Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

Life of Charlotte Bronte — Volume 2 online

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The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Volume 2




Mr. Brontë afflicted with blindness, and relieved by a successful
operation for cataract - Charlotte Brontë's first work of fiction, "The
Professor" - She commences "Jane Eyre" - Circumstances attending its
composition - Her ideas of a heroine - Her attachment to home - Haworth in
December - A letter of confession and counsel.


State of Charlotte Brontë's health at the commencement of
1847 - Family trials - "Wuthering Heights" and "Agnes Grey" accepted
by a publisher - "The Professor" rejected - Completion of "Jane Eyre",
its reception and publication - The reviews of "Jane Eyre", and the
author's comments on them - Her father's reception of the book - Public
interest excited by "Jane Eyre" - Dedication of the second edition to
Mr. Thackeray - Correspondence of Currer Bell with Mr. Lewes on "Jane
Eyre" - Publication of "Wuthering Heights" and "Agnes Grey" - Miss
Brontë's account of the authoress of "Wuthering Heights" - Domestic
anxieties of the Brontë sisters - Currer Bell's correspondence with Mr.
Lewes - Unhealthy state of Haworth - Charlotte Brontë on the revolutions
of 1848 - Her repudiation of authorship - Anne Brontë's second tale, "The
Tenant of Wildfell Hall" - Misunderstanding as to the individuality
of the three Bells, and its results - Currer and Acton Bell visit
London - Charlotte Brontë's account of her visit - The Chapter Coffee
House - The Clergy Daughters' School at Casterton - Death of Branwell
Brontë - Illness and death of Emily Brontë.


The Quarterly Review on "Jane Eyre" - Severe illness of Anne Brontë - Her
last verses - She is removed to Scarborough - Her last hours, and death
and burial there - Charlotte's return to Haworth, and her loneliness.


Commencement and completion of "Shirley" - Originals of the characters,
and circumstances under which it was written - Loss on railway
shares - Letters to Mr. Lewes and other friends on "Shirley," and the
reviews of it - Miss Brontë visits London, meets Mr. Thackeray, and makes
the acquaintance of Miss Martineau - Her impressions of literary men.


"Currer Bell" identified as Miss Brontë at Haworth and the vicinity - Her
letter to Mr. Lewes on his review of "Shirley" - Solitude and
heavy mental sadness and anxiety - She visits Sir J. and Lady Kay
Shuttleworth - Her comments on critics, and remarks on Thackeray's
"Pendennis" and Scott's "Suggestions on Female Education" - Opinions of
"Shirley" by Yorkshire readers.


An unhealthy spring at Haworth - Miss Brontë's proposed visit to
London - Her remarks on "The Leader" - Associations of her walks on the
moors - Letter to an unknown admirer of her works - Incidents of her visit
to London - Her impressions of a visit to Scotland - Her portrait, by
Richmond - Anxiety about her father.


Visit to Sir J. and Lady Kay Shuttleworth - The biographer's impressions
of Miss Brontë - Miss Brontë's account of her visit to the Lakes of
Westmoreland - Her disinclination for acquaintance and visiting - Remarks
on "Woman's Mission," Tennyson's "In Memoriam," etc. - Impressions of her
visit to Scotland - Remarks on a review in the "Palladium."


Intended republication of "Wuthering Heights" and "Agnes Grey" - Reaction
after her visit to Scotland - Her first meeting with Mr. Lewes - Her
opinion of Balzac and George Sand - A characteristic incident - Account of
a friendly visit to Haworth Parsonage - Remarks on "The Roman," by Sydney
Dobell, and on the character of Dr. Arnold - Letter to Mr. Dobell.


Miss Brontë's visit to Miss Martineau, and estimate of her
hostess - Remarks on Mr. Ruskin's "Stones of Venice" - Preparations for
another visit to London - Letter to Mr. Sydney Dobell: the moors in
autumn - Mr. Thackeray's second lecture at Willis's Rooms, and sensation
produced by Currer Bell's appearance there - Her account of her visit to
London - She breakfasts with Mr. Rogers, visits the Great Exhibition,
and sees Lord Westminster's pictures - Return to Haworth and letter
thence - Her comment on Mr. Thackeray's Lecture - Counsel on development
of character.


