Her strength as a novelist lies in her ability to portray in moving detail the inner struggles of women who are endowed with a powerful capacity for feeling, yet whose social circumstances deny them the opportunity for intellectual or emotional fulfillment. Charlotte Brontë was not in any formal sense a proponent of women's rights, but in her writing she speaks out strongly against the injustices suffered by women in a society that restricts their freedom of action and exploits their dependent status. Her protests grew out of her own experience, which provided much of the material for her fiction; though she once insisted that "we only suffer reality to Suggest, never to dictate," her novels include many characters and incidents recognizably drawn from her life, and her heroines have much in common with their creator.
Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 at Thornton in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Her father, Patrick Brontë (1777-1861), a native of County Down in Ireland, had risen above the poverty of his family to become an undergraduate at St. John's College, Cambridge, and in 1807 was ordained a priest in the Church of England. In 1812 he met, courted, and married Maria Branwell (1783-1821), a pious and educated young woman from Cornwall. Their life together was tragically brief; Maria bore six children in seven years (Maria in 1813; Elizabeth, 1815; Charlotte; Patrick Branwell, 1817; Emily Jane, 1818; Anne, 1820), then died of cancer in 1821 at the age of thirty-eight. Her death may have been hastened by the family's move in 1820 from Thornton to Haworth, where Mr. Brontë had been appointed perpetual curate. Beautiful as the landscape might be around Haworth, physical conditions in this rugged little mill town must have been harsh and unpleasant for the parson's delicate wife. The Brontës' new home was a stone-flagged parsonage, standing exposed to the elements at the top of a steep hill and on the edge of the open moors. Its situation was rendered even more unhealthy by its proximity to the overcrowded cemetery of St. Michael's Church. Sanitation in Haworth was primitive: as late as 1850 a government inspector found open sewers and overflowing cesspits on the main street, next to outlets for drinking water. It is hardly surprising that infant mortality rates in Haworth were high or that there were frequent outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. Throughout her life, Charlotte Brontë was to suffer from fevers, colds, and bilious attacks undoubtedly attributable to this most inhospitable environment.
Nor was there much consolation to be found in the society of Haworth. Its inhabitants, even thirty years later, struck Mrs. Gaskell as a "wild, rough population" among whom there was "little display of any of the amenities of life." Mr. Brontë won the respect of his parishioners, but there was little social contact between the townsfolk and the family at the parsonage; the Brontë children thus turned to one another for companionship and entertainment. This interdependence was intensified after the death of Mrs. Brontë. The early loss of their mother had a lasting effect on the children, particularly Charlotte; all her published novels are concerned in one way or another with young women who must lead a lonely path through life without the warmth and security of parental love. Not that the young Brontës were uncared for: after Maria's death, her sister Elizabeth Branwell came to live at the parsonage and supervised the household until her own death in 1842. Aunt Branwell was a rather stern, formal woman, however, with rigid and somewhat ascetic religious views; "the children respected her," notes Mrs. Gaskell, "and had that sort of affection for her which is generated by esteem; but I do not think they ever freely loved her." Yet the children were happy enough: they played and roamed the moors together; they read widely under the vigorous tutelage of their father, discussed social and political issues of the day, and developed those qualities of intellect and inventiveness that were to flower in the works of their maturity.
In August 1824 Mr. Brontë sent Charlotte to join Maria and Elizabeth at the recently opened Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, near Tunstall in Lancashire. This was a charitable institution, where the daughters of poor clergymen might receive an education suited to their station and be prepared for future employment as governesses. Its founder was William Carus Wilson, a well-intentioned but overzealous clergyman who appears to have given little thought to the physical needs of the children in his charge; he imposed a stern regime of ascetic piety and self-denial which, in combination with inadequate attention to proper diet and the unhealthy situation of the school buildings, produced a succession of illnesses among the pupils and an outbreak of typhoid in April 1825. Charlotte Brontë would later give a vivid portrait in Jane Eyre of the school and its director; though colored by personal bitterness, her account of "Lowood Institution" is in essentials an accurate depiction of the harshness of life at Cowan Bridge. Writing to a friend in 1848 concerning the advisability of sending children to the Clergy Daughters' School (then removed to Casterton), Brontë speaks in very matter-of-fact tones of the school's "rickety infancy": "Typhus fever decimated the school periodically, and consumption and scrofula in every variety of form, [which] bad air and water, and bad, insufficient diet can generate, preyed on the ill-fated pupils." Her own sisters were among the victims of such conditions: first Maria, then Elizabeth, contracted consumption, were removed from the school, and died at home, Maria on 6 May 1825 and her sister on 15 June 1825. The death of Maria was especially painful to Charlotte; her eldest sister had become a guide and mentor, and Charlotte would later eulogize her patient virtue and premature wisdom in Jane Eyre in the portrait of Helen Burns.
After this tragic loss, Mr. Brontë decided to educate his children himself, and for the next six years they lived at home under the watchful eyes of Aunt Branwell and Tabitha Ackroyd, the parsonage servant. More than ever they were thrown upon their own resources; yet, despite their lack of social contact, they were never bored or unoccupied. Mr. Brontë encouraged them to read--and they read voraciously: Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, Dryden, Scott, Wordsworth, Byron; the Arabian Nights Entertainments; Whig and Tory newspapers; monthly magazines, notably Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine; illustrated annuals like the Keepsake. Though their own collection was small, the Brontës had access to the library of the Keighley Mechanics' Institute, less than four miles away, which Mr. Brontë had joined soon after its foundation in 1825. The breadth of their reading attests to their father's liberality of mind; it also helps to explain the curious variety of subjects and techniques displayed in the children's own early writings.
Their apprenticeship to literature had begun before the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth with the composition and performance of little plays under Maria's direction. After the return from Cowan Bridge, Charlotte and Branwell assumed the leadership in devising imaginary worlds populated by romantic figures from myth, history, and high society, whose doings they chronicled in a series of interwoven tales. The first of the series, the "Young Men's Play," originated with Mr. Brontë's gift to Branwell in June 1826 of a set of twelve toy soldiers; each of the children took one, naming it after a particular hero (Charlotte called hers after the Duke of Wellington), and made up stories, eventually in written form, about the exploits of the "Twelves." That a group of imaginative children should collaborate in the creation of a fantasy world is by no means unusual; what sets the storymaking of the youthful Brontës apart is that it occupied them all well into adulthood--Emily and Anne were still devising plots for their world of Gondal in 1845--and came dangerously close to an unhealthy obsession from which Charlotte had to free herself in 1839 by a conscious and explicit act of rejection.
The bulk of Charlotte's juvenile writings is concerned with the history of Angria, a kingdom that grew out of her extended collaboration with Branwell. It began as a confederacy of the "Twelves," located in Africa, whose capital was called "Glass Town" and whose rulers were four genii: Tallii (Charlotte), Brannii, Emmii, and Annii. The geography of this new land, first described in Charlotte's tale "The Twelve Adventurers" (manuscript dated 15 April 1829), was inspired in part by the Reverend J. Goldsmith's Grammar of General Geography (1803) and articles in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine; its supernatural inhabitants were unmistakably related to their counterparts in the Arabian Nights and Ridley's Tales of the Genii (1764); its cities borrowed features from those depicted in the extravagant pictures of John Martin, whose work was often reproduced in contemporary annuals; its populace came from the society columns of newspapers or magazines, from portraits of the aristocracy which the young Brontës copied from books, and from the political controversies of the day which they keenly followed and eagerly discussed. This mixture of fantasy and reality is well exemplified by Charlotte's "Tales of the Islanders" (June 1829-June 1830), an extended narrative set in a fairy-tale world in which her characters debate the political and religious issues of contemporary England, especially the Catholic Emancipation Act of April 1829 and the storm surrounding the Duke of Wellington. In this story Charlotte also introduced the Duke's sons, the Marquis of Douro and Lord Charles Wellesley, who were to take over from their father as leading personages in the world of Glass Town.
As the early "plays" gradually merged into the history of the Glass Town Confederacy and the actions of its great notables, the children collaborated in a systematic charting of events and relationships. In January 1829 Branwell began Branwells Blackwoods Magazine (subsequently to be called Blackwoods Young Mens Magazine), an imitation of the children's favorite periodical reproduced in miniature form, presumably to correspond to the size of their original soldier heroes. Charlotte took over the editorship in August, and under the pseudonym of Captain Tree, or in the characters of Douro or Lord Charles, wrote poems and stories about Glass Town society, frequently alluding to characters or incidents developed in Branwell's manuscripts. The narratives became more complex; Glass Town acquired greater sophistication and became Verreopolis, then Verdopolis; Branwell began to chronicle the military and political upheavals that were to become the focus of his interest in the emerging kingdom of Angria, while Charlotte gave more and more of her attention to the personalities and domestic relations of Verdopolitan celebrities. Her tale of "Albion and Marina" (October 1830) introduced the theme of passionate romantic love that was to dominate her subsequent contributions to the joint saga.
Charlotte's participation in Verdopolitan affairs came to a temporary halt in January 1831 when, with the financial support of her godparents, the Atkinsons, she was sent to Roe Head, a small private school near Mirfield under the direction of Miss Margaret Wooler and her sisters. Here she stayed for a year and a half in much happier circumstances than at Cowan Bridge; indeed, Miss Wooler was to become a lifelong friend, and Brontë would return to Roe Head in 1835 as an assistant teacher. Here also she met the two girls whose enduring friendship was to lift her out of her social isolation at Haworth and to sustain her often in times of emotional duress. Ellen Nussey was a quiet, timid, pious girl whose family lived at Rydings, a big house in Birstall that would later lend some of its features to Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre. Stolid, unimaginative, conservative, Ellen yet possessed a ready fund of sympathy and affection that quickly won a response from Charlotte. Her other newfound friend, Mary Taylor, offered a startling contrast of personality. Mary's father, a cloth manufacturer and banker at Gomersal, had suffered bankruptcy in 1825 and spent the rest of his life working to pay off his debts. From him Mary inherited strong Radical views, a blunt outspokenness, and an independence of spirit that would lead her to immigrate to New Zealand. Ellen and Mary became integral parts of Charlotte's life; the three corresponded regularly for over twenty years, exchanging news about themselves and their families, and Charlotte's visits to their homes provided her with a wealth of impressions which she was to draw on when she came to write her great novels. Shirley (1849) is especially indebted to Brontë's memories of the Taylors, who are presented there as the Yorke family; Mary herself appears as young Rose Yorke, as well as lends some of her ideas about society to the novel's eponymous heroine. Ellen's shy and retiring nature contributes something to the depiction of Caroline Helstone; and Shirley's residence, "Fieldhead," is based on Oakwell Hall, an Elizabethan house near Birstall owned by relatives of the Nussey family. When Mrs. Gaskell came to write the biography of Charlotte Brontë, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor provided her with lengthy reminiscences, and Nussey was able to supply her with over 300 letters by Brontë which she had kept over the years.
