The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter VIII

It was thought desirable about this time, to republish “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey”, the works of the two sisters, and Charlotte undertook the task of editing them.

She wrote to Mr. Williams, September 29th, 1850, “It is my intention to write a few lines of remark on ‘Wuthering Heights,’ which, however, I propose to place apart as a brief preface before the tale. I am likewise compelling myself to read it over, for the first time of opening the book since my sister’s death. Its power fills me with renewed admiration; but yet I am oppressed: the reader is scarcely ever permitted a taste of unalloyed pleasure; every beam of sunshine is poured down through black bars of threatening cloud; every page is surcharged with a sort of moral electricity; and the writer was unconscious of all this — nothing could make her conscious of it.

“And this makes me reflect — perhaps I am too incapable of perceiving the faults and peculiarities of my own style.

“I should wish to revise the proofs, if it be not too great an inconvenience to send them. It seems to me advisable to modify the orthography of the old servant Joseph’s speeches; for though, as it stands, it exactly renders the Yorkshire dialect to a Yorkshire ear, yet, I am sure Southerns must find it unintelligible; and thus one of the most graphic characters in the book is lost on them.

“I grieve to say that I possess no portrait of either of my sisters.”

To her own dear friend, as to one who had known and loved her sisters, she writes still more fully respecting the painfulness of her task.

“There is nothing wrong, and I am writing you a line as you desire, merely to say that I AM busy just now. Mr. Smith wishes to reprint some of Emily’s and Annie’s works, with a few little additions from the papers they have left; and I have been closely engaged in revising, transcribing, preparing a preface, notice, etc. As the time for doing this is limited, I am obliged to be industrious. I found the task at first exquisitely painful and depressing; but regarding it in the light of a SACRED DUTY, I went on, and now can bear it better. It is work, however, that I cannot do in the evening, for if I did, I should have no sleep at night. Papa, I am thankful to say, is in improved health, and so, I think, am I; I trust you are the same.

“I have just received a kind letter from Miss Martineau. She has got back to Ambleside, and had heard of my visit to the Lakes. She expressed her regret, etc., at not being at home.

“I am both angry and surprised at myself for not being in better spirits; for not growing accustomed, or at least resigned, to the solitude and isolation of my lot. But my late occupation left a result for some days, and indeed still, very painful. The reading over of papers, the renewal of remembrances brought back the pang of bereavement, and occasioned a depression of spirits well nigh intolerable. For one or two nights, I scarcely knew how to get on till morning; and when morning came, I was still haunted with a sense of sickening distress. I tell you these things, because it is absolutely necessary to me to have some relief. You will forgive me, and not trouble yourself, or imagine that I am one whit worse than I say. It is quite a mental ailment, and I believe and hope is better now. I think so, because I can speak about it, which I never can when grief is at its worst.

“I thought to find occupation and interest in writing, when alone at home, but hitherto my efforts have been vain; the deficiency of every stimulus is so complete. You will recommend me, I dare say, to go from home; but that does no good, even could I again leave Papa with an easy mind (thank God! he is better). I cannot describe what a time of it I had after my return from London, Scotland, etc. There was a reaction that sunk me to the earth; the deadly silence, solitude, desolation, were awful; the craving for companionship, the hopelessness of relief, were what I should dread to feel again.

“Dear — — when I think of you, it is with a compassion and tenderness that scarcely cheer me. Mentally, I fear, you also are too lonely and too little occupied. It seems our doom, for the present at least. May God in His mercy help us to bear it!”