Remarks on friendship - Letter to Mrs. Gaskell on her and Miss
Martineau's views of the Great Exhibition and Mr. Thackeray's
lecture, and on the "Saint's Tragedy" - Miss Brontë's feelings
towards children - Her comments on Mr. J. S. Mill's article on the
Emancipation of Women - More illness at Haworth Parsonage - Letter
on Emigration - Periodical returns of illness - Miss Wooler visits
Haworth - Miss Brontë's impressions of her visit to London - Her account
of the progress of Villette - Her increasing illness and sufferings
during winter - Her letter on Mr. Thackeray's Esmond - Revival of sorrows
and accessions of low spirits - Remarks on some recent books - Retrospect
of the winter of 1851-2 - Letter to Mrs. Gaskell on "Ruth."


Miss Brontë revisits Scarborough - Serious illness and ultimate
convalescence of her father - Her own illness - "Villette" nearly
completed - Further remarks on "Esmond" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" - Letter
respecting "Villette" - Another letter about "Villette" - Instance of
extreme sensibility.


The biographer's difficulty - Deep and enduring attachment of Mr.
Nicholls for Miss Brontë - Instance of her self-abnegation - She
again visits London - Impressions of this visit - Letter to Mrs.
Gaskell - Reception of the critiques on "Villette" - Misunderstanding
with Miss Martineau - Letter on Mr. Thackeray's portrait - Visit of the
Bishop of Ripon to Haworth Parsonage - Her wish to see the unfavourable
critiques on her works - Her nervous shyness of strangers, and its
cause - Letter on Mr. Thackeray's lectures.


Letter to Mrs. Gaskell on writing fiction, etc. - The biographer's
account of her visit to Haworth, and reminiscences of conversations with
Miss Brontë - Letters from Miss Brontë to her friends - Her engagement to
Mr. Nicholls, and preparations for the marriage - The marriage ceremony
and wedding tour - Her happiness in the married state - New symptoms
of illness, and their cause - The two last letters written by Mrs.
Nicholls - An alarming change - Her death.


Mourners at the funeral - Conclusion.


During this summer of 1846, while her literary hopes were waning, an
anxiety of another kind was increasing. Her father's eyesight had become
seriously impaired by the progress of the cataract which was forming.
He was nearly blind. He could grope his way about, and recognise the
figures of those he knew well, when they were placed against a strong
light; but he could no longer see to read; and thus his eager appetite
for knowledge and information of all kinds was severely balked. He
continued to preach. I have heard that he was led up into the pulpit,
and that his sermons were never so effective as when he stood there, a
grey sightless old man, his blind eyes looking out straight before him,
while the words that came from his lips had all the vigour and force of
his best days. Another fact has been mentioned to me, curious as showing
the accurateness of his sensation of time. His sermons had always lasted
exactly half an hour. With the clock right before him, and with his
ready flow of words, this had been no difficult matter as long as he
could see. But it was the same when he was blind; as the minute-hand
came to the point, marking the expiration of the thirty minutes, he
concluded his sermon.

Under his great sorrow he was always patient. As in times of far greater
affliction, he enforced a quiet endurance of his woe upon himself. But
so many interests were quenched by this blindness that he was driven
inwards, and must have dwelt much on what was painful and distressing
in regard to his only son. No wonder that his spirits gave way, and
were depressed. For some time before this autumn, his daughters had
been collecting all the information they could respecting the probable
success of operations for cataract performed on a person of their
father's age. About the end of July, Emily and Charlotte had made a
journey to Manchester for the purpose of searching out an operator; and
there they heard of the fame of the late Mr. Wilson as an oculist. They
went to him at once, but he could not tell, from description, whether
the eyes were ready for being operated upon or not. It therefore became
necessary for Mr. Brontë to visit him; and towards the end of August,
Charlotte brought her father to him. He determined at once to undertake
the operation, and recommended them to comfortable lodgings, kept by an
old servant of his. These were in one of numerous similar streets of
small monotonous-looking houses, in a suburb of the town. From thence
the following letter is dated, on August 21st, 1846: -