At Roe Head, Charlotte worked hard to make up for the deficiencies in her formal education; Ellen Nussey later recalled that she "always seemed to feel that a deep responsibility rested upon her; that she was an object of expense to those at home, and that she must use every moment to attain the purpose for which she was sent to school, i.e., to fit herself for governess life...." On her return to Haworth in May 1832 Charlotte continued her studies and tutored her younger sisters; but though much of her time was thus occupied, she had not lost interest in the story of Verdopolitan society and renewed her contributions to the saga. In "The Bridal" (August 1832) she enlarged upon the relationship between the Marquis of Douro and his first great love, Marian Hume, filling out the Byronic lineaments of her hero's character and developing the themes of temptation and betrayal, duty and desire, that were to recur throughout her juvenilia.
Branwell's writing at this time was mainly concerned with the history and politics of the Confederacy, and his pedantically detailed narratives make dull reading beside Charlotte's lively and melodramatic accounts of romantic intrigue and rival lovers. The children still worked together on the intricate elaboration of their world, and Charlotte's stories assume a knowledge on the reader's part of events described elsewhere by Branwell; but after her return from Roe Head, Charlotte's writing shows a distinct advance in descriptive power and depth of character portrayal. Arthur Wellesley, Marquis of Douro, now Duke of Zamorna, becomes the dominant figure in most of the prose narratives produced by Charlotte after 1832. A compound of moody grandeur, dashing bravery, and sadistic heartlessness, Zamorna wears a mantle woven from Milton and Byron: "O Zamorna! what eyes those are glancing under the deep shadow of that raven crest! They bode no good.... Satan gave them their glory to deepen the midnight gloom that always follows where their lustre has fallen most lovingly.... All here is passion and fire unquenchable. Impetuous sin, stormy pride, diving and soaring enthusiasm, war and poetry, are kindling their fires in all his veins, and his wild blood boils from his heart and back again like a torrent of new-sprung lava. Young duke? Young demon!" ("A Peep into a Picture Book," May 1834). While Branwell explores Zamorna's political fortunes in the newly created kingdom of Angria (established in the narratives of 1834), Charlotte follows the twists and turns of his unpredictable nature as he torments a succession of beautiful, heartsick women, whose Griselda-like meekness in suffering serves only to arouse his scorn or anger.
The Angrian stories of this period also see the development of a subject touched on in Charlotte's earliest narratives, the antagonism between two brothers. This first appeared in the form of Lord Charles Wellesley's hostility toward his older brother Arthur; their rivalry gives way to the deeper rift between Edward and William Percy, the sons of Zamorna's archenemy Alexander Percy, earl of Northangerland. The young Percys are first described in Branwell's story "The Wool is Rising" (June 1834); cast off by their father, they establish themselves in the wool trade, but Edward's cold ambition soon leads him to a harsh assertion of mastery over William. Charlotte picked up this theme in several stories ("The Spell," June-July 1834; "My Angria and the Angrians," October 1834; "The Duke of Zamorna," July 1838; "The Ashworths," 1839-1840); ultimately it would find its way into the first of her adult novels, The Professor (1857), in the relationship between Edward and William Crimsworth.
Charlotte's absorption in the Angrian world was interrupted in July 1835 when, at the invitation of Miss Wooler, she returned to Roe Head as a teacher. She was accompanied by Emily, who was to receive free tuition as part of the arrangement, but Emily's unhappiness at her exile from Haworth soon led to her replacement by Anne. Despite Miss Wooler's kindness, Charlotte found her duties tedious and distasteful; separated from her creative partner Branwell and allowed little free time, she became increasingly frustrated by the fetters placed on her imagination. A series of diary jottings from this period known as the "Roe Head Journals" show the extent to which the demands of daily routine clashed with powerful inner yearnings. "All this day," she wrote on 11 August 1836, "I have been in a dream half-miserable & half ecstatic miserable because I could not follow it out uninterruptedly, ecstatic because it shewed almost in the vivid light of reality the ongoings of the infernal world.... The thought came over me am I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness the apathy & the hyperbolical & most asinine stupidity of those fatheaded oafs & on compulsion assuming an air of kindness patience & assiduity?" She recorded waking visions of Angrian scenes which presented themselves to her with frightening vividness; her attempts to repress such imaginings produced feelings of guilt and melancholy. "If you knew my thoughts," she wrote to Ellen Nussey on 10 May 1836, "the dreams that absorb me; and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up and makes me feel Society as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I dare say despise me."
School vacations brought some relief and allowed Brontë to continue her Angrian narratives. "Passing Events" (April 1836), "Julia" (June 1837), and "Four Years Ago" (July 1837) all develop aspects of the political drama worked out by Branwell, but focus on scene and character rather than on plot. The "infernal world" still exerted its power over her; but Brontë--now past her twentieth year--was moving away from the colorful excitement of simple melodrama toward a maturer exploration of feeling, especially the suffering of women in love. The later Angrian romances reflect this new maturity in their treatment as well as in subject matter. "Mina Laury" (January 1838), in its depiction of Zamorna's heartlessness and Mina's selfless devotion, displays greater unity and coherence than Brontë's earlier stories, and Byronic excess in characterization now gives way to more realistic analysis of character and motive. Setting, too, in these later stories is less exotic, more suggestive of the writer's own environment; in "Stancliff's Hotel" (June 1838) and "Henry Hastings" (February-March 1839) the cloud-capped palaces of Angria are replaced by country houses in a recognizably English landscape. "Henry Hastings" also gives prominence to characters and situations that reemerge in Brontë's adult fiction. The female protagonist, Elizabeth Hastings, is reserved and self-effacing, but her calm exterior conceals intense emotion. Like her yet-distant successor Jane Eyre she is faced with a conflict between duty and desire and is saved from a surrender to feeling by her concern for self-respect. There is an element of autobiography in Brontë's depiction of Elizabeth as "the little dignified Governess" who dresses plainly, values her independence, and loves her degenerate and reckless brother despite his public dishonor. Branwell had written several stories in the persona of Henry Hastings; through the story of Elizabeth's loyalty to her reprobate brother, Brontë might express her feelings toward Branwell, whose conduct was already giving evidence of that weakness of character that would lead him to alcoholism and drugs.
Anne's departure from Miss Wooler's school (now relocated at Dewsbury Moor) in December 1837, and her own increasingly depressed spirits, led Charlotte to give up her post and return to Haworth in May 1838. Her respite was brief, however; the family's precarious financial circumstances, made more difficult by Branwell's failure to establish himself as painter in Bradford, led Charlotte Brontë to seek employment once again, and in May 1839 she became governess to the children of the Sidgwick family of Stonegappe, near Lothersdale. The experience was an unhappy one: the Sidgwicks treated Brontë with what seemed to her to be undue coldness and condescension; the children tormented her by their rudeness and lack of discipline; and after less than three months she was back at home, telling Ellen Nussey that "I never was so glad to get out of a house in my life." Relieved of this burden, Brontë returned to her writing with new vigor and produced "Caroline Vernon" (July-December 1839), the last of her Angrian tales. The account of a young girl's infatuation with her guardian, the Duke of Zamorna, "Caroline Vernon" shows another advance in Brontë's analysis of feminine psychology. Romantic passion is here treated with critical detachment and seen as a destructive force; Brontë does not identify with her heroine, presenting her instead as an inexperienced and undisciplined adolescent, "raw, flighty & romantic."
Sheltered though her own life was in comparison to that of her heroines, Charlotte Brontë discovered to her surprise that she herself was capable of arousing admiration: twice in the same year she received proposals of marriage. The first came from Henry Nussey, Ellen's brother, a curate in Sussex, who wrote in March 1839 to offer Brontë his hand, since "in due time he should want a wife to take care of his pupils." She had no difficulty in turning down this cool suitor, telling Ellen that she could not feel "that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him; and, if ever I marry, it must be in that light of adoration that I will regard my husband." Her second proposal, the following August, came from another clergyman, an impetuous young Irish curate who was smitten after only one meeting with her; him, too, she refused. The prospects of her finding a man she could truly love seemed remote; "I'm certainly doomed to be an old maid," she wrote to Ellen Nussey; "I can't expect another chance--never mind I made up my mind to that fate ever since I was twelve years old."
The sober awareness that her dreams of passionate love would never be matched by reality may have contributed to her decision to abandon Angria after "Caroline Vernon." In an undated manuscript placed by most scholars at the end of 1839, Brontë announces her desire "to quit for awhile that burning clime where we have sojourned too long--its skies flame--the glow of sunset is always upon it--the mind would cease from excitement and turn now to a cooler region where the dawn breaks grey and sober, and the coming day for a time at least is subdued by clouds." In penning these lines, Brontë was probably thinking about her first venture into realistic prose fiction, which took form in the winter of 1839-1840, and in a revised version of early 1841 culminated in the unfinished story known as "Ashworth." In part, this is a return to old subjects; the central figure, a Yorkshire industrialist named Alexander Ashworth, owes much in character and personal history to Alexander Percy, the Northangerland of Branwell's narratives. Percy's sons Edward and William, already depicted as rivals in the Angrian cycle, reappear as Edward and William Ashworth, and like their earlier namesakes are cast out by their father to make their own way in the world. However, when the story shifts from the Ashworths to a picture of life in a girls' school, focusing on the lonely figure of an orphaned child, the narrative gains new life and interest, and Brontë can be seen moving in the direction of a favorite theme in her later novels. That she regarded "Ashworth" as a serious venture into adult fiction is apparent from her request for an opinion from Hartley Coleridge (son of the poet S. T. Coleridge), to whom she sent a portion of the manuscript in December 1840, describing her story as a "demisemi novelette." Coleridge's verdict evidently was unfavorable, since in her reply Brontë promised to commit her protagonists to oblivion. This was not the first time that she had sought advice from a well-known writer; in 1837 she had corresponded with the poet laureate Robert Southey, who had been similarly discouraging, warning her that "literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it...."
