By the same Author:
THE CREATORS THE DIVINE FIRE TWO SIDES OF A QUESTION THE HELPMATE KITTY TAILLEUR MR. AND MRS. NEVILL TYSON ANN SEVERN AND THE FIELDINGS ARNOLD WATERLOW: A LIFE UNCANNY STORIES THE RECTOR OF WYCK THE ALLINGHAMS A CURE OF SOULS FAR END HISTORY OF ANTHONY WARING TALES TOLD BY SIMPSON ETC.
THE THREE BRONTES
My thanks are due, first and chiefly, to Mr. Clement K. Shorter who placed all his copyright material at my disposal; and to Mr. G.M. Williamson and Mr. Robert H. Dodd, of New York, for allowing me to draw so largely from the Poems of Emily Bronte, published by Messrs. Dodd, Mead, and Co. in 1902; also to Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton, the publishers of the Complete Poems of Emily Bronte, edited by Mr. Shorter; and to Mr. Alfred Sutro for permission to use his translation of Wisdom and Destiny. Lastly, and somewhat late, to Mr. Arthur Symons for his translation from St. John of the Cross. If I have borrowed from him more than I had any right to without his leave, I hope he will forgive me.
THE THREE BRONTES
When six months ago Mr. Thomas Seccombe suggested that I should write a short essay on "The Three Brontes" I agreed with some misgiving.
Yet that deed was innocent compared with what I have done now; and, in any case, the series afforded the offender a certain shelter and protection. But to come out like this, into the open, with another Bronte book, seems not only a dangerous, but a futile and a fatuous adventure. All I can say is that I did not mean to do it. I certainly never meant to write so long a book.
It grew, insidiously, out of the little one. Things happened. New criticisms opened up old questions. When I came to look carefully into Mr. Clement Shorter's collection of the Complete Poems of Emily Bronte, I found a mass of material (its existence I, at any rate, had not suspected) that could not be dealt with in the limits of the original essay.
The book is, and can only be, the slightest of all slight appreciations. None the less it has been hard and terrible for me to write it. Not only had I said nearly all that I had to say already, but I was depressed at the very start by that conviction of the absurdity of trying to say anything at all, after all that has been said, about Anne, or Emily, or Charlotte Bronte.
Anne's case, perhaps, was not so difficult. For obvious reasons, Anne Bronte will always be comparatively virgin soil. But it was impossible to write of Charlotte after Mrs. Gaskell; impossible to say more of Emily than Madame Duclaux has said; impossible to add one single little fact to the vast material, so patiently amassed, so admirably arranged by Mr. Clement Shorter. And when it came to appreciation there were Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton, Sir William Robertson Nicoll, Mr. Birrell, and Mrs. Humphry Ward, lying along the ground. When it came to eulogy, after Mr. Swinburne's Note on Charlotte Bronte, neither Charlotte nor Emily have any need of praise.
And on Emily Bronte, M. Maeterlinck has spoken the one essential, the one perfect and final and sufficient word. I have "lifted" it unblushingly; for no other word comes near to rendering the unique, the haunting, the indestructible impression that she makes.
So, because all the best things about the Brontes have been said already, I have had to fall back on the humble day-labour of clearing away some of the rubbish that has gathered round them.
Round Charlotte it has gathered to such an extent that it is difficult to see her plainly through the mass of it. Much has been cleared away; much remains. Mrs. Oliphant's dreadful theories are still on record. The excellence of Madame Duclaux's monograph perpetuates her one serious error. Mr. Swinburne's Note immortalizes his. M. Heger was dug up again the other day.
It may be said that I have been calling up ghosts for the mere fun of laying them; and there might be something in it, but that really these ghosts still walk. At any rate many people believe in them, even at this time of day. M. Dimnet believes firmly that poor Mrs. Robinson was in love with Branwell Bronte. Some of us still think that Charlotte was in love with M. Heger. They cannot give him up any more than M. Dimnet can give up Mrs. Robinson.
Such things would be utterly unimportant but that they tend to obscure the essential quality and greatness of Charlotte Bronte's genius. Because of them she has passed for a woman of one experience and of one book. There is still room for a clean sweep of the rubbish that has been shot here.
In all this, controversy was unavoidable, much as I dislike its ungracious and ungraceful air. If I have been inclined to undervalue certain things—"the sojourn in Brussels", for instance—which others have considered of the first importance, it is because I believe that it is always the inner life that counts, and that with the Brontes it supremely counted.
If I have passed over the London period too lightly, it is because I judge it extraneous and external. If I have tried, cruelly, to take from Charlotte the little beige gown that she wore at Mr. Thackeray's dinner-party, it is because her home-made garments seem to suit her better. She is more herself in skirts that have brushed the moors and kept some of the soil of Haworth in their hem.
I may seem to have exaggerated her homesickness for Haworth. It may be said that Haworth was by no means Charlotte's home as it was Emily's. I am aware that there were moments—hours—when she longed to get away from it. I have not forgotten how Mary Taylor found her in such an hour, not long after her return from Brussels, when her very flesh shrank from the thought of her youth gone and "nothing done"; nothing before her but long, empty years in Haworth. The fact remains that she was never happy away from it, and that in Haworth her genius most certainly found itself at home. And this particular tone of misery and unrest disappeared from the moment when her genius declared itself, so that I am inclined to see in it a little personal dissatisfaction, if you will, but chiefly the unspeakable restlessness and misery of power unrecognized and suppressed. "Nothing done!" That was her reiterated cry.
Again, if I have overlooked the complexities of Charlotte's character, it is that the great lines that underlie it may be seen. In my heart I agree with M. Dimnet that the Brontes were not simple. All the same, I think that his admirable portrait of Charlotte is spoiled by his attitude of pity for "la pauvre fille", as he persists in calling her. I think he dwells a shade too much on her small asperities and acidities, and on that "ton de critique mesquine", which he puts down to her provincialism. No doubt there were moments of suffering and of irritation, as well as moments of uncontrollable merriment, when Charlotte lacked urbanity, but M. Dimnet has almost too keen an eye for them.
In making war on theories I cannot hope to escape a countercharge of theorizing. Exception may be taken to my own suggestion as to the effect of Wuthering Heights on Charlotte Bronte's genius. If anybody likes to fling it on the rubbish heap they may. I may have theorized a little too much in laying stress on the supernatural element in Wuthering Heights. It is because M. Dimnet has insisted too much on its brutality. I may have exaggerated Emily Bronte's "mysticism". It is because her "paganism" has been too much in evidence. It may be said that I have no more authority for my belief that Emily Bronte was in love with the Absolute than other people have for theirs, that Charlotte was in love with M. Heger.
Finally, much that I have said about Emily Bronte's hitherto unpublished poems is pure theory. But it is theory, I think, that careful examination of the poems will make good. I may have here and there given as a "Gondal" poem what is not a "Gondal" poem at all. Still, I believe, it will be admitted that it is in the cycle of these poems, and not elsewhere, that we should look for the first germs of Wuthering Heights. The evidence only demonstrates in detail—what has never been seriously contested—that the genius of Emily Bronte found its sources in itself.
10th October, 1911.
The Three Brontes
It is impossible to write of the three Brontes and forget the place they lived in, the black-grey, naked village, bristling like a rampart on the clean edge of the moor; the street, dark and steep as a gully, climbing the hill to the Parsonage at the top; the small oblong house, naked and grey, hemmed in on two sides by the graveyard, its five windows flush with the wall, staring at the graveyard where the tombstones, grey and naked, are set so close that the grass hardly grows between. The church itself is a burying ground; its walls are tombstones, and its floor roofs the forgotten and the unforgotten dead.
A low wall and a few feet of barren garden divide the Parsonage from the graveyard, a few feet between the door of the house and the door in the wall where its dead were carried through. But a path leads beyond the graveyard to "a little and a lone green lane", Emily Bronte's lane that leads to the open moors.
It is the genius of the Brontes that made their place immortal; but it is the soul of the place that made their genius what it is. You cannot exaggerate its importance. They drank and were saturated with Haworth. When they left it they hungered and thirsted for it; they sickened till the hour of their return. They gave themselves to it with passion, and their works ring with the shock and interchange of two immortalities. Haworth is saturated with them. Their souls are henceforth no more to be disentangled from its soul than their bodies from its earth. All their poetry, their passion and their joy is there, in this place of their tragedy, visible, palpable, narrow as the grave and boundless.
