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Charlotte Bronte - A Tribute

By Judith Bronte
With excerpts from 'The Life of Charlotte Bronte'
by Elizabeth Gaskell (Written in 1857)

"Whatsoever things are true... honest... just... pure... lovely... of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
~ Philippians 4:8 ~

For many years, I have enjoyed the company of Charlotte Bronte. Even though she died over a hundred years ago, her voice did not. Her voice can be heard in the poetry she wrote, and in the novels she penned.

Among her novels,
'Jane Eyre' is, by far, her most well known work. 'Jane Eyre' has survived six movies, one of which was in Hindi, two made for TV movies, and one miniseries! The most recent version, and my personal favorite, was A & E's 1997 production, 'Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre'. Ciran (pronounced kee-ran) Hinds's portrayal of Mr. Rochester was very well acted, as was Samantha Morton's Jane Eyre. However, Charlotte Bronte's novel is more than just a good story. It is a morality lesson that people of all generations can learn from. In this age of "throw away marriages", Charlotte's words still echo from the past:

"Suddenly he [Mr. Rochester] turned away, with an inarticulate exclamation, full of passionate emotion of some kind; he walked fast through the room and came back; he stooped towards me as if to kiss me; but I remembered caresses were now forbidden. I turned my face away and put his aside.
'What!- How is this?' he exclaimed hastily. 'Oh, I know! you won't kiss the husband of Bertha Mason? You consider my arms filled and my embraces appropriated?'
'At any rate, there is neither room nor claim for me, sir.'
'Why Jane? I will spare you the trouble of much talking; I will answer for you - Because I have a wife already, you would reply. - I guess rightly?'

In Elizabeth Gaskell's book, 'The Life of Charlotte Bronte', she retells something Charlotte said concerning the character of Jane Eyre. "She once told her sisters that they were wrong - even morally wrong in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course. They replied that it was impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. Her answer was, 'I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours.' Hence Jane Eyre, said she in telling the anecdote: 'but she is not myself, any further than that.' As the work went on, the interest deepened to the writer. When she came to 'Thornfield' she could not stop. Being short-sighted to excess, she wrote in little square paper books, held close to her eyes, and (the first copy) in pencil. On she went, writing incessantly for three weeks; by which time she had carried her heroine away from Thornfield, and was herself in a fever which compelled her to pause." Charlotte endeavored, and succeeded, in demonstrating that true character and consistency is not only interesting but beautiful.
'Jane Eyre' was published on October 19, 1847, by Smith, Elder & Co.

Elizabeth Gaskell goes on to tell of the day Charlotte told her father that she was Currer Bell, the author of '
'Jane Eyre'.

"Papa, I've been writing a book."
"Have you, my dear?"
"Yes, and I want you to read it."
"I am afraid it will try my eyes too much."
"But it is not in manuscript: it is printed."
"My dear! you've never thought of the expense it will be! It will be almost sure to be a loss, for how can you get the book sold? No one knows you or your name."
"But, Pappa, I don't think it will be a loss; no more will you, if you will just let me read you a review or two, and tell you more about it."
So she sat down and read some of the reviews to her father; and then, giving him the copy of Jane Eyre that she intended for him, she left him to read it. When he came in to tea, he said, "Girls, do you know Charlotte has been writing a book, and it is much better than likely?"

But Charlotte wrote more than just novels. Her poetry has, a "peculiar music - wild, melancholy, and elevating." Poetry is the music of the heart, and out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. In 1846, the sisters published 'Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell'. Currer was really Charlotte, Ellis was Emily, and Acton was Anne. In 1850, Charlotte explained their need for pseudonyms in a biographical notice published with 'Wuthering Heights & Agnes Grey'.

"One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verse in my sister Emily's handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse; I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, - a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music - wild, melancholy, and elevating.

My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one on the recesses of whose mind and feelings even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed; it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication. I knew, however, that a mind like hers could not be without some latent spark of honourable ambition, and refused to be discouraged in my attempts to fan that spark to flame.

Meantime, my younger sister quietly produced some of her own compositions, intimating that, since Emily's had given me pleasure, I might like to look at hers. I could not be a partial judge, yet I thought that these verses, too, had a sweet sincere pathos of their own.

