The Sisters Brontë


Margaret Oliphant

Originally published in Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign, Hurst & Blackett, 1897.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Saturday, August 15, 2015 at 12:42.

To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Sisters Brontë

by Mrs. Oliphant

The effect produced upon the general mind by the appearance of Charlotte Brontë in literature, and afterwards by the record of her life when that was over, is one which it is nowadays somewhat difficult to understand. Had the age been deficient in the art of fiction, or had it followed any long level of mediocrity in that art, we could have comprehended this more easily. But Charlotte Brontë appeared in the full flush of a period more richly endowed than any other we know of in that special branch of literature, so richly endowed, indeed, that the novel had taken quite fictitious importance, and the names of Dickens and Thackeray ranked almost higher than those of any living writers except perhaps Tennyson, then young and on his promotion too. Anthony Trollope and Charles Reade who, though in their day extremely popular, have never had justice from a public which now seems almost to have forgotten them, formed a powerful second rank to these two great names. It is a great addition to the value of the distinction gained by the new comer that it was acquired in an age so rich in the qualities of the imagination.

But this only increases the wonder of a triumph which had no artificial means to heighten it, nothing but genius on the part of a writer possessing little experience or knowledge of the world, and no sort of social training or adventitious aid. The genius was indeed unmistakable, and possessed in a very high degree the power of expressing itself in the most vivid and actual pictures of life. But the life of which it had command was seldom attractive, often narrow, local, and of a kind which meant keen personal satire more than any broader view of human existence. A group of commonplace clergymen, intense against their little parochial background as only the most real art of portraiture, intensified by individual scorn and dislike, could have made them: the circle of limited interests, small emulations, keen little spites and rancours, filling the atmosphere of a great boarding school, the Brussels Pensionnat des filles—these were the two spheres chiefly portrayed: but portrayed with an absolute untempered force which knew neither charity, softness, nor even impartiality, but burned upon the paper and made everything round dim in the contrast. 1 imagine it was this extraordinary naked force which was the great cause of a success, never perhaps like the numerical successes in literature of the present day, when edition follows edition, and thousand thousand, of the books which are the favourites of the public: but one which has lived and lasted through nearly half a century, and is even now potent enough to carry on a little literature of its own, book after book following each other not so much to justify as to reproclaim and echo to all the winds the fame originally won. No one else of the century, I think, has called forth this persevering and lasting homage. Not Dickens, though perhaps more of him than of any one else has been dealt out at intervals to an admiring public; not Thackeray, of whom still we know but little; not George Eliot, though her fame has more solid foundations than that of Miss Brontë. Scarcely Scott has called forth more continual droppings of elucidation, explanation, remark. Yet the books upon which this tremendous reputation is founded though vivid, original, and striking in the highest degree, are not great books. Their philosophy of life is that of a schoolgirl, their knowledge of the world almost nil, their conclusions confused by the haste and passion of a mind self-centred and working in the narrowest orbit. It is rather, as we have said, the most incisive and realistic art of portraiture than any exercise of the nobler arts of fiction—imagination, combination, construction—or humorous survey of life or deep apprehension of its problems—upon which this fame is built.

The curious circumstance that Charlotte Brontë was, if the word may be so used, doubled by her sisters, the elder, Emily, whose genius has been taken for granted, carrying the wilder elements of the common inspiration to extremity in the strange, chaotic and weird romance of “Wuthering Heights,” while Anne diluted such powers of social observation as were in the family into two mildly disagreeable novels of a much commoner order, has no doubt also enhanced the central figure of the group to an amazing degree. They placed her strength in relief by displaying its separate elements, and thus commending the higher skill and larger spirit which took in both, understanding the moors and wild country and rude image of man better than the one, and misunderstanding the common course of more subdued life less than the other. The three together are for ever inseparable; they were homely, lowly, somewhat neglected in their lives, had few opportunities and few charms to the careless eye: yet no group of women, undistinguished by rank, unendowed by beauty, and known to but a limited circle of friends as unimportant as themselves have ever, I think, in the course of history—certainly never in this century—come to such universal recognition. The effect is quite unique, unprecedented, and difficult to account for; but there cannot be the least doubt that it is a matter of absolute fact which nobody can deny.


These three daughters of a poor country clergyman came into the world early in the century, the dates of their births being 1816, 1818, 1820, in the barest of little parsonages in the midst of the moors—a wild but beautiful country, and a rough but highly characteristic and keen-witted people. Yorkshire is the very heart of England; its native force, its keen practical sense, its rough wit, and the unfailing importance in the nation of the largest of the shires has given it a strong individual character and position almost like that of an independent province. But the Brontës, whose name is a softened and decorated edition of a common Irish name, were not of that forcible race: and perhaps the strong strain after emotion, and revolt against the monotonies of life, which were so conspicuous in them were more easily traceable to their Celtic origin than many other developments attributed to that cause. They were motherless from an early age, children of a father who, after having been depicted as a capricious tyrant, seems now to have found a fairer representation as a man with a high spirit and peculiar temper, yet neither unkind to his family nor uninterested in their welfare. There was one son, once supposed to be the hero and victim of a disagreeable romance, but apparent now as only a specimen, not alas, uncommon, of the ordinary ne’er-do-well of a family, without force of character or self-control to keep his place with decency in the world.

These children all scribbled from their infancy as soon as the power of inscribing words upon paper was acquired by them, inventing imaginary countries and compiling visionary records of them as so many imaginative children do. The elder girl and boy made one pair, the younger girls another, connected by the closest links of companionship. It was thought or hoped that the son was the genius of the family, and at the earliest possible age he began to send his effusions to editors, and to seek admission to magazines with the mingled arrogance and humility of a half-fledged creature. But the world knows now that it was not poor Branwell who was the genius of the family; and this injury done him in his cradle, and the evil report of him that everybody gives throughout his life, awakens a certain pity in the mind for the unfortunate youth so unable to keep any supremacy among the girls whom he must have considered his natural inferiors and vassals. We are told by Charlotte Brontë herself that he never knew of the successes of his sisters, the fact of their successive publications being concealed from him out of tenderness for his feelings; but it is scarcely to be credited that when the parish knew the unfortunate brother did not find out. The unhappy attempt of Mrs. Gaskell in writing the lives of the sisters to make this melancholy young man accountable for the almost brutal element in Emily Brontë‘s conception of life, and the strange views of Charlotte as to what men were capable of, has made him far too important in their history; where, indeed, he had no need to have appeared at all, had the family pride consisted, as the pride of so many families does, in veiling rather than exhibiting the faults of its members. So far as can be made out now, he had as little as possible to do with their development in any way.

There was nothing unnatural or out of the common in the youthful life of the family except that strange gift of genius, which though consistent with every genial quality of being, in such a nature as that of Scott, seems in other developments of character to turn all the elements into chaos. Its effect upon the parson’s three daughters was, indeed, not of a very wholesome kind. It awakened in them an uneasy sense of superiority which gave double force to every one of the little hardships which a girl in a great school of a charitable kind, and a governess in a middle-class house, has to support: and made life harder instead of sweeter to them in many ways, since it was full of the biting experience of conditions less favourable than those of many persons round them whom they could not but feel inferior to themselves.