"I just scribble a line to you to let you know where I am, in order
that you may write to me here, for it seems to me that a letter from
you would relieve me from the feeling of strangeness I have in this
big town. Papa and I came here on Wednesday; we saw Mr. Wilson, the
oculist, the same day; he pronounced papa's eyes quite ready for an
operation, and has fixed next Monday for the performance of it. Think of
us on that day! We got into our lodgings yesterday. I think we shall be
comfortable; at least our rooms are very good, but there is no mistress
of the house (she is very ill, and gone out into the country), and I am
somewhat puzzled in managing about provisions; we board ourselves. I
find myself excessively ignorant. I can't tell what to order in the way
of meat. For ourselves I could contrive, papa's diet is so very simple;
but there will be a nurse coming in a day or two, and I am afraid of
not having things good enough for her. Papa requires nothing, you know,
but plain beef and mutton, tea and bread and butter; but a nurse will
probably expect to live much better; give me some hints if you can. Mr.
Wilson says we shall have to stay here for a month at least. I wonder
how Emily and Anne will get on at home with Branwell. They, too, will
have their troubles. What would I not give to have you here! One is
forced, step by step, to get experience in the world; but the learning
is so disagreeable. One cheerful feature in the business is, that Mr.
Wilson thinks most favourably of the case."

"August 26th, 1846.

"The operation is over; it took place yesterday Mr. Wilson performed
it; two other surgeons assisted. Mr. Wilson says, he considers it
quite successful; but papa cannot yet see anything. The affair lasted
precisely a quarter of an hour; it was not the simple operation of
couching Mr. C. described, but the more complicated one of extracting
the cataract. Mr. Wilson entirely disapproves of couching. Papa
displayed extraordinary patience and firmness; the surgeons seemed
surprised. I was in the room all the time; as it was his wish that I
should be there; of course, I neither spoke nor moved till the thing
was done, and then I felt that the less I said, either to papa or the
surgeons, the better. Papa is now confined to his bed in a dark room,
and is not to be stirred for four days; he is to speak and be spoken to
as little as possible. I am greatly obliged to you for your letter, and
your kind advice, which gave me extreme satisfaction, because I found
I had arranged most things in accordance with it, and, as your theory
coincides with my practice, I feel assured the latter is right. I hope
Mr. Wilson will soon allow me to dispense with the nurse; she is well
enough, no doubt, but somewhat too obsequious; and not, I should think,
to be much trusted; yet I was obliged to trust her in some things. . . .

"Greatly was I amused by your account of - - 's flirtations; and yet
something saddened also. I think Nature intended him for something
better than to fritter away his time in making a set of poor, unoccupied
spinsters unhappy. The girls, unfortunately, are forced to care for him,
and such as him, because, while their minds are mostly unemployed, their
sensations are all unworn, and, consequently, fresh and green; and he,
on the contrary, has had his fill of pleasure, and can with impunity
make a mere pastime of other people's torments. This is an unfair state
of things; the match is not equal. I only wish I had the power to
infuse into the souls of the persecuted a little of the quiet strength
of pride - of the supporting consciousness of superiority (for they are
superior to him because purer) - of the fortifying resolve of firmness to
bear the present, and wait the end. Could all the virgin population of
- - receive and retain these sentiments, he would continually have to
veil his crest before them. Perhaps, luckily, their feelings are not so
acute as one would think, and the gentleman's shafts consequently don't
wound so deeply as he might desire. I hope it is so."

A few days later, she writes thus: "Papa is still lying in bed, in a
dark room, with his eyes bandaged. No inflammation ensued, but still it
appears the greatest care, perfect quiet, and utter privation of light
are necessary to ensure a good result from the operation. He is very
patient, but, of course, depressed and weary. He was allowed to try
his sight for the first time yesterday. He could see dimly. Mr. Wilson
seemed perfectly satisfied, and said all was right. I have had bad
nights from the toothache since I came to Manchester."