In the year eighteen-twenty the Reverend Patrick Bronte and his wife Maria brought their six children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily, and Anne, from Thornton, where they were born, to Haworth. Mr. Bronte was an Irishman, a village schoolmaster who won, marvellously, a scholarship that admitted him to Cambridge and the Church of England. Tales have been told of his fathers and his forefathers, peasants and peasant farmers of Ballynaskeagh in County Down. They seem to have been notorious for their energy, eccentricity, imagination, and a certain tendency to turbulence and excess. Tales have been told of Mr. Bronte himself, of his temper, his egotism, his selfishness, his fits of morose or savage temper. The Brontes' biographers, from Mrs. Gaskell and Madame Duclaux[A] to Mr. Birrell, have all been hard on this poor and unhappy and innocent old man. It is not easy to see him very clearly through the multitude of tales they tell: how he cut up his wife's silk gown in a fit of passion; how he fired off pistols in a series of fits of passion; how, in still gloomier and more malignant fits, he used to go for long solitary walks. And when you look into the matter you find that the silk gown was, after all, a cotton one, and that he only cut the sleeves out, and then walked into Keighley and brought a silk gown back with him instead; that when he was a young man at Drumballyroney he practised pistol firing, not as a safety valve for temper but as a manly sport, and that as a manly sport he kept it up. As for solitary walks, there is really no reason why a father should not take them; and if Mr. Bronte had insisted on accompanying Charlotte and Emily in their walks, his conduct would have been censured just the same, and, I think, with considerably more reason. As it happened, Mr. Bronte, rather more than most fathers, made companions of his children when they were little. This is not quite the same thing as making himself a companion for them, and the result was a terrific outburst of infant precocity; but this hardly justifies Mrs. Gaskell and Madame Duclaux. They seem to have thought that they were somehow appeasing the outraged spirits of Emily and Charlotte by blackening their father and their brother; whereas, if anything could give pain to Charlotte and Emily and innocent Anne in heaven, it would be the knowledge of what Mrs. Gaskell and Madame Duclaux have done for them.
[Footnote A: A. Mary F. Robinson.]
There was injustice in all that zeal as well as indiscretion, for Mr. Bronte had his good points as fathers go. Think what the fathers of the Victorian era could be, and what its evangelical parsons often were; and remember that Mr. Bronte was an evangelical parson, and the father of Emily and Charlotte, not of a brood of gentle, immaculate Jane Austens, and that he was confronted suddenly and without a moment's warning with Charlotte's fame. Why, the average evangelical parson would have been shocked into apoplexy at the idea of any child of his producing Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Charlotte's fame would have looked to him exceedingly like infamy. We know what Charles Kingsley, the least evangelical of parsons, once thought of Charlotte. And we know what Mr. Bronte thought of her. He was profoundly proud of his daughter's genius; there is no record and no rumour of any criticism on his part, of any remonstrance or amazement. He was loyal to Charlotte to the last days of his life, when he gave her defence into Mrs. Gaskell's hands; for which confidence Mrs. Gaskell repaid him shockingly.
But he was the kind of figure that is irresistible to the caustic or humorous biographer. There was something impotently fiery in him, as if the genius of Charlotte and Emily had flicked him in irony as it passed him by. He wound himself in yards and yards and yards of white cravat, and he wrote a revolutionary poem called "Vision of Hell". It is easy to make fun of his poems, but they were no worse, or very little worse, than his son Branwell's, so that he may be pardoned if he thought himself more important than his children. Many fathers of the Victorian era did.
And he was important as a temporary vehicle of the wandering creative impulse. It struggled and strove in him and passed from him, choked in yards and yards of white cravat, to struggle and strive again in Branwell and in Anne. As a rule the genius of the race is hostile to the creative impulse, and the creative impulse is lucky if it can pierce through to one member of a family. In the Brontes it emerges at five different levels, rising from abortive struggle to supreme achievement—from Mr. Bronte to his son Branwell, from Branwell to Anne, from Anne to Charlotte, and from Charlotte to Emily. And Maria, who died, was an infant prodigy.
And Mr. Bronte is important because he was the tool used by their destiny to keep Charlotte and Emily in Haworth.
The tragedy we are too apt to call their destiny began with their babyhood, when the mother and six children were brought to Haworth Parsonage and the prospect of the tombstones. They had not been there eighteen months before the mother sickened and died horribly of cancer.
She had to be isolated as far as possible. The Parsonage house was not large, and it was built with an extreme and straight simplicity; two front rooms, not large, right and left of the narrow stone-flagged passage, a bedroom above each, and between, squeezed into the small spare space above the passage, a third room, no bigger than a closet and without a fireplace. This third room is important in the story of the Brontes, for, when their mother's illness declared itself, it was in this incredibly small and insufferably unwholesome den that the five little girls were packed, heaven knows how, and it was here that the seeds of tuberculosis were sown in their fragile bodies. After their mother's death the little fatal room was known as the children's study (you can see, in a dreadful vision, the six pale little faces, pressed together, looking out of the window on to the graves below). It was used again as a night-nursery, and later still as the sleeping-place shared by two, if not three, of the sisters, two of whom were tuberculous.
The mother died and was buried in a vault under the floor of the church, not far from the windows of her house. Her sister, Miss Branwell, came up from Penzance to look after the children. You can see this small, middle-aged, early Victorian spinster, exiled for ever from the sunshine of the town she loved, dragging out her sad, fastidious life in a cold and comparatively savage country that she unspeakably disliked. She took possession of the room her sister died in (it was the most cheerful room in the house), and lived in it. Her nieces had to sit there with her for certain hours while she taught them sewing and all the early Victorian virtues. Their father made himself responsible for the rest of their education, which he conducted with considerable vigour and originality. Maria, the eldest, was the child of promise. Long before Maria was eleven he "conversed" with her on "the leading topics of the day, with as much pleasure and freedom as with any grown-up person".
For this man, so gloomy, we are told, and so morose, found pleasure in taking his tiny children out on to the moors, where he entertained them alternately with politics and tales of brutality and horror. At six years old each little Bronte had its view of the political situation; and it was not until a plague of measles and whooping-cough found out their tender youth that their father realized how very young and small and delicate they were, and how very little, after all, he understood about a nursery. In a sudden frantic distrust of the climate of Haworth, of Miss Branwell, and his own system, he made up his mind to send Maria and Elizabeth and Charlotte and Emily to school.
And there was only one school within his means, the Clergy Daughters' School, established at Cowan Bridge in an unwholesome valley. It has been immortalized in Jane Eyre, together with its founder and patron, the Reverend Carus Wilson. There can be no doubt that the early Victorian virtues, self-repression, humility, and patience under affliction, were admirably taught at Cowan Bridge. And if the carnal nature of the Clergy Daughters resisted the militant efforts of Mr. Carus Wilson, it was ultimately subdued by low diet and primitive drainage working together in an unwholesome valley. Mr. Carus Wilson, indeed, was inspired by a sublime antagonism to the claims of the perishable body; but he seems to have pushed his campaign against the flesh a bit too far, and was surprised at his own success when, one after another, the extremely perishable bodies of those children were laid low by typhus.
The fever did not touch the four little Brontes. They had another destiny. Their seed of dissolution was sown in that small stifling room at Haworth, and was reaped now at Cowan Bridge. First Maria, then Elizabeth, sickened, and was sent home to die. Charlotte stayed on for a while with Emily. She ran wild, and hung about the river, watching it, and dabbling her feet and hands in the running water. Their doom waited for Charlotte and for Emily.
There is no record of Elizabeth except that, like Anne Bronte, she was "gentle". But Maria lived in Charlotte's passionate memory, and will live for ever as Helen Burns, the school-fellow of Jane Eyre. Of those five infant prodigies, she was the most prodigious. She was the first of the children to go down into the vault under Haworth Church; you see her looking back on her sad way, a small, reluctant ghost, lovely, infantile, and yet maternal. Under her name on the flat tombstone a verse stands, premonitory, prophetic, calling to her kindred: "Be ye also ready."
Charlotte was nine years old when her sisters died. Tragedy tells at nine years old. It lived all her life in her fine nerves, reinforced by shock after shock of terror and of anguish.
But for the next seven years, spent at the Parsonage without a break, tragedy was quiescent. Day after day, year after year passed, and nothing happened. And the children of the Parsonage, thrown on themselves and on each other, were exuberantly happy. They had the freedom of the moors, and of the worlds, as wild, as gorgeous, as lonely, as immeasurable, which they themselves created. They found out that they were not obliged to be the children of the Parsonage; they could be, and they were, anything they chose, from the Duke of Wellington down to citizens of Verdopolis. For a considerable number of years they were the "Islanders". "It was in 1827" (Charlotte, at thirteen, records the date with gravity—it was so important) "that our plays were established: Young Men, June 1826; Our Fellows, July 1827; The Islanders, December 1827. These are our three great plays that are not kept secret."
But there were secret plays, Emily's and Charlotte's; and these you gather to be the shy and solitary flights of Emily's and Charlotte's genius. They seem to have required absolutely no impulsion from without. The difficult thing for these small children was to stop writing. Their fire consumed them, and left their bodies ashen white, fragile as ashes. And yet they were not, they could not have been, the sedentary, unwholesome little creatures they might seem to be. The girls were kept hard at work with their thin arms, brushing carpets, dusting furniture, and making beds. And for play they tramped the moors with their brother; they breasted the keen and stormy weather; the sun, the moon, the stars, and the winds knew them; and it is of these fierce, radiant, elemental things that Charlotte and Emily wrote as no women before them had ever written. Conceive the vitality and energy implied in such a life; and think, if you can, of these two as puny, myopic victims of the lust of literature. It was from the impressions they took in those seven years that their immortality was made.
