I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.
Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights

zondag 27 juni 2010

The Letters of Charlotte Bronte

Vol 1: 1829-1847
Edited by Margaret Smith

"I cannot be formal in a letter,'' Charlotte Bronte apologised to an impossibly conventional ex-suitor, Henry Nussey. "If I write at all, I must write as I think.'' At that time, in 1841, a governess to the White family in Rawdon, Yorkshire, she confides her discontent with indulged children to this dull clergyman who, she knew, understood her not at all. It is this incaution, this need to explain herself against the odds, that makes her a great writer of letters. She seems to invite condemnation ("I am dwelling too much on my own concerns and feelings... I repent having written it'') so that a literal reader would find it easy to vilify or pity her, but none of her states of mind are exactly what they seem. It was improper for a clergyman's daughter in the 19th century to murmur against her lot, but she does so with a swelling commitment to another life which reveals a characteristic and unexpected strength: "my home is humble and unattractive to strangers but to me it contains what I shall find nowhere else in the world - [the] profound, and intense affection which brothers and sisters feel for each other when their minds are cast in the same mould''.

Behind these words lies a writer's life which Charlotte shared with her sisters, Emily and Anne, and brother, Branwell, and which was to issue in the phenomenally successful Jane Eyre in 1847. The date marks a logical end to this, the first of three projected volumes of letters. What do the letters tell us of the transformation of an apparently subdued governess to the novelist who could declare in a letter to her publishers on 4 January 1848: "It would take a great deal to crush me''?

Though modest quiet was expected of ladies, Charlotte could not contain the upsurge of language any more than she could deny her thought. Some of her most formative letters - letters in which we hear for the first time her complex authorial voice - were written to men who would not grant what she wished. When Charlotte sent the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, some of her poems, he told her in 1837 that "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life''. She replied with apparent propriety which completely reassured Southey, but her letter reverberates with veiled sarcasm which the editor of this volume does not hear: "In the evenings, I confess, I do think, but I never trouble any one else with my thoughts... I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should rise, I'll look at Southey's letter, and suppress it.'' The brilliant verbal glide of her abjection to Southey was her first public performance of a role she made her own - hiding undaunted creative fire under a mask of perfect docility.

When Charlotte refused Henry Nussey in 1839, her letter explained in a patient and kindly tone that she was not the right wife for him, and prescribed instead a similar caricature of meek womanhood: "Her character should not be too marked, ardent and original - her temper should be mild...'' Again, the editor misses the scorn, and suggests that this tepid and passionless construct lies behind the marriage of Jane Eyre (yes, Jane Eyre who unites with her husband as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.) Curiously, in the same letter, there is also a strong element of candour where Charlotte actually owns to being "satirical'' to the very man whose taste she's sending up.

It is telling to compare this layered letter with Charlotte's more direct explanation of her "natural home-character'' in a letter to Nussey's sister, Ellen. If she ever married, she must have an "intense attachment''. Nor could she "sit all day long making a grave face before my husband - I would laugh...'' To Ellen and to her other lifelong friend, Mary Taylor, she wrote in a bracing, unguarded, often humorous way. After her death, Mary, an outspoken feminist, destroyed all but one of Charlotte's letters as dangers to her reputation. Ellen preserved several hundred because she understood their future importance. Wishing to publish them and at the same time protect the docile image Charlotte herself had promoted, Ellen went through decades of anxiety. Her indecisiveness and growing bitterness made her an easy target for predators such as the arch-hypocrite, T J Wise, who bullied her into surrendering her letters. He promised that this treasure would go to the nation; instead, he sold off many letters (along with other Bronteana) to the highest bidders around the world. The history of the Bronte letters is a story as bizarre in its way as that of Jane Eyre.

The most famous letters in this volume are the four Charlotte wrote in French in 1844-45 to her beloved teacher in Brussels, M. Heger. The fact that Madame Heger pieced three of these letters together from torn fragments she found in her husband's bin suggests that Madame did not consider this tie negligible. There has been much speculation whether these surviving letters were adulterous or innocent. This is a misunderstanding of Charlotte's capacity for an indefinable form of love that thrived on Monsieur's recognition of her potential as a writer, his capacity to know her as she perceived herself to be. If we think of these letters in view of the great novels to come, they may be seen as the source of a new model of manhood: a hero who will engage with a hidden "other'' in a woman; who does not exclude it as alien. This future fictional enlargement on M. Heger gains its imaginative licence from distance - the correspondent's invisibility as reader. In this sense, what Charlotte undertook was not quite a real correspondence which reflects the correspondent; it was more an invented correspondence, close to an imaginative act and supplemented, probably, by many letters which Charlotte composed (in her mind or even on paper) but did not send. This ingredient of invention may explain Monsieur's increasing reluctance to reply. And although this was painful to Charlotte as a pupil, it was to her advantage as a rising writer to have to imagine passion, not enact it, for this freed her to imagine from a woman's point of view.
It has taken 140 years since Charlotte Bronte's death for a proper edition of her letters to be published. Readers must be grateful to Margaret Smith for the recovery of accurate texts - as accurate as they can be at this point in time, given their wanderings, dismemberments and mutilations. One letter was discovered to be in five fragments in five different libraries. The restoration of the texts themselves is a triumph of meticulous labour. Yet the clouding of Charlotte Bronte is not quite over. For between the reader and the letters is a laborious biographical introduction. Instead of trusting the letters to speak for themselves, the editor pre-empts Charlotte's witty, blistering, multi-shaded voice with a flattened account. We are told of religious anxiety in the late 1830s and "torments'' over M. Heger in the next phase, but we are not told about Charlotte Bronte's imaginative power to turn the losses of her life to gain. So, why undertake this edition? Her aim, the editor declares, is "to enhance'' our understanding of a woman who wrote novels. So are the letters only a set of useful commentaries rather than works of art? Margaret Smith comes to a strangely lame conclusion for a person with the privilege of editing one of the greatest letter- writers in the English language.