The great school, which it was Charlotte Brontë‘s first act when she began her literary career to invest with an almost tragic character of misery, privation, and wrong, was her first step from home. Yorkshire schools did not at that period enjoy a very good reputation in the world, and Nicholas Nickleby was forming his acquaintance with the squalid cruelty of Dotheboys Hall just about the same time when Charlotte Brontë‘s mind was being filled with the privations and discontents of Lowood. In such a case there is generally some fire where there is so much smoke, and probably Lowood was under no very heavenly régime: but at the same time its drawbacks were sharply accentuated by that keen criticism which is suggested by the constant sense of injured worth and consciousness of a superiority not acknowledged. The same feeling pursued her into the situations as governess which she occupied one after another, and in which her indignation at being expected to feel affection for the children put under her charge, forms a curious addition to the other grievances with which fate pursues her life. No doubt there are many temptations in the life of a governess; the position of a silent observer in a household, looking on at all its mistakes, and seeing the imperfection of its management with double force because of the effect they have on herself—especially if she feels herself competent, had she but the power, to set things right—must always be a difficult one. It was not continued long enough, however, to involve very much suffering; though no doubt it helped to mature the habit of sharp personal criticism and war with the world.

At the same time Charlotte Brontë made some very warm personal friendships, and wrote a great many letters to the school friends who pleased her, in which a somewhat stilted tone and demure seriousness is occasionally invaded by the usual chatter of girlhood, to the great improvement of the atmosphere if not of the mind. Ellen Nussey, Mary Taylor, women not manifestly intellectual but sensible and independent without either exaggeration of sentiment or hint of tragic story, remained her close friends as long as she lived, and her letters to them, though always a little demure, give us a gentler idea of her than anything else she has written. Not that there is much charm either of style or subject in them: but there is no sort of bitterness or sense of insufficient appreciation. Nothing can be more usual and commonplace, indeed, than this portion of her life. As in so many cases, the artificial lights thrown upon it by theories formed afterwards, clear away when we examine its actual records, and it is apparent that there was neither exceptional harshness of circumstance nor internal struggle in the existence of the girl who, though more or less in arms against everybody outside—especially when holding a position superior to her own, more especially still when exercising authority over her in any way—was yet quite an easy-minded, not unhappy, young woman at home, with friends to whom she could pour out long pages of what is, on the whole, quite moderate and temperate criticism of life, not without cheerful allusion to now and then a chance curate or other young person of the opposite sex, suspected of “paying attention” to one or other of the little coterie. These allusions are not more lofty or dignified than are similar notes of girls of less exalted pretensions, but there is not a touch in them of the keen pointed pen which afterwards put up the Haworth curates in all their imperfections before the world.

The other sisters at this time in the background, two figures always clinging together, looking almost like one, have no great share in this softer part of Charlotte’s life. They were, though so different in character, completely devoted to each other, apparently forming no other friendships, each content with the one other partaker of her every thought. A little literature seems to have been created between them, little chapters of recollection and commentary upon their life, sealed up and put away for three years in each case, to be opened on Emily’s or on Anne’s birthday alternately, as a pathetic sign of their close unity, though the little papers were in themselves simple in the extreme. Anne too became a governess with something of the same experience as Charlotte, and uttering very hard judgments of unconscious people who were not the least unkind to her. But Emily had no such trials. She remained at home perhaps because she was too uncompromising to be allowed to make the experiment of putting up with other people, perhaps because one daughter at home was indispensable. The family seems to have had kind and trusted old servants, so that the cares of housekeeping did not weigh heavily upon the daughter in charge, and there is no evidence of exceptional hardness or roughness in their circumstances in any way.

In 1842, Charlotte and Emily, aged respectively twenty-six and twenty-four, went to Brussels. Their design was “to acquire a thorough familiarity with French,” also some insight into other languages, with the view of setting up a school on their own account. The means were supplied by the aunt, who had lived in their house and taken more or less care of them since their mother’s death. The two sisters were nearly a year in the Pensionnat Héger, now so perfectly known in every detail of its existence to all who have read “Villette.” They were recalled by the death of the kind aunt who had procured them this advantage, and afterwards Charlotte, no one quite knows why, went back to Brussels for a second year, in which all her impressions were probably strengthened and intensified. Certainly a more clear and lifelike picture, scathing in its cold yet fierce light, was never made than that of the white tall Brussels house, its class rooms, its gardens, its hum of unamiable girls, its sharp display of rancorous and shrill teachers, its one inimitable professor. It startles the reader to find—a fact which we had forgotten—that M. Paul Emmanuel was M. Héger, the husband of Madame Héger and legitimate head of the house: and that this daring and extraordinary girl did not hesitate to encounter gossip or slander by making him so completely the hero of her romance. Slander in its commonplace form had nothing to do with such a fiery spirit as that of Charlotte Brontë: but it shows her perfect independence of mind and scorn of comment that she should have done this. In the end of ‘43 she returned home, and the episode was over. It was really the only episode of possible practical significance in her life until we come to the records of her brief literary career and her marriage, both towards its end.


The prospect of the school which the three sisters were to set up together was abandoned; there was no more talk of governessing. We are not told if it was the small inheritance of the aunt—only, Mr. Clement Shorter informs us, £1500—which enabled the sisters henceforward to remain at home without thought of further effort: but certainly this was what happened. And the lives of the two younger were drawing so near the end that it is a comfort to think that they enjoyed this moment of comparative grace together. Their life was extremely silent, secluded, and apart. There was the melancholy figure of Branwell to distract the house with the spectacle of heavy idleness, drink, and disorder; but this can scarcely have been so great an affliction as if he had been a more beloved brother. He was not, however, veiled by any tender attempt to cover his follies or wickedness, but openly complained of to all their friends, which mitigates the affliction: and they seem to have kept very separate from him, living in a world of their own.

In 1846 a volume of poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, was published at their own cost. It had not the faintest success; they were informed by the publisher that two copies only had been sold, and the only satisfaction that remained to them was to send a few copies to some of the owners of those great names which the enthusiastic young women had worshipped from afar as stars in the firmament. These poems were re-published after Charlotte Brontë had attained her first triumph, and people had begun to cry out and wonder over “Wuthering Heights.” The history of “Jane Eyre,” on the other hand, is that of most works which have been the beginning of a career. It fell into the hands of the right man, the “reader” of Messrs. Smith, Elder and Co., Mr. Williams, a man of great intelligence and literary insight. The first story written by Charlotte Brontë, which was called “The Professor,” and was the original of “Villette,” written at a time when her mind was very full of the emotions raised by that singular portion of her life, had been rejected by a number of publishers, and was also rejected by Mr. Williams, who found it at once too crude and too short for the risks of publication, three volumes at that period being your only possible form for fiction. But he saw the power in it, and begged the author to try again at greater length. She did so; not on the basis of the “Professor” as might have seemed natural—probably the materials were still too much at fever-heat in her mind to be returned to at that moment—but by the story of “Jane Eyre,” which at once placed Charlotte Brontë amid the most popular and powerful writers of her time.