And then, for a year and a half, Charlotte went to school again, that school of Miss Wooler's at Roe Head, where Ellen Nussey found her, "a silent, weeping, dark little figure in the large bay-window". She was then sixteen.
Two years later she went back to Miss Wooler's school as a teacher.
In the register of the Clergy Daughters' School there are two immortal entries:
"Charlotte Bronte.... Left school, June 1st, 1825—Governess."
"Emily Bronte.... Left, June 1st, 1825. Subsequent career—Governess."
They did not question the arrangement. They were not aware of any other destiny. They never doubted that the boy, Branwell, was the child of promise, who was to have a glorious career. In order that he should have it the sisters left Haworth again and again, forcing themselves to the exile that destroyed them, and the work they hated. It was Charlotte and Anne who showed themselves most courageous and determined in the terrible adventure; Emily, who was courage and determination incarnate, failed. Homesickness had become a disease with them, an obsession, almost a madness. They longed with an immitigable longing for their Parsonage-house, their graveyard, and their moors. Emily was consumed by it; Anne languished; Charlotte was torn between it and her passion for knowledge.
She took Emily back with her to Roe Head as a pupil, and Emily nearly died of it. She sent Emily home, and little Anne, the last victim, took Emily's place. She and Charlotte went with the school when it was removed to Dewsbury Moor. Then Emily, who had nearly died of Roe Head, shamed by Charlotte's and Anne's example, went to Halifax as a teacher in Miss Patchett's Academy for Young Ladies. She was at Halifax—Halifax of all places—for six months, and nearly died of Halifax. And after that Charlotte and Anne set out on their careers as nursery-governesses.
It was all that they considered themselves fit for. Anne went to a Mrs. Ingham at Blake Hall, where she was homesick and miserable. Charlotte went to the Sidgwicks at Stonegappe near Skipton, where "one of the pleasantest afternoons I spent—indeed, the only one at all pleasant—was when Mr. Sidgwick walked out with his children, and I had orders to follow a little way behind". You have an impression of years of suffering endured at Stonegappe. As a matter of fact, Charlotte was there hardly three months—May, June, July, eighteen-thirty-nine.
And most of the time their brother Branwell was either at Bradford or at Haworth, dreaming of greatness, and drinking at the "Black Bull". The "Black Bull" stands disastrously near to the Parsonage, at the corner of the churchyard, with its parlour windows looking on the graves. Branwell was the life and soul of every party of commercial travellers that gathered there. Conviviality took strange forms at Haworth. It had a Masonic Lodge of the Three Graces, with John Brown, the grave-digger, for Worshipful Master. Branwell was at one and the same time secretary to the Three Graces and to the Haworth Temperance Society. When he was not entertaining bagmen, he was either at Bradford painting bad portraits, or at Haworth pouring out verses, fearfully long, fatally fluent verses, and writing hysterical letters to the editor of Blackwood's Magazine.
One formidable letter (the third he sent) is headed in large letters: "Sir, read what I write." It begins: "And would to Heaven you would believe in me, for then you would attend to me and act upon it", and ends: "You lost an able writer in James Hogg, and God grant you may get one in Patrick Branwell Bronte." Another followed, headed: "Sir, read now at last", and ending, "Condemn not unheard". In a final letter Branwell inquires whether Mr. Blackwood thinks his magazine "so perfect that no addition to its power would be either possible or desirable", and whether it is pride that actuates him, or custom, or prejudice, and conjures him: "Be a man, sir!"
Nothing came of it. Mr. Blackwood refused to be a man.
Yet Branwell had his chance. He went to London, but nothing came of it. He went to Bradford and had a studio there, but nothing came of it. He lived for a brief period in a small provincial Bohemia. It was his best and happiest period, but nothing came of it beyond the letters and the reams of verse he sent to Leyland the sculptor. There was something brilliant and fantastic about the boy that fascinated Leyland. But a studio costs money, and Branwell had to give his up and go back to Haworth and the society of John Brown the stone-mason and grave-digger. That John Brown was a decent fellow you gather from the fact that on a journey to Liverpool he had charge of Branwell, when Branwell was at his worst. They had affectionate names for each other. Branwell is the Philosopher, John Brown is the Old Knave of Trumps. The whole trouble with Branwell was that he could not resist the temptation of impressing the grave-digger. He himself was impressed by the ironic union in the Worshipful Master of conviviality and a sinister occupation.
A letter of Branwell's (preserved by the grave-digger in a quaint devotion to his friend's memory) has achieved an immortality denied to his "Effusions". Nothing having come of the "Effusions", Branwell, to his infinite credit, followed his sisters' example, and became tutor with a Mr. Postlethwaite. The irony of his situation pleased him, and he wrote to the Old Knave of Trumps thus: "I took a half-year's farewell of old friend whisky at Kendal on the night after I left. There was a party of gentlemen at the Royal Hotel, and I joined them. We ordered in supper and whisky-toddy as hot as hell! They thought I was a physician, and put me in the chair. I gave several toasts that were washed down at the same time till the room spun round and the candles danced in our eyes.... I found myself in bed next morning with a bottle of porter, a glass, and a corkscrew beside me. Since then I have not tasted anything stronger than milk-and-water, nor, I hope, shall, till I return at midsummer; when we will see about it. I am getting as fat as Prince William at Springhead, and as godly as his friend Parson Winterbotham. My hand shakes no longer. I ride to the banker's at Ulverston with Mr. Postlethwaite, and sit drinking tea, and talking scandal with old ladies. As for the young ones! I have one sitting by me just now—fair-faced, blue-eyed, dark-haired, sweet eighteen—she little thinks the devil is so near her!"—and a great deal more in the same silly, post-Byronic strain.
In his postscript Branwell says: "Of course you won't show this letter", and of course John Brown showed it all round. It was far too good to be kept to himself; John Brown's brother thought it so excellent that he committed it to memory. This was hard on Branwell. The letter is too fantastic to be used against him as evidence of his extreme depravity, but it certainly lends some support to Mrs. Gaskell's statements that he had begun already, at two-and-twenty, to be an anxiety to his family. Haworth, that schooled his sisters to a high and beautiful austerity, was bad for Branwell.
He stayed with Mr. Postlethwaite for a month longer than Charlotte stayed with the Sidgwicks.
Then, for a whole year, Charlotte was at Haworth, doing housemaid's work, and writing poems, and amusing herself at the expense of her father's curates. She had begun to find out the extent to which she could amuse herself. She also had had "her chance". She had refused two offers of marriage, preferring the bondage and the exile that she knew. Nothing more exhilarating than a proposal that you have rejected. Those proposals did Charlotte good. But it was not marriage that she wanted. She found it (for a year) happiness enough to be at Haworth, to watch the long comedy of the curates as it unrolled itself before her. She saw most things that summer (her twenty-fifth) with the ironic eyes of the comic spirit, even Branwell. She wrote to Miss Nussey: "A distant relation of mine, one Patrick Boanerges, has set off to seek his fortune in the wild, wandering, knight-errant-like capacity of clerk on the Leeds and Manchester Railroad." And she goes on to chaff Miss Nussey about Celia Amelia, the curate. "I know Mrs. Ellen is burning with eagerness to hear something about W. Weightman, whom she adores in her heart, and whose image she cannot efface from her memory."
Some of her critics, including Mrs. Oliphant (far less indulgent than the poor curates who forgave her nobly), have grudged Charlotte her amusement. There is nothing, from her fame downwards, that Mrs. Oliphant did not grudge her. Mr. Birrell sternly disapproves; even Mr. Swinburne, at the height of his panegyric, is put off. Perhaps Charlotte's humour was not her most attractive quality; but nobody seems to have seen the pathos and the bravery of it. Neither have they seen that Miss Nussey was at the bottom of its worst development, the "curate-baiting". Miss Nussey used to go and stay at Haworth for weeks at a time. Haworth was not amusing, and Miss Nussey had to be amused. All this school-girlish jesting, the perpetual and rather tiresome banter, was a playing down to Miss Nussey. It was a kind of tender "baiting" of Miss Nussey, who had tried on several occasions to do Charlotte good. And it was the natural, healthy rebound of the little Irish gamine that lived in Charlotte Bronte, bursting with cleverness and devilry. I, for my part, am glad to think that for one happy year she gave it full vent.
