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Authors: Catherine Reef

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While traveling and meeting well-known people like Harriet Martineau and Matthew Arnold, Charlotte Brontë no longer hid the fact that she was Currer Bell. A new edition of
Wuthering Heights
and
Agnes Grey
had just been published, for which Charlotte had written a “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.” In this preface she told the world that the Bells were three sisters, and she revealed the names of Emily and Anne. Charlotte wrote, “For strangers they were nothing,
for superficial observers less than nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.”

ten
“I Should Fancy I Heard the Steps of the Dead”

I
N
January 1851, George Smith invited Charlotte Brontë to cruise with him on the Rhine River, which flows through modern-day Germany. Thoughts of travel always stirred up longing in Charlotte’s soul, yet she worried that London would gossip. In the end, business forced Smith to cancel the plan, but Ellen Nussey sensed an “undercurrent”
of feeling in his offer. She suspected that Smith had “fixed intentions” toward her friend.

Romance seemed likely when the Smiths asked Charlotte to spend time with them in London, starting at the end of May. Again she had new clothes made, but this time her eye went to airy colors—white and pastel pink—and not strictly mourning black. The visit began on a merry note, with Charlotte noting that her fourth day in London, June 1, was “very happy.”

George Smith may not have seen beauty when he looked at Charlotte Brontë, but he was attracted to her mind. He twice took her to see the French actress Mademoiselle Rachel perform onstage. Acclaimed for her tragic roles, Rachel counted famous men, including an illegitimate son of Napoleon, among her many lovers. For Charlotte Brontë, Rachel on the stage was
“a wonderful sight—‘terrible as if the earth had cracked deep at your feet.’”

 

A peddler’s daughter, the performer known as Rachel first acted onstage to support her family. She died of tuberculosis in 1858, at age thirty-six.

 

Charlotte was also one of the six million Britons who toured the Great Exhibition of 1851, a proud celebration of the triumphs of technology. Within the Crystal Palace, the mammoth glass building that housed the great display, people could see “every possible invention
and appliance for the service of man,” according to a guidebook, “every realization of human genius, every effort of human industry.” The more than one hundred thousand exhibits had come from Britain and countries around the world. Visitors saw ores pulled from deep in the earth, machines that wove cotton cloth, timber from Canada, handcrafts from Tunisia, and a stuffed elephant from India. Charlotte went twice and told her father, “It seems as if magic
only could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the Earth—as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus—with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect.”

 

Colorful rugs and textiles were on display in one section of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851.

 

She again saw Thackeray, who needled her this time by greeting her in public as Jane Eyre. The next morning, when Thackeray called at the Smith home, Charlotte lambasted him for his ungentlemanly behavior. Thackeray left, having had enough of Charlotte Brontë. “There’s a fire and fury
raging in that little woman, a rage scorching her heart which doesn’t suit me,” he said.

By this time Charlotte’s happiness had faded. Smith withdrew into his work and had little time for his guest. No one knows what went wrong, but Mrs. Smith opposed a relationship between Charlotte Brontë and her son and may have been to blame. Tuberculosis ran in the Brontë family, Mrs. Smith told George; this lone surviving sister was tainted with consumption. It was useless for Charlotte to insist that she was healthy; Mrs. Smith’s mind was made up. Charlotte Brontë remained George Smith’s friend, but she turned down an invitation to visit in September 1851 and another one that winter.

The thought that she was destined to live out her life in Haworth as her father’s closest companion brought back her old friend depression. She worked at her writing, hoping to push the gloom from her mind. Then Emily’s dog, Keeper, died, and Charlotte lost this link with a beloved sister. Soon, she had no appetite. Her head ached, and a pain shot through her side. A doctor diagnosed liver trouble and gave her blue pills to take, but they were full of mercury and nearly poisoned her. In spring she went to the Yorkshire coast to see Anne’s grave, and walking in the sun and sea air helped to heal her body and spirit.

Arthur Nicholls came often to the parsonage. He chatted with the Reverend Brontë into the evening while Charlotte worked alone at the dining table. One night in December 1852, she heard Nicholls leave her father’s study, but instead of going straight home, he tapped at the dining room door. “Like lightning it flashed
on me what was coming,” Charlotte wrote to Ellen. The curate stood before her, tall and solid, trembling from head to toe. All the color had drained from his face, and he was barely able to speak. With great trouble, he said that he had long cared for Charlotte and wanted her for his wife.

“He made me for the first time feel what it costs a man to declare affection where he doubts response,” Charlotte wrote. “That he cared something for me—and wanted me to care for him—I have long suspected—but I did not know the degree or strength of his feelings.”

Hardly knowing what to do, she guided the quaking man from the room and promised him an answer the next day. Then, as a dutiful daughter, she put the matter before her father. “Papa worked himself into a state not to be trifled with—the veins on his temples started up like whip-cord—and his eyes became suddenly blood-shot,” she reported. How dare an ordinary curate propose marriage to his talented daughter! And why did Nicholls address Charlotte without coming to her father first!