During her last visit to London, as mentioned in one of her letters, she had made the acquaintance of her correspondent, Mr. Lewes. That gentleman says:—

“Some months after” (the appearance of the review of “Shirley” in the Edinburgh), “Currer Bell came to London, and I was invited to meet her at your house. You may remember, she asked you not to point me out to her, but allow her to discover me if she could. She DID recognise me almost as soon as I came into the room. You tried me in the same way; I was less sagacious. However, I sat by her side a great part of the evening and was greatly interested by her conversation. On parting we shook hands, and she said, ‘We are friends now, are we not?’ ‘Were we not always, then?’ I asked. ‘No! not always,’ she said, significantly; and that was the only allusion she made to the offending article. I lent her some of Balzac’s and George Sand’s novels to take with her into the country; and the following letter was written when they were returned:”—

“I am sure you will have thought me very dilatory in returning the books you so kindly lent me. The fact is, having some other books to send, I retained yours to enclose them in the same parcel.

“Accept my thanks for some hours of pleasant reading. Balzac was for me quite a new author; and in making big acquaintance, through the medium of ‘Modeste Mignon,’ and ‘Illusions perdues,’ you cannot doubt I have felt some interest. At first, I thought he was going to be painfully minute, and fearfully tedious; one grew impatient of his long parade of detail, his slow revelation of unimportant circumstances, as he assembled his personages on the stage; but by and bye I seemed to enter into the mystery of his craft, and to discover, with delight, where his force lay: is it not in the analysis of motive; and in a subtle perception of the most obscure and secret workings of the mind? Still, admire Balzac as we may, I think we do not like him; we rather feel towards him as towards an ungenial acquaintance who is for ever holding up in strong light our defects, and who rarely draws forth our better qualities.

“Truly, I like George Sand better.

“Fantastic, fanatical, unpractical enthusiast as she often is — far from truthful as are many of her views of life — misled, as she is apt to be, by her feelings — George Sand has a better nature than M. de Balzac; her brain is larger, her heart warmer than his. The ‘Lettres d’un Voyageur’ are full of the writer’s self; and I never felt so strongly, as in the perusal of this work, that most of her very faults spring from the excess of her good qualities: it is this excess which has often hurried her into difficulty, which has prepared for her enduring regret.

“But I believe her mind is of that order which disastrous experience teaches, without weakening or too much disheartening; and, in that case, the longer she lives the better she will grow. A hopeful point in all her writings is the scarcity of false French sentiment; I wish I could say its absence; but the weed flourishes here and there, even in the ‘Lettres.’”

I remember the good expression of disgust which Miss Bronte made use of in speaking to me of some of Balzac’s novels: “They leave such a bad taste in my mouth.”

The reader will notice that most of the letters from which I now quote are devoted to critical and literary subjects. These were, indeed, her principal interests at this time; the revision of her sister’s works, and writing a short memoir of them, was the painful employment of every day during the dreary autumn of 1850. Wearied out by the vividness of her sorrowful recollections, she sought relief in long walks on the moors. A friend of hers, who wrote to me on the appearance of the eloquent article in the Daily News upon the “Death of Currer Bell,” gives an anecdote which may well come in here.

“They are mistaken in saying she was too weak to roam the hills for the benefit of the air. I do not think any one, certainly not any woman, in this locality, went so much on the moors as she did, when the weather permitted. Indeed, she was so much in the habit of doing so, that people, who live quite away on the edge of the common, knew her perfectly well. I remember on one occasion an old woman saw her at a little distance, and she called out, ‘How! Miss Bronte! Hey yah (have you) seen ought o’ my cofe (calf)?’ Miss Bronte told her she could not say, for she did not know it. ‘Well!’ she said, ‘Yah know, it’s getting up like nah (now), between a cah (cow) and a cofe — what we call a stirk, yah know, Miss Bronte; will yah turn it this way if yah happen to see’t, as yah’re going back, Miss Bronte; nah DO, Miss Bronte.’”