She was only twenty-four. Even as late as the mid-Victorian era to be twenty-four and unmarried was to be middle-aged. But (this cannot be too much insisted on) Charlotte Bronte was the revolutionist who changed all that. She changed it not only in her novels but in her person. Here again she has been misrepresented. There are no words severe enough for Mrs. Oliphant's horrible portrait of her as a plain-faced, lachrymose, middle-aged spinster, dying, visibly, to be married, obsessed for ever with that idea, for ever whining over the frustration of her sex. What Mrs. Oliphant, "the married woman", resented in Charlotte Bronte, over and above her fame, was Charlotte's unsanctioned knowledge of the mysteries, her intrusion into the veiled places, her unbaring of the virgin heart. That her genius was chiefly concerned in it does not seem to have occurred to Mrs. Oliphant, any more than it occurred to her to notice the impression that Charlotte Bronte made on her male contemporaries. It is doubtful if one of them thought of her as Mrs. Oliphant would have us think. They gave her the tender, deferent affection they would have given to a charming child. Even the very curates saw in her, to their amazement, the spirit of undying youth. Small as a child, and fragile, with soft hair and flaming eyes, and always the pathetic, appealing plainness of a plain child, with her child's audacity and shyness, her sudden, absurd sallies and retreats, she had a charm made the more piquant by her assumption of austerity. George Henry Lewes was gross and flippant, and he could not see it; Branwell's friend, Mr. Grundy, was Branwell's friend, and he missed it. Mrs. Oliphant ranges herself with Mr. Grundy and George Henry Lewes.
But Charlotte's fun was soon over, and she became a nursery-governess again at Mrs. White's, of Rawdon. Anne was with Mrs. Robinson, at Thorp Green.
Emily was at Haworth, alone.
That was in eighteen-forty-one. Years after their death a little black box was found, containing four tiny scraps of paper, undiscovered by Charlotte when she burnt every line left by Anne and Emily except their poems. Two of these four papers were written by Emily, and two by Anne; each sister keeping for the other a record of four years. They begin in eighteen-forty-one. Emily was then twenty-four and Anne a year and a half younger. Nothing can be more childlike, more naive. Emily heads her diary:
A PAPER to be opened when Anne is 25 years old, or my next birthday after if all be well. Emily Jane Bronte. July the 30th, 1841.
She says: "It is Friday evening, near nine o'clock—wild rainy weather. I am seated in the dining-room, having just concluded tidying our desk-boxes, writing this document. Papa is in the parlour—Aunt upstairs in her room.... Victoria and Adelaide are ensconced in the peat-house. Keeper is in the kitchen—Hero in his cage."
Having accounted for Victoria and Adelaide, the tame geese, Keeper, the dog, and Hero, the hawk, she notes the whereabouts of Charlotte, Branwell, and Anne. And then (with gravity):
"A scheme is at present in agitation for setting us up in a school of our own."... "This day four years I wonder whether we shall be dragging on in our present condition or established to our hearts' content."
Then Emily dreams her dream.
"I guess that on the time appointed for the opening of this paper we, i.e. Charlotte, Anne, and I, shall be all merrily seated in our own sitting-room in some pleasant and flourishing seminary, having just gathered in for the midsummer holiday. Our debts will be paid off and we shall have cash in hand to a considerable amount. Papa, Aunt, and Branwell, will either have been or be coming to visit us."
And Anne writes with equal innocence (it is delicious, Anne's diary): "Four years ago I was at school. Since then I have been a governess at Blake Hall, left it, come to Thorp Green, and seen the sea and York Minster."... "We have got Keeper, got a sweet little cat and lost it, and also got a hawk. Got a wild goose which has flown away, and three tame ones, one of which has been killed."
It is Emily who lets out the dreary secret of the dream—the debts which could not be paid; probably Branwell's.
But the "considerable amount of cash in hand" was to remain a dream. Nothing came of Branwell's knight-errantry. He muddled the accounts of the Leeds and Manchester Railroad and was sent home. It was not good for Branwell to be a clerk at a lonely wayside station. His disaster, which they much exaggerated, was a shock to the three sisters. They began to have misgivings, premonitions of Branwell's destiny.
And from Mrs. White's at Rawdon, Charlotte sends out cry after desolate cry. Again we have an impression of an age of exile, but really the exile did not last long, not much longer than Emily's imprisonment in the Academy for Young Ladies, nothing like so long as Anne's miserable term.
The exile really began in 'forty-two, when Charlotte and Emily left England for Brussels and Madame Heger's Pensionnat de Demoiselles in the Rue d'Isabelle. It is supposed to have been the turning-point in Charlotte's career. She was then twenty-six, Emily twenty-four.
It is absurd and it is pathetic, but Charlotte's supreme ambition at that time was to keep a school, a school of her own, like her friend Miss Wooler. There was a great innocence and humility in Charlotte. She was easily taken in by any of those veiled, inimical spectres of the cross-roads that youth mistakes for destiny. She must have refused to look too closely at the apparition; it was enough for her that she saw in it the divine thing—liberty. Her genius was already struggling in her. She had begun to feel under her shoulders the painful piercing of her wings. Her friend, Mary Taylor, had written to her from Brussels telling her of pictures and cathedrals. Charlotte tells how it woke her up. "I hardly know what swelled in my breast as I read her letter: such a vehement impatience of restraint and steady work; such a strong wish for wings—wings such as wealth can furnish; such an urgent desire to see, to know, to learn; something internal seemed to expand bodily for a minute. I was tantalized by the consciousness of faculties unexercised." But Charlotte's "wings" were not "such as wealth can furnish". They were to droop, almost to die, in Brussels.
Emily was calmer. Whether she mistook it for her destiny or not, she seems to have acquiesced when Charlotte showed her the veiled figure at the cross-roads, to have been led blindfold by Charlotte through the "streaming and starless darkness" that took them to Brussels. The rest she endured with a stern and terrible resignation. It is known from her letters what the Pensionnat was to Charlotte. Heaven only knows what it must have been to Emily. Charlotte, with her undying passion for knowledge and the spectacle of the world, with her psychological interest in M. Heger and his wife, Charlotte hardly came out of it with her soul alive. But Emily was not interested in M. Heger nor in his wife, nor in his educational system. She thought his system was no good and told him so. What she thought of his wife is not recorded.
Then, in their first year of Brussels, their old aunt, Miss Branwell, died. That was destiny, the destiny that was so kind to Emily. It sent her and her sister back to Haworth and it kept her there. Poor Anne was fairly launched on her career; she remained in her "situation", and somebody had to look after Mr. Bronte and the house. Things were going badly and sadly at the Parsonage. Branwell was there, drinking; and Charlotte was even afraid that her father ... also sometimes ... perhaps....
She left Emily to deal with them and went back to Brussels as a pupil teacher, alone. She went in an agony of self-reproach, desiring more and more knowledge, a perfect, inalienable, indestructible possession of the German language, and wondering whether it were right to satisfy that indomitable craving. By giving utterance to this self-reproach, so passionate, so immense, so disproportioned to the crime, the innocent Charlotte laid herself open to an unjust suspicion. Innocent and unaware she went, and—it is her own word—she was "punished" for it.
Nothing that she had yet known of homesickness could compare with that last year of solitary and unmitigated exile. It is supposed, even by the charitable, that whatever M. Heger did or did not do for Charlotte, he did everything for her genius. As a matter of fact, it was at Brussels that she suffered the supreme and ultimate abandonment. She no longer felt the wild unknown thing stirring in her with wings. So little could M. Heger do for it that it refused to inhabit the same house with him. She records the result of that imprisonment a few weeks after her release: "There are times now when it appears to me as if all my ideas and feelings, except a few friendships and affections, are changed from what they used to be; something in me, which used to be enthusiasm, is tamed down and broken."
At Brussels surely enlightenment must have come to her. She must have seen, as Emily saw, that in going that way, she had mistaken and done violence to her destiny.
She went back to Haworth where it waited for her, where it had turned even the tragedy of her family to account. Everything conspired to keep her there. The school was given up. She tells why. "It is on Papa's account; he is now, as you know, getting old, and it grieves me to tell you that he is losing his sight. I have felt for some months that I ought not to be away from him; and I feel now that it would be too selfish to leave (at least as long as Branwell and Anne are absent) to pursue selfish interests of my own. With the help of God I will try to deny myself in this matter, and to wait."
And with the help of God she waited.
There are three significant entries in Emily's sealed paper for eighteen-forty-five. "Now I don't desire a school at all, and none of us have any great longing for it." "I am quite contented for myself ... seldom or never troubled with nothing to do and merely desiring that everybody could be as comfortable as myself and as undesponding, and then we should have a very tolerable world of it." "I have plenty of work on hand, and writing...." This, embedded among details of an incomparable innocence: "We have got Flossy; got and lost Tiger; lost the hawk, Hero, which, with the geese, was given away, and is doubtless dead."
And Anne, as naive as a little nun, writes in her sealed paper: "Emily is upstairs ironing. I am sitting in the dining-room in the rocking-chair before the fire with my feet on the fender. Papa is in the parlour. Tabby and Martha are, I think, in the kitchen. Keeper and Flossy are, I do not know where. Little Dick is hopping in his cage." And then, "Emily ... is writing some poetry.... I wonder what it is about?"
