and passionate reality it is unconvincing. It stirs you
and it leaves you cold.
The truth is that in _Jane Eyre_ Charlotte Bronte had not mastered the
art of dialogue; and to the very last she was uncertain in her handling
of it. In this she is inferior to all the great novelists of her time;
inferior to some who were by no means great. She understood more of the
spiritual speech of passion than any woman before her, but she ignores
its actual expression, its violences, its reticences, its silences. In
her great scenes she is inspired one moment, and the next positively
handicapped by her passion and her poetry. In the same sentence she
rises to the sudden poignant _cri du coeur_, and sinks to the artifice
of metaphor. She knew that passion is poetry, and poetry is passion;
you might say it was all she knew, or ever cared to know. But her
language of passion is too often the language of written rather than of
spoken poetry, of poetry that is not poetry at all. It is as if she had
never heard the speech of living men and women. There is more actuality
in the half-French chatter of Adele than in any of the high utterances
of Jane and Rochester.
And yet her sense of the emotion behind the utterance is infallible, so
infallible that we accept the utterance. By some miracle, which is her
secret, the passion gets through. The illusion of reality is so strong
that it covers its own lapses. _Jane Eyre_ exists to prove that truth is
higher than actuality.
"'Jane suits me: do I suit her?'
"'To the finest fibre of my nature, sir.'"
If no woman alive had ever said that, it would yet be true to Jane's
feeling. For it is a matter of the finest fibres, this passion of
Jane's, that set people wondering about Currer Bell, that inflamed Mrs.
Oliphant, as it inflamed the reviewer in _The Quarterly_, and made
Charles Kingsley think that Currer Bell was coarse. Their state of mind
is incredible to us now. For what did poor Jane do, after all? Nobody
could possibly have had more respect for the ten commandments. For all
Rochester's raging, the ten commandments remain exactly where they were.
It was inconceivable to Charlotte Bronte that any decent man or woman
could make hay, or wish to make hay, of them. And yet Jane offended. She
sinned against the unwritten code that ordains that a woman may lie till
she is purple in the face, but she must not, as a piece of gratuitous
information, tell a man she loves him; not, that is to say, in as many
words. She may declare her passion unmistakably in other ways. She may
exhibit every ignominious and sickly sign of it; her eyes may glow like
hot coals; she may tremble; she may flush and turn pale; she may do
almost anything, provided she does not speak the actual words. In
mid-Victorian times an enormous licence was allowed her. She might
faint, with perfect propriety, in public; she might become anaemic and
send for the doctor, and be ordered iron; she might fall ill, horridly
and visibly, and have to be taken away to spas and places to drink the
waters. Everybody knew what that meant. If she had shrieked her passion
on the housetops she could hardly have published it more violently; but
nobody minded. It was part of the mid-Victorian convention.
Jane Eyre did none of these things. As soon as she was aware of her
passion for Mr. Rochester she thrust it down into the pocket of her
voluminous mid-Victorian skirt and sat on it. Instead of languishing and
fainting where Rochester could see her, she held her head rather higher
than usual, and practised the spirited arts of retort and repartee. And
nobody gave her any credit for it. Then Rochester puts the little thing
(poor Jane was only eighteen when it happened) to the torture, and, with
the last excruciating turn of the thumbscrew, she confesses. That was
the enormity that was never forgiven her.
"'You'll like Ireland, I think,'" says Rochester in his torturing mood;
"'they are such kind-hearted people there.'
"'It is a long way off, sir.'
"'No matter, a girl of your sense will not object to the voyage or the
"'Not the voyage, but the distance: and then the sea is a barrier.'
"'From what, Jane?'
"'From England and from Thornfield, and--'
"'From _you_, sir.'"
She had done it. She had said, or almost said the words.
It just happened. There was magic in the orchard at Thornfield; there
was youth in her blood; and--"Jane, did you hear the nightingale singing
in that wood?"
Still, she had done it.
And she was the first heroine who had. Adultery, with which we are
fairly familiar, would have seemed a lesser sin. There may be
extenuating circumstances for the adulteress. There were extenuating
circumstances for Rochester. He could plead a wife who went on all
fours. There were no extenuating circumstances for little Jane. No use
for her to say that she was upset by the singing of the nightingale;
that it didn't matter what she said to Mr. Rochester when Mr. Rochester
was going to marry Blanche Ingram, anyway; that she only flung herself
at his head because she knew she couldn't hit it; that her plainness
gave her a certain licence, placing her beyond the code. Not a bit of
it. Jane's plainness was one thing that they had against her. Until her
time no heroine had been permitted to be plain. Jane's seizing of the
position was part of the general insolence of her behaviour.
Jane's insolence was indeed unparalleled. Having done the deed she felt
no shame or sense of sin; she stood straight up and defended herself.
That showed that she was hardened.
It certainly showed--Jane's refusal to be abject--that Jane was far
ahead of her age.
"'I tell you I must go!' I retorted, roused to something like passion.
'Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an
automaton?--a machine without feelings, and can bear to have my morsel
of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from
my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am
soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and
fully as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much
wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me as it is now
for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of
custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that
addresses'" ("Addresses"? oh, Jane!) "'your spirit; just as if both had
passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal--as we
This, allowing for some slight difference in the phrasing, is twentieth
century. And it was this--Jane's behaviour in the orchard, and not
Rochester's behaviour in the past--that opened the door to the "imps of
evil meaning, polluting and defiling the domestic hearth."