I remember well the extraordinary thrill of interest which in the midst of all the Mrs. Gores, Mrs. Marshs, &c.—the latter name is mentioned along with those of Thackeray and Dickens even by Mr. Williams—came upon the reader who, in the calm of ignorance, took up the first volume of “Jane Eyre.” The period of the heroine in white muslin, the immaculate creature who was of sweetness and goodness all compact, had lasted in the common lines of fiction up to that time. Miss Austen indeed might well have put an end to that abstract and empty fiction, yet it continued, as it always does continue more or less, the primitive ideal. But “Jane Eyre” gave her, for the moment, the coup de grace. That the book should be the story of a governess was perhaps necessary to the circumstances of the writer: and the governess was already a favourite figure in fiction. But generally she was of the beautiful, universally fascinating, all-enduring kind, the amiable blameless creature whose secret merits were never so hidden but that they might be perceived by a keen sighted hero. 1 am not sure, indeed, that anybody believed Miss Brontë when she said her heroine was plain. It is very clear from the story that Jane was never unnoticed, never failed to please, except among the women, whom it is the instinctive art of the novelist to rouse in arms against the central figure, thus demonstrating the jealousy, spite, and rancour native to their minds in respect to the women who please men. No male cynic was ever stronger on that subject than this typical woman. She cannot have believed it, I presume, since her closest friends were women, and she seems to have had perfect faith in their kindness: but this is a matter of conventional belief which has nothing to do with individual experience. It is one of the doctrines unassailable of the art of fiction; a thirty-ninth article in which every writer of novels is bound to believe.

Miss Brontë did not know fine ladies, and therefore, in spite of herself and a mind the reverse of vulgar, she made the competitors for Mr. Rochester’s favour rather brutal and essentially vulgar persons, an error, curiously enough, which seems to have been followed by George Eliot in the corresponding scenes in “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story,” where Captain Wybrow’s fiancée treats poor Tiny very much as the beauty in Mr. Rochester’s house treats Jane Eyre. Both were imaginary pictures, which perhaps more or less excuses their untruthfulness in writers both so sincere and lifelike in treating things they knew. It is amusing to remember that Jane Eyre’s ignorance of dress gave a clinching argument to Miss Rigby in the Quarterly to decide that the writer was not and could not possibly be a woman. The much larger and more significant fact that no man (until in quite recent days when there have been instances of such effeminate art) ever made a woman so entirely the subject and inspiration of his book, the only interest in it, was entirely overlooked in what was, notwithstanding, the very shrewd and telling argument about the dress.

The chief thing, however, that distressed the candid and as yet unaccustomed reader in “Jane Eyre,” and made him hope that it might be a man who had written it, was the character of Rochester’s confidences to the girl whom he loved—not the character of Rochester, which was completely a woman’s view, but that he should have talked to a girl so evidently innocent of his amours and his mistresses. This, however, I think, though, as we should have thought, a subject so abhorrent to a young woman such as Charlotte Brontë was, was also emphatically a woman’s view. A man might have credited another man of Rochester’s kind with impulses practically more heinous and designs of the worst kind: but he would not have made him err in that way.

In this was a point of honour which the woman did not understand. It marks a curious and subtle difference between the sexes. The woman less enlightened in practical evil considers less the risks of actual vice; but her imagination is free in other ways, and she innocently permits her hero to do and say things so completely against the code which is binding on gentlemen whether vicious or otherwise that her want of perception becomes conspicuous. The fact that the writer of the review in the Quarterly was herself a woman accounts for her mistake in supposing that the book was written if not by a man, by “a woman unsexed;” “a woman who had forfeited the society of her sex.” And afterwards, when Mrs. Gaskell made her disastrous statements about Branwell Brontë and other associates of Charlotte’s youth, it was with the hope of proving that the speech and manners of the men to whom she had been accustomed were of a nature to justify her in any such misapprehension of the usual manners of gentlemen. It was on the contrary, as I think, only the bold and unfettered imagination of a woman quite ignorant on all such subjects which could have suggested this special error. The mind of such a woman, casting about for something to make her wicked but delightful hero do by way of demonstrating his wickedness, yet preserving the fascination which she meant him to retain, probably hit upon this as the very wickedest thing she could think of, yet still attractive: for is there not a thrill of curiosity in searching out what such a strange being might think or say, which is of itself a strong sensation? Miss Brontë was, 1 think, the first to give utterance to that curiosity of the woman in respect to the man, and fascination of interest in him—not the ideal man, not Sir Kenneth, too reverent for anything but silent worship—which has since risen to such heights of speculation, and imprints now a tone upon modern fiction at which probably she would have been horrified.


There were numberless stories in those days of guilty love and betrayal, of how “lovely woman stoops to folly,” and all the varieties of that endless subject; but it was, except in the comic vein, or with grotesque treatment, the pursuit of the woman by the man, the desire of the lover for the beloved which was the aim of fiction. A true lady of romance walked superior: she accepted (or not) the devotion: she stooped from her white height to reward her adorer: but that she herself should condescend to seek him (except under the circumstances of fashionable life, where everybody is in quest of a coronet), or call out for him to heaven and earth when he tarried in his coming, was unknown to the situations of romantic art. When the second of Charlotte Brontë‘s books appeared, there was accordingly quite a new sensation in store for the public. The young women in “Shirley” were all wild for this lover who, though promised by all the laws of nature and romance, did not appear. They leaned out of their windows, they stretched forth their hands, calling for him—appealing to heaven and earth. Why were they left to wear out their bloom, to lose their freshness, to spend their days in sewing and dreaming, when he, it was certain, was about somewhere, and by sheer perversity of fate could not find the way to them? Nothing was thought of the extra half-million of women in those days; perhaps it had not begun to exist; but that “nobody was coming to marry us, nobody coming to woo” was apparent.

Young ladies like Miss Charlotte Brontë and Miss Ellen Nussey her friend, would have died rather than give vent to such sentiments; but when the one of them to whom that gift was given found that her pen had become a powerful instrument in her hand, the current of the restrained feeling burst all boundaries, and she poured forth the cry which nobody had suspected before. It had been a thing to be denied, to be indignantly contradicted as impossible, if ever a lovesick girl put herself forth to the shame of her fellows and the laugh of the world. When such a phenomenon appeared, she was condemned as either bad or foolish by every law: and the idea that she was capable of “running after” a man was the most dreadful accusation that could be brought against a woman. Miss Brontë‘s heroines, however, did not precisely do this. Shirley and Caroline Helstone were not in love so much as longing for love, clamouring for it, feeling it to be their right of which they were somehow defrauded. There is a good deal to be said for such a view. If it is the most virtuous thing in the world for a man to desire to marry, to found a family, to be the father of children, it should be no shameful thing for a woman to own the same desire. But it is somehow against the instinct of primitive humanity, which has decided that the woman should be no more than responsive, maintaining a reserve in respect to her feelings, subduing the expression, unless in the “once, and only once, and to One only” of the poet.

