My continuing quest to learn more about Charlotte Bronte and her famous work Jane Eyre… and what links this book with a three week stay in Hathersage, Derbyshire in July 1845..
In my previous blog I recorded my notes and observations about the early part of the first biography ever written on Chatlotte Bronte, by her friend and author Elizabeth Gaskell. This blog will continue the journey through that book.
Gaskells biography begins to show the writing process used by Charlotte Bronte and started providing some of the clues I was seeking. She was most evidently writing from experience and about real people. In her book Jane Eyre she has changed some names but it is possible to identify some of the people who she was basing her characters on. The same is true of places.
In Chapter V Charlotte and Emily are taken out of Cowan Bridge by their father after the sad early death of their two elder sisters. Charlotte is little more than nine years old and does not attend school again for a number of years. At this point in time Tabitha Ackroyrd, an old woman in the village of Haworth arrives to work and live in the house as a servant.
“She may have told children tales of bygone days, former inhabitants and decayed gentry, family tragedies and superstitious dooms and fairies.”
What Gaskell fails to mention is that Tabitha or Tabby was to feature as the original for not one but two characters in Jane Eyre. We do learn that the Bronte family are staunchly Tory as well being strictly Anglican and the take two Leeeds newspapers -The Leeds Mercury (Whig) and the Leeds Intelligencer (Tory).Another paper, a high tory newspaper called John Bull is read in the house so is presumably borrowed. We learn that Charlotte’s hero is the Duke of Wellington.
By 1829 Charlotte was already writing stories in little books in tiny handwriting including “The Search After Happiness -a Tale” This was “published” by Charlotte on August 17th 1829 and was complete with a cover in her own handwriting.
The story is set in Glass Town, an imaginary African kingdom which is revealed in a series of related stories and poems written chiefly by Charlotte and her brother Branwell. It tells the story of a man named Henry O’Donell who leaves his city to seek happiness and contentment. On his journey he meets a man on a similar quest and they travel to a distant land where they live for many peaceful years. After his companion mysteriously disappears, O’Donell grows increasingly lonely and depressed until one day a Genii appears and grants his wish to return to his long missed home. He is welcomed warmly by the chief of the city and his two sons (characters based on The Duke of Wellington and his sons) and resides there happily ever after.
This book was written when Charlotte was just 13 years old. She had also written many papers and stories. The quality and quantity of the writing is astonishing, especially for a small child. It also shows that Charlotte had literary ambitions at a very early age and was already writing for an audience .What was the stimulus for this writing venture? It may have been a Christmas present to Branwell which consisted of a box of toy soldiers. Each of the children seized a soldier ad immediately named them. Not surprisingly Charlotte named hers “the Duke of Wellington”. Branwell settled on “Buonoparte.” It has been suggested that the stories written in tiny books were produced for the soldiers hence their small size. It could also have been about conservation of expensive paper and also making it difficult for adults to read them. The children often worked together in pairs. Charlotte working with Branwell and Emily working with Anne. They wrote stories about characters living in their imaginary kingdoms. These were called Angria for Charlotte and Branwell and Gondaland for Emily and Anne
In Chapter VI Charlotte is returned to school in January 1831 by her father and starts at Roe Head school, set in a roomy country house on the Leeds to Huddersfield Road. Here I began to be aware that Gaskell was deliberately concealing identities as she identifies Charlotte’s new teacher only as Miss W—. I was disappointed by this as I wanted to find real names. The school was only 20 miles from Haworth and nearby was Oakwell Hall, once owned by Fairfax Fearnley but Gaskell fails to make the connection with one of the characters featured in Jane Eyre – Mrs Fairfax. According to Gaskell an incident or occasion arose whilst Charlotte was at Roe Head that could have been the beginning of the idea for Jane Eyre. Was this a walk over the hills with Miss W— to see Cartwrights Mill or Factory at Liversedge? Mr Cartwright was a notable local businessman and his employment of new machinery in 1812 resulted in an attack by a Luddite mob. Gaskell writes “Mr Cartwright had some foreign blood in him, the traces of which were very apparent in his tall figure, dark eyes and complexion. He had been much abroad and spoke French well.” This does sound remarkably like Mr Rochester does it not? In this chapter Gaskell explains that Charlotte made two life-long friends at Roehead and was much happier in a small school where pupil numbers were between just 7 and 10. The names are given as just Mary —- and E, again the censor seems to be at work
Chapter VII of the biography draws a lot of detail from the numerous letters written by Charlotte to friend E and here we discover why some details are being hidden. Gaskell explains how she used the content of the letters and under whose direction….
