Charlotte Brontë

Brontë, Charlotte. 1816–1855. Sister to A. B. and E. B. Novelist. Author of The Professor, Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Villette. A writer of great power and originality, whose Jane Eyre marks an era in the history of fiction. See Charlotte Brontë by T. W. Reid, 1877; Life of by Mrs. Gaskell, and H. Martineau's Biographical Sketches. Pub. Har.
CHARACTER OF MRS. NICHOLLS.

The following personal description is from her Life by Mrs. Gaskell. “In 1831, she was a quiet, thoughtful girl, of nearly fifteen years of age, very small in figure—‘stunted' was the word she applied to herself; but as her limbs and head were in just proportion to the slight, fragile body, no word in ever so slight a degree suggestive of deformity could properly be applied to her; with soft, thick, brown hair, and peculiar eyes, of which I find it difficult to give a description as they appeared to me in later life. They were large and well shaped; their colour a reddish brown; but if the iris were closely examined, it appeared to be composed of a great variety of tints. The usual expression was of quiet, listening intelligence; but now and then, on some just occasion for vivid interest or wholesome indignation, a light would shine out, as if some spiritual lamp had been kindled, which glowed behind those expressive orbs. I never saw the like in any other human creature. As for the rest of her features, they were plain, large, and ill set; but, unless you began to catalogue them, you were hardly aware of the fact; for the eyes and power of the countenance overbalanced every physical defect; the crooked mouth and the large nose were forgotten, and the whole face arrested the attention and presently attracted all those whom she herself would have cared to attract. Her hands and feet were the smallest I ever saw; when one of the former was placed in mine, it was like the soft touch of a bird in the middle of my palm. The delicate long fingers had a peculiar fineness of sensation, which was one reason why all her handiwork, of whatever kind—writing, sewing, knitting—was so clear in its minuteness. She was remarkably neat in her whole personal attire; but she was dainty as to the fit of her shoes and gloves.”

There are different classes of great minds. Some are great in collecting, others in creating. The former is talent, the latter is genius. Some have the power of absorbing what they see and hear in the external world: they “gather honey all the day from every opening flower;” but they add no new thoughts. Others are characterized by originality of thought; they investigate new subjects, form new worlds, and spin new creations out of their own minds. Currer Bell belonged to this class. Some are capable of receiving much knowledge, but are unable to turn it to any purpose; they have read the standard authors, and have plenty of facts, but they know not how to use them. Currer Bell could form a system, she knew how to write a book.

Through the whole of her life she had a sacred regard for the rules of morality. One of her school-fellows informs us that she could get on with those who had bumps at the top of their heads. An intelligent old man living at Haworth, said to her biographer:—“Charlotte would sit and inquire about our circumstances so kindly and feelingly!... Though I am a poor working man (which I never felt to be any degradation), I could talk with her with the utmost freedom. I always felt quite at home with her. Though I never had any school education, I never felt the want of it in her company.”

MERITS AS A NOVELIST.

In the real distinguished from the ideal school of fiction, Mrs. Nicholls, known to the literary world as Currer Bell, attained immediate and lasting popularity. We purpose to notice a few of her leading characteristics, and to define briefly but articulately, the worth of her teaching. An eminent and genial critic justly remarks: “Currer Bell professed to be no idle entertainer. She did not, indeed, tag on a moral to the end of her book—else it had been little worth; or even blazon it on its surface. But she professed to write truly, to show living men and women meeting the exigencies, grappling with the problems, of real existence; to point out how the battle goes, in the circles of English middle life, between pretension and reality, between falsehood and truth. If we were content to listen to her as a historian, she relinquished with a smile the laurel of the romancer.” Her plots possess the merit of rare interest; her characters, however eccentric, stand out as unmistakable realities. True, the plot in the “Professor,” her first prose work, which met with so many refusals, and was not published till after her death, is of no great interest. Although she has never surpassed two or three portraits there sketched, it will not bear comparison with her other works.

The style of Currer Bell is one which will reward study for its own sake. Its tone may be somewhat too uniform, its balance and cadence too unvaried. Perhaps, also, there is too much of the abruptness of passion. It is certainly inferior to many styles, so far as the crimson and gold of literature are concerned.But there is no writer with whom we are acquainted, more deserving of praise for clearness, pointedness, and force. Would that any word of ours could recall the numerous admirers of morbid magnificence and barbarous dissonance, affected jargon and fantastic verbiage, laboured antithesis and false brilliance, and induce them to read night and day the novels of Currer Bell, for the sake of their style. In “Jane Eyre,” her most powerful work, published in October, 1847, it must be admitted that female delicacy is somewhat outraged; but its specimens of picturesque, resolute, straightforward writing, enable this tale to take a high place in the field of romantic literature.

