Authors: Catherine Reef
Stunned by this cruel betrayal, Charlotte sent a final letter to Martineau. “I know what
as I understand it; and if a man or woman should be ashamed of feeling such love, then there is nothing right, noble, faithful, truthful, unselfish in this earth,” she wrote.
“The differences of feeling
between Miss M. and myself are very strong and marked; very wide and irreconcilable,” she told George Smith. “In short she has hurt me a good deal, and at present it appears very plain to me that she and I had better not try to be close friends.”
That spring, the time came for another parting. Arthur Nicholls had been a gloomy presence in Haworth since Charlotte refused him, and he had even broken down in tears during one Sunday’s communion service. On the evening of May 26, Charlotte found him standing at the parsonage’s garden gate, “in a paroxysm
of anguish—sobbing as women never do,” as she described him. He would soon start work at another church, but he could hardly bear the thought of leaving Haworth without seeing Charlotte once more. The two exchanged a few brief words. “Poor fellow!” Charlotte said. “He wanted such hope and such encouragement as I
not give him.”
In September, when the purple heather that erupts on the moors had faded to brown, Charlotte’s other writer friend, Elizabeth Gaskell, spent four days with her in Haworth. Charlotte cautioned Gaskell that she was coming to a place like “the backwoods of America.”
She was coming to a country of “barbarism, loneliness, and liberty,” Charlotte warned.
A dull, gray village and strong gusts formed Gaskell’s first impression of Haworth. Upon reaching the parsonage, she was “half-blown back
by the wild vehemence of the wind which swept along the narrow walk,” she wrote. Once inside, she received a kind welcome. She was given the bedroom that had been Aunt Branwell’s, one that overlooked the graves in the churchyard. Gaskell, who saw life’s bright side, claimed the view was “beautiful in certain lights.”
Each day, the two women had breakfast and tea with Charlotte’s father. Gaskell had trouble finding something good to say about the senior Brontë, though. She admitted to being “sadly afraid of him
in my inmost soul; for I caught a glare of his stern eyes over his spectacles at Miss Brontë once or twice which made me know my man.”
Out on the moors and in the parsonage after the others had gone to bed, Charlotte told Gaskell the story of her life. She talked about the school at Cowan Bridge, the tales of Angria, and her student years at Roe Head and in Brussels. She described the pain of losing Branwell, Emily, and Anne. After Gaskell retired for the night, Charlotte walked alone in the dining room as she once had walked with her sisters. Gaskell imagined how her friend must have felt. “I am sure I should fancy
I heard the steps of the dead following me,” she commented.
The passing months brought changes of circumstances and of heart. Patrick Brontë suffered a stroke that diminished the vision in his one good eye, and he needed his curate’s help. Solitude weighed on Charlotte more heavily than ever, and her words lay dead on the page. So when Arthur Nicholls came back to Haworth in January 1854 to assist the Reverend Brontë and to renew his offer to Charlotte, she approached the old man again. “Father, I am not a young girl,
nor a young woman, even—I never was pretty,” she said. But his response was the same: never. For an entire week after their discussion, he refused to say a word to her.
Finally, Tabby Aykroyd, the longtime household servant, lost patience and spoke up. “Do you wish to kill your daughter?”
she demanded angrily of her employer. Patrick Brontë grudgingly gave in, and Charlotte and Arthur became engaged in March 1854.
Ellen Nussey disapproved. She spoke her mind in a letter to Mary Taylor in New Zealand, complaining that Nicholls was no match for someone like Charlotte. If Ellen expected a sympathetic reply, she was mistaken. Mary, who had decided against ever marrying herself, supported Charlotte’s choice. “You talk wonderful nonsense,”
Mary shot back. Charlotte had every right to consider her own pleasure. “If this is so new for her to do, it is high time she began to make it more common,” Mary wrote.
Mary was right: Charlotte was thinking of her own happiness. “I trust to love my husband.
I am grateful for his tender love to me. I believe him to be an affectionate, a conscientious, a high-principled man,” she wrote. She believed that Providence, or God’s wise guidance, had opened this path for her. She would be lonely no more.
Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Nicholls were married on June 29, a Thursday. The bride wore a white embroidered dress and a white bonnet. The villagers of Haworth declared that she looked just like a snowdrop. The Reverend Brontë decided at the last minute not to give the bride away, so Miss Wooler did the honors. Ellen Nussey and the servants Tabby Aykroyd and Martha Brown were the only other guests.
