Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  (2)

  They had been writing off and on since they were children, and in 1846 the three of them published a volume of verse at their own expense under the names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. It cost them fifty pounds, and two copies were sold. Each of them then wrote a novel. Charlotte’s (Currer Bell) was called The Professor, Emily’s (Ellis Bell) Wuthering Heights and Anne’s (Acton Bell) Agnes Grey. They were refused by publisher after publisher; but when Smith, Elder & Co., to whom Charlotte’s The Professor had finally been sent, returned it, they wrote to say that they would be glad to consider a longer novel by her. She was finishing one, and within a month was able to send it to the publishers. They accepted it. It was called Jane Eyre. Emily’s novel, and Anne’s, had also at last been accepted by a publisher, Newby by name, ‘on terms somewhat impoverishing to the two authors’, and they had corrected the proofs before Charlotte sent Jane Eyre to Smith, Elder & Co. Though the reviews of Jane Eyre were not particularly good, readers liked it and it became a best-seller. Mr. Newby, upon this, tried to persuade the public that Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, which he then published together in three volumes, were by the author of Jane Eyre. They made, however, no impression, and indeed were regarded by a number of critics as early and immature work by Currer Bell. Mr. Brontë had consented, after some persuasion, to read Jane Eyre. When he came in to tea, after finishing it, he said: ‘Girls, do you know Charlotte has been writing a book, and it is much better than likely?’

  At the time of Miss Branwell’s death, Anne was in a situation at Thorpe Green as governess to the children of a certain Mrs. Robinson. Her nature was sweet and gentle, and she was apparently better able to get on with people than the exacting and prickly Charlotte. She was not unhappy in her situation. She went back to Haworth for her aunt’s funeral, and on her return to Thorpe Green took with her Branwell, then idling at home, as tutor to Mrs. Robinson’s son. Mr. Edmund Robinson, a wealthy clergyman, was an elderly invalid with a youngish wife, and Branwell, though she was seventeen years older than he, fell in love with her. What their relations were is uncertain. Anyhow, whatever they were, they were discovered. Branwell was sent packing, and Mr. Robinson ordered him ‘never to see again the mother of his children, never set foot in her house, never write or speak to her.’ Branwell ‘stormed, raved, swore he could not live without her; cried out against her for staying with her husband. Then prayed the sick man might die soon; they would yet be happy.’ Branwell had always drunk too much; now in his distress he took to eating opium. It seems, however, that he was able to communicate with Mrs. Robinson, and, some months after his dismissal, they appear to have met at Harrogate. ‘It is said that she proposed flight together, ready to forfeit all her grandeur. It was Branwell who advised patience and a little longer waiting.’ Since this can only have been told by Branwell himself, and is in any case very unlikely to be true, we may accept it as an invention of a young man who was both silly and conceited. Suddenly he received a letter to announce the death of Mr. Robinson; ‘he fair danced down the churchyard as if he was out of his mind; he was so fond of that woman,’ someone told Mary Robinson, Emily’s biographer.

  ‘The next morning he rose, dressed himself with care and prepared for a journey; but before he had even set out from Haworth, two men came riding to the village posthaste. They sent for Branwell and when he arrived, in a great state of excitement, one of the riders dismounted and went with him into the Black Bull.’ He brought a message from the widow begging him not to come near her again, for if she even saw him once she would lose her fortune and the custody of her children. This is what he told, but since the letter was never produced and it has been discovered that Mr. Robinson’s will contained no such clause, there is no knowing whether he told the truth. The only thing sure is that Mrs. Robinson let him know that she wanted to have nothing more to do with him, and it may be that she made up this excuse to render the blow less mortifying. The Brontë family were convinced that she had been Branwell’s mistress, and ascribed his consequent behaviour to her evil influence. It is possible that she was, but it is just as possible that, like many a man before and after him, he boasted of a conquest he had never made. But if she had been for a brief period infatuated with him, there is no reason to suppose that it had ever entered her head to marry him. He proceeded to drink himself to death. When he knew the end was near, one who attended him in his last illness told Mrs. Gaskell that, wanting to stand up to die, he insisted upon getting up. He had only been in bed a day. Charlotte was so upset that she had to be led away, but her father, Anne and Emily looked on while he rose to his feet and after a struggle that lasted twenty minutes died, as he wished, standing.

