The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XI.

The reader will remember that Anne Bronte had been interred in the churchyard of the Old Church at Scarborough. Charlotte had left directions for a tombstone to be placed over her; but many a time during the solitude of the past winter, her sad, anxious thoughts had revisited the scene of that last great sorrow, and she had wondered whether all decent services had been rendered to the memory of the dead, until at last she came to a silent resolution to go and see for herself whether the stone and inscription were in a satisfactory state of preservation.

“Cliffe House, Filey, June 6th, 1852.

“Dear E— — — I am at Filey utterly alone. Do not be angry, the step is right. I considered it, and resolved on it with due deliberation. Change of air was necessary; there were reasons why I should NOT go to the south, and why I should come here. On Friday I went to Scarborough, visited the churchyard and stone. It must be refaced and relettered; there are five errors. I gave the necessary directions. THAT duty, then, is done; long has it lain heavy on my mind; and that was a pilgrimage I felt I could only make alone.

“I am in our old lodgings at Mrs. Smith’s; not, however, in the same rooms, but in less expensive apartments. They seemed glad to see me, remembered you and me very well, and, seemingly, with great good will. The daughter who used to wait on us is just married. Filey seems to me much altered; more lodging-houses — some of them very handsome — have been built; the sea has all its old grandeur. I walk on the sands a good deal, and try NOT to feel desolate and melancholy. How sorely my heart longs for you, I need not say. I have bathed once; it seemed to do me good. I may, perhaps, stay here a fortnight. There are as yet scarcely any visitors. A Lady Wenlock is staying at the large house of which you used so vigilantly to observe the inmates. One day I set out with intent to trudge to Filey Bridge, but was frightened back by two cows. I mean to try again some morning. I left papa well. I have been a good deal troubled with headache, and with some pain in the side since I came here, but I feel that this has been owing to the cold wind, for very cold has it been till lately; at present I feel better. Shall I send the papers to you as usual Write again directly, and tell me this, and anything and everything else that comes into your mind. — Believe me, yours faithfully,

“C. BRONTE.”

“Filey, June 16th, 1852.

“Dear E— — — Be quite easy about me. I really think I am better for my stay at Filey; that I have derived more benefit from it than I dared to anticipate. I believe, could I stay here two months, and enjoy something like social cheerfulness as well as exercise and good air, my health would be quite renewed. This, however, cannot possibly be; but I am most thankful for the good received. I stay here another week.

“I return ——‘s letter. I am sorry for her: I believe she suffers; but I do not much like her style of expressing herself. . . . Grief as well as joy manifests itself in most different ways in different people; and I doubt not she is sincere and in earnest when she talks of her ‘precious, sainted father;’ but I could wish she used simpler language.”

Soon after her return from Filey, she was alarmed by a very serious and sharp attack of illness with which Mr. Bronte was seized. There was some fear, for a few days, that his sight was permanently lost, and his spirits sank painfully under this dread.

“This prostration of spirits,” writes his daughter, “which accompanies anything like a relapse is almost the most difficult point to manage. Dear E— — you are tenderly kind in offering your society; but rest very tranquil where you are; be fully assured that it is not now, nor under present circumstances, that I feel the lack either of society or occupation; my time is pretty well filled up, and my thoughts appropriated. . . . I cannot permit myself to comment much on the chief contents of your last; advice is not necessary: as far as I can judge, you seem hitherto enabled to take these trials in a good and wise spirit. I can only pray that such combined strength and resignation may be continued to you. Submission, courage, exertion, when practicable — these seem to be the weapons with which we must fight life’s long battle.”

I suppose that, during the very time when her thoughts were thus fully occupied with anxiety for her father, she received some letter from her publishers, making inquiry as to the progress of the work which they knew she had in hand, as I find the following letter to Mr. Williams, bearing reference to some of Messrs. Smith and Elder’s proposed arrangements.

“To W. S. WILLIAMS, ESQ.

“July 28th, 1852.

