Charlotte Brontë

Born: 21 April 1816
Died: 31 March 1855
Charlotte Brontë, afterwards Nicholls, was an English novelist. The daughter of Patrick Brontë (1777-1861), and sister of Patrick Branwell Brontë (1817-1848), Emily Jane Brontë (1818-1848), and Anne Brontë (1820-1849). Patrick Brontë, born on 17 March 1777 at Ahaderg, co. Down, was one of the ten children of Hugh Prunty or Brontë. He changed his paternal name to Brontë shortly before leaving Ireland. At the age of 16 he had tried to make his own living by opening a school at Drumgooland in the same county. The liberality of Mr. Tighe, vicar of Drumgooland, enabled him to go to Cambridge, with a view to taking orders. He entered St. John’s College in October 1802, and graduated as B.A. in 1806. He was ordained to a curacy in Essex, and in 1811 to the curacy of Hartshead in Yorkshire. His improved means enabled him to allow 20/. a year to his mother during her life. At Hartshead he met Maria, third daughter of Thomas Branwell of Penzance, then on a visit to her uncle, the Rev. J. Fennel, head-master of a Wesleyan academy near Bradford, and afterwards a clergyman of the church of England. They were married on 29 Dec. 1812 by the Rev. W. Morgan, who was at the same time married by Brontë to Fennel’s daughter. Brontë published two simple-minded volumes of verse, Cottage Poems (Halifax, 1811) and the Rural Minstrel (Halifax, 1813), and a tract called The Cottage in a Wood, or the Art of becoming Rich and Happy a new version of the Pamela Story (reprinted in 1859 from the 2nd edition of 1818). In 1818 he also published the Maid of Killarney. These, and some letters upon catholic emancipation, which appeared in the Leeds Intelligencer for January 1829, were his only publications. After five years at Hartshead, Brontë became perpetual curate of Thornton. His eldest child, Maria, was born at Hartshead. The parish register of Thornton shows that his second daughter, Elizabeth, was baptised there on 26 Aug. 1815; Charlotte (born 21 April) on 29 June 1816; Patrick Branwell on 23 July 1817; Emily Jane on 20 Aug. 1818; and Anne on 25 March 1820. On 25 Feb. 1820 the Brontës had moved to Haworth, nine miles from Bradford, of which Brontë had accepted the perpetual curacy, worth about 200l. a year and a house. Mrs Brontë had an annuity of 50l. a year. A previous incumbent of Haworth had been the famous William Grimshaw, one of Wesley’s first followers. Haworth was a country village, but great part of the population was employed in the woollen manufacture, then rapidly extending in the rural districts of Yorkshire. Dissent was strong in Haworth, and methodism had flourished there since the time of Grimshaw. Bronte, a strong churchman and a man of imperious and passionate character, extorted the respect of a sturdy and independent population. He is partly represented by Mr. Helston in Shirley, though a Mr. Roberson, vicar of Heckmondwike, and a personal friend of Brontë’s, supplied some characteristic traits. His behaviour is described by his daughter’s biographer as marked by strange eccentricity. He enforced strict discipline; the children were fed on potatoes without meat to make them hardy. He burnt their boots when he thought them too smart, and for the same reason destroyed a silk gown of his wife’s. He generally restrained open expression of his anger, but would relieve his feelings by firing pistols out of his back-door or destroying articles of furniture. He became unpopular by supporting the authorities against the Luddites, but afterwards showed equal vigour in supporting men on strike against the injustice of the mill-owners. He was unsocial in his habits, loved solitary rambles over the moors, and, in consequence of some weakness of digestion, dined alone even before his wife’s death and to the end of his own life. Brontë himself complained of some of these statements as false, and Mr. Leyland accounts for the shooting and the silk-gown stories by misunderstandings and village gossip. Mrs. Brontë died of cancer on 15 Sept. 1821, and a year later her elder sister, Miss Branwell, undertook to manage Brontë’s household. She disliked the rough climate and surroundings of Haworth, and in later years seldom left her bedroom even for meals. She seems to have been a prim old maid, with whom the children were always reserved. From the time of their mother’s illness they were left very much to themselves. They showed extraordinary precocity of talent; they had few friends, saw little of their father or neighbours, and used to walk out alone upon the moors. The eldest, Maria, would shut herself up with a newspaper and study parliamentary debates in the intervals of her care of the younger children. Her father said that he could converse with her on any topics of the day, though she died at the age of eleven; and the whole family, cut off from childish companionship, learnt to take a keen interest in the