Still, though _The Quarterly_ censured Jane's behaviour, it was
Rochester who caused most of the trouble and the scandal by his
remarkable confessions. In a sense they _were_ remarkable. Seldom,
outside the pages of French fiction, had there been so lavish and public
a display of mistresses. And while it was agreed on all hands that
Rochester was incredible with his easy references to Celine and Giacinta
and Clara, still more incredible was it that a young woman in a country
parsonage should have realized so much as the existence of Clara and
Giacinta and Celine. But, when Mrs. Gaskell and Madame Duclaux invoked
Branwell and all his vices to account for Charlotte's experience, they
forgot that Charlotte had read Balzac,[A] and that Balzac is an
experience in himself. She had also read Moore's _Life of Byron_, and
really there is nothing in Rochester's confessions that Byron and a
little Balzac would not account for. So that they might just as well
have left poor Branwell in his grave.
[Footnote A: I am wrong. Charlotte did not read Balzac till later, when
George Henry Lewes told her to. But there were those twenty "clever,
wicked, sophistical, and immoral French books" that she read in
eighteen-forty. They may have served her purpose better.]
Indeed, it was the manner of Rochester's confession that gave away the
secret of Currer Bell's sex; her handling of it is so inadequate and
perfunctory. Rochester is at his worst and most improbable in the
telling of his tale. The tale in itself is one of Charlotte's clumsiest
contrivances for conveying necessary information. The alternate baldness
and exuberant, decorated, swaggering boldness (for Charlotte's style was
never bolder than when she was essaying the impossible) alone betrayed
the hand of an innocent woman. Curious that these makeshift passages
with their obviously second-hand material, their palpably alien _mise en
scene_, should ever have suggested a personal experience and provoked
_The Quarterly_ to its infamous and immortal utterance: "If we ascribe
the book to a woman at all, we have no alternative but to ascribe it to
one who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of
her own sex."
_The Quarterly_, to do it justice, argued that Currer Bell was a man,
for only a man would have betrayed such ignorance of feminine resources
as to make Jane Eyre, on a night alarm, "hurry on a frock and shawl".
The reasoning passed. Nobody saw that such a man would be as innocent as
any parson's daughter. Nobody pointed out that, as it happened, Currer
Bell had provided her dowagers with "vast white wrappers" on the second
night alarm. And, after all, the sex of _The Quarterly_ reviewer itself
remains a problem. Long ago Mr. Andrew Lang detected the work of two
hands in that famous article. You may say there were at least three.
There was, first, the genial reviewer of _Vanity Fair_, who revels in
the wickedness of Becky Sharpe, and who is going to revel in the
wickedness of Jane. Then suddenly some Mr. Brocklebank steps in, and you
get a "black-marble clergyman" on _Jane Eyre_.
"We have said," says this person, "that this was the picture of a
natural heart. This, to our view, is the great and crying mischief of
the book. Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of an unregenerate
and undisciplined spirit, the more dangerous to exhibit from that
prestige of principle and self-control, which is liable to dazzle the
eyes too much for it to observe the insufficient and unsound foundation
on which it rests. It is true Jane does right, and exerts great moral
strength; but it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law
unto itself.... She has inherited the worst sin of our fallen
nature--the sin of pride."
Jane, you see, should have sinned to show her Christian humility. The
style, if not the reasoning, is pure Brocklebank. He does "not hesitate
to say that the tone of mind and thought, which has overthrown authority
and violated every code, human and divine, abroad, and fostered Chartism
and rebellion at home, is the same which has written _Jane Eyre_".
Ellis and Acton (poor Acton!) Bell get it even stronger than that; and
then, suddenly again, you come on a report on the "Condition of
Governesses", palpably drawn up by a third person. For years Miss Rigby,
who was afterwards Lady Eastlake, got the credit for the whole absurd
performance, for she was known to have written the review on _Vanity
Fair_. What happened seems to have been that Miss Rigby set out in all
honesty to praise _Jane Eyre_. Then some infuriated person interfered
and stopped her. The article was torn from the unfortunate Miss Rigby
and given to Brocklebank, who used bits of her here and there.
Brocklebank, in his zeal, overdid his part, so the report on Governesses
was thrown in to give the whole thing an air of seriousness and
respectability. So that it is exceedingly doubtful whether, after all,
it was a woman's hand that dealt the blow.
If Charlotte Bronte did not feel the effect of it to the end of her
life, she certainly suffered severely at the time. It was responsible
for that impassioned defence of Anne and Emily which she would have been
wiser to have left alone.
It must be admitted that _Jane Eyre_ was an easy prey for the truculent
reviewer, for its faults were all on the surface, and its great
qualities lay deep. Deep as they were, they gripped the ordinary
uncritical reader, and they gripped the critic in spite of himself, so
that he bitterly resented being moved by a work so flagrantly and
obviously faulty. What was more, the passion of the book was so intense
that you were hardly aware of anything else, and its author's austere
respect for the ten commandments passed almost unobserved.
But when her enemies accuse Charlotte Bronte of glorifying passion they
praise her unaware. Her glory is that she did glorify it. Until she
came, passion between man and woman had meant animal passion. Fielding
and Smollett had dealt with it solely on that footing. A woman's gentle,
legalized affection for her husband was one thing, and passion was
another. Thackeray and Dickens, on the whole, followed Fielding. To all
three of them passion is an affair wholly of the senses, temporary,
episodic, and therefore comparatively unimportant. Thackeray intimated
that he could have done more with it but for his fear of Mrs. Grundy.
Anyhow, passion was not a quality that could be given to a good woman;
and so the good women of Dickens and Thackeray are conspicuously
without it. And Jane Austen may be said to have also taken Fielding's
view. Therefore she was obliged to ignore passion. She gave it to one
vulgar woman, Lydia Bennett, and to one bad one, Mrs. Rushworth; and
having given it them, she turned her head away and refused to have
anything more to do with these young women. She was not alone in her
inability to "tackle passion". No respectable mid-Victorian novelist
could, when passion had so bad a name.