Charlotte Brontë was the first to overthrow this superstition. Personally 1 am disposed to stand for the superstition, and dislike all transgression of it. But that was not the view of the most reticent and self-controlled of maidens, the little governess, clad in all the strict proprieties of the period, the parson’s daughter despising curates, and unacquainted with other men. In her secret heart, she demanded of fate night and day why she, so full of life and capability, should be left there to dry up and wither; and why Providence refused her the completion of her being. Her heart was not set on a special love; still less was there anything fleshly or sensual in her imagination. It is a shame to use such words in speaking of her, even though to cast them forth as wholly inapplicable. The woman’s grievance—that she should be left there unwooed, unloved, out of reach of the natural openings of life: without hope of motherhood: with the great instinct of her being unfulfilled—was almost a philosophical, and entirely an abstract, grievance, felt by her for her kind: for every woman dropped out of sight and unable to attain the manner of existence for which she was created. And I think it was the first time this cry had been heard out of the mouth of a perfectly modest and pure-minded woman, nay, out of the mouth of any woman; for it had nothing to do with the shriek of the Sapphos for love. It was more startling, more confusing to the general mind, than the wail of the lovelorn. The gentle victim of “a disappointment,” or even the soured and angered victim, was a thing quite understood and familiar: but not the woman calling upon heaven and earth to witness that all the fates were conspiring against her to cheat her of her natural career.

So far as I can see this was the great point which gave force to Charlotte Brontë‘s genius and conferred upon her the curious pre-eminence she possesses among the romancers of her time. In this view “Shirley,” though I suppose the least popular, is the most characteristic of her works. It is dominated throughout with this complaint. Curates? Yes, there they are, a group of them. Is that the thing you expect us women to marry? Yet it is our right to bear children, to guide the house. And we are half of the world, and where is the provision for us?

This cry disturbed the critic, the reader, the general public in the most curious way; they did not know what to make of it. Was it a shameless woman who was so crying out? It is always the easiest way, and one which avoids all complications, to say so, and thus crush every question. But it was scarcely easy to believe this in face of other circumstances. Mrs. Gaskell, as much puzzled as any one, when Charlotte Brontë‘s short life was over, tried hard to account for it by “environment” as the superior persons say, that is by the wicked folly of her brother, and the coarseness of all the Yorkshiremen round; and thus originated in her bewilderment, let us hope without other intention, a new kind of biography, as the subject of it inaugurated an entirely new kind of social revolution. The cry of the women indeed almost distressed as well as puzzled the world. The vivid genius still held it, but the ideas were alarming, distracting beyond measure. The Times blew a trumpet of dismay; the book was revolution as well as revelation. It was an outrage upon good taste, it was a betrayal of sentiments too widespread to be comfortable. It was indelicate if not immodest. We have outgrown now the very use of this word, but it was a potent one at that period. And it was quite a just reproach. That cry shattered indeed altogether the “delicacy” which was supposed to be the most exquisite characteristic of womankind. The softening veil is blown away, when such exhibitions of feeling are given to the world.

From that period to this is a long step. We have travelled through many years and many gradations of sentiment: and we have now arrived at a standard of opinion by which the “sex-problem” has become the most interesting of questions, the chief occupation of fiction, to be discussed by men and women alike with growing warmth and openness, the immodest and the indelicate being equally and scornfully dismissed as barriers with which Art has nothing to do. My impression is that Charlotte Brontë was the pioneer and founder of this school of romance, though it would probably have shocked and distressed her as much as any other woman of her age.


The novels of Emily and Anne Brontë were published shortly after “Jane Eyre,” in three volumes, of which “Wuthering Heights” occupied the first two. I am obliged to confess that I have never shared the common sentiment of enthusiasm for that, to me, unlovely book. The absence of almost every element of sympathy in it, the brutality and misery, tempered only by an occasional gleam of the heather, the freshness of an occasional blast over the moors, have prevented me from appreciating a force which I do not deny but cannot admire. The figure of Heathcliffe, which perhaps has called forth more praise than any other single figure in the literature of the time, does not touch me. I can understand how in the jumble which the reader unconsciously makes, explaining him more or less by Rochester and other of Charlotte Brontë‘s heroes, he may take his place in a sort of system, and thus have humanities read into him, so to speak, which he does not himself possess. But though the horror and isolation of the house is powerful 1 have never been able to reconcile myself either to the story or treatment, or to the estimate of Emily Brontë‘s genius held so strongly by so many people. There is perhaps the less harm in refraining from much comment on this singular book, of which I gladly admit the unique character, since it has been the occasion of so many and such enthusiastic comments. To me Emily Brontë is chiefly interesting as the double of her sister, exaggerating at once and softening her character and genius as showing those limits of superior sense and judgment which restrained her, and the softer lights which a better developed humanity threw over the landscape common to them both. We perceive better the tempering sense of possibility by which Charlotte made her rude and almost brutal hero still attractive, even in his masterful ferocity, when we see Emily’s incapacity to express anything in her hero except perhaps a touch of that tragic pathos, prompting to fiercer harshness still, which is in the soul of a man who never more, whatever he does, can set himself right. This is the one strain of poetry to my mind in the wild conception. There was no measure in the younger sister’s thoughts, nor temperance in her methods.

The youngest of all, the gentle Anne, would have no right to be considered at all as a writer but for her association with these imperative spirits. An ordinary little novelette and a moral story, working out the disastrous knowledge gained by acquaintance with the unfortunate Branwell’s ruinous habits, were her sole productions. She was the element wanting in Emily’s rugged work and nature. Instead of being two sisters constantly entwined with each other, never separate when they could help it, had Anne been by some fantastic power swamped altogether and amalgamated with her best beloved, we may believe that Emily might then have shown herself the foremost of the three. But the group as it stands is more interesting than any single individual could be. And had Charlotte Brontë lived a long and triumphant life, a fanciful writer might have imagined that the throwing off of those other threads of being so closely attached to her own had poured greater force and charity into her veins. But we are baffled in all our suggestions for the amendment of the ways of Providence.


The melancholy and tragic year, or rather six months, which swept from Haworth Parsonage three of its inmates, and left Charlotte and her father alone to face life as they might, was now approaching; and it seems so completely an episode in the story of the elder sister’s genius as well as her life, that its history is like that of an unwritten tragedy, hers as much as her actual work. Branwell was the first to die, unwept yet not without leaving a pathetic note in the record. Then came the extraordinary passion and agony of Emily, which has affected the imagination so much, and which, had it been for any noble purpose, would have been a true martyrdom. But to die the death of a Stoic, in fierce resistance yet subjection to Nature, regardless of the feelings of all around, for the sake of pride and self-will alone, is not an act to be looked upon with the reverential sympathy which, however, it has secured from many. The strange creature with her shoes on her feet and her staff in her hand, refusing till the last to acknowledge herself to be 1 or to receive any help in her weakness, gives thus a kind of climax to her strange and painful work. Her death took place in December of the same year (1848) in which Branwell died. Anne, already delicate, would never seem to have held up her head after her sister’s death, and in May 1849 she followed, but in all sweetness and calmness, to her early grave. She was twenty-eight; Emily twenty-nine. So soon had the fever of life worn itself out and peace come. Charlotte was left alone. There had not been to her in either of them the close companion which they had found in each other. But yet life ebbed away from her with their deaths, which occurred in such a startling and quick succession as always makes bereavement more terrible.