  Emily never went out of doors after the Sunday following his death. She had a cold and a cough. It grew worse, and Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey: ‘I fear she has pain in the chest, and I sometimes catch a shortness in her breathing, when she has moved at all quickly. She looks very, very thin and pale. Her reserved nature causes me great uneasiness of mind. It is useless to question her; you get no answer. It is still more useless to recommend remedies; they are never adopted.’ A week or two later, Charlotte wrote to another friend: ‘I would fain hope that Emily is a little better this evening, but it is difficult to ascertain this. She is a real stoic in illness; she neither seeks nor will accept sympathy. To put any questions, to offer any aid, is to annoy; she will not yield a step before pain or sickness till forced; not one of her ordinary avocations will she voluntarily renounce. You must look on and see her do what she is unfit to do, and not dare say a word …’ One morning Emily got up as usual, dressed herself and began to sew; she was short of breath and her eyes were glazed, but she went on working. She grew steadily worse. She had always refused to see a doctor, but at last, at midday, asked that one should be sent for. It was too late. At two she died.

  Charlotte was at work on another novel, Shirley, but she put it aside to nurse Anne, who was attacked by what was then known as galloping consumption, the disease from which Branwell and Emily had died, and did not finish it till after the gentle creature’s death only five months after Emily’s. She went to London in 1849 and 1850, and was made much of; she was introduced to Thackeray and had her portrait painted by George Richmond. A Mr. James Taylor, a member of the firm of Smith, Elder, whom she described a s a stern and abrupt little man, asked her to marry him, but she refused. Before that, two young clergymen had proposed to her, only to be rejected, and two or three curates, her father’s or those of neighbouring parsons, had shown her marked attention; but Emily discouraged suitors (her sisters called her the Major, because of the effective way she dealt with them), and her father disapproved, so that nothing had come of it. It was, however, a curate of her father’s whom she at last married. This was the Rev. Arthur Nicholls. He went to Haworth in 1844. Writing to Ellen Nussey in that year, she said of him: ‘I cannot for my life see those interesting germs of goodness you discovered; his narrowness of mind always strikes me chiefly.’ And, a couple of years later, she included him in her sweeping contempt of curates in general. ‘They regard me as an old maid, and I regard them, one and all, as highly uninteresting, narrow and unattractive specimens of the coarser sex.’ Mr. Nicholls, an Irishman, went to Ireland on his holiday, and Charlotte wrote to her usual correspondent: ‘Mr. Nicholls is not yet returned. I am sorry to say that many of the parishioners express a desire that he should not trouble himself to recross the Channel.’

  In 1852 Charlotte wrote a long letter to Ellen Nussey. She enclosed a note from Mr. Nicholls which, she said, ‘has left on my mind a feeling of deep concern …’ ‘What papa has seen or guessed I will not inquire, though I may conjecture. He has irritably noticed all Mr. Nicholls’s low spirits, all his threats of expatriation, all his symptoms of impaired health – noticed them with little sympathy and much indirect sarcasm. On Monday evening Mr. Nicholls was here to tea. I vaguely felt without clearly seeing, as without seeing I have felt for some time, the meaning of his cons
tant looks, and strange feverish restraint. After tea I withdrew to the dining-room as usual. As usual Mr. Nicholls sat with papa till between eight and nine o’clock; I then heard him open the parlour door as if going. I expected the clash of the front door. He stopped in the passage; he tapped; like lightning it flashed on me what was coming. He entered; he stood before me. What his words were you can guess; his manner you can hardly realise, nor can I forget it. Shaking from head to foot, looking deadly pale, speaking low, vehemently, yet with difficulty, he made me for the first time feel what it costs a man to declare affection where he doubts response.

  ‘The spectacle of one ordinarily so statue-like thus trembling, stirred, and overcome, gave me a kind of strange shock. He spoke of sufferings he had borne for months, of sufferings he could endure no longer, and craved leave for some hope. I could only entreat him to leave me then and promise a reply on the morrow. I asked him if he had spoken to papa. He said he dared not. I think I half led, half put him out of the room. When he was gone I immediately went to papa, and told him what had taken place. Agitation and anger disproportionate to the occasion ensued; If I had loved Mr. Nicholls, and had heard such epithets applied to him as were used, it would have transported me past my patience; as it was, my blood boiled with a sense of injustice. But papa worked himself into a state not to be trifled with; the veins on his temples started up like whipcord, and his eyes became suddenly bloodshot. I made haste to promise that Mr. Nicholls should on the morrow have a distinct refusal.’