And it was this thing, cast down, defiled, dragged in the mud, and
ignored because of its defilement, that Charlotte Bronte took and lifted
up. She washed it clean; she bathed it in the dew of the morning; she
baptized it in tears; she clothed it in light and flame; she showed it
for the divine, the beautiful, the utterly pure and radiant thing it is,
"the very sublime of faith, truth and devotion". She made it, this
spirit of fire and air, incarnate in the body of a woman who had no
sensual charm. Because of it little Jane became the parent of Caterina
and of Maggie Tulliver; and Shirley prepared the way for Meredith's
large-limbed, large-brained, large-hearted women.
It was thus that Charlotte Bronte glorified passion. The passion that
she glorified being of the finest fibre, it was naturally not understood
by people whose fibres were not fine at all.
It was George Henry Lewes (not a person of the finest fibre) who said of
_Jane Eyre_ that "the grand secret of its success ... as of all great
and lasting successes was its reality". In spite of crudities,
absurdities, impossibilities, it remains most singularly and startlingly
alive. In _Jane Eyre_ Charlotte Bronte comes for the first time into her
kingdom of the inner life. She grasps the secret, unseen springs; in her
narrow range she is master of the psychology of passion and of
suffering, whether she is describing the agony of the child Jane shut
up in that terrible red room, or the anguish of the woman on the morning
of that wedding-day that brought no wedding. Or take the scene of Jane's
flight from Thornfield, or that other scene, unsurpassed in its passion
and tenderness, of her return to Rochester at Ferndean.
"To this house I came just ere dark, on an evening marked by the
characteristics of sad sky, cold gale, and continued small, penetrating
rain.... Even within a very short distance of the manor-house you could
see nothing of it; so thick and dark grew the timber of the gloomy wood
about it. Iron gates between granite pillars showed me where to enter,
and passing through them, I found myself at once in the twilight of
close-ranked trees. There was a grass-grown track descending the forest
aisle, between hoar and knotty shafts and under branched arches. I
followed it, expecting soon to reach the dwelling; but it stretched on
and on, it wound far and farther: no sign of habitation or grounds was
visible.... At last my way opened, the trees thinned a little; presently
I beheld a railing, then the house--scarce, by this dim light,
distinguishable from the trees; so dank and green were its decaying
walls. Entering a portal, fastened only by a latch, I stood amidst a
space of enclosed ground, from which the wood swept away in a
semicircle. There were no flowers, no garden-beds; only a broad
gravel-walk girdling a grass-plat, and this set in the heavy frame of
the forest. The house presented two pointed gables in its front; the
windows were latticed and narrow: the front-door was narrow too, one
step led up to it.... It was still as a church on a week-day; the
pattering rain on the forest leaves was the only sound audible....
"I heard a movement--that narrow front-door was unclosing, and some
shape was about to issue from the grange.
"It opened slowly; a figure came out into the twilight and stood on the
step; a man without a hat: he stretched forth his hand as if to feel
whether it rained. Dark as it was I had recognized him....
"His form was of the same strong and stalwart contour as ever.... But in
his countenance I saw a change: that looked desperate and brooding--that
reminded me of some wronged and fettered wild beast or bird, dangerous
to approach in his sullen woe. The caged eagle, whose gold-ringed eyes
cruelty has extinguished, might look as looked that sightless Samson."
Again--Rochester hears Jane's voice in the room where she comes to him.
"'And where is the speaker? Is it only a voice? Oh! I _cannot_ see, but
I must feel or my heart will stop and my brain burst.'...
"He groped. I arrested his wandering hand, and prisoned it in both mine.
"'Her very fingers!' he cried; 'her small, slight fingers! If so, there
must be more of her.'
"The muscular hand broke from my custody; my arm was seized, my
shoulder--neck--wrist--I was entwined and gathered to him....
"I pressed my lips to his once brilliant and now rayless eyes--I swept
back his hair from his brow and kissed that too. He suddenly seemed to
rouse himself: the conviction of the reality of all this seized him.
"'It is you--is it, Jane? You are come back to me then?'
The scene as it stands is far from perfect; but only Charlotte Bronte
could sustain so strong an illusion of passion through so many lapses.
And all that passion counts for no more than half in the astounding
effect of reality she produces. Before _Jane Eyre_ there is no novel
written by a woman, with the one exception of _Wuthering Heights_, that
conveys so poignant an impression of surroundings, of things seen and
heard, of the earth and sky; of weather; of the aspects of houses and of
rooms. It suggests a positive exaltation of the senses of sound and
light, an ecstasy, an enchantment before the visible, tangible world. It
is not a matter of mere faithful observation (though few painters have
possessed so incorruptibly the innocence of the eye). It is an almost
supernatural intentness; sensation raised to the _n_th power. Take the
description of the awful red room at Gateshead.
"A bed supported on massive pillars of mahogany, hung with curtains of
deep red damask, stood out like a tabernacle in the centre; the two
large windows with their blinds always drawn down, were half shrouded in
festoons and falls of similar drapery; the carpet was red; the table at
the foot of the bed was covered with a crimson cloth; the walls were a
soft fawn colour, with a flush of pink in it; the wardrobe, the
toilet-table, the chairs were of darkly-polished old mahogany. Out of
these deep surrounding shades rose high and glared white the piled-up
mattresses and pillows of the bed, spread with a snowy Marseilles
counterpane. Scarcely less prominent was an ample, cushioned easy-chair
near the head of the bed, also white, with a footstool before it; and
looking, as I thought, like a pale throne.... Mr. Reed had been dead
nine years: it was in this chamber he breathed his last; here he lay in
state; hence his coffin was borne by the undertaker's men; and since
that day a sense of dreary consecration had guarded it from frequent
Could anything be more horrible than that red room? Or take the
descriptions of the school at Lowood where the horror of pestilence
hangs over house and garden. Through all these Gateshead and Lowood
scenes Charlotte is unerring and absolute in her reality.
