Authors: Catherine Reef
Even with a wide world to live in, Charlotte stubbornly told her adventurous friend, “I intend to stay.”
She hung her hope on Monsieur’s words, so when he failed to write, she simply had to break the six-months rule and send him a letter. “You showed me once
interest, when I was your pupil in Brussels, and I hold to the maintenance of that
interest—I hold to it as I would hold on to life,” she wrote. “If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be altogether without hope.”
Charlotte tried to restore the old closeness she had enjoyed with her teacher, but such desperate words caused Constantin Heger to draw away. At last, hearing nothing to cheer her heart, Charlotte gave up. Wishing no longer to be “the slave of a regret,
of a memory; the slave of a fixed and dominant idea which controls the mind,” she cut her ties with the Pensionnat Heger in November 1845. Haworth became her world.
The Reverend Brontë still ministered to the little village, but his vision was failing. He depended on his daughters to read and write for him and to guide him as he walked in the street. The new curate who arrived in 1845 took over many of his pastoral duties. Handsome Arthur Bell Nicholls, age twenty-seven, came from Ireland. He was the son of a poor farmer, like Patrick Brontë, but after his parents died he was adopted by his uncle, who was headmaster at one of Ireland’s best boys’ schools. He was more serious and plodding than the charming William Weightman, but the Brontës liked him well enough. “He appears a respectable young man,
reads well, and I hope will give satisfaction,” Charlotte noted.
When Charlotte said that Nicholls read well, she was referring to the way he read sermons aloud in church. The reading he did for pleasure was a different matter. He preferred dry books on church governance to the kinds of writing the Brontë siblings were producing—fiction and poetry. Branwell, for one, was trying to write a novel. He was blending Angrian legend with his heart’s dearest wish to tell the tale of the fictional Maria Thurston. This beautiful married woman falls in love with Alexander Percy, the hero who had fought Satan in one of Branwell’s early stories. Charlotte had also started a novel, one that she would call
She drew inspiration from her memories of Brussels. And Anne had begun writing
a novel with a governess as its main character, while still employed at Thorp Green.
Emily was writing something, too, but what? “Many’s the time
that I have seen Miss Emily put down the ‘tally-iron’ as she was ironing the clothes to scribble something on a piece of paper,” said Martha Brown, who came to the parsonage as a “help-girl,” to assist the aging Tabby. “Whatever she was doing, ironing or baking, she had her pencil and paper by her.”
One autumn day in 1845, Charlotte happened on a notebook of poems that Emily had written and hidden away. While she was paging through the book, “something more than surprise”
took hold of her. Here were verses unlike any she had seen flow from a woman’s pen: “They stirred my heart like the sound of a trumpet.” These poems brought to Charlotte’s ear “a peculiar music—wild, melancholy, and elevating.” When she revealed to her remote, self-willed sister that she had read the secret verses, Emily flew into a rage. It took hours for her to quiet down enough to hear Charlotte say how good the poems were.
The angry storm passed, and quiet Anne stepped forward to invite Charlotte to read a stash of poems that
had written. Charlotte acknowledged that this poetry was different from Emily’s but thought that “these verses too had a sweet sincere pathos of their own.”
All three sisters had written poems worthy of being printed in a book—a book that might bring in some money. So on February 6, 1846, a package left Haworth addressed to Aylott and Jones, a small London publishing company. It held the work of three poets with the manly names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.
Women had been publishing novels, poetry, and nonfiction for a century, but whether women should write was controversial. Some Victorian women courageously produced books under their own names. In 1850, for example, Elizabeth Gaskell would take credit for
a novel of lower-class life. Other women hid their sex from the reading public by choosing male pseudonyms. One such woman was Mary Ann Evans, who is known to the world as George Eliot, the author of
and other realistic novels. Evans wanted readers to judge her as a writer rather than as a woman. She wanted to be free to write about any subject, even if people thought it wrong for a female author. For not only did society tell women what they must not do, it also decided which subjects were off limits to them in books and in life. One of these subjects was passion.
Many people agreed with the poet Robert Southey, who had told Charlotte that literature was the business of men. The critic George Henry Lewes asked, “Does it never strike
these delightful creatures that their little fingers were meant to be kissed, not to be inked?” In 1854 Lewes and George Eliot would cause a scandal by living together as an unmarried couple. Yet before then Lewes belittled women writers, wondering, “Are there no stockings to darn, no purses to make, no braces [suspenders] to embroider?”
Aylott and Jones agreed to print the Bells’ book of poems, and Charlotte, Emily, and Anne managed to come up with the required fee of thirty-one pounds, ten shillings. No one but the sisters knew of their book. Charlotte said nothing about it to Ellen, and she, Emily, and Anne made no mention of it to their father or brother. Emily called Branwell “a hopeless being,”
and Charlotte remarked, “In his present state it is scarcely possible to stay in the room where he is.” She pondered, “What the future has in store—I do not know.”
