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Authors: Catherine Reef

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Anne admitted to her fears privately, in poetry, and asked God for courage:

 

I hoped, that with the brave and strong,

My portioned task might lie;

To toil amid the busy throng,

With purpose pure and high.

 

But God has fixed another part,

And He has fixed it well;

I said so with my bleeding heart,

When first the anguish fell.

 

A dreadful darkness closes in

On my bewildered mind;

Oh, let me suffer and not sin,

Be tortured, yet resigned.

 

Wanting a change of air, Anne talked of going to Scarborough, a vacation spot on the North Sea coast that she had visited as the Robinsons’ governess. Mr. Teale approved the trip, and Ellen Nussey agreed to go along and help Charlotte with Anne’s care. Ellen journeyed to Haworth on Wednesday, May 24. The next day, Anne said goodbye to her spaniel, Flossy, and to Emily’s Keeper. The Reverend Brontë, Tabby, Martha, and the curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, saw the women off, knowing they might never again lay eyes on the living Anne. Nicholls held Flossy to prevent her from running after the carriage.

Two days of train travel were exhausting for someone as sick as Anne, but she remembered Emily’s example and drew on the little strength she had left to be a cheerful companion. In Scarborough she rode in a donkey cart to the beach and ventured with Charlotte and Ellen onto the Cliff Bridge, an iron span that offered sweeping views of Scarborough and beyond.

Spreading tuberculosis with every breath, Anne mingled with the healthy—with honeymooning couples and parents and young children. A deathly ill woman on holiday attracted less notice in the Brontës’ time than she would today. The Victorians believed that sea air and a change of scene had healing effects, so the sick—even some with contagious diseases like tuberculosis—commonly visited the coast and mixed with healthy vacationers.

 

Scarborough’s scenic walkways and sandy beaches made it a popular vacation spot and spa among the Victorians.

 

On Monday, May 28, Anne sat in a chair in their hotel room, looking out at the sea. She knew that she was dying. “Be a sister
in my stead,” she counseled Ellen. “Give Charlotte as much of your company as you can.” When Anne grew too tired to sit, Ellen and Charlotte moved her to a sofa. “Take courage, Charlotte;
take courage,” Anne whispered as she saw her sister break down. A little while later, she died. Anne, dead at age twenty-nine, was buried in a Scarborough churchyard. She was the only Brontë not laid to rest in Haworth.

Four children had grown up together in the Haworth parsonage, turning to one another for friendship and support. Then, within the space of eight months, three had died.
“A year ago—had a prophet warned me how I should stand in June 1849,” Charlotte reflected, “had he foretold the autumn, the winter, the spring of sickness and suffering to be gone through—I should have thought—this can never be endured. It is over. Branwell—Emily—Anne are gone like dreams.”

nine
“Out of Obscurity I Came”

S
OLITUDE
, remembrance, and longing: these three shadowy companions settled themselves in Haworth, taking the places of Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Charlotte woke in the morning knowing they would be with her all day and keep her from a sound sleep at night. “Sometimes,” she told Ellen Nussey, “I have a heavy heart
of it.” Yet she refused to be crushed. “I have many comforts—many mercies,” she added. “Still I can
get on.

Charlotte clung to her writing as if it were a big, brawny friend, one with muscle enough to carry her through this current of sorrow. By September she could report a measure of progress to William Smith Williams: “Imagination lifted me
when I was sinking, three months ago; its active exercise has kept my head above water since.”

The work that pulled Charlotte out of her deepest grief was a new novel. Called
Shirley,
it was published in October 1849.
Shirley
was the kind of book that Mary Taylor liked best, because it dealt with social problems.

Charlotte set her story in Stillborough, a fictional Yorkshire town. She had it begin in 1811, when the Luddites were smashing up factories in northern England. As the novel opens, local mill owner Robert Moore plans to modernize his plant, but he has been threatened. To the region’s working people, machines mean joblessness, hunger, and a loss of dignity. As one man remarks, “Invention may be all right,
but I know it isn’t right for poor folks to starve.” After angry workers destroy Moore’s new equipment, he vows to catch their leaders and bring them to justice. Moore needs machinery to stay in business. He knows that mechanization is bound to come, that even if the workers destroy his plant, other factories will take its place. He ignores the workers’ suffering, though. “He never asked himself
where those to whom he no longer paid weekly wages found daily bread,” Brontë wrote.

 

Textile mills, like this one in Morley, were a common sight in the towns of northern England in the mid-1800s.

 

In
Shirley,
Brontë also looked into the lives of women, among them Moore’s distant cousin, Caroline Helstone. Caroline also lives in Stillborough. Her father is dead, and she
knows nothing about her mother, who is thought to be alive. She was raised by her father’s brother, a cold, unfeeling man who has done his duty by her. Caroline secretly loves Robert Moore but doubts he cares for her in return. She believes she may never marry, and wanting a purpose in life, she thinks about pursuing the only occupation open to her: being a governess. Her uncle rejects this idea. He shelters and feeds and clothes her, so Caroline has no need to work, he says. He cannot see how the dull, empty hours hang heavily on a healthy young woman. Caroline worries, “What am I to do
to fill the interval of time which spreads between me and the grave?”