Under the pressure of "proper duties," Brontë left home once again in March 1841 to become a governess in the White family at Rawdon, near Bradford. The Whites proved to be more amiable employers than the Sidgwicks; but Brontë left them in December to set in motion a plan the family had discussed for six months. This was for the three sisters to open their own school, with financial support from Aunt Branwell; as a preliminary step to strengthen their qualifications for such a venture, Charlotte and Emily wanted to spend a half-year in school on the Continent, where they might improve their grasp of foreign languages. Belgium was fixed upon, since there the cost of living was low; also, Mary and Martha Taylor were at school in Brussels and spoke favorably of their experience.
After a short time spent sight-seeing in London (Charlotte Brontë would recall the excitement of this first visit to the capital in both The Professor and Villette, 1853), Charlotte and Emily, accompanied by Mr. Brontë, arrived at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels on 15 February 1842, there to recommence the lives of schoolgirls at the ages of twenty-five and twenty-three respectively. The school's owner and directress was Claire Zoeé Parent Heger, who was thirty-seven years old at the time of the Brontës' arrival in the rue d'Isabelle. In 1836 she had married Constantine Heger, a widower five years her junior, who taught at the Athénée Royal de Bruxelles; after their marriage, M. Heger retained his post at the Athénée, but also assisted his wife in the operation of her school and gave classes there in literature. He was something of a romantic figure, having fought at the barricades during the Belgian revolution of 1830, and displaying a moody impetuousness that undoubtedly had a special appeal for one whose imaginary heroes had been similarly governed by violence of feeling. From the outset, the Hegers showed great kindness to the two strange little Englishwomen. Their lessons in French literature and composition were supervised by M. Heger, who assigned readings in the great French writers and corrected their exercises with comments aimed at sharpening their perception of style. Under Heger's guidance, Charlotte Brontë encountered the works of such authors as Chateaubriand, Hugo, and Lamartine and copied out extracts from their writings; she also wrote a variety of devoirs on such topics as "La Justice Humaine," "Le Palais de la Mort," "La Chute des Feuilles," and "La Mort de Napoléon," which, despite the inevitable stiffness of academic set pieces, show commendable fluency and precision. Charlotte Brontë's adult writings in English, characterized by a poetic quality often derived from syntactic inversions, antitheses, and repetitions, would owe much to these exercises performed under the demanding tutelage of Constantin Heger; and her study of French romanticism taught her how to make language convey heightened states of feeling normally expressed in poetic form.
The sisters made few friends at the pensionnat, partly because of their natural shyness and diffidence, partly because of their Protestant suspicion of all things Catholic and their belief in the superiority of all things British. Charlotte Brontë was especially scathing in her comments on the Hegers' Belgian pupils, whose character she described to Ellen Nussey as "cold, selfish, animal and inferior" and whose principles she regarded as "rotten to the core." Nevertheless, Brontë's first year in Belgium was busy and enjoyable; in addition to her own schoolwork, she gave English lessons, visited the Taylor sisters and their cousins, the Dixons, explored art galleries and museums, and saw an exhibition of paintings at the Brussels Salon of 1842 which she was later to recall in an episode in Villette. Above all, she found herself drawn more and more strongly to Constantin Heger, an attraction carefully omitted by Mrs. Gaskell from her biography. Heger's dominant personality, his acute intelligence, his position as mentor and friend, all combined to arouse in Brontë an admiration for one whom she could regard as her master. Had she been younger, her feelings might have taken the form of a schoolgirl infatuation, quickly roused and quickly quenched; but at twenty-six she had deeper yearnings, desires which possibly she did not understand herself.
Toward the end of 1842 life in Brussels took on a darker shade. First, in September, came news of the death of William Weightman, Mr. Brontë's attractive young curate since 1839, with whom all the sisters had playfully flirted. An even greater shock was the sudden death of Martha Taylor, who died of cholera in October and was buried at the Protestant Cemetery outside Brussels; the tragedy impressed itself deeply in Charlotte Brontë's mind and would later be alluded to directly in Shirley, where Martha appears as Jessie Yorke. A final somber note was struck at the end of October by the death of Aunt Branwell. Charlotte and Emily immediately left for Haworth, taking with them a letter of condolence for Mr. Brontë from Constantin Heger, who expressed the hope that one of the girls, if not both, might be allowed to return.
Charlotte did return, at the end of January 1843; this time, however, she traveled alone (Emily had decided to stay in Haworth), experiencing difficulties much like those she later bestowed on Lucy Snowe, who makes a similar journey in Villette. Her second year in Brussels began well; she was warmly received by the Hegers and promoted to the position of salaried teacher. She gave English lessons to M. Heger and his brother-in-law and continued her own studies in German; she paid frequent visits to her English acquaintances, the Dixons and the Wheelwrights. But without Emily's companionship, and in the absence of Mary Taylor (now in Germany), Charlotte felt increasingly isolated. Her relations with Mme Heger were deteriorating; to Emily she complained of Madame's aversion to her and expressed the belief that she was being spied upon. Allowing for an element of exaggeration in Brontë's complaints, there is little doubt that Mme Heger had become more guarded in her exchanges with the little English teacher; though Brontë never made any avowal of an attachment to Constantin Heger, her feelings must have been quite apparent to the shrewd directress of the pensionnat, who probably sought ways of reducing Brontë's opportunities for social contact with her husband. Brontë found herself in an increasingly "Robinson-Crusoe-like condition," lamenting that M. Heger had "in a great measure withdrawn the light of his countenance." Thrown more and more upon her own resources, Charlotte Brontë withdrew into the childhood world of her imagination; to Branwell, the former partner of her fantasies, she spoke of recurring "as fanatically as ever to the old ideas, the old faces, and the old scenes in the world below." When the school holidays came in mid-August, the Hegers left on their vacation, the teachers and pupils went home, and Brontë was abandoned to her own devices until school resumed at the end of September. Her solitude bore heavily upon her, and she entered a state of nervous depression. The feelings of bitter frustration, loneliness, and possibly guilt were too much for her; on 1 September she took the extraordinary step of confessing to a Catholic priest in Sainte Gudule, the collegiate church close to the rue d'Isabelle. Writing to Emily the next day, Charlotte described the incident in full and finally dismissed it as a "freak"; but its details remained clearly impressed upon her memory and provided her with an important scene in Villette ten years later.
By the end of the year her loneliness and homesickness had become too much for her, and on 1 January 1844 Brontë left Brussels for the last time. The strength of her feelings for M. Heger, however, was undiminished; the pain she suffered at parting from him was to last for the next two years, as she sought to maintain his friendship by correspondence. Some of her letters to Heger have survived; they were evidently torn up by the recipient, then reassembled by Madame, and now maintain a patchwork existence under glass at the British Library. They reflect a rising desperation in Brontë; in no sense are they love letters, yet they are unmistakably passionate in their pleas for some acknowledgment, some signal of recognition and regard. What Heger thought of all this is not known; there is no evidence that he felt anything but a kindly affection and concern for an apt and hardworking young pupil-teacher. In Brontë's eyes, however, Heger constituted an ideal: cultured, energetic, masterful (she addresses him in one letter as "mon maître"), and there is something of Heger in the heroes of all her mature novels, especially in the figure of Paul Emanuel in Villette.
At their parting, Heger had given Brontë a diploma attesting to her experience and qualifications; once back in Haworth, she hoped to make use of this in realizing the sisters' original plan of opening their own school. She set about seeking pupils and in July 1844 sent Ellen Nussey copies of a prospectus she had drawn up, describing "The Misses Brontë's Establishment for the Board and Education of a limited number of Young Ladies." She also wrote to a number of acquaintances to announce her intentions, on one occasion enclosing the diploma she had received from Heger. Her efforts proved fruitless; not one prospective pupil applied, and by the close of the year the plan had been abandoned.
With the failure of the school project, Charlotte Brontë's life seemed to have reached a point of stagnation. She no longer heard anything from Constantin Heger, although she continued writing to him until November 1845. Mary Taylor, her principal source of intellectual stimulation outside her own family, left for New Zealand in March 1845. Ellen Nussey remained always ready to offer friendship and comfort, but she was too limited and unimaginative to provide Brontë with an outlet for her deeper needs and concerns. To make matters worse, in July 1845 Branwell was dismissed from his post as tutor in the Robinson family of Thorp Green, accused of improper conduct toward his employer's wife, and came home to plague the family with his increasingly drunken and irrational behavior. Charlotte, once his closest companion, became bitterly critical of his "frantic folly" and dissipation; her disgust at his moral depravity would shortly find expression in The Professor, where her narrator William Crimsworth reflects on the spectacle of "a mind degraded by the practice of mean subterfuge, by the habit of perfidious deception, and a body depraved by the infectious influence of the vice-polluted soul."
Driven closer together by Branwell's progressive deterioration, Charlotte and her sisters now entered a phase of literary production from which their brother was excluded. Its beginnings are chronicled in Charlotte's Acton Bell prefixed to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. In the autumn of 1845, Charlotte "accidentally lighted on a MS volume of verse" in Emily's handwriting and was immediately convinced that the poems merited publication. After Emily's initial reluctance had been overcome, the Brontë sisters set out to realize their long-cherished dream of authorship. They made a small selection of their poems; then, with some of the small legacy left to each of them by Aunt Branwell, they paid the London firm of Aylott and Jones thirty-six pounds, ten shillings to meet the expenses of paper, printing, and advertising. The Brontës became the Bells: Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne). Male-sounding pseudonyms were preferred, as Charlotte explained in her "Biographical Notice," because "we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise." Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell appeared in one volume at four shillings in May 1846; it received several friendly notices, but by June 1847 only two copies had been sold.
Lack of success in their first venture into print did not deter the sisters, however; even before the appearance of the Poems, they had already decided to try their hand at publishable fiction. In this they were doubtless encouraged by the enormous popularity of novels with the Victorian public. Thanks to such developments as part publication, cheap one-volume reprints, and subscription circulating libraries, a successful writer might now command a huge audience. The Brontë sisters were certainly impelled by the honorable motive of seeking critical applause, but undoubtedly they also hoped to turn their love of writing to good account and make some money by their pens. To this end each wrote a short novel: Wuthering Heights by Emily, Agnes Grey by Anne, and The Professor by Charlotte. Their intention was to have them published together as a three-volume work, the format imposed on most new fiction by the needs of the circulating libraries. Fair copies of the manuscripts were completed by the end of June 1846 (that of The Professor is dated 27 June) and sent to Henry Colburn on 4 July. However, finding an interested publisher proved much more difficult than had been the case with the Poems, since the sisters could not meet the costs of production themselves; over the next twelve months, the manuscripts suffered half a dozen rejections. Finally, in July 1847 the London firm of Thomas Cautley Newby agreed to publish Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, provided that the authors contributed fifty pounds toward the cost of production; but Newby flatly refused to include The Professor. The sisters accepted these harsh terms, and Charlotte was left to find a separate publisher for her own novel; her search proved fruitless, for though it was instrumental in leading her to the firm that would swiftly accept and publish Jane Eyre,The Professor never reached print during her lifetime.