We had very early cherished the dream of one day becoming authors. This dream, never relinquished even when distance divided and absorbing tasks occupied us, now suddenly acquired strength and consistency: it took the character of a resolve. We agreed to arrange a small selection of our poems, and, if possible, get them printed. Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because - without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' - 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 weapons of personality, and for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.

The bringing out of our little book was hard work. As was to be expected, neither we nor our poems were at all wanted; but for this we had been prepared at the onset; though inexperienced ourselves, we had read the experience of others. The great puzzle lay in the difficulty of getting answers of any kind from the publishers to whom we applied. Being greatly harassed by this obstacle, I ventured to apply to the Messrs. Chambers of Edinburgh, for a word of advice; they may have forgotten the circumstance, but I have not, for from them I received a brief and business-like, but civil and sensible reply, on the which we acted, and at last made a way.

The book was printed: it is scarcely known, and all of it that merits to be known are the poems of Ellis Bell. The fixed conviction I held, and hold, of the worth of these poems has not indeed received the confirmation of much favourable criticism; but I must retain it notwithstanding." The book of poetry, 'Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell', only sold two copies.

Charlotte wrote this biographical notice approximately two years after the death of her sister, Emily, who had died on December 19, 1848. Emily had contracted tuberculosis at the funeral of her brother, Branwell. Anne, the youngest of the siblings, also contracted the disease. Anne had witnessed, first hand, the ravages of tuberculosis. Now she too, must face the same fate. Major events in the sisters' lives can be traced through their poetry. In Anne's poem
'Last Lines', we can hear her struggle.

"Should death be standing at the gate,
Thus should I keep my vow;
But, Lord! whatever be my fate,
Oh, let me serve Thee now!"

Charlotte added, "These lines written, the desk was closed, the pen laid aside - for ever." Anne died on May 28, 1849. On June 21, 1849, Charlotte grieves for Anne, in her heart rending poem,
'On the Death of Anne Bronte'.

"There's little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I've lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save.

Calmly to watch the failing breath,
Wishing each sigh might be the last;
Longing to see the shade of death
O'er those beloved features cast.

The cloud, the stillness that must part
The darling of my life from me;
And then to thank God from my heart,
To thank Him well and fervently."

For many years, Mr. Nicholls had almost daily, seen Charlotte Bronte. He was her father's curate, and had, as Elizabeth wrote, "had watched her, and loved her long." In December of 1852, "he came one evening to tea. After tea, she [Charlotte] returned from the study to her own sitting room, as was her custom, leaving her father and his curate together. Presently she heard the study door open, and expected to hear the succeeding clash of the front door. Instead, came a tap; and, 'like lightning, it flashed upon me what was coming. He entered. He stood before me. What his words were you can imagine; his manner you can hardly realize, nor can I forget it. He made me, for the first time, feel what it costs a man to declare affection when he doubts response. The spectacle of one, ordinarily so statue-like, thus trembling, stirred, and overcome, gave me a strange shock. I could only entreat him to leave me then, and promise a reply on the morrow. I asked if he had spoken to Papa. He said he dared not. I think I half led, half put him out of the room."

When Charlotte immediately went to her father and told him of Mr. Nicholls' proposal, he adamantly disapproved. Since her father had just recently become an invalid, Charlotte feared the consequences of his agitation. She hurriedly promised that, on the next day, she would reject Mr. Nicholls' proposal. Very soon after, Mr. Nicholls resigned his curacy. Charlotte patiently "suffered acute pain from the strong expressions which her father used in speaking of Mr. Nicholls."

By the end of 1853, Mr. Bronte, by degrees, "reconciled to the idea of his daughter's marriage." In a letter to Miss Wooler, a friend, she wrote of her engagement:
"I must tell you then, that since I wrote last, papa's mind has gradually come round to a view very different to that which he once took; and that after some correspondence, and as the result of a visit Mr. Nicholls paid here about a week ago, it was agreed that he was to resume the curacy of Haworth, as soon as papa's present assistant is provided with a situation, and in due course of time he is to be received as an inmate into this house.