topics discussed by their elders. A school for clergymen’s daughters had been founded in 1823 at Cowan’s Bridge, between Leeds and Kendal, chiefly through the exertions of the Rev. William Carus Wilson. Parents were to pay only 14l. a year, the necessary balance being provided by subscription. It was opened with only sixteen pupils, and fifty-three had been admitted when Charlotte left the school. Brontë sent Maria and Elizabeth to this school in July 1824; Charlotte and Emily followed in September. The school arrangements were at first defective; frugality led to roughness, and the food was badly cooked. A low fever broke out in the spring of 1825. The Brontës escaped; but Maria and Elizabeth soon afterwards became seriously ill, and were taken home only to die, Maria on 6 May 1825 in her twelfth year, and Elizabeth on 15 June in her eleventh year. The vivid picture of this part of her life in the opening scenes of Jane Eyre (where ‘Helen Burns’ stands for Maria Brontë) represents the impression made upon Charlotte Brontë. She did not anticipate the obvious identification, and therefore did not hold herself bound to strict accuracy. That the account would be exaggerated if taken as an historical document may be fairly inferred from a Vindication of the Clergy Daughters’ School, published by the Rev. H. Shepheard in 1859. Some mismanagement at starting was not surprising; reforms were speedily introduced; and fellow-pupils of the Brontës speak warmly of Mr. Wilson and even of Miss Scatcherd’s representative, as well as of the school. The diet and lodging could hardly have been rougher than that of Haworth; but the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth succeeding some severe treatment naturally impressed the sensitive imagination of their sister. Charlotte and Emily returned to the school after the summer holidays, but were removed on account of their health before the winter. The family were now gathered at Haworth. Miss Branwell gave the girls lessons in her bedroom, while Charlotte acted as the childish guardian of her younger sisters. Branwell was chiefly taught by his father, making friends for himself in the village. There was a grammar school at Haworth, where the children may have had some lessons. An elderly woman called ‘Tabby’ began at this time a service of thirty years with the Brontës, and looked after the children. They were, however, thrown much upon their own resources, and amused themselves by writing. Charlotte made a ‘catalogue of her books’ written between April 1829 and August 1830. They filled twenty-two volumes of from sixty to a hundred pages of minute handwriting, a facsimile from which is given in Mrs. Gaskell’s biography. They consist of stories and childish ‘magazines.’ The extracts given by Mrs. Gaskell show remarkable indications of imaginative power, while it also appears that the children had imbibed from their father strong tory prejudices and a devoted admiration for the Duke of Wellington. A poem of Charlotte’s, written before 1833, given by Mrs. Gaskell, shows especial promise. The education was of course unsystematic. When Charlotte was again sent to school in January 1831, she was remarkably forward in some respects and equally backward in others. The school was kept by Miss Wooler, at Roehead, between Leeds and Huddersfield. The number of pupils varied from seven to ten, and Charlotte became strongly attached to her teachers and to some of her schoolfellows. One of the latter, Miss Ellen Nussey, was a lifelong friend and correspondent. Two sisters, Mary and Martha Taylor, who lived at Gomersal, are the Rose and Jessie Yorke of ‘Shirley,’ where the whole Taylor family is vividly portrayed. Miss Nussey was the original of Caroline Helston in the same novel. Stories told by Miss Wooler of the days of the Luddites suggested other incidents, while a Mr. Cartwright, owner of a neighbouring factory, is represented by Robert Moore. In 1832 Charlotte left Roehead, keeping up a correspondence with Miss Nussey. She read the standard books, of which her father had a respectable collection, and her remarks are such as might be expected from a clever girl in a secluded parsonage. The question of providing for the family was beginning to become urgent. Branwell, a lad of great promise, had contracted some dangerous intimacies, and was known in the public-house parlour. He read Bell’s Life, took an interest in prize-fighting, and was anxious to see life in London. He had also read the classics, was fond of music, and could play the organ; while he was good-looking, though rather undersized, and had great powers of conversation. It is said that before going to London he could astonish bagmen at the ‘Black Bull’ by describing the topography of the metropolis. The whole family had certain artistic tastes, and Charlotte took infinite pains in minutely copying engravings until the practice injured her sight. Their