That is the only clue to the secret that is given. These childlike diaries are full of the "Gondal Chronicles",[A] an interminable fantasy in which for years Emily collaborated with Anne. They flourished the "Gondal Chronicles" in each other's faces, with positive bravado, trying to see which could keep it up the longer. Under it all there was a mystery; for, as Charlotte said of their old play, "Best plays were secret plays," and the sisters kept their best hidden. And then suddenly the "Gondal Chronicles" were dropped, the mystery broke down. All three of them had been writing poems; they had been writing poems for years. Some of Emily's dated from her first exile at Roe Head. Most of Anne's sad songs were sung in her house of bondage. From Charlotte, in her Brussels period, not a line.
[Footnote A: See supra, pp. 193 to 209.]
But at Haworth, in the years that followed her return and found her free, she wrote nearly all her maturer poems (none of them were excessively mature): she wrote The Professor, and close upon The Professor, Jane Eyre. In the same term that found her also, poor child, free, and at Haworth, Anne wrote Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
And Emily wrote Wuthering Heights.
They had found their destiny—at Haworth.
* * * * *
Every conceivable theory has been offered to account for the novels that came so swiftly and incredibly from these three sisters. It has been said that they wrote them merely to pay their debts when they found that poems did not pay. It would be truer to say that they wrote them because it was their destiny to write them, and because their hour had come, and that they published them with the dimmest hope of a return.
Before they knew where they were, Charlotte found herself involved in what she thought was a businesslike and masculine correspondence with publishing firms.
The Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, appeared first, and nothing happened. The Professor travelled among publishers, and nothing happened. Then, towards the end of the fourth year there came Jane Eyre, and Charlotte was famous.
But not Emily. Wuthering Heights appeared also, and nothing happened. It was bound in the same volume with Anne's humble tale. Its lightning should have scorched and consumed Agnes Grey, but nothing happened. Ellis and Acton Bell remained equals in obscurity, recognized only by their association with the tremendous Currer. When it came to publishing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and association became confusion, Charlotte and Anne went up to London to prove their separate identity. Emily stayed at Haworth, superbly indifferent to the proceedings. She was unseen, undreamed of, unrealized, and in all her life she made no sign.
But, in a spirit of reckless adventure, Charlotte and Anne walked the seven miles to Keighley on a Friday evening in a thunderstorm, and took the night train up. On the Saturday morning they appeared in the office at Cornhill to the amazement of Mr. George Smith and Mr. Williams. With childlike innocence and secrecy they hid in the Chapter Coffee-house in Paternoster Row, and called themselves the Misses Brown. When entertainment was offered them, they expressed a wish to hear Dr. Croly preach. They did not hear him; they only heard The Barber of Seville at Covent Garden. They tried, with a delicious solemnity, to give the whole thing an air of business, but it was really a breathless, infantile escapade of three days. Three days out of four years.
* * * * *
And in those four years poor Branwell's destiny found him also. After many minor falls and penitences and relapses, he seemed at length to have settled down. He had been tutor for two and a half years with the Robinsons at Thorp Green, in the house where Anne was a governess. He was happy at first; an ominous happiness. Then Anne began to be aware of something.
Mr. Birrell has said rather unkindly that he has no use for this young man. Nobody had any use for him. Not the editors to whom he used to write so hysterically. Not the Leeds and Manchester Railroad Company. And certainly not Mrs. Robinson, the lady for whom he conceived that insane and unlawful passion which has been made to loom so large in the lives of the Brontes. After all the agony and indignation that has gathered round this episode, it is clear enough now, down to the last sordid details. The feverish, degenerate, utterly irresponsible Branwell not only declared his passion, but persuaded himself, against the evidence of his senses, that it was returned. The lady (whom he must have frightened horribly) told her husband, who instantly dismissed Branwell.
Branwell never got over it.
He was destined to die young, and, no doubt, if there had been no Mrs. Robinson, some other passion would have killed him. Still, it may be said with very little exaggeration that he died of it. He had not hitherto shown any signs of tuberculosis. It may be questioned whether without this predisposing cause he would have developed it. He had had his chance to survive. He had never been packed, like his sisters, first one of five, then one of three, into a closet not big enough for one. But he drank harder after the Robinson affair than he had ever drunk before, and he added opium to drink. Drink and opium gave frightful intensity to the hallucination of which, in a sense, he died.
It took him more than three years, from July, eighteen-forty-five, the date of his dismissal, to September, eighteen-forty-eight, the date of his death.
The Incumbent of Haworth has been much blamed for his son's shortcomings. He has been charged with first spoiling the boy, and then neglecting him. In reality his only error (a most unusual one in an early Victorian father) was that he believed in his son's genius. When London and the Royal Academy proved beyond him he had him taught at Bradford. He gave him a studio there. He had already given him an education that at least enabled him to obtain tutorships, if not to keep them. The Parsonage must have been a terrible place for Branwell, but it was not in the Vicar's power to make it more attractive than the Bull Inn. Branwell was not a poet like his sisters, and moors meant nothing to him. To be sure, when he went into Wales and saw Penmaenmawr, he wrote a poem about it. But the poem is not really about Penmaenmawr. It is all about Branwell; Penmaenmawr is Branwell, a symbol of his colossal personality and of his fate. For Branwell was a monstrous egoist. He was not interested in his sisters or in his friends, or really in Mrs. Robinson. He was interested only in himself. What could a poor vicar do with a son like that? There was nothing solid in Branwell that you could take hold of and chastise. There was nothing you could appeal to. His affection for his family was three-fourths sentimentalism. Still, what the Vicar could do he did do. When Branwell was mad with drink and opium he never left him. There is no story more grim and at the same time more poignant and pathetic than that which Mrs. Gaskell tells of his devotion to his son in this time of the boy's ruin. Branwell slept in his father's room. He would doze all day, and rage all night, threatening his father's life. In the morning he would go to his sisters and say: "The poor old man and I have had a terrible night of it. He does his best, the poor old man, but it is all over with me." He died in his father's arms while Emily and little Anne looked on.
They say that he struggled to his feet and died standing, to prove the strength of his will; but some biographer has robbed him of this poor splendour. It was enough for his sisters—and it should be enough for anybody—that his madness left him with the onset of his illness, and that he went from them penitent and tender, purified by the mystery and miracle of death.
That was on Sunday, the twenty-fourth of September. From that day Emily sickened. She caught cold at Branwell's funeral. On September the thirtieth she was in church listening to his funeral sermon. After that, she never crossed the threshold of the Parsonage till in December her dead body was carried over it, to lie beside her brother under the church floor.
In October, a week or two after Branwell's death, Charlotte wrote: "Emily has a cold and cough at present." "Emily's cold and cough are very obstinate. I fear she has pain in her chest, and I sometimes catch a shortness in her breathing when she has moved at all quickly." In November: "I told you Emily was ill, in my last letter. She has not rallied yet. She is very ill.... I think Emily seems the nearest thing to my heart in all the world." And in December: "Emily suffers no more from pain or weakness now ... there is no Emily in time, or on earth now.... We are very calm at present. Why should we be otherwise? The anguish of seeing her suffer is over; the spectacle of the pains of death is gone by: the funeral day is past. We feel she is at peace. No need to tremble for the hard frost and the keen wind. Emily does not feel them. She died in a time of promise.... But it is God's will, and the place where she has gone is better than that which she has left."
It could have been hardly daylight on the moors the morning when Charlotte went out to find that last solitary sprig of heather which she laid on Emily's pillow for Emily to see when she awoke. Emily's eyes were so drowsed with death that she could not see it. And yet it could not have been many hours later when a fire was lit in her bedroom, and she rose and dressed herself. Madame Duclaux[A] tells how she sat before the fire, combing her long, dark hair, and how the comb dropped from her weak fingers, and fell under the grate. And how she sat there in her mortal apathy; and how, when the servant came to her, she said dreamily: "Martha, my comb's down there; I was too weak to stoop and pick it up."
[Footnote A: "Emily Bronte": Eminent Women Series.]
She dragged herself down to the sitting-room, and died there, about two o'clock. She must have had some horror of dying in that room of death overhead; for, at noon, when the last pains seized her, she refused to be taken back to it. Unterrified, indomitable, driven by her immortal passion for life, she fought terribly. Death took her as she tried to rise from the sofa and break from her sisters' arms that would have laid her there. Profoundly, piteously alienated, she must have felt that Anne and Charlotte were in league with death; that they fought with her and bound her down; and that in her escape from them she conquered.