All this time, notwithstanding the domestic anxieties which were
harassing them - notwithstanding the ill-success of their poems - the
three sisters were trying that other literary venture, to which
Charlotte made allusion in one of her letters to the Messrs. Aylott.
Each of them had written a prose tale, hoping that the three might be
published together. "Wuthering Heights" and "Agnes Grey" are before
the world. The third - Charlotte's contribution - is yet in manuscript,
but will be published shortly after the appearance of this memoir.
The plot in itself is of no great interest; but it is a poor kind of
interest that depends upon startling incidents rather than upon dramatic
development of character; and Charlotte Brontë never excelled one or two
sketches of portraits which she had given in "The Professor", nor, in
grace of womanhood, ever surpassed one of the female characters there
described. By the time she wrote this tale, her taste and judgment had
revolted against the exaggerated idealisms of her early girlhood, and
she went to the extreme of reality, closely depicting characters as they
had shown themselves to her in actual life: if there they were strong
even to coarseness, - as was the case with some that she had met with in
flesh and blood existence, - she "wrote them down an ass;" if the scenery
of such life as she saw was for the most part wild and grotesque,
instead of pleasant or picturesque, she described it line for line. The
grace of the one or two scenes and characters, which are drawn rather
from her own imagination than from absolute fact stand out in exquisite
relief from the deep shadows and wayward lines of others, which call to
mind some of the portraits of Rembrandt.

The three tales had tried their fate in vain together, at length they
were sent forth separately, and for many months with still-continued
ill success. I have mentioned this here, because, among the dispiriting
circumstances connected with her anxious visit to Manchester, Charlotte
told me that her tale came back upon her hands, curtly rejected by
some publisher, on the very day when her father was to submit to his
operation. But she had the heart of Robert Bruce within her, and failure
upon failure daunted her no more than him. Not only did "The Professor"
return again to try his chance among the London publishers, but she
began, in this time of care and depressing inquietude, in those grey,
weary, uniform streets; where all faces, save that of her kind doctor,
were strange and untouched with sunlight to her, - there and then, did
the brave genius begin "Jane Eyre". Read what she herself says: - "Currer
Bell's book found acceptance nowhere, nor any acknowledgment of merit,
so that something like the chill of despair began to invade his heart."
And, remember it was not the heart of a person who, disappointed in one
hope, can turn with redoubled affection to the many certain blessings
that remain. Think of her home, and the black shadow of remorse lying
over one in it, till his very brain was mazed, and his gifts and his
life were lost; - think of her father's sight hanging on a thread; - of
her sister's delicate health, and dependence on her care; - and then
admire as it deserves to be admired, the steady courage which could work
away at "Jane Eyre", all the time "that the one-volume tale was plodding
its weary round in London."

I believe I have already mentioned that some of her surviving friends
consider that an incident which she heard, when at school at Miss
Wooler's, was the germ of the story of Jane Eyre. But of this nothing
can be known, except by conjecture. Those to whom she spoke upon
the subject of her writings are dead and silent; and the reader may
probably have noticed, that in the correspondence from which I have
quoted, there has been no allusion whatever to the publication of her
poems, nor is there the least hint of the intention of the sisters to
publish any tales. I remember, however, many little particulars which
Miss Brontë gave me, in answer to my inquiries respecting her mode of
composition, etc. She said, that it was not every day, that she could
write. Sometimes weeks or even months elapsed before she felt that she
had anything to add to that portion of her story which was already
written. Then, some morning, she would waken up, and the progress of
her tale lay clear and bright before her, in distinct vision, when this
was the case, all her care was to discharge her household and filial
duties, so as to obtain leisure to sit down and write out the incidents
and consequent thoughts, which were, in fact, more present to her mind
at such times than her actual life itself. Yet notwithstanding this
"possession" (as it were), those who survive, of her daily and household
companions, are clear in their testimony, that never was the claim of
any duty, never was the call of another for help, neglected for an
instant. It had become necessary to give Tabby - now nearly eighty years
of age - the assistance of a girl. Tabby relinquished any of her work
with jealous reluctance, and could not bear to be reminded, though ever
so delicately, that the acuteness of her senses was dulled by age. The
other servant might not interfere with what she chose to consider her
exclusive work. Among other things, she reserved to herself the right of
peeling the potatoes for dinner; but as she was growing blind, she often
left in those black specks, which we in the North call the "eyes" of the
potato. Miss Brontë was too dainty a housekeeper to put up with this;
yet she could not bear to hurt the faithful old servant, by bidding the
younger maiden go over the potatoes again, and so reminding Tabby that
her work was less effectual than formerly. Accordingly she would steal
into the kitchen, and quietly carry off the bowl of vegetables, without
Tabby's being aware, and breaking off in the full flow of interest
and inspiration in her writing, carefully cut out the specks in the
potatoes, and noiselessly carry them back to their place. This little
proceeding may show how orderly and fully she accomplished her duties,
even at those times when the "possession" was upon her.