Her very style, so uncertain in its rendering of human speech, becomes
flawless in such passages as this: "It was three o'clock; the
church-bell tolled as I passed under the belfry: the charm of the hour
lay in its approaching dimness, in the low-gliding and pale-beaming sun.
I was a mile from Thornfield, in a lane noted for wild roses in summer,
for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral
treasures in hips and haws, but whose best winter delight lay in its
utter solitude and leafless repose. If a breath of air stirred, it made
no sound here; for there was not a holly, not an evergreen to rustle,
and the stripped hawthorn and hazel bushes were as still as the white,
worn stones which causewayed the middle of the path. Far and wide, on
each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the
little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like
single russet leaves about to drop.
"This lane inclined up-hill all the way to Hay.... I then turned
"On the hill-top above me sat the rising moon; pale yet as a cloud, but
brightening momently; she looked over Hay which, half lost in trees,
sent up a blue smoke from its few chimneys; it was yet a mile distant,
but in the absolute hush I could hear plainly its thin murmurs of life.
My ear, too, felt the flow of currents; in what dales and depths I could
not tell: but there were many hills beyond Hay, and doubtless many becks
threading their passes. That evening calm betrayed alike the tinkle of
the nearest streams, the sough of the most remote.
"A rude noise broke on these fine ripplings and whisperings, at once so
far away and so clear: a positive tramp, tramp; a metallic clatter,
which effaced the soft wave-wanderings; as, in a picture, the solid mass
of a crag, or the rough boles of a great oak, drawn in dark and strong
on the foreground, efface the aerial distance of azure hill, sunny
horizon, and blended clouds, where tint melts into tint.
"The din sounded on the causeway...."
Flawless this, too, of the sky after sunset: "Where the sun had gone
down in simple state--pure of the pomp of clouds--spread a solemn
purple, burning with the light of red jewel and furnace flame at one
point, on one hill-peak, and extending high and wide, soft and still
softer, over half heaven."
And this of her own moors: "There are great moors behind and on each
hand of me; there are waves of mountains far beyond that deep valley at
my feet. The population here must be thin, and I see no passengers on
these roads: they stretch out east, west, north and south--white, broad,
lonely; they are all cut in the moor, and the heather grows deep and
wild to their very verge."
She has given the secret of the moor country in a phrase: "I felt the
consecration of its loneliness." In that one line you have the real, the
undying Charlotte Bronte.
It is such immortal things that make the difference between _Jane Eyre_
and _The Professor_. So immeasurable is that difference that it almost
justifies the theorist in assuming an "experience" to account for it, an
experience falling between the dates of _The Professor_ and _Jane Eyre_.
Unfortunately there was none; none in the sense cherished by the
researcher. Charlotte's letters are an unbroken record of those two
years that followed her return from Brussels. Her life is laid bare in
its long and cramped monotony, a life singularly empty of "experience".
And yet an experience did come to her in that brief period. If the
researcher had not followed a false scent across the Channel, if his
_flair_ for tragic passion had not destroyed in him all sense of
proportion, he could not possibly have missed it; for it stared him in
the face, simple, obvious, inevitable. But miss it he certainly did.
Obsessed by his idea, he considered it a negligible circumstance that
Charlotte should have read _Wuthering Heights_ before she wrote _Jane
Eyre_. And yet, I think that, if anything woke Charlotte up, it was
that. Until then, however great her certainty of her own genius, she did
not know how far she could trust it, how far it would be safe to let
imagination go. Appalled by the spectacle of its excesses, she had
divorced imagination from the real. But Emily knew none of these cold
deliberations born of fear. _Wuthering Heights_ was the fruit of a
divine freedom, a divine unconsciousness. It is not possible that
Charlotte, of all people, should have read _Wuthering Heights_ without a
shock of enlightenment; that she should not have compared it with her
own bloodless work; that she should not have felt the wrong done to her
genius by her self-repression. Emily had dared to be herself; _she_ had
not been afraid of her own passion; she had had no method; she had
accomplished a stupendous thing without knowing it, by simply letting
herself go. And Charlotte, I think, said to herself, "That is what I
ought to have done. That is what I will do next time." And next time she
did it. The experience may seem insufficient, but it is of such
experiences that a great writer's life is largely made. And if you
_must_ have an influence to account for _Jane Eyre_, there is no need
to go abroad to look for it. There was influence enough in her own home.
These three Brontes, adoring each other, were intolerant of any other
influence; and the strongest spirit, which was Emily's, prevailed. To be
sure, no remonstrances from Emily or Charlotte could stop Anne in her
obstinate analysis of Walter Huntingdon; but it was some stray spark
from Emily that kindled Anne. As for Charlotte, her genius must have
quickened in her when her nerves thrilled to the shock of _Wuthering
Heights_. This, I know, is only another theory; but it has at least the
merit of its modesty. It is not offered as in the least accounting for,
or explaining, Charlotte's genius. It merely suggests with all possible
humility a likely cause of its release. Anyhow, it is a theory that does
Charlotte's genius no wrong, on which account it seems to me preferable
to any other. It is really no argument against it to say that Charlotte
never acknowledged her sister's influence, that she was indeed unaware
of it; for, in the first place, the stronger the spiritual tie between
them, the less likely was she to have been aware. In the second place,
it is not claimed that _Wuthering Heights_ was such an influence as the
"sojourn in Brussels" is said to have been--that it "made Miss Bronte an
author". It is not claimed that if there had been no _Wuthering Heights_
and no Emily Bronte, there would have been no _Jane Eyre_; for to me
nothing can be more certain that whatever had, or had not happened,
Charlotte's genius would have found its way.