It must have been about this time that a visit was paid to her by some neighbours, who were introduced to her by a mutual friend. This visit has been described in a letter from which I am permitted to give extracts, which will show the impression made upon strangers by the character of the country round her home, and other circumstances. “Though the weather was drizzly, we resolved to make our long-planned excursion to Haworth; so we packed ourselves into the buffalo-skin, and that into the gig, and set off about eleven. The rain ceased, and the day was just suited to the scenery — wild and chill — with great masses of cloud glooming over the moors, and here and there a ray of sunshine covertly stealing through, and resting with a dim magical light upon some high bleak village; or darting down into some deep glen, lighting up the tall chimney, or glistening on the windows and wet roof of the mill which lies couching in the bottom. The country got wilder and wilder as we approached Haworth; for the last four miles we were ascending a huge moor, at the very top of which lies the dreary black-looking village of Haworth. The village-street itself is one of the steepest hills I have ever seen, and the stones are so horribly jolting that I should have got out and walked with W— — if possible, but, having once begun the ascent, to stop was out of the question. At the top was the inn where we put up, close by the church; and the clergyman’s house, we were told, was at the top of the churchyard. So through that we went — a dreary, dreary place, literally PAVED with rain-blackened tombstones, and all on the slope, for at Haworth there is on the highest height a higher still, and Mr. Bronte’s house stands considerably above the church. There was the house before us, a small oblong stone house, with not a tree to screen it from the cutting wind; but how were we to get at it from the churchyard we could not see! There was an old man in the churchyard, brooding like a Ghoul over the graves, with a sort of grim hilarity on his face. I thought he looked hardly human; however, he was human enough to tell us the way; and presently we found ourselves in the little bare parlour. Presently the door opened, and in came a superannuated mastiff, followed by an old gentleman very like Miss Bronte, who shook hands with us, and then went to call his daughter. A long interval, during which we coaxed the old dog, and looked at a picture of Miss Bronte, by Richmond, the solitary ornament of the room, looking strangely out of place on the bare walls, and at the books on the little shelves, most of them evidently the gift of the authors since Miss Bronte’s celebrity. Presently she came in, and welcomed us very kindly, and took me upstairs to take off my bonnet, and herself brought me water and towels. The uncarpeted stone stairs and floors, the old drawers propped on wood, were all scrupulously clean and neat. When we went into the parlour again, we began talking very comfortably, when the door opened and Mr. Bronte looked in; seeing his daughter there, I suppose he thought it was all right, and he retreated to his study on the opposite side of the passage; presently emerging again to bring W——a country newspaper. This was his last appearance till we went. Miss Bronte spoke with the greatest warmth of Miss Martineau, and of the good she had gained from her. Well! we talked about various things; the character of the people — about her solitude, etc., till she left the room to help about dinner, I suppose, for she did not return for an age. The old dog had vanished; a fat curly-haired dog honoured us with his company for some time, but finally manifested a wish to get out, so we were left alone. At last she returned, followed by the maid and dinner, which made us all more comfortable; and we had some very pleasant conversation, in the midst of which time passed quicker than we supposed, for at last W—— found that it was half-past three, and we had fourteen or fifteen miles before us. So we hurried off, having obtained from her a promise to pay us a visit in the spring; and the old gentleman having issued once more from his study to say good-bye, we returned to the inn, and made the best of our way homewards.

“Miss Bronte put me so in mind of her own ‘Jane Eyre.’ She looked smaller than ever, and moved about so quietly, and noiselessly, just like a little bird, as Rochester called her, barring that all birds are joyous, and that joy can never have entered that house since it was first built; and yet, perhaps, when that old man married, and took home his bride, and children’s voices and feet were heard about the house, even that desolate crowded grave-yard and biting blast could not quench cheerfulness and hope. Now there is something touching in the sight of that little creature entombed in such a place, and moving about herself like a spirit, especially when you think that the slight still frame encloses a force of strong fiery life, which nothing has been able to freeze or extinguish.”

In one of the preceding letters, Miss Bronte referred to am article in the Palladium, which had rendered what she considered the due meed of merit to “Wuthering Heights”, her sister Emily’s tale. Her own works were praised, and praised with discrimination, and she was grateful for this. But her warm heart was filled to the brim with kindly feelings towards him who had done justice to the dead. She anxiously sought out the name of the writer; and having discovered that it was Mr. Sydney Dobell he immediately became one of her

“Peculiar people whom Death had made dear.”