“My dear Sir — Is it in contemplation to publish the new edition of ‘Shirley’ soon? Would it not be better to defer it for a time? In reference to a part of your letter, permit me to express this wish — and I trust in doing so, I shall not be regarded as stepping out of my position as an author, and encroaching on the arrangements of business — viz.: that no announcement of a new work by the author of ‘Jane Eyre’ shall be made till the MS. of such work is actually in my publisher’s hands. Perhaps we are none of us justified in speaking very decidedly where the future is concerned; but for some too much caution in such calculations can scarcely be observed: amongst this number I must class myself. Nor, in doing so, can I assume an apologetic tone. He does right who does his best.

“Last autumn I got on for a time quickly. I ventured to look forward to spring as the period of publication: my health gave way; I passed such a winter as, having been once experienced, will never be forgotten. The spring proved little better than a protraction of trial. The warm weather and a visit to the sea have done me much good physically; but as yet I have recovered neither elasticity of animal spirits, nor flow of the power of composition. And if it were otherwise, the difference would be of no avail; my time and thoughts are at present taken up with close attendance on my father, whose health is just now in a very critical state, the heat of the weather having produced determination of blood to the head. — I am, yours sincerely,

C. BRONTE.”

Before the end of August, Mr. Bronte’s convalescence became quite established, and he was anxious to resume his duties for some time before his careful daughter would permit him.

On September the 14th the “great duke” died. He had been, as we have seen, her hero from childhood; but I find no further reference to him at this time than what is given in the following extract from a letter to her friend:—

“I do hope and believe the changes you have been having this summer will do you permanent good, notwithstanding the pain with which they have been too often mingled. Yet I feel glad that you are soon coming home; and I really must not trust myself to say how much I wish the time were come when, without let or hindrance, I could once more welcome you to Haworth. But oh I don’t get on; I feel fretted — incapable — sometimes very low. However, at present, the subject must not be dwelt upon; it presses me too hardly — nearly — and painfully. Less than ever can I taste or know pleasure till this work is wound up. And yet I often sit up in bed at night, thinking of and wishing for you. Thank you for the Times; what it said on the mighty and mournful subject was well said. All at once the whole nation seems to take a just view of that great character. There was a review too of an American book, which I was glad to see. Read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’: probably, though, you have read it.

“Papa’s health continues satisfactory, thank God! As for me, my wretched liver has been disordered again of late, but I hope it is now going to be on better behaviour; it hinders me in working — depresses both power and tone of feeling. I must expect this derangement from time to time.”

Haworth was in an unhealthy state, as usual; and both Miss Bronte and Tabby suffered severely from the prevailing epidemics. The former was long in shaking off the effects of this illness. In vain she resolved against allowing herself any society or change of scene until she had accomplished her labour. She was too ill to write; and with illness came on the old heaviness of heart, recollections of the past, and anticipations of the future. At last Mr. Bronte expressed so strong a wish that her friend should be asked to visit her, and she felt some little refreshment so absolutely necessary, that on October the 9th she begged her to come to Haworth, just for a single week.

“I thought I would persist in denying myself till I had done my work, but I find it won’t do; the matter refuses to progress, and this excessive solitude presses too heavily; so let me see your dear face, E., just for one reviving week.”

But she would only accept of the company of her friend for the exact time specified. She thus writes to Miss Wooler on October the 21st:—

“E—— has only been my companion one little week. I would not have her any longer, for I am disgusted with myself and my delays; and consider it was a weak yielding to temptation in me to send for her at all; but in truth, my spirits were getting low — prostrate sometimes — and she has done me inexpressible good. I wonder when I shall see you at Haworth again; both my father and the servants have again and again insinuated a distinct wish that you should be requested to come in the course of the summer and autumn, but I have always turned rather a deaf ear; ‘not yet,’ was my thought, ‘I want first to be free;’ work first, then pleasure.”

Miss ——‘s visit had done her much good. Pleasant companionship during the day produced, for the time, the unusual blessing of calm repose at night; and after her friend’s departure she was well enough to “fall to business,” and write away, almost incessantly, at her story of Villette, now drawing to a conclusion. The following letter to Mr. Smith, seems to have accompanied the first part of the MS.

“Oct. 30th, 1852.