The novel's lack of appeal for prospective publishers is partly attributable to its prosaic subject matter and lack of sensational incident; indeed, it was the publisher's objections on this score that led Brontë in her next work (Jane Eyre) to the mode of romantic melodrama. The Professor suffers also from awkwardness in construction and in the handling of plot: the clumsy opening in epistolary form (a stratagem dropped after the first chapter), the loose arrangement of episodes, the lack of any real suspense, and the anticlimactic ending all make the story seem flat and unexciting. Nevertheless, the book does have real power in its delineation of character and in its exploration of the individual's struggle to find emotional fulfillment despite socially repressive circumstances.
The Professor's effectiveness in depicting strong emotions derives largely from its autobiographical origins; in her portrayal of the love between teacher and pupil in a Belgian girls' school, Brontë drew heavily on her recent experiences in Brussels. She sought to disguise this personal element by making her narrator-protagonist a man, a device she had frequently employed in her Angrian tales; and she revived the Angrian motif of enmity between two brothers, the elder, hardheaded and ambitious, the younger, cultured and sensitive. Like most Brontë protagonists, William Crimsworth is an orphan, in this case the ward of an aristocratic family. He begins his career by rejecting the status of dependent and chooses to enter a voluntary servitude as clerk to his elder brother Edward, a blunt and morose mill owner. William's independent nature cannot bear the yoke of his brother's tyranny, however, and he strikes out afresh, becoming a teacher in a boys' school in Brussels. This first part of the narrative is an uneasy mixture of social comedy and melodrama, the tone strained and uncertain; but Brontë succeeds in establishing William as a quirky yet intelligent character, chafing under his bondage to inferior minds and eager to assert his individuality. A related concern is the connection between sexual power and social identity, a theme explored in all of Brontë's subsequent novels; Crimsworth is made painfully conscious that as "a dependant amongst wealthy strangers" he is unattractive to the band of young women who cluster around his prosperous brother. Though there is a self-pitying tone to William's reflections, his emotional vulnerability and sense of failure at this stage are necessary elements in his development; as the novel progresses, he acquires greater confidence and maturity in his relationships with women, until he is ready to take on the dominant role as a lover.
A factor in William's growth is his friendship with the radical and outspoken manufacturer Hunsden Yorke Hunsden, a precursor of Hiram Yorke in Shirley. Hunsden, who encourages William to rebel against Edward, embodies the force of instinctual feeling; this makes him both attractive and dangerous. His association with potentially anarchic impulses is signified by recurring allusions to a demonic element in his nature, and at the end of the novel the mature Crimsworth sees Hunsden's influence as a threat to his son Victor's moral education. The portrait of Hunsden creates some unresolved ambiguities: he is both a capitalist and a critic of capitalism, a cynic and a sentimentalist. He is a friend to Crimsworth, yet subtly undermines the latter's sense of security and self-esteem. Potentially Hunsden is an interestingly complex character, but he lacks the development necessary to make his idiosyncrasies seem wholly credible.
Once the narrative shifts from England to Belgium, Charlotte Brontë demonstrates much firmer control of her material. The vague industrial setting of a Yorkshire mill town is replaced by the precise topography of Brussels; the melodramatic stereotypes of the early chapters give way to characters with a depth and vividness owing much to real life. Zoraïde Reuter, the manipulative directress of the girls' school where Crimsworth is eventually hired to give English lessons, is partly modeled on Mme Heger in her cool efficiency. Through her, and through his encounters with some of her pupils, Crimsworth discovers the superficiality and duplicity of the Catholic system of education. Although Brontë sometimes invites the reader to laugh at her narrator's pompousness or mild vanity, Crimsworth is generally the mouthpiece for her own views; and nowhere is this more evident than in his contemptuous accounts of "Romish wizardcraft" and its victims, the Belgian schoolgirls, who are deceitful, shallow, and "mentally depraved." In making her hero such a bluff proponent of British Protestantism, Brontë intended no irony; she herself had spoken critically of Roman "mummeries" in letters from Brussels in 1842-1843. Nor would her readers have taken exception to such denunciations; despite the political freedom enjoyed by English Catholics since the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, Victorian Englishmen regarded Catholics with an undiminished suspicion that was intensified by the Tractarian controversies of the 1830s and 1840s which threatened the hegemony of the Anglican church.
Related to the theme of Catholic treachery is Mlle Reuter's role as seductress and temptress in a struggle with Crimsworth for sexual dominance. Though she is engaged to M. Pelet (Crimsworth's employer at the boys' school) she flirts with the young Englishman, who is saved from imminent folly only by accidentally overhearing her in conversation with Pelet. Henceforth he treats her with a haughty disdain worthy of a Zamorna, which paradoxically serves to make him seem more fascinating in the directress's eyes. This curious turn in their relationship is seen by Crimsworth as further evidence of the degeneration fostered by a despotic religious system; because Zoraide herself lives by the values of a spiritual tyranny, she respects the manifestation of authority in others. Her new submissiveness arouses Crimsworth to a pleasurable sense of his own power; once he has won recognition of his masculine strength, however, he turns his back on such "low gratification" in favor of the higher charms offered by his Anglo-Swiss pupil Frances Henri.
The comedy of Crimsworth's entanglement with Zoraide Reuter now gives way to a much more earnest study of a relationship based on intellectual as well as emotional compatibility. There are obvious parallels between Crimsworth's situation in England and Frances's sufferings at the Brussels pensionnat, emphasizing the link between inferior social status and the enforced repression of feeling. Orphaned, poor, and (after her aunt's death) utterly alone, Frances draws Crimsworth's interest by her meekly deferential manner, behind which he perceives flashes of warmth and proud defiance. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in her depiction of this relationship, Charlotte Brontë was expressing some of her fantasies about Constantin Heger, her "maître" in Brussels. Through Frances Henri's suffering, and her eventual triumph over the schemes of Mlle Reuter, Brontë could play out a dream of what might have been; here, true merit might defeat hypocrisy, and the professor clasp his pupil in a warm embrace. Brontë's immersion in the hopes and longings of her principal characters gives conviction to her portrayal of their feelings, but the focus on romantic love costs the novel much of its earlier bite. Through Frances, Brontë adumbrates some of her concerns about the plight of women without money or connections; however, as an idealized embodiment of the author's own yearnings, Frances lacks the depth and complexity needed to carry the burden of such concerns effectively.
Several years after the composition of The Professor, when she had won fame as the author of Jane Eyre and Shirley, Charlotte Brontë again sought its publication and wrote a preface outlining her original intentions. She had sought to create a hero who "should work his way through life as I had seen living men work theirs--that he should never get a shilling he had not earned--that no sudden turns should lift him in a moment to wealth and high station.... As Adam's son he should share Adam's doom, and drain throughout life a mixed and moderate cup of enjoyment." That The Professor is sometimes slow, even dull, is perhaps the inevitable consequence of the author's rejection of the sensational in fiction; but her attempt to view life as unromantically as possible, and to focus on the pains and pleasures of a recognizably ordinary life, places Charlotte Brontë at the forefront of developments in modern literary realism.
Even while The Professor was going its fruitless round of the publishers, Charlotte was occupied with her next story. In August 1846 she accompanied her father to Manchester, where he underwent an operation for cataracts; and during his convalescence she began Jane Eyre. The work continued in Haworth, sometimes with great intensity (as when she wrote the chapters on Thornfield), and aided by critical counsel from Emily and Anne. The book was in its final stages when, on 15 July 1847, the manuscript of The Professor, now divorced from its former companions, arrived at the firm of Smith, Elder in London. It was seen by the firm's reader, William Smith Williams, a sensitive and literate man who was to become a close friend of Brontë's. Williams recognized the book's power, but doubted its success as a publication; after consulting with George Smith, he wrote to Brontë, declining The Professor but inviting the author to submit a work that might be published in three volumes. Maintaining her pseudonym of Currer Bell, Brontë sent off the manuscript of Jane Eyre on 24 August, five days after completing the fair copy. The book was accepted at once; within a month Brontë was correcting proofs; and on 19 October 1847, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, "edited by Currer Bell," was published in three volumes at thirty-one shillings, sixpence.
The book won immediate and widespread acclaim. The Times called it "a remarkable production," a tale that "stand[s] boldly out from the mass." The Edinburgh Review saw it as "a book of singular fascination," and Fraser's Magazine urged its readers to "lose not a day in sending for it." Within three months the novel went into a second edition, and a third appeared in April 1848: no small achievement for a three-volume novel by a wholly unknown author. One of its first readers was the novelist Thackeray, who had been sent a copy by William Smith Williams; "exceedingly moved & pleased" by the novel, Thackeray asked Williams to convey his thanks to the author. Touched by this response, Brontë dedicated the second edition to Thackeray and added a preface expressing her admiration for the author of Vanity Fair (1848), "the first social regenerator of the day."
In this chorus of praise, there were some discordant notes. The Christian Remembrancer for April 1848 commented unfavorably on the "extravagant panegyric" of the preface to the second edition, denounced the novel's "moral Jacobinism," and expressed displeasure at the author's attacks on Christian practice. Even more condemnatory was the unsigned notice in the Quarterly Review for December 1848, written by Elizabeth Rigby (soon to become Lady Eastlake). Jane Eyre is here described as "the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit," exerting the moral strength of "a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself." The novel is accused of being "pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition," guilty of "a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment." The prevailing tone, one of "ungodly discontent," allies the novel in the reviewer's opinion to the cast of mind and thought "which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home...."
The plot of Jane Eyre might well disturb those to whom the divisions of social rank were sacred, since it follows the progress of a poor orphan from a loveless and humiliating dependence to happiness and wealth as an heiress and the wife of her former employer. Jane is an outcast, a rebel who triumphs over the forces of social convention expressed through caste, religion, and sexual tradition. Victorian readers were disturbed by the novel's suggestion that women need not always be passive or submissive, and by its treatment of love, which, by contemporary standards, seemed coarse and offensive. The supremacy of romantic love is an ancient theme in literature, but in Jane Eyre it was presented with a frankness and intensity new to English fiction. That intensity is made possible by Brontë's choice of a first-person narrator. Jane Eyre dominates her world, which exists only as it impinges on her consciousness; every action is filtered through the medium of her sensibility, every character lives only as an actor in the drama of her life. An outline of the plot might suggest that Brontë's novel is little more than a creaky melodrama peopled by crude caricatures, but such is the authority, the conviction with which Jane tells her story that the reader is swept along by the narrative, undisturbed by improbabilities of character or plot.