father had procured them some drawing lessons from a Mr. W. Robinson of Leeds. Branwell had made acquaintance with some local artists and journalists, and contributed to the poets’ corner of local journals. A special friend was Joseph Bentley Leyland, a rising sculptor, born at Halifax. Leyland went to London (December 1833) to study, and afterwards settled there as a sculptor. Branwell, stimulated by his example, made a short visit to London, went to the sights, saw Tom Spring at the Castle Tavern, Holborn, and soon returned, either from his own want of perseverance or because his father could not support him. This was apparently in the later months of 1835. On 6 July 1835 Charlotte says that she is to be a governess in order to enable her father to pay for Branwell’s education at the Royal Academy. On 29 July Charlotte went as teacher to Miss Wooler’s school, taking Emily with her as pupil. After three months’ stay, Emily became ‘literally ill from home-sickness,’ and returned to Haworth. It was about this time that an incident, the marriage of a girl to a man who, as it turned out, was already married to a wife of deranged intellect, suggested the plot of Jane Eyre. Charlotte appears to have been happy at Miss Wooler’s, though with occasional fits of depression caused by weak nerves. Her conscientious labour was too much for her strength. Miss Wooler moved her school to Dewsbury Moor, in a lower situation, where Charlotte’s health suffered still more. Anne was also at the school, and apparently suffered from the change. In 1836 Emily again tried teaching, and passed six months at a school in Halifax, but soon found the burden of her duties and the absence from Haworth intolerable. Charlotte and Anne continued at Miss Wooler’s till Christmas 1837, when symptoms of incipient consumption in Anne alarmed Charlotte, and caused the two girls to return. Charlotte had a temporary misunderstanding with Miss Wooler for supposed indifference to Anne’s health; and though this was soon removed, and Charlotte was induced to return to her post in the spring of 1838, she found her health finally unequal to the task, and came back to Haworth. For some time desultory attempts to find employment were the chief incidents of the sisters’ lives. It had come to be agreed that Emily was to remain at home; Anne found a situation as governess in the spring of 1839, and spent the rest of her life in various places, where the frequent dependence upon coarse employers seems to have been the source of much misery; Charlotte was a governess for a short time in 1839, and again from March to December 1841, finding kindly and considerate employers on the second occasion. She declined two offers of marriage, one in March 1839 to the prototype of St. John in Jane Eyre, and one in the same autumn from an Irish clergyman. Soon afterwards she wrote and sent to Wordsworth a fragment of a story mentioned in the preface to the Professor as one in which she had got over her taste for the high-flown style. She had already sent some poems to Southey on 29 Dec. 1836, who replied, pointing out the objections to a literary career, in a letter of which she acknowledged the kindness and wisdom. Branwell had written soon afterwards to Wordsworth (19 Jan. 1837), but apparently no answer was made. Southey’s letter had led to Charlotte’s abandonment of literature for the time, and it seems from her reply to Wordsworth that his letter, though ‘kind and candid,’ was equally damping. Marriage and literature being renounced, she began to think of starting a school. The sisters thought that with the help of a loan from Miss Branwell’s savings they might adapt the parsonage to the purpose. In 1841 Miss Wooler proposed to give up her school to the Brontës. The offer was eagerly accepted, but it seemed desirable that they should qualify themselves by acquiring some knowledge of foreign languages on the continent. After some inquiries they decided upon entering a school of eighty or a hundred pupils, kept by M. and Mme. Héger in the Rue d’Isabelle, Brussels. Charlotte and Emily went thither in February 1842, their father going with them, and staying one night at the Chapter coffee-house, Paternoster Row, and one night at Brussels. M. Héger was a man of ability and strong religious principles, choleric but benevolent, and an active member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He was professor of rhetoric and préfet des études at the Athénée, ultimately resigning his position because he was not allowed to introduce religious instruction. He soon perceived the talents of his new pupils, and, dispensing with the drudgery of grammar, set them to study pieces of classical French literature, and to practice original composition in French. Some of Charlotte’s exercises show that she soon obtained remarkable command of the language. Although the sisters profited by this instruction, the general