On May 7, 1846, the first copies of
by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, reached the Haworth parsonage. The Brontës’ book was a slim green volume of sixty-one poems on love, loss, religious faith, and nature. Currer Bell (Charlotte) wrote about risking everything for love in “Passion”:
Some have won a wild delight,
By daring wilder sorrow;
Could I gain thy love to-night,
I’d hazard death to-morrow.
In another poem, “Solace,” she hinted at a deep emotional life:
The human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept, in silence sealed;—
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
Ellis Bell (Emily) proclaimed her kinship with the night in “Stars”:
Oh, stars, and dreams,
and gentle night;
Oh, night and stars return!
And hide me from the hostile light,
That does not warm, but burn.
Emily had written “Remembrance” to an imaginary lost love:
Cold in the earth
—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?
Acton Bell (Anne), the most pious of the Brontë sisters, addressed God in the depressing poem “Life”:
If life must be so full
Then call me soon to Thee
Or give me strength enough to bear
My load of misery.
It was fortunate for Anne that nature could restore her happiness, as she wrote in “Lines Composed on a Windy Day”:
My soul is awakened,
my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
The three authors barely had the pleasure of holding their finished book in their hands when an emotional crisis threw the Brontë household into turmoil. It began on May 26, when Mr. Edmund Robinson, Anne and Branwell’s former employer, died suddenly at age forty-six. Branwell reacted to the news with joy, because the woman he loved was free to marry again. He got ready to join her at Thorp Green as soon as she sent word. The young tutor abruptly learned that he meant less to Lydia Robinson than he had been led to believe, however. Instead of summoning Branwell to her side, she sent her coachman to Haworth with a message. The coachman met Branwell at a local tavern and informed him that he and Mrs. Robinson had no future together.
Branwell had bragged about stealing the older woman’s heart, but he loved Mrs. Robinson more than she had ever cared for him. His shock and sorrow were beyond his control. The witnesses who heard his wails compared them to “the bleating of a calf.”
Lydia Robinson took a further step to prevent Branwell from showing up at Thorp Green unasked. She had her doctor send him a letter stating that his presence would upset her fragile state of mind.
For four nights, Branwell went without sleep. For three days, he ate no food. “To papa he allows rest
neither day nor night,” Charlotte wrote to Ellen, “and he is continually screwing money out of him sometimes threatening to kill himself if it is withheld from him.” According to
Modern Domestic Medicine,
twelve drops of ammonia in a glass of sugared water would calm a drunken man, but Patrick Brontë noted in the margin that this treatment had “only some little effect.”
If his family refused to give him money, then Branwell resolved to get it elsewhere. He spent weeks away from home, frequenting the inns and public houses of Halifax, and running up debts.
Meanwhile, the little book called
received some notice in the press. One reviewer compared it to “a ray of sunshine,
gladdening the eye with present glory, and the heart with promise of bright hours in store.” This was “good, wholesome, refreshing, vigorous poetry,” he proclaimed. Another writer singled out Emily, or “Ellis Bell,” for special praise. Here was “a fine quaint spirit” that “may have things to speak that men will be glad to hear,—and an evident power of wing that may reach heights not here attempted.”
Yet a single question loomed large in the critics’ minds: who were Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell? Their book offered no clues. Did they live in England or America? Were they alive or dead? One book reviewer rightly guessed, “Perhaps they desired that the poems should be tried and judged upon their own merits alone, apart from all extraneous circumstances.”
Even with good reviews and an air of mystery surrounding it,
failed to find readers. Only two people bought it. Ambitious Charlotte understood that she and her sisters would never support themselves writing poetry. If they were going to make money as writers, they would have to be novelists.
Novels had been growing popular with British readers since the 1700s, when Henry Fielding wrote works like
the story of a young man who is turned out of his home and must make his way in the world.
is a picaresque novel, one that follows the hero’s adventures, one after another. Tobias Smollett’s humorous
the tale of a stableman traveling through England with a well-to-do family, is another. Many readers also enjoyed gothic novels, with eerie castles and hints of the supernatural. One of the most famous gothic novels of the early nineteenth century,
was written by a woman, Mary Shelley.
As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, Jane Austen cast a penetrating eye on human nature in
Pride and Prejudice, Emma,
and other novels dealing with families, love, and courtship. Austen influenced the course of fiction by showing authors that they could explore human relationships and depend less on action and thrills. Charlotte Brontë disliked Austen’s novels, however. “She does her business
of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well,” but “the Passions are unknown to her,” Charlotte wrote. “Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet.”