The newlyweds honeymooned for a month in Arthur Nicholls’s native Ireland. Charlotte met and liked his family. She was surprised by the grandeur of their home, Cuba House, where Arthur had been raised by an uncle. She noted its thick walls, lofty rooms, and handsome furniture. Cuba House sat on ample grounds at the end of an avenue of lime trees. Everyone Charlotte met praised Arthur and told her she had married “one of the best gentlemen
in the country.” More than before, Charlotte was convinced that she had made “what seems to me a right choice.”
Charlotte and Arthur returned to live in the Haworth parsonage, where Arthur took over many of the Reverend Brontë’s duties. “Each time I see Mr. Nicholls
put on gown or surplice—I feel comforted to think that this marriage has secured Papa good aid in his old age,” Charlotte confided to Miss Wooler. She spent her days looking after her husband and father. She wrote no more novels, but she still wrote to her friends.
Arthur insisted on his right as a husband to read the letters exchanged between his wife and Ellen Nussey and to approve the ones that Charlotte wrote. But the two women hated to give up the intimacy they had enjoyed for so many years, and they protested. “Men don’t seem to understand
making letters a vehicle of communication—they always seem to think us incautious,” Charlotte said. At last Arthur agreed to leave their correspondence alone if Ellen promised to burn Charlotte’s letters—including those she had carefully saved over the years. Ellen swore that she would, but she had no intention of keeping this promise. Later she would claim that Nicholls had continued to censor what Charlotte wrote to her. If he broke his side of the bargain, then she was under no obligation to uphold hers. (Either Charlotte or Arthur destroyed the letters that Ellen wrote.)
December came, and Charlotte believed she was pregnant, if the nausea she felt was any clue. Instead of passing, though, her queasiness worsened. She grew feverish and frail and went to bed. A week, two weeks, and more passed, and she felt no better. Tabby Aykroyd was sick, too. When Tabby died, on February 17, 1855, at eighty-four, Charlotte was still bedridden and was vomiting blood. The local doctors had no idea what was wrong. They spoke of phthisis, or wasting away, and tuberculosis.
By the third week in March, Charlotte was fading in and out of consciousness, but in an alert moment she heard Arthur ask God to spare her. “Oh! I am not going to die,
am I?” she cried. “He will not separate us; we have been so happy.” She managed to scrawl a last note to her friends: “No kinder, better husband
than mine, it seems to me, there can be in the world.” Ellen Nussey rushed to Haworth, but she was too late to say goodbye. Instead she prepared her friend’s body for burial. Charlotte Brontë had died on March 31, 1855. In three weeks she would have turned thirty-nine.
Early she goes
on the path
To the Silent Country, and leaves
Half her laurels unwon,
Dying too soon . . .
Currer Bell—Charlotte Brontë—was dead. Matthew Arnold had been moved to remember her in verse when he learned that she was gone.
Other tributes appeared in print, including a mean-spirited one from Harriet Martineau, in which she repeated her criticism of Brontë’s novels. “Her heroines love
too readily, too vehemently, and sometimes after a fashion which their female readers may resent,” Martineau wrote. She reminded people of what had shocked them in the 1840s about all three Bells: “the coarseness
which, to a certain degree, pervades the works of all the sisters, and the repulsiveness which makes the tales by Emily and Anne really horrible to people who have not iron nerves.”
Martineau was smart enough to recognize that her late friend’s talent was greater than her own. Her words smack of jealousy, especially her final image of Currer Bell as a passing literary fad, soon to be forgotten. Bell had already become a shadow, Martineau wrote, “vanishing from our view.”
The people who had loved Charlotte Brontë hated to see her or her sisters remembered as crude or unnatural, so the Reverend Patrick Brontë appealed to Elizabeth Gaskell. “I can see no better plan,
under these circumstances, than to apply to some established Author, to write a brief account of her life,” he wrote. “You, seem to me, to be the best qualified, for doing what I wish should be done.”
Gaskell took on the job. She returned to Haworth and spoke with Charlotte’s still-tearful husband and father. Patrick Brontë trusted her with the tiny books Charlotte had created as a child and some of her letters to the family. Gaskell also read the many letters that Ellen Nussey had saved. She interviewed Margaret Wooler, and she corresponded with Mary Taylor, who regretted destroying her letters from Charlotte. Gaskell even tracked down the Hegers in Belgium. Constantin Heger offered her Charlotte’s student compositions, but his wife, angry about how she was portrayed in
wanted nothing to do with the project.