tone of the school was uncongenial; they disliked the Belgians, and the experience only intensified their protestantism and patriotic prejudices. Mary and Martha Taylor, their old friends, were resident in Brussels at this time; but the death of Martha Taylor, the original of Jessie Yorke, in the autumn of 1842, was a severe blow. News of the last illness and death of their aunt, Miss Branwell, reached them soon after. They started immediately for Haworth, and passed the rest of the year at home. The aunt’s will, made in 1833, left her money to four nieces, the three Brontës and Anne Kingston. The statement that she disinherited Branwell on account of his ill-conduct is erroneous. M. Héger wrote a letter to their father, expressing a high opinion of their talents, and speaking of the possibility of his offering them a position. Charlotte had already begun to have lessons, and it was decided that she should return as a teacher, for a salary of 400 francs, out of which she was to pay for German lessons. She went in January 1843, and stayed till the end of the year. She felt the loneliness of her position, especially when left by herself during the vacation, and a coolness arose between her and Madame Héger, due partly at least to their religious differences. It is probable that she suffered at this time from some unfortunate attachment. Her father’s failing eyesight gave an additional reason for her presence at home, and she finally reached Haworth 2 Jan. 1844, with a certificate of her powers of teaching French, signed by M. Héger, and with the seal of the Athénée Royal. Her experiences at Brussels were used in the Professor, and with surprising power in Villette, which is to so great an extent a literal reproduction of her own personal history that some of the persons described complained of minor inaccuracies as though it had been avowedly a matter-of-fact narrative. The plan of setting up a school was again discussed by the sisters. They could not leave their father, but with the sum left by Miss Branwell they intended to fit the parsonage for receiving pupils. No pupils, however, would come to the remote village, and troubles were accumulating. Branwell’s early promise was vanishing. After his visit to London he made some efforts to gain a living by painting portraits. He passed two or three years in desultory efforts, but his want of any serious training was fatal. A portrait of his sisters, shows that he had some power of seizing a likeness, but was otherwise a mere dauber. He took lodgings at Bradford, joined the meetings of ‘the artistic and literary celebrities of the neighbourhood’ at the George Hotel, and rambled about the country. He was a member of the masonic ‘Lodge of the Three Graces’ at Haworth, of which John Brown, the sexton, was ‘worshipful master.’ He learnt to take opium, and occasionally drank to excess. On 1 Jan. 1840 he became tutor in the family of Mr. Postlethwaite of Broughton-in-Furness, and soon afterwards wrote a letter to his friend the sexton, which proves sufficiently that he was deeply tainted with vicious habits. He next got a place as clerk on the Leeds and Manchester railroad, being employed at Sowerby Bridge from October 1840, and a few months later at Luddenden Foot. At the beginning of 1842 he was dismissed for culpable negligence in his accounts and the defalcations of a subordinate. After the Christmas holidays in that year he became tutor in a family where Anne was already a governess. Here he appears to have fallen in love with the wife of his employer, seventeen years his senior, and to have misinterpreted her kindness into a return of his affection. When his behaviour became openly offensive, she spoke to her husband, and Branwell was summarily dismissed in July 1845. He bragged to all his friends of his supposed conquest in the fashion of a village Don Juan, and chose to say that the lady acted under compulsion, and was ready to marry him upon her husband’s death. Meanwhile he stayed with his father, still writing occasional scraps, and making applications for employment. He became reckless, took opium, and had attacks of delirium tremens. Emily Brontë appears to have tolerated him, Anne suffered cruelly, and Charlotte was indignant and disgusted. She speaks of his ‘frantic folly,’ says (3 March 1846) that it is ‘scarcely possible to stay in the room where he is,’ and regards the case as ‘hopeless.’ If he got a sovereign he spent it at the public-house. In 1846 his late employer died, and Branwell hoped, if, as is charitably suggested, he was under an hallucination, that the widow would marry him. He told his story to every one who would listen, adding that he would mention it to no other human being. After this he rapidly deteriorated, developed symptoms of consumption, and died 26 Sept. 1848. In his last moments he started convulsively to his feet and fell dead. This incident apparently gave rise to Mrs. Gaskell’s statement that he carried out a previous resolution that he would die standing, in order to prove the strength of his will. These facts must be mentioned, because they explain one cause of the sisters’ depression, and because they have unfortunately been misstated. Biographers believed in Branwell’s story of the vileness of his employer’s wife, and though when first published it was met with an indignant denial and instantly suppressed, it has since been reported as authentic. It rests solely upon the testimony of the pothouse brags of a degraded creature. All the statements which can now be checked are false. The husband’s will did not, as Branwell asserted, make the lady’s fortune conditional on her not seeing him. On the contrary, it shows complete confidence in her. Branwell did not die with his pocket ‘full of her letters,’ She never wrote to him, and the letters were from another person. The whole may be dismissed as a shameful lie, possibly based in part on real delusion. A claim has been set up for Branwell to a partial authorship of Wuthering Heights. He wrote, even to the last, some poems which, though often feeble, show distinct marks of the family talent. He had finished by September 1845 one volume of a three-volume novel. He told Mr. Grundy, apparently in 1846, that he had written a great part of Wuthering Heights, and, as Mr. Grundy adds, ‘what his sister said bore out the assertion.’ Two of his friends also stated that Branwell had read to them part of a novel, which, from recollection, they identified with Wuthering Heights. On the other hand, Charlotte Brontë, who was in daily communication with her sisters at every step, obviously had no doubt that it was written by her sister Emily. Her testimony is conclusive. She could not have been deceived, nor is it possible to suppose that Emily would have carried out such a deception. The sisters still consulted Branwell on their work, and Emily was least repelled by him. That he may have given her some suggestions is probable enough ; nor is it improbable that the reprobate who was slandering his employer’s wife was making a false claim to part of his sister’s novel. Stories of this kind are common enough in literary history. The internal evidence cannot be discussed ; though it may be said that Emily’s poems show far higher promise than anything of Branwell’s, and so far strengthen her claim to a story of astonishing power. Branwell’s habits at this time were as unfavourable to good work as conducive to the disappearance of any fragments he may have written. When Charlotte left Brussels, her father’s eyesight was failing. The weak health of Tabby increased the labour of housekeeping. On 25 Aug. 1846 Mr. Brontë underwent a successful operation for cataract. The sisters now turned their thoughts to literature. Charlotte tells M. Héger in 1845 that she had been approved by Southey and Coleridge. The latter was known to some of Branwell’s friends, and it is said that he and Wordsworth gave some encouragement to Branwell. In the autumn of 1845 Charlotte had accidentally found some poems of Emily’s. Anne then confessed to having also written verse ; and the three put together a small volume, which was published at their expense in May 1846 by Messrs. Aylott & Jones. It attracted little notice, though reviewed in the Athenæum (4 Judy 1846). The sisters adopted the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, corresponding to their initials. They next offered their novels, the Professor, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, to various publishers. A refusal of the Professor reached Chariot on the day of her father’s operation, and the same day she began Jane Eyre. In the spring of 1847, Emily’s and Anne’s stories were accepted by J. Cautley Newby. Before they had appeared Charlotte received a letter from Messrs. Smith & Elder containing a refusal of the Professor, but ‘so delicate, reasonable, and courteous as to be more cheering than some acceptances.’ It encouraged her to offer them Jane Eyre, already nearly finished. The reader, the late Mr. W. S. Williams, recognised its great power. It was immediately accepted and published in, August 1847. Jane Eyre achieved at once surprising success. Charlotte had overcome the tendency to fine writing of her first story, and the reaction into dryness of the Professor. She had learnt to combine extraordinary power of expressing passion with an equally surprising power of giving reality to her pictures which transfigures the commonest scenes and events in the light of genius. Jane Eyre, which owed little to contemporary critics, was warmly praised in the Examiner, and by G. H. Lewes in Fraser’s Magazine for December ; but the rush for copies, ‘which began early in Degreatest artistic weakness. Villette was finished, after many interruptions caused by ill-health and depression, at the end of 1852, and published