“My dear Sir — You must notify honestly what you think of ‘Villette’ when you have read it. I can hardly tell you how I hunger to hear some opinion besides my own, and how I have sometimes desponded, and almost despaired, because there was no one to whom to read a line, or of whom to ask a counsel. ‘Jane Eyre’ was not written under such circumstances, nor were two-thirds of ‘Shirley’. I got so miserable about it, I could bear no allusion to the book. It is not finished yet; but now I hope. As to the anonymous publication, I have this to say: If the withholding of the author’s name should tend materially to injure the publisher’s interest, to interfere with booksellers’ orders, etc., I would not press the point; but if no such detriment is contingent, I should be most thankful for the sheltering shadow of an incognito. I seem to dread the advertisements — the large-lettered ‘Currer Bell’s New Novel,’ or ‘New Work, by the Author of Jane Eyre.’ These, however, I feel well enough, are the transcendentalisms of a retired wretch; so you must speak frankly. . . . I shall be glad to see ‘Colonel Esmond.’ My objection to the second volume lay here: I thought it contained decidedly too much history — too little story.”

In another letter, referring to “Esmond,” she uses the following words:—

“The third volume seemed to me to possess the most sparkle, impetus, and interest. Of the first and second my judgment was, that parts of them were admirable; but there was the fault of containing too much History — too little story. I hold that a work of fiction ought to be a work of creation: that the REAL should be sparingly introduced in pages dedicated to the IDEAL. Plain household bread is a far more wholesome and necessary thing than cake; yet who would like to see the brown loaf placed on the table for dessert? In the second volume, the author gives us an ample supply of excellent brown bread; in his third, only such a portion as gives substance, like the crumbs of bread in a well-made, not too rich, plum-pudding.”

Her letter to Mr. Smith, containing the allusion to ‘Esmond,’ which reminded me of the quotation just given continues:—

“You will see that ‘Villette’ touches on no matter of public interest. I cannot write books handling the topics of the day; it is of no use trying. Nor can I write a book for its moral. Nor can I take up a philanthropic scheme, though I honour philanthropy; and voluntarily and sincerely veil my face before such a mighty subject as that handled in Mrs. Beecher Stowe’s work, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ To manage these great matters rightly, they must be long and practically studied — their bearings known intimately, and their evils felt genuinely; they must not be taken up as a business matter, and a trading speculation. I doubt not, Mrs. Stowe had felt the iron of slavery enter into her heart, from childhood upwards, long before she ever thought of writing books. The feeling throughout her work is sincere, and not got up. Remember to be an honest critic of ‘Villette,’ and tell Mr. Williams to be unsparing: not that I am likely to alter anything, but I want to know his impressions and yours.”

To G. SMITH, ESQ.

“Nov. 3rd.

“My dear Sir — I feel very grateful for your letter; it relieved me much, for I was a good deal harassed by doubts as to how ‘Villette’ might appear in other eyes than my own. I feel in some degree authorised to rely on your favourable impressions, because you are quite right where you hint disapprobation. You have exactly hit two points at least where I was conscious of defect; — the discrepancy, the want of perfect harmony, between Graham’s boyhood and manhood — the angular abruptness of his change of sentiment towards Miss Fanshawe. You must remember, though, that in secret he had for some time appreciated that young lady at a somewhat depressed standard — held her a LITTLE lower than the angels. But still the reader ought to have been better made to feel this preparation towards a change of mood. As to the publishing arrangement, I leave them to Cornhill. There is, undoubtedly, a certain force in what you say about the inexpediency of affecting a mystery which cannot be sustained; so you must act as you think is for the best. I submit, also, to the advertisements in large letters, but under protest, and with a kind of ostrich-longing for concealment. Most of the third volume is given to the development of the ‘crabbed Professor’s’ character. Lucy must not marry Dr. John; he is far too youthful, handsome, bright-spirited, and sweet-tempered; he is a ‘curled darling’ of Nature and of Fortune, and must draw a prize in life’s lottery. His wife must be young, rich, pretty; he must be made very happy indeed. If Lucy marries anybody, it must be the Professor — a man in whom there is much to forgive, much to ‘put up with.’ But I am not leniently disposed towards Miss FROST from the beginning, I never meant to appoint her lines in pleasant places. The conclusion of this third volume is still a matter of some anxiety: I can but do my best, however. It would speedily be finished, could I ward off certain obnoxious headaches, which, whenever I get into the spirit of my work, are apt to seize and prostrate me. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Colonel Henry Esmond is just arrived. He looks very antique and distinguished in his Queen Anne’s garb; the periwig, sword, lace, and ruffles are very well represented by the old ‘Spectator’ type.”