She looked with interest upon everything he wrote; and before long we shall find that they corresponded.

To W. S. WILLIAMS, ESQ.

“Oct. 25th.

“The box of books came last night, and, as usual, I have only gratefully to admire the selection made: ‘Jeffrey’s Essays,’ ‘Dr. Arnold’s Life,’ ‘The Roman,’ ‘Alton Loche,’ these were all wished for and welcome.

“You say I keep no books; pardon me — I am ashamed of my own rapaciousness I have kept ‘Macaulay’s History,’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’, and Taylor’s ‘Philip Van Artevelde.’ I soothe my conscience by saying that the two last — being poetry — do not count. This is a convenient doctrine for me I meditate acting upon it with reference to the Roman, so I trust nobody in Cornhill will dispute its validity or affirm that ‘poetry’ has a value, except for trunk-makers.

“I have already had ‘Macaulay’s Essays,’ ‘Sidney Smith’s Lectures on Moral Philosophy,’ and ‘Knox on Race.’ Pickering’s work on the same subject I have not seen; nor all the volumes of Leigh Hunt’s Autobiography. However, I am now abundantly supplied for a long time to come. I liked Hazlitt’s Essays much.

“The autumn, as you say, has been very fine. I and solitude and memory have often profited by its sunshine on the moors.

“I had felt some disappointment at the non-arrival of the proof- sheets of ‘Wuthering Heights;’ a feverish impatience to complete the revision is apt to beset me. The work of looking over papers, etc., could not be gone through with impunity, and with unaltered spirits; associations too tender, regrets too bitter, sprang out of it. Meantime, the Cornhill books now, as heretofore, are my best medicine — affording a solace which could not be yielded by the very same books procured from a common library.

“Already I have read the greatest part of the ‘Roman;’ passages in it possess a kindling virtue such as true poetry alone can boast; there are images of genuine grandeur; there are lines that at once stamp themselves on the memory. Can it be true that a new planet has risen on the heaven, whence all stars seemed fast fading? I believe it is; for this Sydney or Dobell speaks with a voice of his own, unborrowed, unmimicked. You hear Tennyson, indeed, sometimes, and Byron sometimes, in some passages of the Roman; but then again you have a new note — nowhere clearer than in a certain brief lyric, sang in a meeting of minstrels, a sort of dirge over a dead brother; — THAT not only charmed the ear and brain, it soothed the heart.”

The following extract will be read with interest as conveying her thoughts after the perusal of Dr. Arnold’s Life:—

“Nov. 6th.

“I have just finished reading the ‘Life of Dr. Arnold;’ but now when I wish, according to your request, to express what I think of it, I do not find the task very easy; proper terms seem wanting. This is not a character to be dismissed with a few laudatory words; it is not a one-sided character; pure panegyric would be inappropriate. Dr. Arnold (it seems to me) was not quite saintly; his greatness was cast in a mortal mould; he was a little severe, almost a little hard; he was vehement and somewhat oppugnant. Himself the most indefatigable of workers, I know not whether he could have understood, or made allowance for, a temperament that required more rest; yet not to one man in twenty thousand is given his giant faculty of labour; by virtue of it he seems to me the greatest of working men. Exacting he might have been, then, on this point; and granting that he were so, and a little hasty, stern, and positive, those were his sole faults (if, indeed, that can be called a fault which in no shape degrades the individual’s own character; but is only apt to oppress and overstrain the weaker nature of his neighbours). Afterwards come his good qualities. About these there is nothing dubious. Where can we find justice, firmness, independence, earnestness, sincerity, fuller and purer than in him?

“But this is not all, and I am glad of it. Besides high intellect and stainless rectitude, his letters and his life attest his possession of the most true-hearted affection. WITHOUT this, however one might admire, we could not love him; but WITH it I think we love him much. A hundred such men — fifty — nay, ten or five such righteous men might save any country; might victoriously champion any cause.