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The Parlour

The Parlour



Charlotte Bronte

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... ------------------- "She cannot see well, and does little beside knitting. The way she weakened her eyesight was this: When she was sixteen or seventeen, she wanted much to draw; and she copied nimini-pimini copper-plate engravings out of annuals, ('stippling,' don't the artists call it?) every little point put in, till at the end of six months she had produced an exquisitely faithful copy of the engraving. She wanted to learn to express her ideas by drawing. After she had tried to draw stories, and not succeeded, she took the better mode of writing; but in so small a hand, that it is almost impossible to decipher what she wrote at this time.

I asked her whether she had ever taken opium, as the description given of its effects in Villette was so exactly like what I had experienced, - vivid and exaggerated presence of objects, of which the outlines were indistinct, or lost in golden mist, etc. She replied, that she had never, to her knowledge, taken a grain of it in any shape, but that she had followed the process she always adopted when she had to describe anything which had not fallen within her own experience; she had thought intently on it for many and many a night before falling to sleep, - wondering what it was like, or how it would be, - till at length, sometimes after the progress of her story had been arrested at this one point for weeks, she wakened up in the morning with all clear before her, as if she had in reality gone through the experience, and then could describe it, word for word, as it had happened. I cannot account for this psychologically; I only am sure that it was so, because she said it. ----------------------She thought much of her duty, and had loftier and clearer notions of it than most people, and held fast to them with more success. It was done, it seems to me, with much more difficulty than people have of stronger nerves, and better fortunes. All her life was but labour and pain; and she never threw down the burden for the sake of present pleasure. I don't know what use you can make of all I have said. I have written it with the strong desire to obtain appreciation for her. Yet, what does it matter? She herself appealed to the world's judgement for her use of some of the faculties she had, - not the best, - but still the only ones she could turn to strangers' benefit. They heartily, greedily enjoyed the fruits of her labours, and then found out she was much to be blamed for possessing such faculties. Why ask for a judgement on her from such a world?" elizabeth gaskell/charlotte bronte

Poem: No coward soul is mine

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the worlds storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heavens glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

O God within my breast.
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life -- that in me has rest,
As I -- Undying Life -- have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move mens hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast Rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou -- Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

Emily Bronte

Family tree

The Bronte Family

Grandparents - paternal
Hugh Brunty was born 1755 and died circa 1808. He married Eleanor McClory, known as Alice in 1776.

Grandparents - maternal
Thomas Branwell (born 1746 died 5th April 1808) was married in 1768 to Anne Carne (baptised 27th April 1744 and died 19th December 1809).

Father was Patrick Bronte, the eldest of 10 children born to Hugh Brunty and Eleanor (Alice) McClory. He was born 17th March 1777 and died on 7th June 1861. Mother was Maria Branwell, who was born on 15th April 1783 and died on 15th September 1821.

Maria had a sister, Elizabeth who was known as Aunt Branwell. She was born in 1776 and died on 29th October 1842.

Patrick Bronte married Maria Branwell on 29th December 1812.

The Bronte Children
Patrick and Maria Bronte had six children.
The first child was Maria, who was born in 1814 and died on 6th June 1825.
The second daughter, Elizabeth was born on 8th February 1815 and died shortly after Maria on 15th June 1825. Charlotte was the third daughter, born on 21st April 1816.

Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls (born 1818) on 29th June 1854. Charlotte died on 31st March 1855. Arthur lived until 2nd December 1906.

The first and only son born to Patrick and Maria was Patrick Branwell, who was born on 26th June 1817 and died on 24th September 1848.

Emily Jane, the fourth daughter was born on 30th July 1818 and died on 19th December 1848.

The sixth and last child was Anne, born on 17th January 1820 who died on 28th May 1849.

Top Withens in the snow.

Top Withens in the snow.



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