in the following spring. Her extreme sensibility was shown by a desire to publish it anonymously, but its success was equal at the time to that of its predecessors. Miss Brontë had now become famous, and the life at Haworth was interrupted by occasional visits to the friends who had gathered round her, in spite of the extreme shyness of a sensitive nature reared in such peculiar seclusion. Her visit to Mr. Smith in London in the end of 1849 was followed by others in June 1850, in June 1851, and in January 1853. In 1849 she met Thackeray, the contemporary whom she most admired, though she was a little puzzled to know whether he was ‘in jest or earnest’ in conversation, and complained of what she thought his perversity in satire. She mentions how she told him of his faults in 1850, and how his excuses were often worse than his crimes. Miss Brontë’s sense of humour was feeble. In 1851 she attended one of his lectures, and the author of Jane Eyre found herself the centre of observation to a London audience, and was introduced to Mr. Monckton Milnes (afterwards Lord Houghton). A description of Thackeray’s sensitiveness to the opinions of his hearers is adapted to the case of M. Paul Emanuel in Villette. Thackeray’s impressions of Miss Brontë are given in a short introduction to a fragment called Emma, published in the Cornhill for April 1860. She made the acquaintance of Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth in 1850, and while staying with him near Bowness the same August met her future biographer, Mrs. Gaskell, with whom she formed a warm friendship. An admiring criticism of Wuthering Heights by Sydney Dobell in the Palladium in September 1850 led to another warm friendship with the author. She met G. H. Lewes, whose early admiration of Jane Eyre had pleased her, though she accepted with some difficulty his advice to study Miss Austen. He hurt her by a review of Shirley in the Edinburgh for June 1850, where she was annoyed by the stress laid upon her sex. ‘I can be on my guard against my enemies,’ she wrote pithily, ‘but God preserve me from my friends!’ Lewes appeared to her to be over-confident and dogmatic, but she respected him enough to say that he was guilty rather of ‘rough play than of foul play.’ Though she made it a duty to read all critiques, she was sensitive under reproof, and especially to any charge against her delicacy. A reviewer of Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre in the Quarterly for December 1848 had brought against her the charge of coarseness. She asked Miss Martineau, whose acquaintance she had made in 1850, to tell her faithfully of any such fault in future novels. Miss Martineau promised and kept her word by condemning Villette upon that and other grounds in the Daily News. Miss Brontë had stayed in Miss Martineau’s house, and, though repelled by some of her hostess’s religious opinions, had refused to give up the friendship upon that account. This criticism of Villette induced Miss Brontë to signify that their intercourse must cease. Miss Martineau afterwards wrote in the Daily News a generous notice of Miss Brontë on her death. A third offer of marriage had been made to Miss Brontë in the spring of 1851 by a man of business in good position, and was apparently favoured by her father. In July 1846 she had denied a report of an engagement to her father’s curate, Mr. A. B. Nicholls. He is alluded to in Shirley as the ‘true Christian gentleman’ who had succeeded the three curates. In December 1852 Mr. Nicholls proposed marriage, and Miss Brontë, though returning his affection, refused him next day at her father’s dictation. Mr. Nicholls resigned his curacy and left Haworth. The father’s unreasonable indignation gradually calmed as he saw that his daughter’s health was suffering. In March 1854 Miss Brontë wrote with his consent to invite Mr. Nicholls to return. She had arranged that the marriage should not disturb her father’s seclusion, and should be a gain instead of a loss of money. It took place accordingly on 19 June 1854, and while health lasted was productive of unmixed happiness. After a visit with her husband to his Irish relations she returned to Haworth, where in the next winter her health became precarious. She sank gradually, and died on 31 March 1855. The father survived her for six years, retaining his interest in public affairs and cherishing all memorials of his daughters. Mr. Nicholls continued to live with him, and a letter from Mr. Raymond, editor of the New York Times, describes an interview with the two. Patrick Brontë died on 7 June 1861. The works published by the three sisters are as follows : Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, 1846. Jane Eyre, 1847. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey (3 vols., of which Agnes Grey is the last), 1847. The Tenant of Wildfell, indicated a hold upon public interest which needed no critical sanction. The second edition, dedicated to Thackeray, appeared in January 1848. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published in December, with comparatively little success. By the next June, Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall was offered to the same publisher. Hitherto the secret of the authorship of Jane Eyre had been revealed by Charlotte to no one but her father, and to him only after its assured success. It had been conjectured by some readers that the three Bells were in reality one. A foolish and impossible story attributed Jane Eyre to an imaginary governess of Thackeray’s, represented by Becky Sharp, who was supposed to have retorted by describing Thackeray as Rochester (Quarterly Review, December 1848). On 28 April and 3 May 1848, Charlotte wrote to Miss Nussey, denying the rumour of its true origin with much vehemence, though with a self-betraying effort to avoid direct falsehood. She had, it seems, promised secrecy to her sisters. Meanwhile, the publisher of Emily’s and Anne’s novels had promised early sheets of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall to an American house, stating his belief that it was by the author of Jane Eyre. A difficulty arose with Messrs. Smith & Elder, who had promised the next work of the same author to another American firm. They wrote to Miss Brontë, and she, with Anne, immediately went to London in July to clear up the point decisively. The sisters went to the Chapter coffee-house and immediately called at Messrs. Smith & Elder’s. They refused an invitation to stay at Mr. Smith’s house, and, after going to the opera and seeing a few London sights, returned to Haworth, and to severe domestic trials. Branwell died in September. Emily’s health then showed symptoms of collapse. She would not complain, nor endure questioning. Only when actually dying (19 Dec. 1848) she said that she would see a doctor. Shirley Keeldar was Emily’s portrait of her sister as she might have been under happier circumstances. The story of the courage with which Shirley burns out the scar of a mad dog’s bite was true of Emily. The dog ‘Tartar’ was Emily’s mastiff. She once gave him a severe thrashing for a domestic offence, though she had been told that if touched by a stick he would certainly throttle her. The dog, it is added, loved her ever afterwards, followed her to her grave, became decrepit, and died in December 1851. Emily has been regarded by some critics as the ablest of the sisters. Wuthering Heights and some of the poems give a promise more appreciable by critics than by general readers. The novel missed popularity by the general painfulness of the situation, by clumsiness of construction, and by the absence of the astonishing power of realisation manifest in Jane Eyre. In point of style it is superior, but it is the nightmare of a recluse, not a direct representation of facts seen by genius. Though enthusiastically admired by good judges, it will hardly be widely appreciated. After Emily’s death Anne rapidly sickened. Consumption soon declared itself. On 24 May she left Haworth for Scarborough, and died there, after patient endurance of her sufferings, on 28 May 1849. A touching poem, I hoped that with the brave and strong, was her last composition. For the next few years Charlotte lived alone with her father. She suffered frequently from nervous depression. Household cares troubled her. The old servant Tabby had broken her leg in 1837, when the younger Brontës insisted upon keeping her in the house, though she might have lived in tolerable ease with a sister. In the autumn of 1849 Tabby, now at the age of eighty, had a fit; a younger servant who helped was seriously ill, and Miss Brontë had to do all the housework besides nursing the patients. She still persevered in literary composition, and Shirley, the least melancholy of her stories, was published on 26 Oct. 1849. A Haworth man living at Liverpool easily divined the authorship, and the secret, already transparent, was openly abandoned. On a visit to Mr. George Smith, of Smith & Elder’s, in the autumn of the same year, she was introduced to Thackeray and in various literary circles. It is curious that she denied explicitly that the characters in Shirley were ‘literal portraits’. Yet it is admitted that an original stood for almost every person, if not for every person, introduced. Besides Shirley herself, who was meant for Emily, Mr. Helstone, who partly represented the elder Brontë, Caroline, who represented Miss Nussey, Mrs. Pryor and Mr. Hall had certainly originals; the whole family of Yorkes were ‘almost daguerreotypes’, and one of the sons himself confirmed their accuracy; while the ‘three curates’ not only recognised their own likenesses, but called each other by the names given in the novel. In her last finished story, Villette, the same method is applied to her life at Brussels.

All books by Charlotte Brontë