Brontë cared so much about a woman’s right to a full life that she stepped into the pages of
Shirley
to plead directly with the men of England: “Look at your poor girls,
many of them fading around you, dropping off in consumption or decline; or, what is worse, degenerating to sour old maids,—envious, backbiting, wretched, because life is a desert to them.” Worst of all for girls, Charlotte wrote, was having to act a part to gain a place in society through marriage. To the nation’s fathers she wrote, “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 maneuverer, the mischief-making tale-bearer.”

Meanwhile, in Stillborough, another young woman has arrived. Shirley Keeldar owns property there, including an estate called Fieldhead. Her wealth gives her independence, which she cherishes. Shirley’s face, Brontë wrote, “possessed a charm
as well described by the word grace as any other. It was pale naturally, but intelligent, and of varied expression.” Shirley has no parents and lives with a companion, Mrs. Pryor. This older woman had been Shirley’s governess when the mistress of Fieldhead was a child.

A rich and beautiful woman like Shirley could easily attract a husband with money and a title, but she cares nothing about a man’s wealth or high position. To be her husband, a man must have a sharp mind and a good character, and he must treat her as an equal. She will never be the “half doll, half angel” that many men want in a wife. To Victorian readers, Shirley’s name symbolized the unusual freedom she enjoyed, which was like a man’s: before 1849, Shirley was a man’s name. But Shirley Keeldar made such a deep impression on some readers that they named their daughters after her. Before long, Shirley was transformed into a name for girls.

Shirley likes Caroline, and the two women become friends. Strong-minded and with a large dog at her side, Shirley represents Emily Brontë as Charlotte imagined she might be had she lived. Although Charlotte mourned both her sisters, she missed Emily more. “I let Anne go to God,
and felt He had a right to her,” she said. “I could hardly let Emily go. I wanted to hold her back then, and I want her back now.” Devout Anne had seemed destined for Heaven, but Emily had been firmly of the earth.

A loan from Shirley helps Robert Moore fight back when workers launch an attack on his mill, and he makes sure its leaders are arrested. Robert has been spotted spending time with Shirley, and the people of Stillborough whisper that the two will be married. Caroline believes the rumor and grows ill. She steadily worsens, even under Mrs. Pryor’s tender care, and some people fear the worst. Caroline rallies only when Mrs. Pryor reveals a secret: she is really Mrs. James Helstone, Caroline’s mother.

Caroline needs her health to look in on Robert Moore, who has been shot by someone seeking revenge for the Luddites’ arrest. By this time Robert has seen the squalid lives that many workers live, and he resolves to treat his employees well. Robert recovers as the government lifts the Orders in Council, reopening foreign markets to British manufacturers. Financially stable at last, he asks Caroline to be his wife.

The right husband for Shirley steps forward, too. He is someone who has known her for years and has long loved her. “Am I to die without you,
or am I to live for you?” he asks. Shirley replies, “Die without me
if you will. Live for me if you dare.”

The critics praised
Shirley,
although some complained that it lacked
Jane Eyre
’s mystery and romance. Currer Bell’s second novel delighted readers who had called the first one shocking and lurid, however.
Shirley
“enlists the purer sympathies
of our nature, instead of appealing to its baser passions,” noted a writer for the
Church of England Quarterly Review.
But was the author a woman or a man?

Charlotte Brontë may have lived a quiet, lonely life in remote Haworth, but the world was starting to figure out that she was Currer Bell. A rumor started in Keighley after someone at the post office opened a parcel for Charlotte from Smith, Elder and Company. Then Mary Taylor’s brother Joe learned of her authorship and spread the word through his part of Yorkshire. Finally, one of Charlotte’s old classmates from Roe Head recognized her in the pages of
Jane Eyre;
Currer Bell’s descriptions of Lowood sounded too much like Charlotte Brontë’s memories of Cowan Bridge to be a coincidence. This woman whispered her suspicion to the critic George Henry Lewes, and in his review of
Shirley
he identified the author as a clergyman’s daughter. He then assessed the novel as a woman’s book—doing just what Charlotte Brontë had guarded against. “The grand function of woman,
it must always be recollected, is, and ever must be, Maternity,” he proclaimed. The man was impossible!

Charlotte dashed off an angry letter to Lewes. “I wish all reviewers believed
‘Currer Bell’ to be a man—they would be more just to him,” Charlotte wrote. “You will, I know, keep measuring me by some standard of what you deem becoming to my sex—where I am not what you consider graceful—you will condemn me.” As a novelist she refused to decide whether every sentence she wrote sounded “elegant and charming in femininity.” If society required this of her, then she would disappear from the world of books. “Out of obscurity I came,” she warned. “To obscurity I can easily return.”

BOOK: The Bronte Sisters
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