Another month and Anne sickened. As Emily died of Branwell's death, so Emily's death hastened Anne's. Charlotte wrote in the middle of January: "I can scarcely say that Anne is worse, nor can I say she is better.... The days pass in a slow, dull march: the nights are the test; the sudden wakings from restless sleep, the revived knowledge that one lies in her grave, and another, not at my side, but in a separate and sick bed." And again in March: "Anne's decline is gradual and fluctuating, but its nature is not doubtful." And yet again in April: "If there were no hope beyond this world ... Emily's fate, and that which threatens Anne, would be heartbreaking. I cannot forget Emily's death-day; it becomes a more fixed, a darker, a more frequently recurring idea in my mind than ever. It was very terrible. She was torn, conscious, panting, reluctant, though resolute, out of a happy life."
Mrs. Oliphant has censured Emily Bronte for the manner of her dying. She might as well have censured Anne for drawing out the agony. For Anne was gentle to the end, utterly submissive. She gave death no trouble. She went, with a last hope, to Scarborough, and died there at the end of May. She was buried at Scarborough, where she lies alone. It is not easy to believe that she had no "preference for place", but there is no doubt that even to that choice of her last resting-place she would have submitted—gently.
"I got here a little before eight o'clock. All was clean and bright, waiting for me. Papa and the servants were well, and all received me with an affection that should have consoled. The dogs seemed in strange ecstasy. I am certain that they regarded me as the harbinger of others. The dumb creatures thought that as I was returned, those who had been so long absent were not far behind.... I felt that the house was all silent, the rooms were all empty. I remembered where the three were laid—in what narrow, dark dwellings—never more to reappear on earth.... I cannot help thinking of their last days, remembering their sufferings, and what they said and did, and how they looked in mortal affliction.... To sit in a lonely room, the clock ticking loud through a still house...." Charlotte could see nothing else before her.
It was July. She had come home after a visit to Miss Nussey.
In that month she wrote that chapter of Shirley which is headed "The Valley of the Shadow". The book (begun more than eighteen months before) fairly quivers with the shock that cut it in two.
It was finished somewhere in September of that year of Anne's death. Charlotte went up to London. She saw Thackeray. She learned to accept the fact of her celebrity.
Somehow the years passed, the years of Charlotte's continuous celebrity, and of those literary letters that take so disproportionate a part in her correspondence that she seems at last to have forgotten; she seems to belong to the world rather than to Haworth. And the world seems full of Charlotte; the world that had no place for Emily. And yet Wuthering Heights had followed Shirley. It had been republished with Charlotte's introduction, her vindication of Emily. It brought more fame for Charlotte, but none—yet—for Emily.
Two years later came Villette. Charlotte went up to London a second time and saw Thackeray again. And there were more letters, the admirable but slightly self-conscious letters of the literary woman, artificially assured. They might deceive you, only the other letters, the letters to Ellen Nussey go on; they come palpitating with the life of Charlotte Bronte's soul that had in it nothing of the literary taint. You see in them how, body and soul, Haworth claims her and holds her, and will not let her go.
Nor does she desire now to be let go. Her life at Haworth is part of Emily's life; it partakes of the immortality of the unforgotten dead. London and Thackeray, the Smiths, Mrs. Gaskell, and Miss Martineau, Sir John and Lady Kay-Shuttleworth, her celebrity and the little train of cheerful, unfamiliar circumstances, all these things sink into insignificance beside it. They are all extraneous somehow, and out of keeping. Nothing that her biographers have done (when they have done their worst) can destroy or even diminish the effect her life gives of unity, of fitness, of profound and tragic harmony. It was Mrs. Gaskell's sense of this effect that made her work a masterpiece.
And in her marriage, at Haworth, to her father's curate, Arthur Nicholls, the marriage that cut short her life and made an end of her celebrity, Charlotte Bronte followed before all things her instinct for fitness, for unity, for harmony. It was exquisitely in keeping. It did no violence to her memories, her simplicities and sanctities. It found her in the apathy of exhaustion, and it was yet one with all that was passionate in her and undying. She went to it one morning in May, all white and drooping, in her modest gown and that poor little bridal bonnet with its wreath of snowdrops, symbolic of all the timidities, the reluctances, the cold austerities of spring roused in the lap of winter, and yet she found in it the secret fire of youth. She went to it afraid; and in her third month of marriage she still gives a cry wrung from the memory of her fear. "Indeed, indeed, Nell, it is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife."
And yet for all that, after London, after fame and friendships in which her dead had no share, her marriage was not the great departure; it was the great return. It was the outcome of all that had gone before it; the fruit of painful life, which is recognition, acceptance, the final trust in destiny. There were to be no more false starts, no more veiled ghosts of the cross-roads, pointing the disastrous way.
And in its abrupt and pitiful end her life rang true; it sustained the tragic harmony. It was the fulfilment of secret prophecies, forebodings, premonitions, of her reiterated "It was not to be." You may say that in the end life cheated and betrayed her.
And inevitably; for she had loved life, not as Emily loved it, like an equal, with power over it and pride and an unearthly understanding, virgin and unafraid. There was something slightly subservient, consciously inferior, in Charlotte's attitude to life. She had loved it secretly, with a sort of shame, with a corroding passion and incredulity and despair. Such natures are not seldom victims of the power they would propitiate. It killed her in her effort to bring forth life.
When the end came she could not realize it. For the first time she was incredulous of disaster. She heard, out of her last stupor, her husband praying that God would spare her, and she whispered, "Oh, I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us; we have been so happy."
You can see her youth rising up beside that death-bed and answering, "That is why."
And yet, could even Charlotte's youth have been so sure as to the cheating and betrayal? That happiness of hers was cut short in the moment of its perfection. She was not to suffer any disenchantment or decline; her love was not to know any cold of fear or her genius any fever of frustration. She was saved the struggle we can see before her. Arthur Nicholls was passionately fond of Charlotte. But he was hostile to Charlotte's genius and to Charlotte's fame. A plain, practical, robust man, inimical to any dream. He could be adorably kind to a sick, submissive Charlotte. Would he have been so tender to a Charlotte in revolt? She was spared the torture of the choice between Arthur Nicholls and her genius. We know how she would have chosen. It is well for her, and it is all one to literature, that she died, not "in a time of promise", but in the moment of fulfilment.
* * * * *
No. Of these tragic Brontes the most tragic, the most pitiful, the most mercilessly abused by destiny, was Anne. An interminable, monstrous exile is the impression we get of Anne's life in the years of her girlhood. There is no actual record of them. Nobody kept Anne's letters. We never hear her sad voice raised in self-pity or revolt. It is doubtful if she ever raised it. She waited in silence and resignation, and then told her own story in Agnes Grey. But her figure remains dim in her own story and in the classic "Lives". We only know that she was the youngest, and that, unlike her sisters, she was pretty. She had thick brown curling hair, and violet-blue eyes, and delicate dark eyebrows, and a skin rose and white for her sisters' sallow, that must have given some ominous hint of fever. This delicate thing was broken on the wheel of life. They say of Anne perpetually that she was "gentle". In Charlotte's sketch of her she holds her pretty head high, her eyes gaze straight forward, and you wonder whether, before the breaking point, she was always as gentle as they say. But you never see her in any moment of revolt. Her simple poems, at their bitterest, express no more than a frail agony, an innocent dismay. That little raising of the head in conscious rectitude is all that breaks the long plaint of Agnes Grey.
There is no piety in that plaint. It is purely pagan; the cry of youth cheated of its desire. Life brought her no good gifts beyond the slender ineffectual beauty that left her undesired. Her tremulous, expectant womanhood was cheated. She never saw so much as the flying veil of joy, or even of such pale, uninspired happiness as she dreamed in Agnes Grey. She was cheated of her innocent dream.
And by an awful irony her religion failed her. She knew its bitterness, its terrors, its exactions. She never knew its ecstasies, its flaming mysteries, nor, even at her very last, its consolations. Her tender conscience drew an unspeakable torment from the spectacle of her brother's degradation.
For it was on Anne, who had no genius to sustain her, that poor Branwell, with the burden of his destiny, weighed most hard. It was Anne at Thorp Green who had the first terrible misgivings, the intolerable premonitions.
That wretched story is always cropping up again. The lady whom Mrs. Gaskell, with a murderous selection of adjectives, called "that mature and wicked woman", has been cleared as far as evidence and common sense could clear her. But the slander is perpetually revived. It has always proved too much for the Bronte biographers. Madame Duclaux published it again twenty years after, in spite of the evidence and in spite of Mrs. Gaskell's retractation. You would have thought that Branwell might have been allowed to rest in the grave he dug for himself so well. But no, they will not let him rest. Branwell drank, and he ate opium; and, as if drink and opium and erotic madness were not enough, they must credit him with an open breach of the seventh commandment as well. M. Dimnet, the most able of recent critics of the Brontes, thinks and maintains against all evidence that there was more in it than Branwell's madness. He will not give up the sordid tragedy a trois. He thinks he knows what Anne thought of Branwell's behaviour, and what awful secret she was hinting at, and what she told her sisters when she came back to Haworth. He argues that Anne Bronte saw and heard things, and that her testimony is not to be set aside.
