Love's Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865

By Helen Small | Go to book overview

6
The Woman in White, Great Expectations, and the Limits of Medicine

WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY deeply admired Jane Eyre. Ignoring a publisher's deadline, he spent a whole day closeted with the book, and was found weeping at one of the love scenes by the manservant who came with coals for the fire.1 Nevertheless, his feelings were more mixed when Charlotte Bronté dedicated the second edition of the novel to him, describing him effusively as one who 'comes before the great ones of society much as the son of Imlah came before the throned kings of Judah and Israel, and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and vital, a mien as dauntless and as daring' (36). Thackeray was to be haunted by the tribute for years. It fuelled a rumour already current in London literary circles that the mysterious ' Currer Bell' was his children's governess, seduced by Thackeray and taking pre-emptive revenge for his portrayal of her as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Elizabeth Rigby's anonymous review picked up the story and gave it a further boost, satirically linking Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, and the Report for 1847 of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution. The gossip was still circulating more than ten years later. When an inquisitive American lady accosted him at a dinner-party in 1860, and demanded to know 'is it true, the dreadful story about you and Currer Bell?', he sighed, 'Alas, Madam, it is all too true. And the fruits of that unhallowed intimacy were six children. I slew them all with my own hand.'2

The opportunity for wit aside, the dedication was acutely embarrassing for Thackeray. Unbeknown to Charlotte Bronte, his wife

____________________
1
The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, 4 vols., ed. Gordon N. Ray ( London, 1945-6), ii. 318-19.
2
Gordon N. Ray, Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity (2822-2846) ( London, 1955), 11.

-179-

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