Charlotte told Ellen that if she had been in love with Nicholls, she never could have borne her father’s furious oaths. As it was, the Reverend Brontë aroused her sense of fairness: the curate hardly deserved such abuse. For a single woman to go against her father’s wishes was unseemly, so the next day, Charlotte answered Arthur Nicholls with a firm refusal and focused on her next novel,
Villette.

More than ever before, Charlotte Brontë had drawn on her own life when writing
Villette,
which was published in 1853. She had studied her heart so that she could explore the inner life of her main character, an Englishwoman named Lucy Snowe. Lucy’s name summed up the chilly spirit in which she began her life’s adventure. Her heart slept under a white, wintry blanket. Lucy “has about her an external coldness,”
Brontë explained. The word “external” is important. Lucy only waits to have her inner fire kindled by love.

In
Villette,
Lucy tells her own story, as Jane Eyre did. A tragedy—its nature unrevealed—has left her alone in the world, without family or home. At twenty-three, she claims to be “inadventurous, unstirred
by impulses of practical ambition,” yet almost on a whim she sails to Europe and becomes a teacher at a girls’ school that is much like the Pensionnat Heger, in a fictional Belgian town called Villette. The school, housed in a building that used to be a convent, is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a nun. Lucy, in her plain gray dress, resembles this shadowy spirit. Lucy’s employer is Madame Beck, the headmistress who keeps tight order. Modeled on Madame Heger, Beck does her job with cool efficiency; “she had no heart
to be touched,” Lucy tells the reader.

Two men enter Lucy’s life. The first is Dr. John, the handsome young English doctor who comes to the school to treat Madame Beck’s children. Lucy eventually reveals to the reader that he is John Graham Bretton, her godmother’s son, and someone she last saw in England a decade earlier. Throughout much of the novel, Dr. John is smitten with Ginevra Fanshawe, a coquette enrolled in the
pensionnat
where Lucy teaches. The other man is more suited to Lucy’s mind and temperament. He is Monsieur Paul Emanuel, stern but kind, a fellow teacher who resembles Constantin Heger in looks and behavior. Through his friendship he draws Lucy out of her cold reserve, but she wonders what his feelings toward her might be.

Lucy is left virtually alone at the school during an end-of-summer vacation, and her solitude weighs heavily on her spirit. “My nervous system could hardly support
what it had for many days and nights to undergo in that huge empty house,” she says. She concludes that God plans for some people to live lives of suffering, “and I thrilled in the certainty that of this number I was one.” Eventually, desperate for human contact, she enters the confessional in a Catholic church, as Charlotte Brontë had done. After leaving she suffers a breakdown and is rescued by Dr. John. He brings her to the home that he shares with his mother in Villette, and she recovers there. When Lucy is well enough, the doctor escorts her to the theater, where they see an actress much like Mademoiselle Rachel.

School resumes again, and the friendship deepens between Lucy Snowe and Paul Emanuel. Lucy continues to wonder how strongly he is attached to her. She gets her answer when a business matter requires him to travel to the West Indies for three years, and he asks her to marry him upon his return. He reveals that he has set up a school for her to run so that she can be independent and useful while he is away. “I had been left a legacy,”
Lucy says, “such a thought for the present, such a hope for the future, such a motive for a persevering, a laborious, an enterprising, a patient and brave course.”

As Paul’s date of return draws near, a wild storm barrels in from the southwest. “It did not cease
till the Atlantic was strewn with wrecks: it did not lull till the deeps had gorged their fill of sustenance,” Lucy relates. Does Monsieur Paul safely return? Brontë left this question for her readers to decide.

Most people liked
Villette
better than
Shirley.
Reviewers praised the author’s “clear, forcible,
picturesque style” and said the novel had the “charm of freshness.”
One eager writer claimed about Currer Bell, “This book would have made her famous, had she not been so already.” Mary Ann Evans (the novelist George Eliot) read
Villette
three times. She pronounced it a “still more wonderful book
than
Jane Eyre,
” and exclaimed about Brontë, “What passion, what fire in her!” A proud Patrick Brontë sent a copy of
Villette
to his brother in Ireland.

Some critics quibbled that parts of the book could have been better. One complained that the plot was
“very slight”; another thought the author displayed a “cynical and bitter spirit.”
Brontë had learned to take such comments in stride, but she felt unable to forgive one particular review, because it came from Harriet Martineau. Writing in the
London Daily News,
Martineau had called
Villette
“almost intolerably painful.”
Not only does “an atmosphere of pain”
hang over the story, but “all the female characters,
in all their thoughts and lives, are full of one thing,” Martineau wrote, and that one thing was love. Charlotte Brontë, who had long favored a woman’s right to independence and ambition, had to bear the insult of this high-handed statement from Martineau: “There are substantial, heartfelt interests for women of all ages, and under ordinary circumstances, quite apart from love.” Martineau also disliked the novel’s main character, and said about Lucy Snowe, “We do not wonder
that she loved more than she was beloved.”

BOOK: The Bronte Sisters
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