Currer Bell's love of nature was remarkable. A Yorkshire moor is for the most part wild and grotesque, but her eye brims with a “purple light,” intense enough to perpetuate the brief flower-flush of August on the heather, or the rare sunset smile of June. We might quote in illustration of these remarks, pictures of nature, so detailed, definite, and fresh, that they give us an assurance as of eyesight. Take the following bit of woodland painting from “Shirley,” published in October, 1849: “I know all the pleasantest spots: I know where we could get nuts in nutting time; I know where wild strawberries abound; I know certain lonely, quite untrodden glades, carpeted with strange mosses, some yellow as if gilded, some sober grey, some gem green. I know groups of trees that ravish the eye with their perfect picture-like effects: rude oak, delicate birch, glossy beech, clustered in contrast; and ash trees stately as Saul, standing isolated, and superannuated wood giants clad in bright shrouds of ivy.” Many similar, and even superior passages might be cited from this brilliant novel.

Works of fiction belong to the province of imagination; and this faculty was largely developed in Currer Bell, and has spread the unmistakable splendour of its embellishment over her pages. There are passages in her works, not only distinct from their general texture, but from anything we know in English literature. The personification of nature in “Shirley” is perhaps the finest. “I saw—I now see—a woman Titan; her robe of blue air spreads to the outskirts of the heath, where yonder flock is grazing, a veil, white as an avalanche, sweeps from her head to her feet, and arabesques of lightning flame on its borders. Under her breast I see her zone, purple like the horizon; through its blush shines the star of evening. The steady eyes I cannot picture. They are clear, they are deep as lakes, they are lifted and full of worship, they tremble with the softness of love and the lustre of prayer. Her forehead has the expanse of a cloud, and is paler than the early moon, risen long before dark gathers; she reclines her bosom on the ridge of Stillbro' Moor, her mighty hands are joined beneath it, so kneeling, face to face she speaks with God.” Apostrophic bursts are common enough in all our more imaginative prose writers; but the chiselling of the entire figure from the flameless marble, and the leaving it for ever in the loveliness of its beauty, is peculiar to the prose of Currer Bell.

In the delineation of one absorbing and tyrannizing passion, Currer Bell, is altogether sui generis . With a bold and steady hand she depicts passion in all its stages; we may weep and tremble, but her nerves do not quiver, neither do her eyes film. “Villette,” commenced in the autumn of 1850, and brought to a conclusion in November, 1851, is a tale of the affections. A burning heart glows throughout its pages, and so true to nature is the delineation, that it is impossible to doubt that living hearts have actually throbbed with like passion. The eloquence and graphic description which mark the closing scenes of this tale, the authoress has not equalled elsewhere.

There is much that is stirring and healthful in the works of Currer Bell. The idea of Johnson was that marriages might well enough be arranged by the chancellor! But although the Christian world very generally seems to be of the same opinion, she taught the sacredness of the natural affections in the formation of the marriage relationship—the absolute necessity of love. Poltroonery, pretentious feebleness, and cowardly falsehood, are crowned with the diadem of scorn; and all the stalwart virtues are signally honoured.

BIOGRAPHY.

Charlotte Brontë was born at Thornton, in the parish of Bradford, on the 21st of April, 1816. Her father, the Rev. Patrick Brontë, was a native of the County Down, in Ireland; and her mother, Maria, was the third daughter of Mr. Thomas Branwell, Penzance, Cornwall. In 1820, Mr. Brontë removed to Haworth, a chapelry in the West Riding, and Mrs. Brontë died the following year. Charlotte in after-years could but dimly recall the remembrance of her mother. The servants were impressed with the cleverness of the little Brontës, and often said they had never seen such a clever child as Charlotte. Mr. Brontë's account of his children is exceedingly interesting:—