This occurred at the height of her mental activity. “Shirley” had been published, and had been received with the divided feeling we have referred to; and when she was thus left alone she found, no doubt, the solace which of all mortal things work gives best, by resuming her natural occupation in the now more than ever sombre seclusion of the Parsonage, to which, however, her favourite friend, Ellen Nussey, came from time to time. One or two visits to London occurred after the two first publications in which, a demure little person, silent and shy, yet capable of expressing herself very distinctly by times, and by no means unconscious of the claim she now had upon other people’s respect and admiration, Charlotte Brontë made a little sensation in the society which was opened to her, not always of a very successful kind. Everybody will remember the delightfully entertaining chapter in literary history in which Mrs. Ritchie, with charming humour and truth, recounts the visit of this odd little lion to her father’s house, and Thackeray’s abrupt and clandestine flight to his club when it was found that nothing more was to be made of her than an absorbed conversation with the governess in the back drawing-room, a situation like one in a novel, and so very like the act of modest greatness, singling out the least important person as the object of her attentions.

She is described by all her friends as plain, even ugly—a small woman with a big nose, and no other notable feature, not even the bright eyes which are generally attributed to genius—which was probably, however, better than the lackadaisical portrait prefixed to her biography, after a picture by Richmond, which is the typical portrait of a governess of the old style, a gentle creature deprecating and wistful. Her letters are very good letters, well expressed in something of the old-fashioned way, but without any of the charm of a born letter-writer. Indeed, charm does not seem to have been hers in any way. But she had a few very staunch friends who held fast by her all her life, notwithstanding the uncomfortable experience of being “put in a book,” which few people like. It is a gift by itself to put other living people in books. The novelist does not always possess it; to many the realms of imagination are far more easy than the arid realms of fact, and to frame an image of a man much more natural than to take his portrait. I am not sure that it is not a mark of greater strength to be able to put a living and recognisable person on the canvas than it is to invent one. Anyhow, Miss Brontë possessed it in great perfection. Impossible to doubt that the characters of “Shirley” were real men; still more impossible to doubt for a moment the existence of M. Paul Emmanuel. The pursuit of such a system requires other faculties than those of the mere romancist. It demands a very clear-cut opinion, a keen judgment not disturbed by any strong sense of the complexities of nature, nor troubled by any possibility of doing injustice to its victim.


One thing strikes us very strongly in the description of the school, Lowood, which was her very first step in literature, and in which there can now be no doubt, from her own remarks on the manner in which it was received, she had a vindictive purpose. I scarcely know why, for, of course, the dates are all there to prove the difference—but my own conclusion had always been that she was a girl of fourteen or fifteen, old enough to form an opinion when she left the school. I find, with much consternation, that she was only nine; and that so far as such a strenuous opinion was her own at all, it must have been formed at that early and not very judicious age. That the picture should be so vivid with only a little girl’s recollection to go upon is wonderful; but it is not particularly valuable as a verdict against a great institution, its founder and all its ways. Nevertheless, it had its scathing and wounding effect as much as if the little observer, whose small judgment worked so precociously, had been capable of understanding the things which she condemned. It would be rash to trust nineteen in such a report, but nine!

It was at a different age and in other circumstances that Charlotte Brontë made her deep and extraordinary study of the Brussels Pensionnat. She was twenty-seven; she had already gone through a number of those years of self-repression during which, by dint of keeping silence, the heart burns. She was, if we may accept the freedom of her utterances in fiction as more descriptive of her mind than the measured sentences of her letters, angry with fate and the world which denied her a brighter career, and bound her to the cold tasks of dependence and the company of despised and almost hated inferiors during the best of her life. Her tremendous gift of sight—not second sight or any visionary way of regarding the object before her, but that vivid and immediate vision which took in every detail, and was decisive on every act as if it had been the vision of the gods—was now fully matured. She saw all that was about her with this extraordinary clearness without any shadow upon the object or possibility of doubt as to her power of seeing it all round and through and through. She makes us also see and know the big white house, with every room distinct: the garden, with its great trees and alleys: the class-rooms, each with its tribune: the girls, fat and round and phlegmatic in characteristic foreignism, and herself as spectator, looking on with contemptuous indifference, not caring to discriminate between them. The few English figures, which concern her more, are drawn keen upon the canvas, though with as little friendliness; the teachers sharply accentuated, Mdlle. Sophie, for instance, who, when she is in a rage, has no lips, and all the sharp contentions and false civilities of those banded Free Lances, enemies to everybody and to each other; the image of watchful suspicion in the head of the house—all these are set forth in glittering lines of steel. There is not a morsel of compunction in the picture. Everybody is bad, worthless, a hater of the whole race. The mistress of the establishment moves about stealthily, watching, her eyes showing through a mist in every corner, going and coming without a sound. What a picture it is! There is not a good meaning in the whole place—not even that beneficent absence of meaning which softens the view. They are all bent on their own aims, on gaining an advantage great or small over their neighbours; nobody is spared, nobody is worth a revision of judgment—except one.

The little Englishwoman herself, who is the centre of all this, is not represented as more lovable than the rest. She is the hungry little epicure, looking on while others feast, and envying every one of them, even while she snarls at their fare as apples of Gomorrah. She cannot abide that they should be better off than she, even though she scorns their satisfaction in what they possess. Her wild and despairing rush through Brussels when the town is en fête, cold, impassioned, fever-hot with rancour and loneliness, produces the most amazing effect on the mind. She is the banished spirit for whom there is no place, the little half-tamed wild beast, wild with desire to tear and rend everything that is happy. One feels that she has a certain justification and realises the full force of being left out in the cold, of having no part or lot in the matter when other people are amused and rejoice. Many other writers have endeavoured to produce a similar effect with milder means, but 1 suppose because of a feeble-minded desire to preserve the reputation of their forlorn heroine and give the reader an amiable view of her, no one has succeeded like the author of “Villette,” who is in no way concerned for the amiability of Lucy Snowe.

For the impartiality of this picture is as extraordinary as its power. Lucy Snowe is her own historian; it is the hot blood of the autobiographist that rushes through her veins, yet no attempt is made to recommend her to the reader or gain his sympathy. She is much too real to think of these outside things, or of how people will judge her, or how to make her proceedings acceptable to their eyes. We do not know whether Charlotte Brontë ever darted out of the white still house, standing dead in the moonlight, and rushed through the streets and, like a ghost, into the very heart of the gaslights and festivities; but it would be difficult to persuade any reader that some one had not done so, imprinting that phantasmagoria of light and darkness upon a living brain. Whether it was Charlotte Brontë or Lucy Snowe, the effect is the same. We are not even asked to feel for her or pity her, much less to approve her. Nothing is demanded from us on her account but merely to behold the soul in revolt and the strange workings of her despair. It was chiefly because of the indifference to her of Dr. John that Lucy was thus driven into a momentary madness; and with the usual regardless indiscretion of all Charlotte Brontë‘s amateur biographers, Mr. Shorter intimates to us who was the living man who was Dr. John and occasioned all the commotion. The tragedy, however it appears, was unnecessary, for the victim got over it with no great difficulty, and soon began the much more engrossing interest which still remained behind.