What did Anne Bronte see and hear? She saw her brother consumed by an illegitimate passion; a passion utterly hopeless, given the nature of the lady. The lady had been kind to Anne, to Branwell she had been angelically kind. Anne saw that his behaviour was an atrocious return for her kindness. Further than that the lady hardly counted in Anne's vision. Her interest was centred on her brother. She saw him taking first to drink and then to opium. She saw that he was going mad, and he did go mad. One of the most familiar symptoms of morphia mania is a tendency to erotic hallucinations of the precise kind that Branwell suffered from. Anne was unable to distinguish between such a hallucination and depravity. But there is not a shadow of evidence that she thought what M. Dimnet thinks, or that if she had thought it she made Charlotte and Emily think it too. Branwell's state was quite enough in itself to break their hearts. His letters to Leyland, to John Brown, the sexton, to Francis Grundy, record with frightful vividness every phase of his obsession.
It is inconceivable that such letters should have been kept, still more inconceivable that they should have been published. It is inconceivable that Mrs. Gaskell should have dragged the pitiful and shameful figure into the light. Nobody can save poor Branwell now from the dreadful immortality thrust on him by his enemies and friends with equal zeal. All that is left to us is a merciful understanding of his case. Branwell's case, once for all, was purely pathological. There was nothing great about him, not even his passion for Mrs. Robinson. Properly speaking, it was not a passion at all, it was a disease. Branwell was a degenerate, as incapable of passion as he was of poetry. His sisters, Anne and Charlotte, talked with an amazing innocence about Branwell's vices. Simple and beautiful souls, they never for a moment suspected that his worst vice was sentimentalism. In the beginning, before it wrecked him, nobody enjoyed his own emotions more than Branwell. At his worst he wallowed voluptuously in the torments of frustration. At the end, what with drink and what with opium, he was undoubtedly insane. His letters are priceless pathological documents. They reveal all the workings of his peculiar mania. He thinks everybody is plotting to keep him from Mrs. Robinson. Faced at every turn with the evidence of this lady's complete indifference, he gives it all a lunatic twist to prove the contrary. He takes the strangest people into his confidence, John Brown, the sexton, and the Robinsons' coachman. Queer flames of lucidity dart here and there through this madness: "The probability of her becoming free to give me herself and estate ever rose to drive away the prospect of her decline under her present grief." "I had reason to hope that ere very long I should be the husband of a lady whom I loved best in the world, and with whom, in more than competence, I might live at leisure to try to make myself a name in the world of posterity, without being pestered by the small but countless botherments, which, like mosquitoes, sting us in the world of work-day toil. That hope and herself are gone—she to wither into patiently pining decline—it to make room for drudgery." It is all sordid as well as terrible. We have no right to know these things. Mrs. Oliphant is almost justified in her protest against Charlotte as the first to betray her brother.
But did Charlotte betray Branwell? Not in her letters. She never imagined—how could she?—that those letters would be published. Not in her novels. Her novels give no portrait of Branwell and no hint that could be easily understood. It is in her prefaces to her sisters' novels that he appears, darkly. Charlotte, outraged by the infamous article in the Quarterly, was determined that what had been said of her should never be said of Anne and Emily. She felt that their works offered irresistible provocation to the scandalous reviewer. She thought it necessary to explain how they came by their knowledge of evil.
This vindication of her sisters is certainly an indictment of her brother to anybody who knew enough to read between the lines. Charlotte may have innocently supposed that nobody knew or ever would know enough. Unfortunately, Mrs. Gaskell knew; and when it came to vindicating Charlotte, she considered herself justified in exposing Charlotte's brother because Charlotte herself had shown her the way.
But Charlotte might have spared her pains. Branwell does not account for Heathcliff any more than he accounts for Rochester. He does not even account for Huntingdon in poor Anne's novel. He accounts only for himself. He is important chiefly in relation to the youngest of the Brontes. Oddly enough, this boy, who was once thought greater than his sister Emily, was curiously akin to the weak and ineffectual Anne. He shows the weird flickering of the flame that pulsed so feebly and intermittently in her. He had Anne's unhappy way with destiny, her knack of missing things. She had a touch of his morbidity. He was given to silences which in anybody but Anne would have been called morose. It was her fate to be associated with him in the hour and in the scene of his disgrace. And he was offered up unwittingly by Charlotte as a sacrifice to Anne's virtue.
* * * * *
Like Branwell, Anne had no genius. She shows for ever gentle, and, in spite of an unconquerable courage, conquered. And yet there was more in her than gentleness. There was, in this smallest and least considerable of the Brontes, an immense, a terrifying audacity. Charlotte was bold, and Emily was bolder; but this audacity of Anne's was greater than Charlotte's boldness or than Emily's, because it was willed, it was deliberate, open-eyed; it had none of the superb unconsciousness of genius. Anne took her courage in both hands when she sat down to write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. There are scenes, there are situations, in Anne's amazing novel, which for sheer audacity stand alone in mid-Victorian literature, and which would hold their own in the literature of revolt that followed. It cannot be said that these scenes and situations are tackled with a master-hand. But there is a certain grasp in Anne's treatment, and an astonishing lucidity. Her knowledge of the seamy side of life was not exhaustive. But her diagnosis of certain states, her realization of certain motives, suggests Balzac rather than any of the Brontes. Thackeray, with the fear of Mrs. Grundy before his eyes, would have shrunk from recording Mrs. Huntingdon's ultimatum to her husband. The slamming of that bedroom door fairly resounds through the long emptiness of Anne's novel. But that door is the crux of the situation, and if Anne was not a genius she was too much of an artist to sacrifice her crux.
And not only was Anne revolutionary in her handling of moral situations, she was an insurgent in religious thought. Not to believe in the dogma of eternal punishment was, in mid-Victorian times and evangelical circles, to be almost an atheist. When, somewhere in the late 'seventies, Dean Farrar published his Eternal Hope, that book fell like a bomb into the ranks of the orthodox. But long before Dean Farrar's book Anne Bronte had thrown her bomb. There are two pages in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that anticipate and sum up his now innocent arguments. Anne fairly let herself go here. And though in her "Word to the Elect" (who "may rejoice to think themselves secure") she declares that
None shall sink to everlasting woe Who have not well deserved the wrath of Heaven,
she presently relents, and tacks on a poem in a lighter measure, expressing her hope
That soon the wicked shall at last Be fitted for the skies; And when their dreadful doom is past To light and life arise.
It is said (Charlotte said it) that Anne suffered from religious melancholy of a peculiarly dark and Calvinistic type. I very much suspect that Anne's melancholy, like Branwell's passion, was pathological, and that what her soul suffered from was religious doubt. She could not reach that height where Emily moved serenely; she could not see that
Vain are the thousand creeds That move men's hearts: unutterably vain.
There was a time when her tremulous, clinging faith was broken by contact with Emily's contempt for creeds. When Anne was at Haworth she and Emily were inseparable. They tramped the moors together. With their arms round each other's shoulders, they paced up and down the parlour of the Parsonage. They showed the mysterious attraction and affinity of opposites. Anne must have been fascinated, and at the same time appalled, by the radiant, revealing, annihilating sweep of Emily's thought. She was not indifferent to creeds. But you can see her fearful and reluctant youth yielding at last to Emily's thought, until she caught a glimpse of the "repose" beyond the clash of "conquered good and conquering ill". You can see how the doctrine of eternal punishment went by the board; how Anne, who had gone through agonies of orthodox fear on account of Branwell, must have adjusted things somehow, and arrived at peace. Trust in "the merits of the Redeemer" is, after all, trust in the Immensity beyond Redeemer and redeemed. Of this trust she sang in a voice, like her material voice, fragile, but sweet and true. She sang naively of the "Captive Dove" that makes unheard its "joyless moan", of "the heart that Nature formed to love", pining, "neglected and alone". She sang of the "Narrow Way", "Be it," she sings, "thy constant aim
"To labour and to love, To pardon and endure, To lift thy heart to God above, And keep thy conscience pure."
She hears the wind in an alien wood and cries for the Parsonage garden, and for the "barren hills":
Where scarce the scattered, stunted trees Can yield an answering swell, But where a wilderness of heath Returns the sound as well.
For yonder garden, fair and wide, With groves of evergreen, Long winding walks, and borders trim And velvet lawns between.
Restore to me that little spot, With grey hills compassed round, Where knotted grass neglected lies, And weeds usurp the ground.
For she, too, loved the moors; and through her love for them she wrote two perfect lines when she called on Memory to
Forever hang thy dreamy spell Round mountain star and heather-bell.
The critics, the theorists, the tale-mongers, have left Anne quiet in that grave on the sea-coast, where she lies apart. Her gentle insignificance served her well.