Any one who has studied her writings, - whether in print or in her
letters; any one who has enjoyed the rare privilege of listening to her
talk, must have noticed her singular felicity in the choice of words.
She herself, in writing her books, was solicitous on this point. One set
of words was the truthful mirror of her thoughts; no others, however
apparently identical in meaning, would do. She had that strong practical
regard for the simple holy truth of expression, which Mr. Trench has
enforced, as a duty too often neglected. She would wait patiently
searching for the right term, until it presented itself to her. It might
be provincial, it might be derived from the Latin; so that it accurately
represented her idea, she did not mind whence it came; but this care
makes her style present the finish of a piece of mosaic. Each component
part, however small, has been dropped into the right place. She never
wrote down a sentence until she clearly understood what she wanted to
say, had deliberately chosen the words, and arranged them in their right
order. Hence it comes that, in the scraps of paper covered with her
pencil writing which I have seen, there will occasionally be a sentence
scored out, but seldom, if ever, a word or an expression. She wrote
on these bits of paper in a minute hand, holding each against a piece
of board, such as is used in binding books, for a desk. This plan was
necessary for one so short-sighted as she was; and, besides, it enabled
her to use pencil and paper, as she sat near the fire in the twilight
hours, or if (as was too often the case) she was wakeful for hours
in the night. Her finished manuscripts were copied from these pencil
scraps, in clear, legible, delicate traced writing, almost as easy to
read as print.

The sisters retained the old habit, which was begun in their aunt's
life-time, of putting away their work at nine o'clock, and beginning
their study, pacing up and down the sitting room. At this time, they
talked over the stories they were engaged upon, and described their
plots. Once or twice a week, each read to the others what she had
written, and heard what they had to say about it. Charlotte told me,
that the remarks made had seldom any effect in inducing her to alter
her work, so possessed was she with the feeling that she had described
reality; but the readings were of great and stirring interest to all,
taking them out of the gnawing pressure of daily-recurring cares, and
setting them in a free place. It was on one of these occasions, that
Charlotte determined to make her heroine plain, small, and unattractive,
in defiance of the accepted canon.

The writer of the beautiful obituary article on "the death of Currer
Bell" most likely learnt from herself what is there stated, and which I
will take the liberty of quoting, about Jane Eyre.

"She once told her sisters that they were wrong - even morally wrong - in
making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course. They replied that
it was impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. Her
answer was, 'I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a
heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting
as any of yours.' Hence 'Jane Eyre,' said she in telling the anecdote:
'but she is not myself, any further than that.' As the work went on, the
interest deepened to the writer. When she came to 'Thornfield' she could
not stop. Being short-sighted to excess, she wrote in little square
paper-books, held close to her eyes, and (the first copy) in pencil. On
she went, writing incessantly for three weeks; by which time she had
carried her heroine away from Thornfield, and was herself in a fever
which compelled her to pause."

This is all, I believe, which can now be told respecting the conception
and composition of this wonderful book, which was, however, only at its
commencement when Miss Brontë returned with her father to Haworth, after
their anxious expedition to Manchester.

They arrived at home about the end of September. Mr. Brontë was daily
gaining strength, but he was still forbidden to exercise his sight much.
Things had gone on more comfortably while she was away than Charlotte
had dared to hope, and she expresses herself thankful for the good
ensured and the evil spared during her absence.

Soon after this some proposal, of which I have not been able to gain a
clear account, was again mooted for Miss Brontë's opening a school at
some place distant from Haworth. It elicited the following fragment of a
characteristic reply: -

"Leave home! - I shall neither be able to find place nor employment,
perhaps, too, I shall be quite past the prime of life, my faculties will
be rusted, and my few acquirements in a great measure forgotten. These
ideas sting me keenly sometimes; but, whenever I consult my conscience,
it affirms that I am doing right in staying at home, and bitter are its
upbraidings when I yield to an eager desire for release. I could hardly

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Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellLife of Charlotte Bronte — Volume 2 → online text (page 1 of 20)