In reference to a sentence towards the close of this letter, I may mention what she told me; that Mr. Bronte was anxious that her new tale should end well, as he disliked novels which left a melancholy impression upon the mind; and he requested her to make her hero and heroine (like the heroes and heroines in fairy-tales) “marry, and live very happily ever after.” But the idea of M. Paul Emanuel’s death at sea was stamped on her imagination till it assumed the distinct force of reality; and she could no more alter her fictitious ending than if they had been facts which she was relating. All she could do in compliance with her father’s wish was so to veil the fate in oracular words, as to leave it to the character and discernment of her readers to interpret her meaning.

To W. S. WILLIAMS, ESQ.

“Nov. 6th, 1852.

“My dear Sir — I must not delay thanking you for your kind letter, with its candid and able commentary on ‘Villette.’ With many of your strictures I concur. The third volume may, perhaps, do away with some of the objections; others still remain in force. I do not think the interest culminates anywhere to the degree you would wish. What climax there is does not come on till near the conclusion; and even then, I doubt whether the regular novel-reader will consider the ‘agony piled sufficiently high’ (as the Americans say), or the colours dashed on to the canvas with the proper amount of daring. Still, I fear, they must be satisfied with what is offered: my palette affords no brighter tints; were t to attempt to deepen the reds, or burnish the yellows, I should but botch.

“Unless I am mistaken, the emotion of the book will be found to be kept throughout in tolerable subjection. As to the name of the heroine, I can hardly express what subtlety of thought made me decide upon giving her a cold name; but, at first, I called her ‘Lucy Snowe’ (spelt with an ‘e’); which Snowe I afterwards changed to ‘Frost.’ Subsequently, I rather regretted the change, and wished it ‘Snowe’ again. If not too late, I should like the alteration to be made now throughout the MS. A COLD name she must have; partly, perhaps, on the ‘lucus a non lucendo’ principle — partly on that of the ‘fitness of things,’ for she has about her an external coldness.

“You say that she may be thought morbid and weak, unless the history of her life be more fully given. I consider that she is both morbid and weak at times; her character sets up no pretensions to unmixed strength, and anybody living her life would necessarily become morbid. It was no impetus of healthy feeling which urged her to the confessional, for instance; it was the semi-delirium of solitary grief and sickness. If, however, the book does not express all this, there must be a great fault somewhere. I might explain away a few other points, but it would be too much like drawing a picture and then writing underneath the name of the object intended to be represented. We know what sort of a pencil that is which needs an ally in the pen.

“Thanking you again for the clearness and fulness with which you have responded to my request for a statement of impressions, I am, my dear Sir, yours very sincerely,

“C. BRONTE.”

“I trust the work will be seen in MS. by no one except Mr. Smith and yourself.”

“Nov. 10th, 1852.