One version of the novel's origin, related by Mrs. Gaskell, is that during a discussion with her sisters about the qualities necessary in a protagonist, Charlotte Brontë declared that she would show them "a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours." Such an intention is evident in the introductory chapters of Jane Eyre, where the ten-year-old Jane is seen as a prickly and unappealing child. She is an outsider, excluded by her Aunt Reed from the domestic circle around the hearth (a recurring image in the novel), and markedly different from her handsome but unpleasant cousins. She lacks their external attractiveness and confident air and is looked on with contempt even by the servants; only the solitary world of books and the imagination offers her any comfort, while her yearning for love must satisfy itself with an old doll. Yet the reader is soon made conscious of Jane's inner strength; her fierce assertion of self against the Reeds' cruelty and injustice intimidates even her aunt. Charlotte Brontë conveys very powerfully the child's sense of alienation, helplessness, and anger in the face of adult oppression. Jane's rebellion at Gateshead against the tyranny of the Reeds is the first step in her progress toward spiritual freedom; at the same time, the wretchedness she feels after her violent outburst against Mrs. Reed reveals the danger of giving "uncontrolled play" to passionate feelings. The destructive potential of passion, imaged in chapter four as a fiery heath left "black and blasted," is to become a major theme in the Thornfield section of the novel.
In depicting Jane's search for the warmth and security of familial love, Charlotte Brontë undoubtedly endowed her heroine with some of her own yearnings; and the autobiographical strain is even more evident in the chapters of Jane Eyre describing Lowood Institution, a thinly veiled reminiscence of life at the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge. Mr. Brocklehurst, the "black marble clergyman," conveys the tone of William Carus Wilson's evangelical fervor in his speech, but the element of hypocrisy in Brocklehurst's sermonizing probably owes more to Charlotte Brontë's sense of justice than to the truth about Carus Wilson. Unlike his fictional counterpart, Carus Wilson had the welfare of his pupils at heart, but he lacked administrative experience, and his school was plagued in its early days by financial difficulties. Mrs. Gaskell's description of the Clergy Daughters' School and its director, in the first edition of The Life of Charlotte Brontë, seems to confirm the picture given in Jane Eyre; but it should be remembered that she had obtained much of her information from Brontë herself, before the latter's death. Under the threat of legal proceedings by Carus Wilson's family (as well as by Branwell's former employer, Mrs. Robinson, now Lady Scott), Mrs. Gaskell made extensive revisions for the third edition of the biography and presented Carus Wilson in a less unfavorable light.
Mrs. Gaskell did not, however, soften her account of the cruel treatment suffered by Charlotte's eldest sister, Maria, at the hands of one of Carus Wilson's teachers. Maria was Brontë's model for the character of Helen Burns, Jane Eyre's first friend at Lowood, who achieves almost saintly stature by her meekness and patient endurance of hardship, and who teaches Jane the importance of Christian love and humility. Charlotte Brontë obviously intended to pay tribute to the qualities of her dead sister, but she was artist enough not to be satisfied with a simple portrait from life; Helen Burns teaches Jane the virtues of patience and forgiveness, but her spiritual ardor and otherworldly faith are too intense for one like Jane, whose needs and desires are firmly rooted in this world, and who recoils from the "unfathomed gulf" of heaven and hell.
At eighteen, Jane leaves Lowood for "a new servitude," to become a governess at Thornfield Hall. Here the novel enters the realm of romance; the realism of character and setting which marks the descriptions of life at Gateshead and Lowood gives way to the mode and materials of Gothic melodrama, a vein that Charlotte and Branwell had mined in their Angrian chronicles. Social concerns are not wholly absent from Thornfield; in her account of Rochester's house party, Charlotte Brontë treats the empty pretensions of the English upper class with the same brand of bitter satire that she directs against Mr. Brocklehurst's religious hypocrisy. For the most part, however, the narrative moves on to a plane where dreams, visions, and presentiments have the force of waking reality: the world of cruel teachers and burned breakfasts gives way to one of mystery, terror, and sudden violence. The master of Thornfield is Edward Fairfax Rochester; like his predecessor, Zamorna, he is a compound of the Gothic villain and the Byronic hero: moody, passionate, overpoweringly attractive to women, burdened by a guilty past. Thornfield itself, with its crenellated front, its dark corridors, its hidden secret on the third story, becomes an English version of the Gothic castle, ruled by a tyrant and haunted by specters. What saves this section of Jane Eyre from descending to the level of adolescent fantasy and sensational melodrama is Brontë's concentration on the intensity of Jane's feelings and her use of such conventional materials to reflect and underscore her heroine's emotional turmoil. In the dark confines of Thornfield, Jane's troubled and passionate nature can find a release denied her in the "real" world; Rochester's brooding sexuality offers her the possibility of realizing desires normally forbidden expression. The danger that Jane runs in giving way to such feelings is expressed in language heavily charged with romantic symbolism; images of darkness, storm, and ruin counterpoint the description of the lovers' rising passions, and when Jane accepts Rochester's proposal, Nature herself protests, reminding the reader of the groans and "signs of woe" with which Nature greets the fall of mankind in Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). When Jane finally discovers Rochester's secret, the insane wife he has kept hidden at Thornfield for ten years, she is confronted by a frightening projection of one extreme of her own nature; Bertha Rochester is what Jane might have become: a creature governed by unbridled, irrational passions, stripped of human identity.
The visionary and nightmare qualities of these chapters, strongly suggestive to post-Freudian readers of a disturbed libido, give way to more conventional moral concerns, as Jane rejects Rochester's plea that she live with him as his mistress and flees Thornfield in obedience to the dictates of conscience and self-respect. Here--despite the accusations of the Quarterly Review--the novel takes on a distinctly Christian quality, albeit in a somewhat unorthodox mingling of traditional Protestant values and romantic supernaturalism. Jane is seen as a suffering sinner who, like Christian in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678), must struggle through the world beset by trials and temptations in search of grace. At moments of intense spiritual crisis she is guided by a benevolent Providence, first manifested in the vision of her mother which tells her to "flee temptation," then sensed as "the might and strength of God" that comes to her rescue in her deepest despair and leads her through the marsh to her cousins' house. Though modern critics, often eager to see in Jane a prototype of the modern liberated woman, rightly emphasize her spirit of independence and self-reliance, it should also be recognized that in her quest for earthly happiness Jane is guided by a simple faith that gives her the inner strength to continue her search. Conviction of the validity of her own feelings is made possible by an unwavering belief in God--not the Calvinistic deity of Mr. Brocklehurst but a loving God expressed in and through nature.
The pattern of trial, temptation, and providential intervention established in the Thornfield episode and echoed in Jane's account of her subsequent wandering on the moors is repeated in the course of her relationship with her cousin, St. John Rivers. Rochester had threatened to destroy Jane's moral nature; St. John, whose powerful will and spiritual ambition almost overwhelm Jane's sense of self, poses an equally serious threat to the passions that give her life. Modeled in part upon Henry Martyn, the devout missionary whom Mr. Brontë had known at Cambridge and who had done much work in India, St. John displays an ardent and eloquent Evangelicalism that is unmistakably sincere. Yet in his pride and ambition he is less than perfect; and the struggle between his sensual nature and his spiritual zeal gives him enough humanity to make him more than just a mechanical foil to Rochester.
Jane is saved from surrendering her will to St. John's only by another providential intervention, this time in the form of Rochester's voice calling to her from afar. Her return to Rochester and their subsequent marriage (made possible by Bertha's fiery demise) is a satisfying conclusion to the story of their troubled love; yet there is a subdued, even anticlimactic quality about the novel's final chapters, perhaps because both Jane and Rochester have lost the spirit of willful defiance that is the basis of their appeal. So much of Jane Eyre is pervaded by the language and ideas of romanticism, especially in its emphasis on spiritual rebellion against a corrupt society, that Rochester's retributive maiming and his belated submission to divine law may seem a rather weak surrender to conventional morality. That Jane should now settle into a life of quiet middle-class domesticity also seems a renunciation of the passionate idealism that has hitherto marked her nature. Such an ending, however, reflects a sober recognition that life cannot always be lived at fever pitch. Only those who are prepared to turn their backs on the claims of nature can devote their lives to the unswerving pursuit of an ideal; and significantly the novel's closing paragraphs are concerned with the missionary achievements of St. John Rivers, doomed, like his real-life counterpart Henry Martyn, to an early death in the service of his God.
For Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë received £500: for a first novel, a princely amount indeed, especially in comparison to the terms obtained from T. C. Newby by Emily and Anne, whose advance of £50 toward the cost of production was never refunded. Anne's next novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was also published by Newby; at its appearance in June 1848, Newby sought to profit from the success of Jane Eyre by suggesting to an American publisher that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was written by the same author as Jane Eyre--that in fact Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were the pseudonyms of a single author. This alarmed Smith, Elder, who had already promised Currer Bell's next work to the New York firm of Harper, and who now asked for assurances that Currer Bell was not acting in bad faith. Accordingly, on a wet evening in July 1848, Charlotte and Anne walked across the moors to Keighley, caught the night train to Leeds, and presented themselves next morning in London to an astonished George Smith, dispelling any doubts the publisher might have had about their separate identities.
Thus began a relationship that was to last until Charlotte Brontë's death seven years later. When they first met, George Smith was twenty-four years old, eight years Brontë's junior, an attractive and energetic young businessman with an open and generous disposition. He and his widowed mother formed a strong attachment to Brontë; they shepherded her around London during her several visits to the capital, introduced her to the literary lions of the day, and on one occasion took her on a brief tour of Scotland. That there was a kind of playful flirtation between them is clear from the tone of Brontë's letters to Smith over the years: there is a lightheartedness, a vivaciousness not apparent in her other correspondence. But Brontë was under no illusion that their friendship might ripen into something deeper: as she told Ellen Nussey in June 1850, "I believe that George and I understand each other very well, and respect each other very sincerely. We both know the wide breach time has made between us; we do not embarrass each other, or very rarely, my six or eight years of seniority, to say nothing of lack of all pretension to beauty, etc., are a perfect safeguard." George Smith was later to tell Mrs. Humphry Ward that he "never could have loved any woman who had not some charm or grace of person, and Charlotte Brontë had none.... But I believe that my mother was at one time rather alarmed...."