Nothing up to this point has attracted us in “Villette,” except, indeed, the tremendous vitality and reality of the whole, the sensation of the actual which is in every line, and which forbids us to believe for a moment that what we are reading is fiction. But a very different sentiment comes into being as we become acquainted with the black bullet-head and vivacious irascible countenance of M. Paul Emmanuel. He is the one only character in Miss Brontë‘s little world who has a real charm, whose entrance upon the stage warms all our feelings and awakens in us not interest alone, but lively liking, amusement and sympathy. The quick-witted, quick-tempered Frenchman, with all the foibles of his vanity displayed, as susceptible to any little slight as a girl, as easily pleased with a sign of kindness, as far from the English ideal as it is possible to imagine, dancing with excitement, raging with displeasure, committing himself by every step he takes, cruel, delightful, barbarous and kind, is set before us in the fullest light, intolerable but always enchanting. He is as full of variety as Rosalind, as devoid of dignity as Pierrot, contradictory, inconsistent, vain, yet conquering all our prejudices and enchanting us while he performs every antic that, according to our usual code, a man ought not to be capable of. How was it that for this once the artist got the better of all her restrictions and overcame all her misconceptions, and gave us a man to be heartily loved, laughed at, and taken into our hearts?

I cannot answer that question. I am sorry that he was M. Héger, and the master of the establishment, and not the clever tutor who had so much of Madame Beck’s confidence. But anyhow, he is the best that Miss Brontë ever did for us, the most attractive individual, the most perfect picture. The Rochesters were all more or less fictitious, notwithstanding the unconscious inalienable force of realism which gives them, in spite of themselves and us, a kind of overbearing life; but Miss Brontë never did understand what she did not know. She had to see a thing before it impressed itself upon her, and when she did see it, with what force she saw! She knew M. Paul Emmanuel, watching him day by day, seeing all his littlenesses and childishness, his vanity, his big warm heart, his clever brain, the manifold nature of the man. He stands out, as the curates stood out, absolutely real men about whom we could entertain no doubt, recognisable anywhere. The others were either a woman’s men, like the Moors of Shirley, whose roughness was bluster (she could not imagine an Englishman who was not rough and rude), and their strength more or less made up; or an artificial composition like St. John, an ideal bully like Rochester. The ideal was not her forte—she had few gifts that way: but she saw with overwhelming lucidity and keenness, and what she saw, without a doubt, without a scruple, she could put upon the canvas in lines of fire. Seldom, very seldom, did an object appear within reach of that penetrating light, which could be drawn lovingly or made to appear as a being to be loved. Was not the sole model of that species M. Paul? It would seem that in the piteous poverty of her life, which was so rich in natural power, she had never met before a human creature in whom she could completely trust, or one who commended himself to her entirely, with all his foibles and weaknesses increasing, not diminishing, the charm.

It is, in my opinion, a most impertinent inquiry to endeavour to search out what were the sentiments of Charlotte Brontë for M. Héger. Any one whom it would be more impossible to imagine as breaking the very first rule of English decorum, and letting her thoughts stray towards another woman’s husband, I cannot imagine. Her fancy was wild and her utterance free, and she liked to think that men were quite untrammelled by those proprieties which bound herself like bonds of iron in her private person, and that she might pluck a fearful joy by listening to their dreadful experiences: but she herself was as prim and Puritan as any little blameless governess that ever went out of an English parish. But while believing this I cannot but feel it was an intolerable spite of fortune that the one man whom she knew in her life, whom her story could make others love, the only man whom she saw with that real illumination which does justice to humanity, was not M. Paul Emmanuel but M. Héger. This was why we were left trembling at the end of Lucy Snowe’s story, not knowing whether he ever came back to her out of the wilds, fearing almost as keenly that nothing but loss could fitly end the tale, yet struggling in our imaginations against the doom—as if it had concerned our own happiness.

Was this new-born power in her, the power of representing a man at his best, she who by nature saw both men and women from their worst side, a sign of the development of genius in herself, the softening of that scorn with which she had hitherto regarded a world chiefly made up of inferior beings, the mellowing influence of maturity? So we might have said, had it not been that after this climax of production she never spake word more in the medium of fiction. Had she told the world everything she had to say? Could she indeed say nothing but what she had seen and known in her limited experience—the trials of school and governessing, the longing of women, the pangs of solitude? That strange form of imagination which can deal only with fact, and depict nothing but what is under its eyes, is in its way perhaps the most impressive of all—especially when inspired by the remorseless lights of that keen outward vision which is unmitigated by any softening of love for the race, any embarrassing toleration as to feelings and motives. It is unfortunately true in human affairs that those who expect a bad ending to everything, and suspect a motive at least dubious to every action, prove right in a great number of cases, and that the qualities of truth and realism have been appropriated to their works by almost universal consent. Indeed there are some critics who think this the only true form of art. But it is at the same time a power with many limitations. The artist who labours, as M. Zola does, searching into every dust-heap, as if he could find out human nature, the only thing worth depicting, with all its closely hidden secrets, all its flying indistinguishable tones, all its infinite gradations of feeling, by that nauseous process, or by a roaring progress through the winds, upon a railway brake, or the visit of a superficial month to the most complicated, the most subtle of cities—must lay up for himself and for his reader many disappointments and deceptions: but the science of artistic study, as exemplified in him, had not been invented in Charlotte Brontë‘s day.

She did not attempt to go and see things with the intention of representing them; she was therefore limited to the representation of those things which naturally in the course of life came under her eyes. She knew, though only as a child, the management and atmosphere of a great school, and set it forth, branding a great institution with an insufferable stigma, justly or unjustly, who knows? She went to another school and turned out every figure in it for our inspection—a community all jealous, spiteful, suspicious, clandestine: even the chance pupil with no particular relation to her story or herself, painted with all her frivolities for the edification of the world did not escape. “She was Miss So-and-So,” say the army of commentators who have followed Miss Brontë, picking up all the threads, so that the grand-daughter of the girl who had the misfortune to be in the Brussels Pensionnat along with that remorseless artist may be able to study the character of her ancestress. The public we fear loves this kind of art, however, notwithstanding all its drawbacks.

On the other hand probably no higher inspiration could have set before us so powerfully the image of M. Paul. Thus we are made acquainted with the best and the worst which can be effected by this method—the base in all their baseness, the excellent all the dearer for their characteristic faults: but the one representation scarcely less offensive than the other to the victim. Would it be less trying to the individual to be thus caught, identified, written out large in the light of love and glowing adoration, than in the more natural light of scorn? I know not indeed which would be the worst ordeal to go through, to be drawn like Madame Beck, suspicious, stealthy, with watchful eyes appearing out of every corner, surprising every incautious word, than to be put upon the scene in the other manner, with all your peccadilloes exposed in the light of admiration and fondness, and yourself put to play the part of hero and lover. The point of view of the public is one thing, that of the victim quite another. We are told that Miss Brontë, perhaps with a momentary compunction for what she had done, believed herself to have prevented all injurious effects by securing that “Villette” should not be published in Brussels, or translated into the French tongue, both of them of course perfectly futile hopes since the very desire to hinder its appearance was a proof that this appearance would be of unusual interest. The fury of the lady exposed in all her stealthy ways could scarcely have been less than the confusion of her spouse when he found himself held up to the admiration of his town as Lucy Snowe’s captivating lover. To be sure it may be said the public has nothing to do with this. These individuals are dead and gone, and no exposure can hurt them any longer, whereas the gentle reader lives for ever, and goes on through the generations, handing on to posterity his delight in M. Paul. But all the same it is a cruel and in reality an immoral art; and it has this great disadvantage, that its area is extremely circumscribed, especially when the artist lives most of her life in a Yorkshire parsonage amid the moors, where so few notable persons come in her way.