“I was struck, too, by the almost unbroken happiness of his life; a happiness resulting chiefly, no doubt, from the right use to which he put that health and strength which God had given him, but also owing partly to a singular exemption from those deep and bitter griefs which most human beings are called on to endure. His wife was what he wished; his children were healthy and promising; his own health was excellent; his undertakings were crowned with success; even death was kind — for, however sharp the pains of his last hour, they were but brief. God’s blessing seems to have accompanied him from the cradle to the grave. One feels thankful to know that it has been permitted to any man to live such a life.

“When I was in Westmoreland last August, I spent an evening at Fox How, where Mrs. Arnold and her daughters still reside. It was twilight as I drove to the place, and almost dark ere I reached it; still I could perceive that the situation was lovely. The house looked like a nest half buried in flowers and creepers: and, dusk as it was, I could FEEL that the valley and the hills round were beautiful as imagination could dream.”

If I say again what I have said already before, it is only to impress and re-impress upon my readers the dreary monotony of her life at this time. The dark, bleak season of the year brought back the long evenings, which tried her severely: all the more so, because her weak eyesight rendered her incapable of following any occupation but knitting by candle-light. For her father’s sake, as well as for her own, she found it necessary to make some exertion to ward off settled depression of spirits. She accordingly accepted an invitation to spend a week or ten days with Miss Martineau at Ambleside. She also proposed to come to Manchester and see me, on her way to Westmoreland. But, unfortunately, I was from home, and unable to receive her. The friends with whom I was staying in the South of England ( hearing me express my regret that I could not accept her friendly proposal, and aware of the sad state of health and spirits which made some change necessary for her) wrote to desire that she would come and spend a week or two with me at their house. She acknowledged this invitation in a letter to me, dated —

“Dec. 13th, 1850.

“My dear Mrs. Gaskell — Miss ——‘s kindness and yours is such that I am placed in the dilemma of not knowing how adequately to express my sense of it. THIS I know, however, very well-that if I COULD go and be with you for a week or two in such a quiet south-country house, and with such kind people as you describe, I should like it much. I find the proposal marvellously to my taste; it is the pleasantest, gentlest, sweetest, temptation possible; but, delectable as it is, its solicitations are by no means to be yielded to without the sanction of reason, and therefore I desire for the present to be silent, and to stand back till I have been to Miss Martineau’s, and returned home, and considered well whether it is a scheme as right as agreeable.

“Meantime, the mere thought does me good.”

On the 10th of December, the second edition of “Wuthering Heights” was published. She sent a copy of it to Mr. Dobell, with the following letter:—

To MR. DOBELL.

“Haworth, near Keighley, Yorkshire,

“Dec. 8th, 1850.

“I offer this little book to my critic in the ‘Palladium,’ and he must believe it accompanied by a tribute of the sincerest gratitude; not so much for anything he has said of myself, as for the noble justice he has rendered to one dear to me as myself — perhaps dearer; and perhaps one kind word spoken for her awakens a deeper, tenderer, sentiment of thankfulness than eulogies heaped on my own head. As you will see when you have read the biographical notice, my sister cannot thank you herself; she is gone out of your sphere and mine, and human blame and praise are nothing to her now. But to me, for her sake, they are something still; it revived me for many a day to find that, dead as she was, the work of her genius had at last met with worthy appreciation.

“Tell me, when you have read the introduction, whether any doubts still linger in your mind respecting the authorship of ‘Wuthering Heights,’ ‘Wildfell Hall,’ etc. Your mistrust did me some injustice; it proved a general conception of character such as I should be sorry to call mine; but these false ideas will naturally arise when we only judge an author from his works. In fairness, I must also disclaim the flattering side of the portrait. I am no ‘young Penthesilea mediis in millibus,’ but a plain country parson’s daughter.

“Once more I thank you, and that with a full heart.

“C. BRONTE.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/bronte/v2chap8.html

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