George Smith was anxious to follow up the success of Jane Eyre with another work by Currer Bell, and in December 1847 W. S. Williams suggested that Brontë write a novel for serial publication. She rejected this proposal but revealed that she was already planning a new three-volume novel based on a reworking of the materials she had used in The Professor . She made several attempts to begin this new work; one such commencement survives in the undated and untitled manuscript fragment known as "John Henry" or "The Moores," which describes the relationship between an overbearing mill owner and his intelligent, sensitive younger brother. The characters and framework of this story are strongly reminiscent of The Professor, but other elements, such as the characters' names and the younger brother's disdain for superiority based on rank or wealth, point toward Shirley. That novel began to take shape early in 1848, and Brontë made such steady progress that the first volume and part of the second were completed before the end of September. Then came a series of tragedies which ended all joy in composition and might well have destroyed the creative impulse in one less strong than Charlotte Brontë.
First, on 24 September 1848, came the death of Branwell. Though he had been declining for a long time, his death still came as a heavy blow to his family. Charlotte, who had been the most angry and embittered at his degenerate conduct, was the one who felt his loss the most deeply, and for several weeks after the funeral she was prostrated by grief and illness. This was succeeded by an even severer shock: Emily fell prey to consumption, and after a brief but heroic struggle, she died on 19 December 1848. More anguish was to follow; even before Emily's death, Anne's health had begun to deteriorate, and now she too suffered a rapid decline. In May 1849 Charlotte and Ellen Nussey took her to Scarborough in the hope that fresh sea air might bring some improvement, but she died there on 28 May, three days after their arrival.
Now, at thirty-three, Charlotte was the sole survivor of the six Brontë children. Grief and solitude weighed heavily upon her, but she pressed on with Shirley, finding in work an anodyne for her suffering; as she told William Smith Williams after the novel's completion, "the occupation of writing it has been a boon to me. It took me out of dark and desolate reality into an unreal but happier region." The manuscript of Shirley was finished by the end of August 1849. Before sending it off to Smith, Elder, Brontë prepared a lengthy preface in which Currer Bell took to task the hostile reviewer of Jane Eyre in the Quarterly Review. The peevish tone and somewhat laborious ironies of the intended preface did not please George Smith, and when Shirley: A Tale was published in three volumes on 26 October 1849, no preface was included. However, Brontë's angry scorn of the Quarterly Review had already found release in the text itself: in Mrs. Pryor's account of her employment as a governess in the Hardman family, the unpleasant Hardmans are made to condemn themselves in words taken verbatim from Elizabeth Rigby's attack on Jane Eyre.
In that novel, Brontë had focused on the personal history and emotional experience of an individual; in Shirley , she sought to diffuse the interest among a number of characters and to bring them into contact with the public world of politics and social conflict. The novel is set in the West Riding of Yorkshire during the troubled years of 1811-1812, when the economic hardships ensuing from the war with France, complicated by an embargo on trade with America and the introduction of new machinery, led to massive unemployment and widespread rioting in the wool-producing districts. Much of the novel's action centers on Robert Moore, a local mill owner who is threatened on one hand by bankruptcy and on the other by Luddite machinebreakers. With the help of the militia, he routs a force of workers who had set out to destroy his mill; subsequently, however, he is shot by a religious fanatic and seriously wounded. Alongside this plot of industrial conflict is developed the story of Caroline Helstone, Moore's cousin, and her friendship with Shirley Keeldar, a spirited young heiress and landowner. Caroline, who lives with her guardian, a stern Tory clergyman, falls in love with Moore, but, believing that she has lost him to Shirley, enters into a dangerous decline. She is saved from death by the care of Mrs. Pryor, Shirley's elderly companion, who reveals herself to be Caroline's long-lost mother. Shirley herself is in love with Louis Moore, Robert's brother and her former tutor; despite opposition from class-conscious relatives, Shirley encourages Louis's attentions, and at the novel's conclusion they are married. Caroline and Robert are also united, the latter having recovered from his wound and acknowledged his love for his devoted cousin.
Brontë's choice of a subject so different from that of Jane Eyre was governed in part by her response to criticism of that novel's romantic excesses. G. H. Lewes in particular, writing in Fraser's Magazine, had mingled praise for the novel's strength of characterization and narrative power with an admonition about the dangers of melodrama. The opening of Shirley, with its warning to the reader that he should expect, not romance, but "something unromantic as Monday morning" is clearly an answer to that charge and a declaration of solemn intent, though couched in such ironic terms as to make it clear that the author is also mocking her critics. There is certainly a homely realism in much of the first volume, notably in the portraits of the three curates and of the house-proud Hortense Moore, characters drawn with a comic touch that is rare in Brontë's adult fiction. There is no comedy, however, in her description of the hardships of the Yorkshire unemployed, or in her accounts of the bitter confrontations of master and men. Her choice of this grim subject may have been inspired by the Chartist agitation that had troubled England for a decade, reaching its climax with a massive demonstration in London in April 1848. That Brontë should have turned to a historical parallel, the Luddite disturbances, to explore the "Condition of England" question reflects her natural reluctance to become involved in contemporary political controversy; as she told Williams in April 1848, "political partizanship is what I would ever wish to avoid as much as religious bigotry."
Charlotte Brontë took pains to present an accurate picture of the Luddite uprisings in the West Riding. She doubtless recalled stories about this period of Yorkshire history told by Miss Wooler at Roe Head, and by her father, who had known some of the principal antagonists during the time of his curacy at Hartshead-cum-Clifton. To supplement such anecdotal sources, Brontë studied the files of the Leeds Mercury for 1811-1813, making copies of some of its reports on Luddite activities. The result in Shirley is an authentic recreation of the period in which local events are merged with issues of national policy, and fiction is expertly blended with historical fact. The climax of the novel's industrial theme, the attack on Robert Moore's mill, is a reworking of a famous incident in April 1812, when a band of Luddites stormed William Cartwright's mill at Rawfolds, near Hartshead, and suffered a heavy defeat; the assault and its consequences were prominently reported in the Leeds Mercury.Shirley is not simply fictionalized history, however; Brontë's interest lies primarily in her characters and their relationships, and she adapts or changes historical detail to suit the needs of her narrative. Her treatment of history is also colored to some extent by her Tory partialities: she presents the plight of the workers sympathetically, but it is plain that she regards their cause as mistaken, their leaders as rabble-rousers and troublemakers. At the same time, she is critical of the callousness and narrow self-interest of the manufacturers, who exploit the poor with little regard for their misery. The plot of Shirley deals in part with the reeducation and rehabilitation of the mill owner Robert Moore, whose contact with the suffering he has helped to create teaches him to value men more than machines. In this respect the novel offers an oblique comment on the need for more tolerant attitudes on the part of the governing class in the England of 1848.
The theme of industrial conflict is interwoven with the stories of Caroline and Shirley, through whom Brontë explores another important social issue: the failure of Victorian society to give women the kinds of opportunities afforded to men to develop their abilities, realize their potential, and exercise some control over their lives. Not unlike the factory workers, women are exploited, their needs ignored, their roles strictly defined by male authority. Shirley, by virtue of her wealth and social station, can successfully challenge this domination, much to the anger and frustration of most of the men she encounters; Caroline, however, poor and unconnected, has few choices: the role of genteel spinster (a forbidding fate, as reflected in the lives of Miss Mann and Miss Ainley), or the servitude of the governess-trade described with bitter restraint by Mrs. Pryor. Rescue ultimately comes in the only form possible for a woman in Caroline's position: marriage. Yet as Brontë makes clear in a long (and somewhat uncharacteristic) reflection by Caroline in volume two, chapter eleven, such salvation does not come to all; and the struggle for success in an overstocked "matrimonial market" all too often leads women into degrading and humiliating competition, making them objects of scorn and ridicule to men. The solution is to give single women "better chances of interesting and profitable occupation than they possess now" and to cultivate girls' minds, not keep them "narrow and fettered." Brontë's feminism lacks the political dimension that marked the growth of the women's movement later in the century, but her call for women's emancipation from domestic slavery puts her at the forefront of that movement and gives Shirley added force and interest.
Few of the book's early reviewers, however, found much to praise in Brontë's attempt to branch out into realms of social comment. Only Eugéne Forcade, writing in the Revue des deux mondes (15 November 1849), voiced approval of the novel's assertion of "moral liberty, the spirit of rebelliousness, the impulses of revolt against certain social conventions," noting that its subtitle might well have been "On the Condition of Women in the English Middle Class." For the most part, critical responses reflected disappointment that Shirley was not cast in the same mold as Jane Eyre. Reviewers were bored by the characters' lengthy conversations, or offended by the aggressive and unwomanly conduct of the eponymous heroine. While acknowledging the author's descriptive powers, they found the plot slow-moving, the chief male characters unconvincing. There is some basis for such complaints. The narrative lacks focus and unity, in large part because of the almost equal emphasis given to the two heroines and the course of their respective love affairs. The belated introduction of Shirley, who does not appear until the eleventh chapter, gives an awkward wrench to the plot, which has hitherto centered on the relationship between Caroline and Robert. The character of Shirley herself is drawn with mixed success: though she has an appealing liveliness and intellectual vigor, her attractions seem somewhat brittle, and her love for the wooden and uninteresting figure of Louis Moore belies all the positive aspects of her nature. From the account given by Mrs. Gaskell, it is known that Brontë intended, through Shirley, to portray her sister Emily as she might have been had she lived. Undoubtedly Shirley has some of Emily's characteristics--her love of nature, her stoicism, her almost mystical apprehension of experience; but Emily did not have Shirley's dazzling beauty, her aggressive wit and charm, or her ability to dominate all around her. It is likely, rather, that some aspects of Emily's character were grafted onto the portrait of Shirley as the novel was being written; the first volume had been completed before Emily's death in December 1848, and it is possible that when she returned to the novel's composition, Charlotte modified her original conception to include Emily's qualities in the portrayal of Shirley as a kind of posthumous tribute. Shirley was an extremely ambitious effort by a young novelist eager to win recognition as a serious writer. It may lack the concentration, the driving force of a single vision that gives Jane Eyre its power; but in its treatment of complex social issues and its panoramic study of a turbulent period of English history, Shirley ranks with novels like Disraeli's Sybil (1845), Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), or Dickens's Hard Times (1854) as a significant contribution to the Victorian debate about the goals and values of industrial capitalism.