There was however one subject of less absolute realism which Charlotte Brontë had at her command, having experienced in her own person and seen her nearest friends under the experience, of that solitude and longing of women, of which she has made so remarkable an exposition. The long silence of life without an adventure or a change, the forlorn gaze out at windows which never show any one coming who can rouse the slightest interest in the mind, the endless years and days which pass and pass, carrying away the bloom, extinguishing the lights of youth, bringing a dreary middle age before which the very soul shrinks, while yet the sufferer feels how strong is the current of life in her own veins, and how capable she is of all the active duties of existence—this was the essence and soul of the existence she knew best. Was there no help for it? Must the women wait and long and see their lives thrown away, and have no power to save themselves?

The position in itself so tragic is one which can scarcely be expressed without calling forth an inevitable ridicule, a laugh at the best, more often a sneer at the women whose desire for a husband is thus betrayed. Shirley and Caroline Helston both cried out for that husband with an indignation, a fire and impatience, a sense of wrong and injury, which stopped the laugh for the moment. It might be ludicrous but it was horribly genuine and true. Note there was nothing sensual about these young women. It was life they wanted; they knew nothing of the grosser thoughts which the world with its jeers attributes to them: of such thoughts they were unconscious in a primitive innocence which perhaps only women understand. They wanted their life, their place in the world, the rightful share of women in the scheme of nature. Why did not it come to them? The old patience in which women have lived for all the centuries fails now and again in a keen moment of energy when some one arises who sees no reason why she should endure this forced inaction, or why she should invent for herself inferior ways of working and give up her birthright, which is to carry on the world.

The reader was horrified with these sentiments from the lips of young women. The women were half ashamed, yet more than half stirred and excited by the outcry, which was true enough if indelicate. All very well to talk of women working for their living, finding new channels for themselves, establishing their independence. How much have we said of all that, endeavouring to persuade ourselves! Charlotte Brontë had the courage of her opinions. It was not education nor a trade that her women wanted. It was not a living but their share in life, a much more legitimate object had that been the way to secure it, or had there been any way to secure it in England. Miss Brontë herself said correct things about the protection which a trade is to a woman, keeping her from a mercenary marriage; but this was not in the least the way of her heroines. They wanted to be happy, no doubt, but above all things they wanted their share in life—to have their position by the side of men, which alone confers a natural equality, to have their shoulder to the wheel, their hands on the reins of common life, to build up the world, and link the generations each to each. In her philosophy marriage was the only state which procured this, and if she did not recommend a mercenary marriage she was at least very tolerant about its conditions, insisting less upon love than was to be expected and with a covert conviction in her mind that if not one man then another was better than any complete abandonment of the larger path. Lucy Snowe for a long time had her heart very much set on Dr. John and his placid breadth of Englishism: but when she finally found out that to be impossible her tears were soon dried by the prospect of Paul Emmanuel, so unlike him, coming into his place.

Poor Charlotte Brontë! She has not been as other women, protected by the grave from all betrayal of the episodes in her own life. Everybody has betrayed her, and all she thought about this one and that, and every name that was ever associated with hers. There was a Mr. Taylor from London about whom she wrote with great freedom to her friend Miss Nussey, telling how the little man had come, how he had gone away without any advance in the affairs, how a chill came over her when he appeared and she found him much less attractive than when at a distance, yet how she liked it as little when he went away and was somewhat excited about his first letter, and even went so far as to imagine with a laugh that there might be possibly a dozen little Joe Taylors before all was over. She was hard upon Miss Austen for having no comprehension of passion, but no one could have been cooler and less impassioned than she as she considered the question of Mr. Taylor, reluctant to come to any decision yet disappointed when it came to nothing. There was no longing in her mind for Mr. Taylor, but there was for life and action and the larger paths and the little Joes.

This longing which she expressed with so much vehemence and some poetic fervour as the burden of the lives of Shirley and her friends has been the keynote of a great deal that has followed—the revolts and rebellions, the wild notions about marriage, the “Sex Problem,” and a great deal more. From that first point to the prevailing discussion of all the questions involved is a long way; but it is a matter of logical progression, and when once the primary matter is opened, every enlargement of the subject may be taken as a thing to be expected. Charlotte Brontë was in herself the embodiment of all old-fashioned restrictions. She was proper, she was prim, her life was hedged in by all the little rules which bind the primitive woman. But when she left her little recluse behind and rushed into the world of imagination her exposure of the bondage in which she sat with all her sisters was far more daring than if she had been a woman of many experiences and knew what she was speaking of. She did know the longing, the discontent, the universal contradiction and contrariety which is involved in that condition of unfulfilment to which so many grey and undeveloped lives are condemned. For her and her class, which did not speak of it, everything depended upon whether the woman married or did not marry. Their thoughts were thus artificially fixed to one point in the horizon, but their ambition was neither ignoble nor unclean. It was bold, indeed, in proportion to its almost ridiculous innocence, and want of perception of any grosser side. Their share in life, their part in the mutual building of the house, was what they sought. But the seed she thus sowed has come to many growths which would have appalled Charlotte Brontë. Those who took their first inspiration from this cry of hers, have quite forgotten what it was she wanted, which was not emancipation but an extended duty. But while it would be very unjust to blame her for the vagaries that have followed and to which nothing could be less desirable than any building of the house or growth of the race, any responsibility or service—we must still believe that it was she who drew the curtain first aside and opened the gates to imps of evil meaning, polluting and profaning the domestic hearth.

The marriage which—after all these wild embodiments of the longing and solitary heart which could not consent to abandon its share in life, after Shirley and Lucy Snowe, and that complex unity of three female souls all unfulfilled, which had now been broken by death—she accepted in the end of her life, is the strangest commentary upon all that went before, or rather, upon all the literary and spiritual part of her history, though it was a quite appropriate ending to Mr. Brontë‘s daughter, and even to the writer of those sober letters which discussed Mr. Taylor, whether he should or should not be encouraged, and how it was a little disappointing after all to see him go away. Her final suitor was one of the class which she had criticised so scathingly, one who, it might have been thought, would scarcely have ventured to enter the presence or brave the glance of so penetrating an eye, but who would seem to have brought all the urgency of a grand passion to the sombre parlour of the parsonage, to the afternoon stillness of the lonely woman who would not seem to have suspected anything of the kind till it was poured out before her without warning. She was startled and confused by his declaration and appeal, never apparently having contemplated the possibility of any such occurrence; and in the interval which followed the father raged and resisted, and the lover did not conceal his heartbroken condition but suffered without complaining while the lady looked on wistful, touched and attracted by the unlooked-for love, and gradually melting towards that, though indifferent to the man who offered it. Mr. Brontë evidently thought that if this now distinguished daughter who had been worshipped among the great people in London, and talked of in all the newspapers, married at all in her mature age, it should be some one distinguished like herself, and not the mere curate who was the natural fate of every clergyman’s daughter, the simplest and least known.