“As soon as they could read and write, Charlotte and her brother and sisters used to invent and act little plays of their own, in which the Duke of Wellington, my daughter Charlotte's hero, was sure to come off conqueror; when a dispute would not unfrequently arise amongst them regarding the comparative merits of him, Buonaparte, Hannibal, and Cæsar. When the argument got warm, and rose to its height, as their mother was then dead, I had sometimes to come in as arbitrator, and settle the dispute according to the best of my judgment. Generally, in the management of these concerns, I frequently thought that I discovered signs of rising talent, which I had seldom or never before seen in any of their age.... A circumstance now occurs to my mind which I may as well mention. When my children were very young, when, as far as I can remember, the oldest was about ten years of age, and the youngest about four, thinking that they knew more than I had yet discovered, in order to make them speak with less timidity, I deemed that if they were put under a sort of cover I might gain my end; and happening to have a mask in the house, I told them all to stand and speak boldly from under cover of the mask. I began with the youngest (Anne, afterwards Acton Bell), and asked what a child like her most wanted; she answered, ‘Age and experience.' I asked the next (Emily, afterwards Ellis Bell), what I had best do with her brother Branwell, who was sometimes a naughty boy; she answered, ‘Reason with him, and when he won't listen to reason, whip him.' I asked Branwell what was the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of man and woman; he answered, ‘By considering the difference between them as to their bodies.' I then asked Charlotte what was the best book in the world; she answered, ‘The Bible.' What was the next best; she answered, ‘The Book of Nature.' I then asked the next what was the best mode of education for a woman; she answered, ‘By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity.' I may not have given precisely their words, but I have nearly done so, as they made a deep and lasting impression on my memory.”

Soon after Mrs. Brontë's death, an elder sister came from Penzance to superintend her brother-in-law's household, and look after his six children. Miss Branwell taught her nieces sewing and the household arts, in which Charlotte became an adept. In 1823, a school was established for the daughters of clergymen, at a place called Cowan Bridge. Mr. Brontë took Maria and Elizabeth to Cowan Bridge, in July, 1824; and in September, he brought Charlotte and Emily to be admitted as pupils. Maria was untidy, but gentle, and intellectual. Elizabeth won much upon the esteem of the superintendent of the school by her exemplary patience. Emily was distinguished for fortitude. Charlotte was a “bright, clever, little child.” Maria died in May, and Elizabeth in June, 1825. Charlotte was thus early called upon to bear the responsibilities of an elder sister in a motherless family; both Charlotte and Emily returned to the school at the close of the midsummer holidays in this fatal year. But before the next winter they left that establishment.

In 1831, she was sent to Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head, where her remarkable talents were duly appreciated by her kind instructress, and friendships were formed with some of her fellow-pupils that lasted throughout life. One of these early friends thus graphically describes the impression she made upon her.

“I first saw her coming out of a covered cart, in very old-fashioned clothes, and looking very cold and miserable. She was coming to school at Miss Wooler's. When she appeared in the schoolroom, her dress was changed, but just as old. She looked a little old woman, so short-sighted that she always appeared to be seeking something, and moving her head from side to side to catch a sight of it. She was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent. When a book was given her, she dropped her head over it till her nose nearly touched it; and when she was told to hold her head up, up went the book after it, still closer to her nose, so that it was not possible to help laughing.”

Towards the end of the year and half that she remained as a pupil at Roe Head, she received her first bad mark for an imperfect lesson. Charlotte wept bitterly, and her school-fellows were indignant. Miss Wooler withdrew the bad mark.

In 1835, she returned to Miss Wooler's school as a teacher, and Emily accompanied her as a scholar. Charlotte's life here was very happy. The girls were hardly strangers to her, some of them being younger sisters of those who had been her own playmates; and however trying the duties were she had to perform, there was always a thoughtful friend watching over her in the person of good Miss Wooler. But her life was too sedentary, and she was advised to return to the parsonage. She did so, and the change at once proved beneficial.

At Haworth she met the person who made the first proposal of marriage to her. Miss Brontë respected the young man very deeply, but as she did not really love him, she refused to marry him. Soon after, an Irish clergyman, fresh from Dublin University, whom she had only met once, sent her a letter, which proved to be a declaration of love and a proposal of matrimony. But although she had no hope of another offer, the witty, lively, and ardent Irishman was summarily rejected. Restored to health and strength, instead of remaining at Haworth to be a burden to her father, and to live on there in idleness perhaps for years, she determined, if everything else failed, to turn housemaid. Soon after, she became engaged as a governess in a family where she was destined to find an ungenial residence. The children all loved her, more or less, according to their different characters. But the mother was proud and pompous, and Miss Brontë as proud, though not so pompous, as she. In 1839, she left the family of the wealthy Yorkshire manufacturer; and in 1841, found her second and last situation as a governess. This time she became a member of a kind-hearted and friendly household. But her salary, after deducting the expense of washing, amounted to only £16; moreover, the career of a governess was to Miss Brontë a perpetual attempt to force her faculties into a direction for which her previous life had unfitted them. So at Christmas she left this situation.