Charlotte's genius indeed was so profoundly akin to Charlotte's nature
that its way, the way of its upward progress, was by violent impetus and
In _Shirley_ she revolts from the passion of _Jane Eyre_. She seems to
have written it to prove that there are other things. She had been stung
by _The Quarterly's_ attack, stung by rumour, stung by every adverse
thing that had been said. And yet not for a moment was she "influenced"
by her reviewers. It was more in defiance than in submission that she
answered them with _Shirley_. _Shirley_ was an answer to every criticism
that had yet been made. In _Shirley_ she forsook the one poor play of
hearts insurgent for the vast and varied movement of the world; social
upheavals, the clash of sects and castes, the first grim hand-to-hand
struggle between capital and labour, all are there. The book opens with
a drama, not of hearts but of artisans insurgent; frame-breakers, not
breakers of the marriage law. In sheer defiance she essays to render the
whole real world, the complex, many-threaded, many-coloured world; where
the tragic warp is woven with the bright comedy of curates. It is the
world of the beginnings; the world of the early nineteenth century that
she paints. A world with the immensity, the profundity, the darkness of
the brooding sea; where the spirit of a woman moves, troubling the
waters; for Charlotte Bronte has before her the stupendous vision of the
world as it was, as it yet is, and as it is to be.
That world, as it existed from eighteen-twelve to Charlotte's own time,
eighteen-fifty, was not a place for a woman with a brain and a soul.
There was no career for any woman but marriage. If she missed it she
missed her place in the world, her prestige, and her privileges as a
woman. What was worse, she lost her individuality, and became a mere
piece of furniture, of disused, old-fashioned furniture, in her father's
or her brother's house. If she had a father or a brother there was no
escape for her from dependence on the male; and if she had none, if
there was no male about the house, her case was the more pitiable. And
the traditions of her upbringing were such that the real, vital things,
the things that mattered, were never mentioned in her presence. Religion
was the solitary exception; and religion had the reality and vitality
taken out of it by its dissociation with the rest of life. A woman in
these horrible conditions was only half alive. She had no energies, no
passions, no enthusiasms. Convention drained her of her life-blood. What
was left to her had no outlet; pent up in her, it bred weak, anaemic
substitutes for its natural issue, sentimentalism for passion, and
sensibility for the nerves of vision. This only applies, of course, to
the average woman.
Charlotte Bronte was born with a horror of the world that had produced
this average woman, this creature of minute corruptions and hypocrisies.
She sent out _Jane Eyre_ to purify it with her passion. She sent out
_Shirley_ to destroy and rebuild it with her intellect. Little Jane was
a fiery portent. Shirley was a prophecy. She is modern to her
finger-tips, as modern as Meredith's great women: Diana, or Clara
Middleton, or Carinthia Jane. She was born fifty years before her time.
This is partly owing to her creator's prophetic insight, partly to her
sheer truth to life. For Shirley was to a large extent a portrait of
Emily Bronte who was born before her time.
It is Emily Bronte's spirit that burns in Shirley Keeldar; and it is the
spirit of Shirley Keeldar that gives life to the unwilling mass of this
vast novel. It is almost enough immortality for Shirley that she is the
only living and authentic portrait of Emily Bronte in her time.
Charlotte has given her the "wings that wealth can give", and they do
not matter. She has also given her the wings of Emily's adventurous
soul, the wealth of her inner life.
"A still, deep, inborn delight glows in her young veins;
unmingled--untroubled, not to be reached or ravished by human agency,
because by no human agency bestowed: the pure gift of God to His
creature, the free dower of Nature to her child. This joy gives her
experience of a genii-life. Buoyant, by green steps, by glad hills, all
verdure and light, she reaches a station scarcely lower than that whence
angels looked down on the dreamer of Bethel, and her eye seeks, and her
soul possesses, the vision of life as she wishes it."
"Her eye seeks, and her soul possesses, the vision of life as she wishes
it--" That was the secret of Emily's greatness, of her immeasurable
superiority to her sad sisters.
And again: "In Shirley's nature prevailed at times an easy indolence:
there were periods when she took delight in perfect vacancy of hand and
eye--moments when her thoughts, her simple existence, the fact of the
world being around--and heaven above her, seemed to yield her such
fulness of happiness, that she did not need to lift a finger to increase
the joy. Often, after an active morning, she would spend a sunny
afternoon in lying stirless on the turf, at the foot of some tree of
friendly umbrage: no society did she need but that of Caroline, and it
sufficed if she were within call; no spectacle did she ask but that of
the deep blue sky, and such cloudlets as sailed afar and aloft across
its span; no sound but that of the bee's hum, the leaf's whisper."
There are phrases in Louis Moore's diary that bring Emily Bronte
straight before us in her swift and vivid life. Shirley is "Sister of
the spotted, bright, quick-fiery leopard." "Pantheress!--beautiful
forest-born!--wily, tameless, peerless nature! She gnaws her chain. I
see the white teeth working at the steel! She has dreams of her wild
woods, and pinings after virgin freedom." "How evanescent, fugitive,
fitful she looked--slim and swift as a Northern streamer!" "... With
her long hair flowing full and wavy; with her noiseless step, her pale
cheek, her eye full of night and lightning, she looked, I thought,
spirit-like--a thing made of an element--the child of a breeze and a
flame--the daughter of ray and raindrop--a thing never to be overtaken,
Like Emily she is not "caught". "But if I were," she says, "do you know
what soothsayers I would consult?... The little Irish beggar that comes
barefoot to my door; the mouse that steals out of the cranny in the
wainscot; the bird that in frost and snow pecks at my window for a
crumb; the dog that licks my hand and sits beside my knee."