Between the publication of Shirley in October 1849 and the appearance of Villette in January 1853, Charlotte Brontë's life was marked by loneliness, depression, and recurring illness. She occupied herself with household affairs and the care of her father, but the sense of loss weighed heavily upon her, renewed daily by all the associations of the parsonage and the surrounding moors. She found some relief, and an outlet for her creative energies, in editing her sisters' literary remains. At Smith, Elder's suggestion she prepared an edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, together with selections from her sisters' poems. The book was published in one volume at six shillings in December 1850, with a "Biographical Notice" and other prefatory materials by Charlotte which gave the reading public its first glimpse into the lives of the Brontës, as well as dispelling the still-current notion that all their works had been the production of one person. Brontë also emended the text of Wuthering Heights, correcting the many errors introduced by its first publisher, T. C. Newby, softening the harsh and incomprehensible dialect of Joseph, and altering the staccato paragraphing to create a greater smoothness of effect. Modern critics have taken her to task for these textual changes; but her introductory comments about Emily's character and about Wuthering Heights itself are perceptive and intelligent.
Brontë's widening circle of acquaintances, the result of her literary fame, afforded another source of distraction from her grief. She paid several visits to the Smiths in London and found herself, much to her dislike, the center of eager curiosity and attention. She met Thackeray, for whom her earlier admiration was cooled somewhat by his worldliness and evident enjoyment of fashionable society. She was introduced to G. H. Lewes, with whom she had corresponded since the publication of Jane Eyre, and was taken by his remarkable likeness in features to her sister Emily. She also struck up a friendship with Harriet Martineau and became her guest at Ambleside in December 1850; in Miss Martineau's company she met Matthew Arnold, who displeased her by his affected manner and "seeming foppery." In August 1850, staying at Windermere with Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth and his wife, Brontë met her future biographer, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, and was at once drawn to this warmhearted and sympathetic woman, telling her much that was subsequently to be incorporated into The Life of Charlotte Brontë . The most eventful of Brontë's excursions from Haworth was her trip to London at the end of May 1851. Staying as usual at the Smiths', she was taken on numerous outings. She attended four of Thackeray's six lectures on the English humorists; met Richard Monckton Milnes (the future biographer of Keats) and the eminent Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster; breakfasted with the poet Samuel Rogers; and paid five visits to the Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition which had opened on 1 May 1851. In George Smith's company, she attended two performances by the great French tragedienne Rachel, whose acting made her "shudder to the marrow of my bones: in her some fiend has certainly taken up an incarnate home." Smith also indulged her taste for phrenology, the pseudoscience of determining character by examining the conformation of the skull, to which Brontë makes frequent reference in her novels: they visited a Dr. J. P. Browne, whose phrenological study of "Miss Fraser" (her pseudonym on this occasion) resulted in a surprisingly accurate picture of Brontë's character.
Soon after her return to Haworth, Brontë began work on her new novel. The task proved difficult, partly because she could not free herself from the depression that grew out of her solitude. Now thirty-five years old, she saw no prospect of an end to her spinsterhood. For a short time she had received the attentions of James Taylor, George Smith's manager in Cornhill; but he struck her as lacking in intellect and good breeding, and any possibility of a union between them evaporated when Taylor left England in May 1851 to act as Smith's agent in India. Despite the blank prospect that opened before her, Brontë struggled on with her writing; and by the spring of 1852 her creative powers had returned with much of their old strength. After preparing a list of changes and corrections for the new one-volume edition of Shirley in March, she worked steadily on Villette, sending Smith the last volume in November. A temporary difficulty had been created by her father's wish that the book end happily; Mrs. Gaskell relates that Mr. Brontë "disliked novels which left a melancholy impression upon the mind." Charlotte would not alter her plan of having Paul Emanuel drown at sea; however, notes Mrs. Gaskell, she sought "so to veil the fate in oracular words, as to leave it to the character and discernment of her readers to interpret her meaning." Of greater concern to Brontë was the book's reception by her publisher, not least because she feared that George Smith might take offense at the use she had made of him and his mother in her depiction of the Brettons. She was conscious, too, that the book lacked "public interest" and touched on nothing topical or exciting. Her anxieties were increased by Smith's criticism of the shift in interest from John Graham Bretton to Paul Emanuel in the third volume. Smith seemed reluctant to proceed with the novel's printing; so, unable to bear any further delays or uncertainties, Brontë went up to London to see him. Her visit had the desired effect: whatever objections Smith might have had were overcome, the printing went ahead, and on 28 January 1853 Villette , by Currer Bell, made its appearance in the familiar three-volume format at thirty-one shillings, sixpence.
With Villette Brontë returned to the autobiographical mode which had given Jane Eyre such coherence and conviction despite the implausibility of its plot. This time, however, she avoided an uncritical identification with her heroine: Lucy Snowe embodies much of Brontë's own experience and outlook, and in many respects is a projection of her creator's inner self, but the novel is not simply a fictionalized expression of personal feelings or the enactment of Brontë's secret dreams and fantasies. Despite its obvious connection with the writer's life in Brussels, Villette is imbued with a critical irony from which even its narrator is not exempt.
An outline of the plot can scarcely convey the complexity or intensity of the emotional struggles it dramatizes. The reader first meets the heroine, Lucy Snowe, as a fourteen-year-old girl in the household of her godmother, Louisa Bretton, a widow with a sixteen-year-old son, John Graham Bretton. Lucy is joined by little Paulina Home, whose mother has recently died and whose father is going abroad to secure his business affairs. The elfin Polly attaches herself to John Graham, who treats her with an appropriately adolescent mixture of amusement and indifference. Forced by circumstances to support herself, Lucy takes employment as companion to a elderly invalid, Miss Marchmont, whose history of a love frustrated by fate prefigures Lucy's own subsequent experience. At Miss Marchmont's death, Lucy travels to Villette, capital of Labassecour ("little town" and "the farmyard": Brontë's ironic names for Brussels and Belgium); here she becomes a teacher at the Pensionnat de Demoiselles owned by Mme Beck. In Villette Lucy meets the Brettons again; John Graham, now ten years older, is a practicing physician for whom the scheming Mme Beck is evidently setting her cap. He seems to encourage Madame's advances, while in reality he is paying court to one of her pupils, the flighty Ginevra Fanshawe. For a time Lucy is herself drawn into "Dr. John's" sphere; however, any chance of his giving her serious attention is ended by the reappearance of Paulina Home, whose father has become the Count de Bassompierre, and who quickly becomes the focus of Dr. John's interest. Lucy herself finds an admirer in Paul Emanuel, Mme Beck's cousin, who teaches literature at the pensionnat; despite his stormy nature and Madame's attempted interference, Paul wins Lucy's love, establishes her in her own little school in Villette, and departs for the West Indies to manage some family affairs. Lucy remains faithful to him during the three years of his absence, but during his return home he perishes in a shipwreck.
In plot and setting, Villette has obvious similarities to The Professor, but it is not merely a refashioning of the materials used in the earlier work. It is colored even more highly than The Professor by Brontë's recollections of her two years at the Pensionnat Heger. The Hegers' school, with its cluster of classrooms and dormitories, its sheltered garden and "allée défendue," is recreated in careful detail. The Hegers themselves are unmistakably the models for Mme Beck, the school's calculating directress, and Paul Emanuel, the fiery teacher whose unpredictable temper alternately delights and terrifies his pupils. Even the girls and teachers at Mme Beck's school can be identified with real-life originals Brontë had met in Brussels. Many other aspects of Villette are clearly autobiographical; such events as Lucy's journey through London and across the Channel, her visit to an art exhibition and a concert, her attendance at a performance by "Vashti" (Rachel), all are drawn from the writer's own experiences in Brussels and London. Lucy's relationship with the Brettons adumbrates elements of Brontë's friendship with George Smith and his mother. Lucy herself has recognizable similarities to Brontë, from her contemptuous dislike of Belgians and her distrust of Catholicism to her consciousness of physical inferiority and her susceptibility to depression.
Despite the temptation to regard Villette as autobiographical, however, the question of Lucy's likeness to her creator must be treated with caution, for Brontë distances herself from her narrator in a number of ways. Though Lucy speaks with the most authority, she is not always honest with herself or with her reader, and sometimes her interpretation of character or event betrays the biases of a mind warped to some extent by a sense of failure, frustration, and inadequacy. Lucy describes herself as a "looker-on" at life and dreads the revelation of her own feelings; thence springs the agony she feels when asked by M. Paul to take a part in the school play. From her vantage point of seemingly detached observer, she passes caustic comment on the weaknesses or pretensions of those around her. Even as a girl, her determination to avoid emotional involvement is evident in her almost clinical scrutiny of little Polly's suffering at the temporary separation from her father. Writing to George Smith shortly before completing the manuscript, Brontë explained her choice of the heroine's name (she had wavered between "Frost" and "Snowe"): "A cold name she must have; partly, perhaps, on the 'lucus a non lucendo' principle--partly on that of the 'fitness of things,' for she has about her an external coldness." Convinced that fate has decreed that her life be deprived of warmth or love, Lucy is determined to protect herself from rebuff, from the pain that self-exposure might entail; for this reason, she at first conceals from Dr. John (and from the reader) the fact of their earlier acquaintance. She takes a masochistic satisfaction in the contrast between the beauty of her empty-headed young friend Ginevra and her own plainness. Her crusty manner leads Ginevra to call her "Diogenes" or "Timon," nicknames that Lucy enjoys, since they confirm her preferred posture of cynical coldness and spiritual independence.
Yet Lucy is a creature of strong feelings; and inevitably those feelings seek an outlet, first in the morbid depression that leads her to make a confession to a Catholic priest, then in an imagined attachment to Dr. John, who treats her kindly during her illness. This last episode and the subsequent shift of interest to Paul Emanuel have been seen as a structural weakness in the novel; but Lucy's fantasies about Dr. John are a necessary prelude to the real love that awakens in her later. The young Englishman is a kind of conventional novel hero; with his good looks, charming manner, and gentlemanly breeding he presents Lucy with a model of the masculine virtues that, in her longing for love, she can hardly resist. Not until she has buried this romantic illusion (a literal interment, with the burial of Dr. John's letters) can she recognize that love is possible in less conventional, but also less superficial terms in the hitherto comic form of Paul Emanuel.