Several attempts to open a school at the parsonage having proved futile, with the view of better qualifying themselves for the task of teaching, Miss Brontë and her sister Emily went to Brussels in 1842, and took up their abode in Madame Héger's pensionnat . Towards the close of the year, word came from England that her aunt, Miss Branwell, was very ill. Before they got home, the funeral was over, and Mr. Brontë and Anne were sitting together in quiet grief for one who had done her part well in the household for nearly twenty years. About the end of January, 1843, Miss Brontë returned to Brussels alone for another six months.

In returning to England, in 1844, Miss Brontë determined to commence a school, and to facilitate her success in this plan, M. Héger, gave her a kind of diploma, sealed with the Athenée Royal, of which he was a professor. But no pupils made their appearance, and consequently the sisters abandoned the idea of school-keeping, and turned their thoughts to literature. Their volume of poems was published in 1846; their names being veiled under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, but it met with little or no attention. It is possible that the names of Emily and Anne may not survive the present generation; but certainly Charlotte's writings have placed her in the highest rank of lady novelists.

The winter of 1848 was a dark one at Haworth. Her only brother, and the sister she so intensely loved, and whose genius she ever delighted to exalt above her own, died within a few weeks of each other. Miss Brontë was prostrate with fever; and Anne, always delicate, grew rapidly worse. The two went together to Scarborough the following spring. There the younger sister died, and the elder was left alone with her aged father in that dreary deserted home among the graves. In June, 1850, she visited London, saw her old hero the Duke of Wellington, at the Chapel Royal, had an interview with Lewes, and dined with Thackeray. The same summer she went on to Edinburgh to join the friends with whom she had been staying in town. In a letter to a correspondent, she says: “Do not think that I blaspheme, when I tell you that your great London, as compared to Dunedin, ‘mine own romantic town,' is as prose compared to poetry; or as a great rumbling, rambling, heavy epic compared to a lyric, brief, bright, clear, and vital as a flash of lightning. You have nothing like Scott's monument; or, if you had that, and all the glories of architecture assembled together, you have nothing like Arthur's seat, and above all, you have not the Scottish national character; and it is that grand character after all which gives the land its true charm, its true greatness.”

The three following years pass over. One of the deepest interests of her life centres round the 29th of June, 1854. On that day many old and humble friends saw her come out of Haworth church, leaning on the arm of “one of the best gentlemen in the county,” and looking “like a snowdrop.” We almost smile as we think of the merciless derider of weak and insipid suitors finding a lord and a master—of the hand which drew the three solemn ecclesiastics, Malone, Donne, and Sweeting, locked at the altar in that of her father's curate, and learning from experience,—

“That marriage, rightly understood,
Gives to the tender and the good
A paradise below.”

Mr. Nicholls loved Miss Brontë as his own soul, and she loved him, and every day her love grew stronger. In the last letter she ever wrote, we find the following sentence: “No kinder, better husband than mine, it seems to me, there can be in the world.” Home joys are only dependent, in a small degree, on external circumstances.

Nine months followed of calm happiness—months of respite and rest. During the next winter she was confined to a sick bed, from which she never rose. The doctor assured her that all would soon be right. Martha tenderly waited on her mistress, and from time to time had tried to cheer her with the thoughts of the baby that was coming. But she died on the 31st March, 1855, in the thirty-ninth year of her age, after a long and weary illness, bravely as she had lived, and left her widowed husband and childless father sitting desolate and alone in the old grey parsonage.

One member out of most of the families of the parish was bidden to the funeral, and those who were excluded from the formal train of mourners thronged the church and churchyard. Two mourners deserve special notice. The one was a village girl that had been betrayed, seduced, and cast away. In Mrs. Nicholls she had found a holy sister, who ministered to her needs in her time of trial. Bitter was the grief of this young woman, and sincere her mourning. The other was a blind girl living some four miles from Haworth, who loved the deceased so dearly that she implored those about her to lead her along the roads, and over the moors, that she might listen to the solemn words, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”