And yet again: "She takes her sewing occasionally: but, by some
fatality, she is doomed never to sit steadily at it for above five
minutes at a time: her thimble is scarcely fitted on, her needle scarce
threaded, when a sudden thought calls her upstairs; perhaps she goes to
seek some just-then-remembered old ivory-backed needle-book, or older
china-topped work-box, quite unneeded, but which seems at the moment
indispensable; perhaps to arrange her hair, or a drawer which she
recollects to have seen that morning in a state of curious confusion;
perhaps only to take a peep from a particular window at a particular
view where Briarfield Church and Rectory are visible, pleasantly bowered
in trees. She has scarcely returned, and again taken up the slip of
cambric, or square of half-wrought canvas, when Tartar's bold scrape and
strangled whistle are heard at the porch door, and she must run to open
it for him; it is a hot day; he comes in panting; she must convoy him to
the kitchen, and see with her own eyes that his water-bowl is
replenished. Through the open kitchen-door the court is visible, all
sunny and gay, and peopled with turkeys and their poults, peahens and
their chicks, pearl-flecked Guinea fowls, and a bright variety of pure
white and purple-necked, and blue and cinnamon-plumed pigeons.
Irresistible spectacle to Shirley! She runs to the pantry for a roll,
and she stands on the doorstep scattering crumbs: around her throng her
eager, plump, happy, feathered vassals.... There are perhaps some little
calves, some little new-yeaned lambs--it may be twins, whose mothers
have rejected them: Miss Keeldar ... must permit herself the treat of
feeding them with her own hand."
Like Emily she is impatient of rituals and creeds. Like Emily she adores
the Earth. Not one of Charlotte's women except Shirley could have
chanted that great prose hymn of adoration in which Earth worships and
is worshipped. "'Nature is now at her evening prayers; she is kneeling
before those red hills. I see her prostrate on the great steps of her
altar, praying for a fair night for mariners at sea, for travellers in
deserts, for lambs on moors, and unfledged birds in woods.... I see her,
and I will tell you what she is like: she is like what Eve was when she
and Adam stood alone on earth.' 'And that is not Milton's Eve, Shirley,'
says Caroline, and Shirley answers: 'No, by the pure Mother of God, she
is not.' Shirley is half a Pagan. She would beg to remind Milton 'that
the first men of the earth were Titans, and that Eve was their mother:
from her sprang Saturn, Hyperion, Oceanus; she bore Prometheus.... I
say, there were giants on the earth in those days, giants that strove to
scale heaven. The first woman's breast that heaved with life on this
world yielded daring which could contend with Omnipotence; the strength
which could bear a thousand years of bondage--the vitality which could
feed that vulture death through uncounted ages--the unexhausted life
and uncorrupted excellence, sisters to immortality, which, after
millenniums of crimes, struggles, and woes, could conceive and bring
forth a Messiah. The first woman was heaven-born: vast was the heart
whence gushed the well-spring of the blood of nations; and grand the
undegenerate head where rested the consort-crown of creation.'...
"'You have not yet told me what you saw kneeling on those hills.'
"'I saw--I now see--a woman-Titan; her robe of blue air spreads to the
outskirts of the heath, where yonder flock is grazing; a veil, white as
an avalanche, sweeps from her head to her feet, and arabesques of
lightning flame on its borders. Under her breast I see her zone, purple
like that horizon: through its blush shines the star of evening. Her
steady eyes I cannot picture; they are clear--they are deep as
lakes--they are lifted and full of worship--they tremble with the
softness of love and the lustre of prayer. Her forehead has the expanse
of a cloud, and is paler than the early moon, risen long before dark
gathers: she reclines her bosom on the edge of Stilbro' Moor; her mighty
hands are joined beneath it. So kneeling, face to face, she speaks with
It is the living sister speaking for the dead; for Charlotte herself had
little of Emily's fine Paganism. But for one moment, in this lyric
passage, her soul echoes the very soul of Emily as she gathers round her
all the powers and splendours (and some, alas, of the fatal rhetoric) of
her prose to do her honour.
It is not only in the large figure of the Titan Shirley that Charlotte
Bronte shows her strength. She has learnt to draw her minor masculine
characters with more of insight and of accuracy--Caroline Helstone, the
Yorkes, Robert Moore, Mr. Helstone, Joe Scott, and Barraclough, the
"joined Methody". With a few strokes they stand out living. She has
acquired more of the art of dialogue. She is a past master of dialect,
of the racy, native speech of these men. Not only is Mr. Yorke painted
with unerring power and faithfulness in every detail of his harsh and
vigorous personality, but there is no single lapse from nature when he
is speaking. The curates only excepted, Charlotte never swerves from
this fidelity. But when she is handling her curates, it is a savage and
utterly inartistic humour that inspires her. You feel that she is not
exercising the art of comedy, but relieving her own intolerable boredom
and irritation. No object could well be more innocent, and more
appealing in its innocence, than little Mr. Sweeting, curate of
Nunnerly. Mr. Sweeting at the tea-table, "having a dish of tarts before
him, and marmalade and crumpet upon his plate", should have moved the
Comic Spirit to tears of gentleness.