* * * * *
But no woman who ever wrote was more criticized, more spied upon, more lied about, than Charlotte. It was as if the singular purity and poverty of her legend offered irresistible provocation. The blank page called for the scribbler. The silence that hung about her was dark with challenge; it was felt to be ambiguous, enigmatic. Reserve suggests a reservation, something hidden and kept back from the insatiable public with its "right to know". Mrs. Gaskell with all her indiscretions had not given it enough. The great classic Life of Charlotte Bronte was, after all, incomplete. Until something more was known about her, Charlotte herself was incomplete. It was nothing that Mrs. Gaskell's work was the finest, tenderest portrait of a woman that it was ever given to a woman to achieve; nothing that she was not only recklessly and superbly loyal to Charlotte, but that in her very indiscretions she was, as far as Charlotte was concerned, incorruptibly and profoundly true.
Since Mrs. Gaskell's time, other hands have been at work on Charlotte, improving Mrs. Gaskell's masterpiece. A hundred little touches have been added to it. First, it was supposed to be too tragic, too deliberately and impossibly sombre (that sad book of which Charlotte's friend, Mary Taylor, said that it was "not so gloomy as the truth"). So first came Sir Wemyss Reid, conscientiously working up the high lights till he got the values all wrong. "If the truth must be told," he says, "the life of the author of Jane Eyre was by no means so joyless as the world now believes it to have been." And he sets out to give us the truth. But all that he does to lighten the gloom is to tell a pleasant story of how "one bright June morning in 1833, a handsome carriage and pair is standing opposite the 'Devonshire Arms' at Bolton Bridge". In the handsome carriage is a young girl, Ellen Nussey, waiting for Charlotte Bronte and her brother and sisters to go with her for a picnic to Bolton Abbey.
"Presently," says Sir Wemyss Reid, "on the steep road which stretches across the moors to Keighley, the sound of wheels is heard, mingled with the merry speech and merrier laughter of fresh young voices. Shall we go forward unseen," he asks, "and study the approaching travellers whilst they are still upon the road? Their conveyance is no handsome carriage, but a rickety dog-cart, unmistakably betraying its neighbourship to the carts and ploughs of some rural farmyard. The horse, freshly taken from the fields, is driven by a youth who, in spite of his countrified dress, is no mere bumpkin. His shock of red hair hangs down in somewhat ragged locks behind his ears, for Branwell Bronte esteems himself a genius and a poet, and, following the fashion of the times, has that abhorrence of the barber's shears which genius is supposed to affect. But the lad's face is a handsome and striking one, full of Celtic fire and humour, untouched by the slightest shade of care, hopeful, promising, even brilliant. How gaily he jokes with his three sisters; with what inexhaustible volubility he pours out quotations from his favourite poets, applying them to the lovely scenes around him; and with what a mischievous delight in his superior nerve and mettle, he attempts the feats of charioteering, which fill the heart of the youngest of the party with sudden terrors! Beside him, in a dress of marvellous plainness, and ugliness, stamped with the brand "home-made" in characters which none can mistake, is the eldest of the sisters. Charlotte is talking too; there are bright smiles upon her face; she is enjoying everything around her, the splendid morning, the charms of leafy trees and budding roses, and the ever musical stream; most of all, perhaps, the charm of her brother's society, and the expectation of that coming meeting with her friends, which is so near at hand. Behind sits a pretty little girl, with fine complexion and delicate regular features, whom the stranger would pick out as the beauty of the company, and a tall, rather angular figure, clad in a dress exactly resembling Charlotte's. Emily Bronte does not talk so much as the rest of the party, but her wonderful eyes, brilliant and unfathomable as the pool at the foot of a waterfall, but radiant also with a wealth of tenderness and warmth, show how her soul is expanding under the influences of the scene; how quick she is to note the least prominent of the beauties around her, how intense is her enjoyment of the songs of the birds, the brilliancy of the sunshine, the rich scent of the flower-bespangled hedgerows. If she does not, like Charlotte and Anne, meet her brother's ceaseless flood of sparkling words with opposing currents of speech, she utters a strange, deep guttural sound which those who know her best interpret as the language of a joy too deep for articulate expression. Gaze at them as they pass you in the quiet road, and acknowledge that, in spite of their rough and even uncouth exteriors, a happier four could hardly be met with in this favourite haunt of pleasure-seekers during a long summer's day."
And you do gaze at them and are sadder, if anything, than you were before. You see them, if anything, more poignantly. You see their cheerful biographer doing all he knows, and the light he shoots across the blackness only makes it blacker.
Nessun maggior dolore Che ricordarsi di tempo felice Nella miseria;
and in the end the biographer with all his cheerfulness succumbs to the tradition of misery, and even adds a dark contribution of his own, the suggestion of an unhappy love-affair of Charlotte's.
After Sir Wemyss Reid came Mr. Francis Grundy with his little pictures, Pictures of the Past, presenting a dreadfully unattractive Charlotte.
Then came Mr. Leyland, following Mr. Grundy, with his glorification of Branwell and his hint that Charlotte made it very hard at home for the poor boy. He repeats the story that Branwell told Mr. George Searle Phillips, how he went to see a dying girl in the village, and sat with her half an hour, and read a psalm to her and a hymn, and how he felt like praying with her too, but he was not "good enough", how he came away with a heavy heart and fell into melancholy musings. "Charlotte observed my depression," Branwell said, "and asked what ailed me. So I told her. She looked at me with a look which I shall never forget if I live to be a hundred years old—which I never shall. It was not like her at all. It wounded me as if someone had struck me a blow in the mouth. It involved ever so many things in it. It ran over me, questioning and examining, as if I had been a wild beast. It said, 'Did my ears deceive me, or did I hear aright?' And then came the painful, baffled expression, which was worse than all. It said, 'I wonder if that's true?' But, as she left the room, she seemed to accuse herself of having wronged me, and smiled kindly upon me, and said, 'She is my little scholar, and I will go and see her.' I replied not a word. I was too much cut up! When she was gone, I came over here to the 'Black Bull' and made a note of it...."
You see the implication? It was Charlotte who drove him to the "Black Bull". That was Branwell's impression of Charlotte. Just the sort of impression that an opium-eater would have of a beloved sister.
But Branwell's impression was good enough for Madame Duclaux to found her theory on. Her theory is that Charlotte was inferior to Emily in tenderness. It may well be so, and yet Charlotte would remain above most women tender, for Emily's wealth would furnish forth a score of sisters. The simple truth is that Charlotte had nerves, and Branwell was extremely trying. And it is possible that Emily had less to bear, that in her detachment she was protected more than Charlotte from Branwell at his worst.
Meanwhile tales were abroad presenting Charlotte in the queerest lights. There is that immortal story of how Thackeray gave a party for Currer Bell at his house in Young Street, and how Currer Bell had a headache and lay on a sofa in the back drawing-room, and refused to talk to anybody but the governess; and how Thackeray at last, very late, with a finger on his lip, stole out of the house and took refuge in his club. No wonder if this quaint and curious Charlotte survived in the memory of Thackeray's daughter. But, even apart from the headache, you can see how it came about, how the sight of the governess evoked Charlotte Bronte's unforgotten agony. She saw in the amazed and cheerful lady her own sad youth, slighted and oppressed, solitary in a scene of gaiety—she could not have seen her otherwise—and her warm heart rushed out to her. She was determined that that governess should have a happy evening if nobody else had. Her behaviour was odd, if you like, it was even absurd, but it had the sublimity of vicarious expiation. Has anyone ever considered its significance, the magnitude of her deed? For Charlotte, to be the guest of honour on that brilliant night, in the house of Thackeray, her divinity, was to touch the topmost height of fame. And she turned her back on the brilliance and the fame and the face of her divinity, and offered herself up in flames as a sacrifice for all the governesses that were and had ever been and would be.
And after the fine stories came the little legends—things about Charlotte when she was a governess herself at Mrs. Sidgwick's, and the tittle-tattle of the parish. One of the three curates whom Charlotte made so shockingly immortal avenged himself for his immortality by stating that the trouble with Charlotte was that she would fight for mastery in the parish. Who can believe him? If there is one thing that seems more certain than another it is Charlotte's utter indifference to parochial matters. But Charlotte was just, and she may have objected to the young man's way with the Dissenters; we know that she did very strongly object to Mr. William Weightman's way. And that, I imagine, was the trouble between Charlotte and the curates.
As for the Sidgwicks, Charlotte's biographers have been rather hard on them. Mr. Leslie Stephen calls them "coarse employers". They were certainly not subtle enough to divine the hidden genius in their sad little governess. It was, I imagine, Charlotte's alien, enigmatic face that provoked a little Sidgwick to throw a Bible at her. She said Mrs. Sidgwick did not know her, and did not "intend to know her". She might have added that if she had intended Mrs. Sidgwick could not possibly have known her. And when the Sidgwicks said (as they did say to their cousin, Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson) that if Miss Bronte "was invited to walk to church with them, she thought she was being ordered about like a slave; if she was not invited she imagined she was being excluded from the family circle", that was simply their robust view of the paralysed attitude of a shy girl among strangers, in an agony of fear lest she should cut in where she was not wanted.