“My dear Sir — I only wished the publication of ‘Shirley’ to be delayed till ‘Villette’ was nearly ready; so that there can now be no objection to its being issued whenever you think fit. About putting the MS. into type, I can only say that, should I be able to proceed with the third volume at my average rate of composition, and with no more than the average amount of interruptions, I should hope to have it ready in about three weeks. I leave it to you to decide whether it would be better to delay the printing that space of time, or to commence it immediately. It would certainly be more satisfactory if you were to see the third volume before printing the first and the second; yet, if delay is likely to prove injurious, I do not think it is indispensable. I have read the third volume of ‘Esmond.’ I found it both entertaining and exciting to me; it seems to possess an impetus and excitement beyond the other two — that movement and brilliancy its predecessors sometimes wanted, never fails here. In certain passages, I thought Thackeray used all his powers; their grand, serious force yielded a profound satisfaction. ‘At last he puts forth his strength,’ I could not help saying to myself. No character in the book strikes me as more masterly than that of Beatrix; its conception is fresh, and its delineation vivid. It is peculiar; it has impressions of a new kind — new, at least, to me. Beatrix is not, in herself, all bad. So much does she sometimes reveal of what is good and great as to suggest this feeling — you would think she was urged by a fate. You would think that some antique doom presses on her house, and that once in so many generations its brightest ornament was to become its greatest disgrace. At times, what is good in her struggles against this terrible destiny, but the Fate conquers. Beatrix cannot be an honest woman and a good man’s wife. She ‘tries, and she CANNOT.’ Proud, beautiful, and sullied, she was born what she becomes, a king’s mistress. I know not whether you have seen the notice in the Leader; I read it just after concluding the book. Can I be wrong in deeming it a notice tame, cold, and insufficient? With all its professed friendliness, it produced on me a most disheartening impression. Surely, another sort of justice than this will be rendered to ‘Esmond’ from other quarters. One acute remark of the critic is to the effect that Blanche Amory and Beatrix are identical — sketched from the same original! To me they are about as identical as a weazel and a royal tigress of Bengal; both the latter are quadrupeds — both the former, women. But I must not take up either your time or my own with further remarks. Believe me yours sincerely,

“C. BRONTE.”

On a Saturday, a little later in this month, Miss Bronte completed ‘Villette,’ and sent it off to her publishers. “I said my prayers when I had done it. Whether it is well or ill done, I don’t know; D. V., I will now try and wait the issue quietly. The book, I think, will not be considered pretentious; nor is it of a character to excite hostility.”

As her labour was ended, she felt at liberty to allow herself a little change. There were several friends anxious to see her and welcome her to their homes Miss Martineau, Mrs. Smith, and her own faithful E——. With the last, in the same letter as that in which she announced the completion of ‘Villette,’ she offered to spend a week. She began, also, to consider whether it might not be well to avail herself of Mrs. Smith’s kind invitation, with a view to the convenience of being on the spot to correct the proofs.

The following letter is given, not merely on account of her own criticisms on ‘Villette,’ but because it shows how she had learned to magnify the meaning of trifles, as all do who live a self-contained and solitary life. Mr. Smith had been unable to write by the same post as that which brought the money for ‘Villette,’ and she consequently received it without a line. The friend with whom she was staying says, that she immediately fancied there was some disappointment about ‘Villette,’ or that some word or act of hers had given offence; and had not the Sunday intervened, and so allowed time for Mr. Smith’s letter to make its appearance, she would certainly have crossed it on her way to London.

“Dec. 6th, 1852.

“My dear Sir — The receipts have reached me safely. I received the first on Saturday, enclosed in a cover without a line, and had made up my mind to take the train on Monday, and go up to London to see what was the matter, and what had struck my publisher mute. On Sunday morning your letter came, and you have thus been spared the visitation of the unannounced and unsummoned apparition of Currer Bell in Cornhill. Inexplicable delays should be avoided when possible, for they are apt to urge those subjected to their harassment to sudden and impulsive steps. I must pronounce you right again, in your complaint of the transfer of interest in the third volume, from one set of characters to another. It is not pleasant, and it will probably be found as unwelcome to the reader, as it was, in a sense, compulsory upon the writer. The spirit of romance would have indicated another course, far more flowery and inviting; it would have fashioned a paramount hero, kept faithfully with him, and made him supremely worshipful; he should have been an idol, and not a mute, unresponding idol either; but this would have been unlike real LIFE— inconsistent with truth — at variance with probability. I greatly apprehend, however, that the weakest character in the book is the one I aimed at making the most beautiful; and, if this be the case, the fault lies in its wanting the germ of the real — in its being purely imaginary. I felt that this character lacked substance; I fear that the reader will feel the same. Union with it resembles too much the fate of Ixion, who was mated with a cloud. The childhood of Paulina is, however, I think, pretty well imagined, but her. . .” (the remainder of this interesting sentence is torn off the letter). “A brief visit to London becomes thus more practicable, and if your mother will kindly write, when she has time, and name a day after Christmas which will suit her, I shall have pleasure, papa’s health permitting, in availing myself of her invitation. I wish I could come in time to correct some at least of the proofs; it would save trouble.”

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