Charlotte meanwhile said no word, but saw the curate enact various tragic follies of love for her sake with a sort of awe and wonder, astonished to find herself thus possessed still of the charm which none are so sure as women that only youth and beauty can be expected to possess. And she had never had any beauty, and, though she was not old, was no longer young. It is a conventional fiction that a woman still in the thirties is beyond the exercise of that power. Indeed, it would be hard to fix the age at which the spell departs. Certainly the demeanour of Mr. Nicholls gave her full reason to believe that it had not departed from her. He faltered in the midst of the service, grew pale, almost lost his self-possession when he suddenly saw her among the kneeling figures round the altar; and no doubt this rather shocking and startling exhibition of his feelings was more pardonable to the object of so much emotion than it was likely to have been to any other spectator. The romance is a little strange, but yet it is a romance in its quaint ecclesiastical way. And soon Charlotte was drawn still more upon her lover’s side by the violence of her father. It was decided that the curate was to go, and that this late gleam of love-making was to be extinguished and the old dim atmosphere to settle down again for ever. Finally, however, the mere love of love, which had always been more to her than any personal inclination, and the horror of that permanent return to the twilight of dreamy living against which she had struggled all her life, overcame her, and gave her courage; but she married characteristically, not as women marry who are carried to a new home and make a new beginning in life, but retaining all the circumstances of the old and receiving her husband into her father’s house where she had already passed through so many fluctuations and dreamed so many dreams, and which was full to overflowing with the associations of the past.

We have no reason to suppose that it did not add to the happiness of her life; indeed, every indication is to the contrary, and the husband seems to have been kind, considerate and affectionate. Still this thing upon which so many of her thoughts had been fixed during her whole life, which she had felt to be the necessary condition of full development, and for which the little impassioned female circle of which she was the expositor had sighed and cried to heaven and earth, came to her at last very much in the form of a catastrophe. No doubt the circumstances of her quickly failing health and shortened life promote this feeling. But without really taking these into consideration the sensation remains the same. The strange little keen soul with its sharply fixed restrictions, yet intense force of perception within its limits, dropped out of the world into which it had made an irruption so brilliant and so brief and sank out of sight altogether, sank into the humdrum house between the old father and the sober husband, into the clerical atmosphere with which she had no sympathy, into the absolute quiet of domestic life to which no Prince Charming could now come gaily round the corner, out of the mists and moors, and change with a touch of his wand the grey mornings and evenings into golden days. Well! was not this that which she had longed for, the natural end of life towards which her Shirley, her Caroline, her Lucy had angrily stretched forth their hands, indignant to be kept waiting, clamouring for instant entrance? And so it was, but how different! Lucy Snowe’s little housekeeping, all the preparations which M. Paul made for her comfort and which seemed better to her than any palace, would not they too have taken the colour of perpetual dulness if everything had settled down and the Professor assumed his slippers by the domestic hearth? Ah no, for Lucy Snowe loved the man, and Charlotte Brontë, as appears, loved only the love. It is a parable. She said a little later that she began to see that this was the fate which she would wish for those she loved best, for her friend Ellen, perhaps for her Emily if she had lived—the good man very faithful, very steady, worth his weight in gold—yet flatter than the flattest days of old, solidement nourri, a good substantial husband, managing all the parish business, full of talk about the Archdeacon’s charge, and the diocesan meetings, and the other clergy of the moorland parishes. We can conceive that she got to fetching his slippers for him and taking great care that he was comfortable, and perhaps had it been so ordained might have grown into a contented matron and forgotten the glories and miseries, so inseparably twined and linked together, of her youth. But she only had a year in which to do all that, and this is how her marriage seems to turn into a catastrophe, the caging of a wild creature that had never borne captivity before, and which now could no longer rush forth into the heart of any shining fête, or to the window of a strange confessional, anywhere, to throw off the burden of the perennial contradiction, the ceaseless unrest of the soul, the boilings of the volcano under the snow.


I have said it was difficult to account for the extreme interest still attaching to everything connected with Charlotte Brontë; not only the story of her peculiar genius, but also of everybody connected with her, though the circle was in reality quite a respectable, humdrum, and uninteresting one, containing nobody of any importance except the sister, who was her own wilder and fiercer part. One way, however, in which these sisters have won some part of their long-lasting interest is due to the treatment to which they have been subjected. They are the first victims of that ruthless art of biography which is one of the features of our time; and that not only by Mrs. Gaskell, who took up her work in something of an apologetic vein, and was so anxious to explain how it was that her heroine expressed certain ideas not usual in the mouths of women, that she was compelled to take away the reputation of a number of other people in order to excuse the peculiarities of these two remarkable women. But everybody who has touched their history since, and there have been many—for it would seem that gossip, when restrained by no bonds of decorum or human feeling, possesses a certain interest whether it is concerned with the household of a cardinal or that of a parish priest—has followed the same vicious way without any remonstrance or appeal for mercy. We have all taken it for granted that no mercy was to be shown to the Brontës. Let every rag be torn from Charlotte, of whom there is the most to say. Emily had the good luck to be no correspondent, and so has escaped to some degree the complete exposure of every confidence and every thought which has happened to her sister. Is it because she has nobody to defend her that she has been treated thus barbarously? 1 cannot conceive a situation more painful, more lacerating to every feeling, than that of the father and the husband dwelling silent together in that sombre parsonage, from which every ray of light seems to depart with the lost woman, whose presence had kept a little savour in life, and looking on in silence to see their life taken to pieces, and every decent veil dragged from the inner being of their dearest and nearest. They complained as much as two voiceless persons could, or at least the father complained: and the very servants came hot from their kitchen to demand a vindication of their character: but nobody noted the protest of the old man amid the silence of the moors: and the husband was more patient and spoke no word. Even he, however, after nearly half a century, when that far-off episode of life must have become dim to him, has thrown his relics open for a little more revelation, a little more interference with the helpless ashes of the dead.

No dot is now omitted upon i, no t left uncrossed. We know, or at least are told, who Charlotte meant by every character she ever portrayed, even while the model still lives. We know her opinion of her friends, or rather acquaintances, the people whom she saw cursorily and formed a hasty judgment upon, as we all do in the supposed safety of common life. Protests have been offered in other places against a similar treatment of other persons; but scarcely any protest has been attempted in respect to Charlotte Brontë. The resurrection people have been permitted to make their researches as they pleased. It throws a curious pathos, a not unsuitably tragic light upon a life always so solitary, that this should all have passed in silence because there was actually no one to interfere, no one to put a ban upon the dusty heaps and demand that no mere should be said. When one looks into the matter a little more closely, one finds it is so with almost all those who have specially suffered at the hands of the biographer. The Carlyles had no child, no brother to rise up in their defence. It gives the last touch of melancholy to the conclusion of a lonely life. Mrs. Gaskell, wise woman, defended herself from a similar treatment by will, and left children behind her to protect her memory. But the Brontës are at the mercy of every one who cares to give another raking to the diminished heap of débris. The last writer who has done so, Mr. Clement Shorter, had some real new light to throw upon a story which surely has now been sufficiently turned inside out, and has done his work with perfect good feeling, and, curiously enough after so many exploitations, in a way which shows that interest has not yet departed from the subject. But we trust that now the memory of Charlotte Brontë will be allowed to rest.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005