Curates apart, two-thirds of _Shirley_ are written with an unerring
devotion to the real, to the very actual. They have not, for all that,
the profound reality of _Jane Eyre_. The events are confused, somehow;
the atmosphere is confusing; the northern background is drawn with a
certain hardness and apathy of touch; the large outlines are obscured,
delicate colours sharpened; it is hard and yet blurred, like a bad steel
engraving. Charlotte's senses, so intensely, so supernaturally alive in
_Jane Eyre_, are only passably awake in _Shirley_. It has some of the
dulness of _The Professor_, as it has more than its sober rightness.
But, for three-and-twenty chapters, the sobriety, the rightness triumph.
There are no improbabilities, no flights of imagination, none of the
fine language which was the shame when it was not the glory of _Jane
Then suddenly there comes a break--a cleavage. It comes with that
Chapter Twenty-four, which is headed "The Valley of the Shadow of
Death". It was written in the first months after Emily Bronte's death.
From that point Charlotte's level strength deserts her. Ever after, she
falls and soars, and soars and falls again. There is a return to the
manner of _Jane Eyre_, the manner of Charlotte when she is deeply moved;
there is at times a relapse to Jane Eyre's worst manner. You get it at
once in "The Valley of the Shadow" chapter, in the scene of Caroline's
"'But he will not know I am ill till I am gone; and he will come when
they have laid me out, and I am senseless, cold and stiff.
"'What can my departed soul feel then? Can it see or know what happens
to the clay? Can spirits, through any medium, communicate with living
flesh? Can the dead at all revisit those they leave? Can they come in
the elements? Will wind, water, fire lend me a path to Moore?
"'Is it for nothing the wind sounds almost articulate sometimes--sings
as I have lately heard it sing at night--or passes the casement sobbing,
as if for sorrow to come? Does nothing then haunt it--nothing inspire
The awful improbability of Caroline is more striking because of its
contrast with the inspired rightness of the scene of Cathy's delirium in
_Wuthering Heights_. It is Charlotte feebly echoing Emily, and going
more and more wrong up to her peroration.
Delirious Caroline wonders: "'What is that electricity they speak of,
whose changes make us well or ill; whose lack or excess blasts; whose
even balance revives?...'
"'_Where_ is the other world? In _what_ will another life consist? Why
do I ask? Have I not cause to think that the hour is hasting but too
fast when the veil must be rent for me? Do I not know the Grand Mystery
is likely to break prematurely on me? Great Spirit, in whose goodness I
confide; whom, as my Father, I have petitioned night and morning from
early infancy, help the weak creation of Thy hands! Sustain me through
the ordeal I dread and must undergo! Give me strength! Give me patience!
Give me--oh, _give me_ FAITH!'"
Jane Eyre has done worse than that, so has Rochester; but somehow, when
they were doing their worst with it, they got their passion through.
There is no live passion behind this speech of Caroline's, with its wild
stress of italics and of capitals. What passion there was in Charlotte
when she conceived Caroline was killed by Emily's death.
And Mrs. Pryor, revealing herself to Caroline, is even more terrible.
She has all the worst vices of Charlotte's dramatic style. Mrs. Pryor
calls to the spirit of Caroline's dead father: "'James, slumber
peacefully! See, your terrible debt is cancelled! Look! I wipe out the
long, black account with my own hand! James, your child atones: this
living likeness of you--this thing with your perfect features--this one
good gift you gave me has nestled affectionately to my heart and
tenderly called me "mother". Husband, rest forgiven.'"
Even Robert Moore, otherwise almost a masterpiece, becomes improbable
when, in his great scene, Shirley refuses him. When Mr. Yorke asks him
what has gone wrong he replies: "The machinery of all my nature; the
whole enginery of this human mill; the boiler, which I take to be the
heart, is fit to burst."
Shirley herself is impossible with her "Lucifer, Star of the Morning,
thou art fallen," and her speech to her mercenary uncle: "Sir, your
god, your great Bell, your fish-tailed Dagon, rises before me as a
What is worse than all, Louis Moore--Louis, the hero, Louis, the master
of passion, is a failure. He is Charlotte Bronte's most terrible, most
glaring failure. It is not true that Charlotte could not draw men, or
that she drew them all alike; Robert Moore, the hard-headed man of
business, the man of will and purpose, who never gives up, is not only
almost a masterpiece but a spontaneous masterpiece, one of the first
examples of his kind. But there is no blood in Louis' veins, no virility
in his swarthy body. He is the most unspeakable of schoolmasters. Yet
Charlotte lavished on this puppet half the wealth of her imagination.
She flings phrase after perfect phrase to him to cover himself
with--some of her best things have been given to Louis Moore to utter;
but they do not make him live. Again, she strangles him in his own
rhetoric. The courtship of Louis Moore and Shirley will not compare with
that of Jane and Rochester. There is no nightingale singing in their
Yet, for all that, _Shirley_ comes very near to being Charlotte Bronte's
masterpiece. It is inspired from first to last with a great intention
and a great idea. It shows a vision of reality wider than her grasp. Its
faults, like the faults of _Jane Eyre_, are all on the surface, only
there is more surface in _Shirley_. If it has not _Jane Eyre's_
commanding passion, it has a vaster sweep. It was literally the first
attempt in literature to give to woman her right place in the world.
From first to last there is not a page or a line in it that justifies
the malignant criticism of Mrs. Oliphant. Caroline Helstone does not
justify it. She is no window-gazing virgin on the look-out, in love
already before the man has come. She is a young girl, very naturally in
love with a man whom she has known for years, who is always on the spot.
