Joining the Facts to the Fiction

By Keen, Mary | The Spectator, June 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Joining the Facts to the Fiction


Keen, Mary, The Spectator


THE LETTERS OF CHARLOTTE BRONTE

edited by Margaret Smith OUP, L65, pp. 650

'It is only now and then that I wish for a wider world than Haworth,' Charlotte Bronte wrote to her publisher and confidant, W. S. Williams. The inner strife of this complicated and clever spirit, so constrained by the conventions of her day, always found solace in ideas. Letters were her lifeblood.

I confess I am glad when the post brings me a letter; it reminds me that if the sun of action and life does not shine on us, it yet beams full on other parts of the world.

This is the raw material of the novelist who took Nature and Truth as her guide, but who allowed her strong and restless imagination to be heard and exercised. Such literary perception is not mine: the great novelist's admissions spring from every page of Margaret Smith's scholarly edition of the second volume of Charlotte Bronte's correspondence from 1848-51. The author of Jane Eyre thought that `details of character always have a charm, even when they relate to people we have never seen, nor expect to see': the gossip and the domestic observations are as important as the literary exchanges. Her humanity shines from every page.

After her marriage, Charlotte Bronte wrote to her lifelong friend, Ellen Nussey: Arthur . . . thinks I have written too freely. Men don't seem to understand making letters a vehicle of communication - they always think us incautious . . . Arthur says letters such as mine ought never to be kept - they are as dangerous as Lucifer matches, so be sure to follow a recommendation he has just given, `fire them' - or there will be no more.

This revelation falls outside the scope of Margaret Smith's remarkable collection, but it serves to show how fortunate we are to be able to read such private thoughts.

If the correspondence escaped fire, there were worse threats. After his daughter died, Patrick Bronte was found sitting up in bed tearing sentences out of the letters to send to admirers abroad. Thirty years later, what remained of the collection was given to a `scholar' who promised to save Bronte manuscripts for the nation, but subsequently sold them off piecemeal. Margaret Smith's thorough research has reassembled the remains, so that the voice of our heroine sounds clear as Currer Bell. The general reader might find Juliet Barker's The Brontes: A Life in Letters easier going than the 700-odd pages of letters and footnotes of Margaret Smith's formidable scholarship, but the four years covered by this work contain the most intense experiences of Charlotte's life and must be required reading for those of us who are hooked on the Bronte saga.

In 1848, Charlotte was 32. …

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