..”she throughout most carefully and completely effaced the names of persons and places which occurred in them and also that such information as I have obtained from her bears reference solely to Miss Bronte and her sisters ad not to any other individuals whom I may find it necessary to allude to in connection with them.”
She or “E” was Ellen Nussey, not a difficult identity to guess but sadly some of the details of names and places I was seeking were clearly going to be heavily censored. After one and half years Charlotte returned to Haworth and employed herself initially by teaching her sisters. The three girls used to walk out on the moors together but rarely into Haworth itself. They all preferred the solitude and freedom of the moors. The children all had access to Mr Bronte’s library and here could be found a range of different authors and different types of reading matter; Walter Scott’s writings. Wordsworths and Southeys poems. Also some ladies magazines. Aunt Branwell had her own source of income and took two magazines including Frazers Edinburgh magazine. There were also some mad Methodist magazines and the letters of Mrs Elizabeth Rowe from the dead to the living. The children were also allowed to get books from the circulation library at Keighley. One library book read by Charlotte was “Kenilworth” by Sir Walter Scott.
Chapter VIII deals with another change in Charlotte’s life. On 29th July 1835 Charlotte returned to Roe Head school, taking Emily with her. Charlotte was to become a teacher. Emily lasted barely three months before returning to Haworth, missing the parsonage and her beloved moors. She was happy in her job at first and able to visit her old friends Mary and Ellen at weekends as they lived near to Roe Head School. Anne came become a pupil at the school replacing Emily. Gradually though the state of Charlotte’s health declines and Gaskell hints the condition is what we now call depression though she insists it was a physical not a mental condition. Midsummer holidays in 1836 were taken back at Haworth. Christmas 1836 saw all the family back together at Haworth. There were talks of employment and remuneration as they felt a need to relieve their father of the burden of supporting all of them. None felt this more than Charlotte. She was teaching at Roe Head School, now removed to a new location on Dewsbury Moor. Emily was teaching at a school in Halifax. Charlotte’s salary was too small to allow her to save any money from it. It was the household custom for the girls to sew til nine o’clock at night. At this point Aunt Branwell and Mr Bronte went off to bed. The girls put away their sewing and along with Branwell then began to pace up and down the room, often with candles extingushed. They talked over past cares and planned for the future, and consulted each other about their plans. They talked over their own writings in what they called their magazines ( little books). They had all been recently writing poetry and were aware they needed a second opinion about the quality of their writing. So Charlotte as the eldest resolved to write to Cuthbert Southey, then poet laureate, asking his opinion or her poems. Branwell tried a similar venture by sending some of his poetry to Wordsworth seeking his opinion. Finally a long reply was received from Southey which though not unpleasant must have been a disappointment. In particular Southey did not think that writing was woman’s work,
“Literature cAnneot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it.”
Charlotte Bronte’s exact reaction to this reply is recorded in Gaskells Biography.
“Mr Southey’s letter was kind and admirable; a little stringent but it did me good.”
Southey’s letter did make Charlotte put aside her writing ambitions for a time and she returned to her teaching in Dewsbury in 1837. Christmas 1837 was spent back at the parsonage with her family. Charlotte was not in the best of health but Anne was worse with a slight cough and a pain in her side. Emily had given up her situation at a school in Halifax on account of her health. Charlotte returned to teaching but by June 1838 she was back at Haworth.. In March 1839 Charlotte received a written offer of marriage, which she rejected. This was from a man in holy orders and may have been the inspiration for the St John Rivers character in Jane Eyre. At this point in her life Charlotte was considering her future. She had been discouraged from literature and teaching seemed the only option but there was a problem. Neither her nor her sisters were naturally fond of children so teaching them was not a delightful task. The education they had all received did not qualify them to take charge of advanced pupils. They knew little of French or music. One daughter was required to stay at home leaving two to find work. Emily was chosen to remain in Haworth. Anne was the first to find a position as a governess and a few weeks later so did Charlotte. The employer’s names and locations were not given. It did not prove to be a happy experience. Charlotte found the job time consuming and exhausting and the children sometimes difficult. She lasted only a few months and was soon back at Haworth. In September 1839 she took her first holiday with Ellen Nussey to a spot just outside Bridlington which was much enjoyed. As the new year of 1840 opened all of the Brontes were at home except Anne who still away working as a governess. Charlotte had tried a new occupation and found it not to her liking….
By the end of Chapter VIII I was getting a better understanding of the influences upon Charlotte Bronte the person who was driven by duty and dedication to her father and sisters. I was beginning to see why she had a need to write and a hope to be published….