As for Shirley, she flung herself with all the vehemence of her
prophetic soul on the hypocritical convention that would make every
woman dependent on some man, and at the same time despises her for the
possession of her natural instincts. And Caroline followed her. "I
observe that to such grievances as society cannot cure, it usually
forbids utterance, on pain of its scorn: this scorn being only a sort of
tinselled cloak to its deformed weakness. People hate to be reminded of
ills they are unable or unwilling to remedy: such reminder, in forcing
on them a sense of their own incapacity, or a more painful sense of an
obligation to make some unpleasant effort, troubles their ease and
shakes their self-complacency. Old maids, like the houseless and
unemployed poor, should not ask for a place and an occupation in the
world: the demand disturbs the happy and rich: it disturbs parents....
Men of England! Look at your poor girls, many of them fading round you,
dropping off in consumption or decline; or, what is worse, degenerating
to sour old maids--envious, back-biting, wretched, because life is a
desert to them; or, what is worst of all, reduced to strive, by scarce
modest coquetry and debasing artifice, to gain that position and
consideration by marriage, which to celibacy is denied. Fathers, cannot
you alter these things?... You would wish to be proud of your daughters,
and not to blush for them, then seek for them an interest and an
occupation which shall raise them above the flirt, the manoeuvrer, the
mischief-making talebearer. Keep your girl's minds narrow and
degraded--they will still be a plague and a care, sometimes a disgrace
to you: give them scope and work--they will be your gayest companions in
health; your tenderest nurses in sickness; your most faithful prop in
That is the argument from fathers, and it comes from Caroline Helstone,
not from Shirley. And the fact that Caroline married Robert Moore, and
Shirley fell in love when her hour came (and with Louis Moore, too!)
does not diminish the force or the sincerity or the truth of the tirade.
_Shirley_ may not be a great novel; but it is a great prophetic book.
Shirley's vision of the woman kneeling on the hills serves for more than
Emily Bronte's vision of Hertha and Demeter, of Eve, the Earth-mother,
"the mighty and mystical parent"; it is Charlotte Bronte's vindication
of Eve, her vision of woman as she is to be. She faced the world once
for all with her vision: "I see her," she said, "and I will tell you
what she is like."
Mrs. Oliphant did not see the woman kneeling on the hills. Neither
George Eliot nor Mrs. Gaskell saw her. They could not possibly have told
the world what she was like. It is part of Charlotte Bronte's superior
greatness that she saw.
* * * * *
You do not see that woman in _Villette_. She has passed with the
splendour of Charlotte's vision of the world. The world in _Villette_ is
narrowed to a Pensionnat de Demoiselles, and centred in the heart of one
woman. And never, not even in _Jane Eyre_, and certainly not in
_Shirley_, did Charlotte Bronte achieve such mastery of reality, and
with it such mastery of herself. _Villette_ is the final triumph of her
genius over the elements that warred in her. It shows the movement of
her genius, which was always by impulse and recoil. In _The Professor_
she abjured, in the interests of reality, the "imagination" of her
youth. In _Jane Eyre_ she was urged forward by the released impetus of
the forces she repressed. In _Shirley_ they are still struggling with
her sense of the sober and the sane reality; the book is torn to
fragments in the struggle, and in the end imagination riots.
But in _Villette_ there are none of these battlings and rendings, these
Titanic upheavals and subsidences. Charlotte Bronte's imagination, and
her sense of the real, are in process of fusion. There are few novels in
which an imagination so supreme is wedded to so vivid a vision of
actuality. It may be said that Charlotte Bronte never achieved positive
actuality before. The Pensionnat de Demoiselles is almost as visibly and
palpably actual as the Maison Vauquer in _Pere Goriot_. It is a return
to the method of experience with a vengeance. Charlotte's success,
indeed, was so stunning that for all but sixty years _Villette_ has
passed for a _roman a clef_, the novel, not only of experience, but of
personal experience. There was a certain plausibility in that view. The
characters could all be easily recognized. And when Dr. John was
identified with Mr. George Smith, and his mother with Mr. George Smith's
mother, and Madame Beck with Madame Heger, and M. Paul Emanuel with
Madame Heger's husband, the inference was irresistible: Lucy Snowe was,
and could only be, Charlotte Bronte. And as the figure of M. Paul
Emanuel was ten times more vivid and convincing than that of Rochester,
so all that applied to Jane Eyre applied with ten times more force to
Lucy. In _Villette_ Charlotte Bronte was considered to have given
herself hopelessly away.
I have tried to show that this view cannot stand before an unprejudiced
examination of her life and letters. No need to go into all that again.
On the evidence, Charlotte seems at the best of times to have fallen in
love with difficulty; and she most certainly was no more in love with
"the little man", Paul Emanuel, than she was with "the little man", Mr.
Taylor. The really important and interesting point is that, if she had
been, if he had thus obtained the reality with which passion endows its
object, her imagination would have had no use for him; its work would
have been done for it.
To the supreme artist the order of the actual event is one thing, and
the order of creation is another. Their lines may start from the same
point in the actual, they may touch again and again, but they are not
the same, and they cannot run exactly parallel. There must always be
this difference between the actual thing and the thing drawn from it,
however closely, that each is embedded and enmeshed in a different
context. For a character in a novel to be alive it must have grown; and
to have grown it must have followed its own line of evolution,
inevitably and in its own medium; and that, whether or not it has been
"taken", as they say, "from life". The more alive it is the less likely
is it to have been "taken", to have been seized, hauled by the scruff of
its neck out of the dense web of the actual. All that the supreme artist
wants is what Charlotte Bronte called "the germ of the real", by which
she meant the germ of the actual. He does not want the alien, developed
thing, standing in its own medium ready-made. Charlotte Bronte said that
the character of Dr. John was a failure because it lacked the germ of