The irascible schoolteacher takes Lucy into the last stages of her emotional growth, liberates her from her neurotic repressions, and enables her to find expression for her natural yearnings. From the first he perceives the powerful feelings that Lucy tries to deny, and like Rochester with Jane Eyre, he teases those feelings to the surface by a mixture of insult and kindness. Paul is perhaps the most credible (and likable) of Brontë's male characters: she does not minimize his faults--his jealous pride, his overbearing manner, his pettiness; yet it is he who assumes the role of hero in Villette, not the more glamorous John Graham Bretton. He is the "natural" man, incapable of disguise or deceit, whose very weaknesses make him more human and accessible than the polished (and rather superficial) doctor. In the claustrophobic world of the pensionnat, Paul is a breath of fresh air and gives Lucy for the first time in her life a hope of happiness. Like Greatheart in Pilgrim's Progress, he becomes her champion, battling for her soul with Apollyon, the redoubtable Mme Beck.
Though cast in the same mold as Zoraîde Reuter of The Professor, Modeste Maria Beck is a far more formidable character. The argument as to whether or not she is a just representation of her original, Mme Heger, is irrelevant; her function is to be Lucy's crafty, passionless antagonist, a proponent of spiritual tyranny and Romanist subversion, and for this she is endowed with qualities of intellect and perceptiveness that make her a worthy enemy. Lucy acknowledges her powers and even voices her admiration for her ability to manipulate others. In some respects they are similar in temperament: both are secretive, both conceal their true feelings and assume a persona appropriate to the occasion; but while Mme Beck plays roles systematically as a means of maintaining her power, Lucy does so out of necessity, for fear of giving herself away and losing the mastery over self that protects her from pain.
Punctuating the story of Lucy's struggle with Mme Beck and her own feelings is the recurring motif of the ghostly nun, a Gothic device that turns out to have a somewhat bathetic explanation, but that is nevertheless effective as a means of projecting the turbulence of Lucy's emotions and suggesting the illusory nature of her grasp on reality. The nun in the garden, like the figure of Justine Marie who seems to stand between Lucy and M. Paul, is real enough, yet also a creation of her heated imagination; when she returns from her almost hallucinatory expedition to the park where she has seen Paul with her imagined rival Justine Marie, Lucy finds the ghostly nun lying on her bed--nothing more than a bolster covered in a black stole. The discovery is a fittingly ironic comment on Lucy's capacity for self-deception and misconstruction.
Distorted though her vision may be at times, Lucy Snowe's painful circumstances are not imaginary. In The Professor and Jane Eyre, Brontë had already examined the plight of a young woman of feeling and intelligence cast into the world and forced to make her own way. Her own experience had shown her that society placed no premium on inner worth; that happiness was doubtful for those who must earn their own bread; that love, sexual fulfillment, even domestic comfort were achieved by few women. Lucy Snowe tries to detach herself from life out of a conviction that any kind of emotional commitment must bring suffering and humiliation. Even though she wins love in the end, it is a very limited happiness that she is granted, since Paul is snatched away from her at the last moment by a cruel and arbitrary fate. Lucy may have gained maturity of vision and freedom from her neurotic fears of inadequacy, but her creator's pessimism denies her the final reward of romantic reunion: the return to an Edenic garden, permitted to Jane Eyre, is no longer possible.
Villette's intensity of feeling, its concentration on the heroine's yearning and frustration, its veiled and enigmatic ending did not sit well with early readers. Reviewers praised the novel's detailed portrait of school life and found much to applaud in the freshness and vitality of "Currer Bell's" eccentric schoolmaster hero, but there was some dissatisfaction with the novel's emphasis on Lucy's suffering: the Spectator felt that Lucy "took a savage delight in refusing to be comforted," and Harriet Martineau protested in the Daily News at the "amount of subjective misery," the "atmosphere of pain" that hung about the novel. Readers familiar with the details of the author's life treated Villette as a personal revelation; Thackeray saw it as little more than the expression of Brontë's own yearnings for love, while Matthew Arnold declared the novel "disagreeable" because "the writer's mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage...." Such dismissive judgments, ignoring the book's narrative art and structural ironies, were less than just, yet they reflect an ineluctable truth: the source of the novel's strength, its power to arouse and disturb, does lie in the author's painful attempt to reconcile the conflict between her desires and her sense of inadequacy. Villette strikes the modern reader as a successful book because Brontë was able to transform her own "hunger, rebellion and rage" into a dramatic study of a tormented female sensibility, revealing its distortions and excesses as well as its nobility in suffering.
Even before the publication of this, her final work, Brontë's life had entered a new phase that was to bring her, however briefly, the happiness she had sought for so long. On 13 December 1852 she received a proposal of marriage from Arthur Bell Nicholls (1818-1906), her father's dour Irish curate since 1845. She had long suspected his interest in her, but the strength of his feeling took her by surprise. Though his evident suffering and abrupt dismissal by an enraged Mr. Brontë aroused her sympathy, she was not attracted to him, and discouraged his suit. Nicholls persisted in his addresses, however; he and Charlotte entered into a clandestine correspondence, and in April 1854, with Mr. Brontë's reluctant consent, they became engaged. Charlotte's feelings for Nicholls had ripened into respect, but she had no illusions about the brilliance of her prospects, telling Ellen Nussey that "what I taste of happiness is of the soberest order." Fifteen years earlier, she had refused Henry Nussey because he did not inspire in her "that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him"; experience had cured her of such romantic idealism, and she was now ready to take refuge in the comfort of a relationship promising at least affection and security.
Brontë's increasing preoccupation with domestic affairs and a growing coolness in her relations with George Smith made it difficult for her to apply herself seriously to the task of writing a new novel. She did make several attempts, beginnings which survive in the manuscript fragments "The Story of Willie Ellin" and "Emma." The former, written in the early summer of 1853, represents a return to the theme of two rival brothers which Brontë had first explored in her juvenile stories. Like their many predecessors, the brothers bear the names Edward and William; the elder, Edward Ellin, is a cruel guardian to his ten-year-old brother, whom he intends to apprentice to trade. Willie seeks refuge in the former family house, Ellin Balcony, but is recaptured and whipped for his recalcitrance. The fragments show Charlotte Brontë experimenting with alternative plot lines, introducing different characters to act as Willie's protectors. One short part presents an unusual narrative point of view: the speaker appears to be a disembodied spirit that haunts the Ellins' ancestral home. The other fragment, "Emma," begun on 27 November 1853, is a more conventional account about a young girl called Matilda Fitzgibbon, who is left by her father as a boarder at a girls' school. At first presumed to be an heiress, she is treated with great partiality; but when the discovery is made that her father had given a fictitious name and address, and that he has disappeared, "Matilda" is confronted by her irate schoolteacher and collapses. The fragment is interesting chiefly for its satirical portrait of Miss Wilcox, the eldest of the sisters who run the school; the chief male character, who takes the rejected Matilda under his wing at the end of the fragment, is called Mr. Ellin. "Emma" was published posthumously in the fourth number of the Cornhill Magazine (April 1860), with a laudatory introduction by Thackeray.
With her marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls on 29 June 1854, Charlotte Brontë's literary activity came to an end. The couple honeymooned in Wales and Ireland, returning at the beginning of August to Haworth (Charlotte could not be prevailed upon to leave her ailing father for long), where Nicholls resumed his duties as Mr. Brontë's curate. For the first time since the deaths of Emily and Anne, Charlotte Brontë found life at the parsonage congenial and satisfying; her new role as a wife kept her active and occupied, and her husband, now reconciled with her father, daily revealed qualities which won her respect and increased her attachment to him. But the pleasures of this domesticity were short-lived. In January 1855 she discovered she was pregnant; she soon began to suffer from extreme nausea and vomiting, a condition which her delicate constitution was unable to bear. Worn out by the struggle, she died on 31 March 1855. Once more the house fell silent. Mr. Brontë remained there until his own death in 1861; Nicholls watched over him in his last years, then returned to his native Ireland, where he remarried in 1864.
Two further publications of importance maintained Brontë's prominence in the literary world after her death. One was Smith, Elder's publication in March 1857 of Mrs. Gaskell's controversial biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë; this proved so successful that a second edition was required in April, but under the threat of legal action by the families of William Carus Wilson and Lady Scott (formerly Mrs. Edmund Robinson of Thorp Green), Mrs. Gaskell was obliged to make extensive revisions for the third edition, published in September. In her desire to present Brontë as an almost saintly heroine, Mrs. Gaskell had perhaps allowed herself to believe too readily in some of the more exaggerated accounts of the Brontë family's adversities. The same motive doubtless led her to omit any reference to Charlotte's infatuation for Constantin Heger, although she was aware of the letters that Charlotte had written to Heger after her final departure from Brussels. Not until 1913 would the letters and the circumstances surrounding them come into public view, when they were reproduced in the Times by Marion H. Spielmann.
During her researches in preparation for the writing of the The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Mrs. Gaskell accompanied Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth on a visit to Haworth. They succeeded in persuading Nicholls to lend them a large number of unpublished manuscripts, including that of The Professor. Though Mrs. Gaskell did not think the latter would add to Brontë's reputation, she bowed to Sir James's insistence that the book be published and returned the manuscript to Nicholls with the suggestion that he revise the work for publication. Nicholls did so, making some small changes to remove what Mrs. Gaskell had called the novel's "coarseness and profanity in quoting texts of scripture," and adding a brief prefatory note dated 22 September 1856. The Professor was finally published by Smith, Elder in two volumes in June 1857 and was given a muted reception by its first readers. In his introductory note, Nicholls maintained that The Professor and Villette were "in most respects unlike," but the reviewers fastened on the obvious similarities and treated the earlier work as little more than a crude sketch of its successor. They regarded it as a literary curiosity; its interest lay in its connection with the career so movingly described by Mrs. Gaskell, rather than in any claims it might have to serious critical attention. The Professor would find its defenders: Peter Bayne praises its vivid character portrayals, thinks the story "full of life," and compares the novel favorably to Villette. Even Bayne, however, is forced to acknowledge that it is "by no means a wonderful book." Modern criticism has not sought to reverse that judgment.
In the course of his study, Bayne accords Charlotte pride of place among the Brontë sisters because she had "ten times more power" than Anne and a nature with more geniality and culture than Emily's. Later critics have moved in a different direction, finding Emily to be the greater writer. The stark and mythopoeic qualities of Wuthering Heights undeniably reflect a genius and a vision beyond Charlotte's capacities. Yet Emily's enigmatic romance, unique of its kind, was a dead end in English fiction, whereas the painful realism of Charlotte's studies of the human heart gave a fresh impetus and a new direction to the genre of the novel.
From: Rosengarten, Herbert J. "Charlotte Bronte." Victorian Novelists Before 1885, edited by Ira Bruce Nadel and William E. Fredeman, Gale, 1983. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 21.