It gives me unspeakable content to see that now my father has once admitted this new view of the case, he dwells on it very complacently. In all arrangements, his convenience and seclusion will be scrupulously respected. Mr. Nicholls seems deeply to feel the wish to comfort and sustain his declining years. I think from Mr. Nicholls' character I may depend on this not being a mere transitory impulsive feeling, but rather that it will be accepted steadily as a duty, and discharged tenderly as an office of affection. The destiny which Providence in His goodness and wisdom seems to offer me will not, I am aware, be generally regarded as brilliant, but I trust I see in it some germs of real happiness. I trust the demands of both feeling and duty will be in some measure reconciled by the step in contemplation. It is Mr. Nicholls' wish that the marriage should take place this summer; he urges the month of July, but that seems very soon." Charlotte wrote this letter on April the 12th.

On May 22nd, Charlotte wrote Elizabeth, about the character of Mr. Nicholls. "Mr. Nicholls is a kind, considerate fellow. With all his masculine faults, he enters into my wishes about having the thing done quietly, in a way that makes me grateful; and if nobody interferes and spoils his arrangements, he will manage it so that not a soul in Haworth shall be aware of the day. He is so thoughtful..."

The wedding was set for the 29th of June, 1854. "The news of the wedding had slipt abroad before the little party came out of church, and many old and humble friends were there, seeing her look 'like a snow-drop,' as they say. Her dress was white embroidered muslin, with a lace mantle, and white bonnet trimmed with green leaves, which perhaps might suggest the resemblance to the pale wintry flower."

For a honeymoon, they visited Mr. Nicholls' friends and relations in Ireland. Of that time, Charlotte wrote: "I must say I like my new relations. My dear husband, too, appears in a new light in his own country. More than once I have had deep pleasure in hearing his praise on all sides. Some of the old servants and followers of the family tell me I am a most fortunate person; for that I have got one of the best gentlemen in the country. I trust I feel thankful to God for having enabled me to make what seems a right choice; and I pray to be enabled to repay as I ought the affectionate devotion of a truthful, honourable man."

Charlotte's friends witnessed a happy change in her. Elizabeth wrote: "Those who saw her, saw an outward change in her look, telling of inward things." "We, her loving friends, standing outside, caught occasional glimpses of brightness, and pleasant peaceful murmurs of sound, telling of the gladness within; and we looked at each other, and quietly said, 'After a hard and long struggle, after many cares and many bitter sorrows, she is tasting happiness now!' We remembered her trials, and were glad in the idea that God had seen fit to wipe away the tears from her eyes."

Early in 1855, Charlotte "was attacked by new sensations of perpetual nausea, and ever-recurring faintness. After this state of things had lasted for some time, she yielded to Mr. Nicholls' wish that a doctor should be sent for. He came, and assigned a natural cause for her miserable indisposition; a little patience, and all would go right. She, who was ever patient in illness, tried hard to bear up and bear on. But the dreadful sickness increased and increased, till the very sight of food occasioned nausea. 'A wren would have starved on what she ate during those last six weeks,' says one." Friends encouraged Charlotte with the thought of the baby that was coming. "I dare say I shall be glad some time," Charlotte would say, "but I am so ill, so weary..."

Charlotte wrote: "I am not going to talk of my sufferings, it would be useless and painful. I want to give you an assurance, which I know will comfort you, and that is, that I find in my husband the tenderest nurse, the kindest support, the best earthly comfort that ever woman had. His patience never fails, and it is tried by sad days and broken nights." The last words Charlotte ever wrote were: "God bless you all. Yours affectionately, C. B. Nicholls."

"About the third week in March there was a change; a low wandering delirium came on; and in it she begged constantly for food and even stimulants. She swallowed eagerly now; but it was too late. Wakening for an instant from this stupor of intelligence, she saw her husband's woe-worn face, and caught the sound of some murmured words of prayer that God would spare her. 'Oh!' she whispered forth, 'I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy." Nine months after her marriage, Charlotte Bronte died (along with her unborn baby) on March 31, 1855. Among her six siblings, she alone had reached the ripe old age of thirty-nine.

Now, as Charlotte looks down from heaven, she knows that the separation from her husband was only temporary. God in His wisdom, mixes the bitter with the sweet.

"The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet."
~ Proverbs 27:7 ~

I have enjoyed my time with Charlotte, and her sisters, and look forward to meeting them when my turn comes to join them in heaven. And no, I am not related.

"Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
~ 1 Peter 1:13 ~

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You may republish this without permission, provided it remains free, accredited and unaltered. Copyright © 2008 Sarah Fall (aka Judith Bronte).