  In another letter, dated three days later, Charlotte writes: ‘You ask how papa demeans himself to Mr. Nicholls. I only wish you were here to see papa in his present mood: you would know something of him. He just treats him with a hardness not to be bent, and a contempt not to be propitiated. The two have had no interview as yet; all has been done by letter. Papa wrote, I must say, a most cruel note to Mr. Nicholls on Wednesday.’ She went on to say that her father thought ‘a little too much about his want of money; he says the match would be a degradation, that I should be throwing myself away, that he expects me, if I marry at all, to do very differently.’ Mr. Brontë, in fact, behaved as badly as he had behaved years before to Mary Burder. Relations between Mr. Brontë and Mr. Nicholls grew so strained that the latter resigned his curacy. But his successors at Haworth did not give Mr. Brontë satisfaction, and Charlotte, at last exasperated by his complaints, told him that he had only himself to blame. He had only to let her marry Mr. Nicholls and all would be well. Papa continued ‘very, very hostile, bitterly unjust,’ but she saw and corresponded with Mr. Nicholls. They became engaged and in 1854 were married. She was then thirty-eight. She died in childbirth nine months later.

  So the Rev. Patrick Brontë, having buried his wife, her sister and his six children, was left to eat his dinner alone in the solitude that he liked, walk on the moors as far as his waning strength permitted, read the papers, preach his sermons and wind up the clock on his way to bed. There is a photograph of him in his old age. A man in a black suit with an immense white choker round his neck, with white hair cut short, a fine brow and a large straight nose, a tight mouth and ill-tempered eyes behind his spectacles. He died at Haworth at the age of eighty-four.

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  It is not without intention that in writing of Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights, I have said so much more about her father, her brother and her sister Charlotte than about her; for in the books written about the family it is of them that we hear most. Emily and Anne hardly come into the picture. Anne was a gentle, pretty little thing, but insignificant; and her talent was small. Emily was very different. She is a strange, mysterious and shadowy figure. She is never seen directly, but reflected, as it were, in a moorland pool. You have to guess what sort of woman she was from her one novel, her poems, from an allusion here and there and from scattered anecdotes. She was aloof, an intense, uncomfortable creature; and when you hear of her given over to unrestrained gaiety, as on walks over the moor she sometimes was, it makes you uneasy. Charlotte had friends, Anne had friends, Emily had none. Her character was full of contradictions. She was harsh, dogmatic, self-willed, sullen, angry and intolerant; and she was pious, dutiful, hard-working, uncomplaining, tender to those she loved and patient.

  Mary Robinson describes her at fifteen as ‘a tall, long-armed girl, full grown, elastic as to tread; with a slight figure that looked queenly in her best dresses, but loose and boyish when she slouched over the moors, whistling the dogs, and taking long strides over the rough earth. A tall, thin, loose-jointed girl – not ugly, but with irregular features and a pallid thick complexion. Her dark hair was naturally beautiful, and in later days looked well, loosely fastened with a tall comb at the back of her head; but in 1833 she wore it in an unbecoming tight curl and frizz. She had beautiful eyes of a hazel colour.’ Like her father, her brother and her sisters, she wore spectacles. She had an aquiline nose and a large, expressive, prominent mouth. She dressed regardless of fashion, with leg-of-mutton sleeves long after they had ceased to be worn; in straight long skirts clinging to her lanky figure.

  She went to Brussels with Charlotte. She hated it. Friends, wishing to be nice to the two girls, asked them to spend Sundays and holidays at their house, but they were so shy that to go was agony for them, and after a while their hosts came to the conclusion that it was kinder not to invite them. Emily had no patience with social small-talk, which of course is for the most part trivial; it is merely an expression of general amiability, and people take part in it because they have good manners. Emily was too shy to take part in it and was irritated by those who did. There was in her shyness both diffidence and arrogance. If she was so retiring, it is strange that she should have made herself so conspicuous in her dress. The very shy not uncommonly have in them a streak of exhibitionism, and it may occur to one that she wore those absurd leg-of-mutton sleeves to flaunt her contempt for the commonplace people in whose company she was tongue-tied.

  At school, during the hours of recreation, the two sisters always walked together, Emily leaning heavily on her sister, and generally in silence. When they were spoken to, Charlotte answered. Emily rarely spoke to anyone. They were both of them several years older than the rest of the girls, and they disliked their noisiness, their high spirits and the sillinesses natural to their age. Monsíger found Emily intelligent, but so stubborn that she would listen to no reason when it interfered with her wishes or beliefs. He found her egotistical, exacting and, with Charlotte, tyrannical. But he recognised that there was something unusual in her. She should have been a man, he said: ‘Her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty; never have given way but with life.’

  When Emily went back to Haworth after Miss Branwell’s death, it was for good. She never left it again. It looks as though only there was she able to live the reveries which were the solace and the torment of her life.

  She got up in the morning before anyone else and did the roughest part of the day’s work before Tabby, the maid, who was old and frail, came down. She did the household ironing and most of the cooking. She made the bread, and the bread was good. While kneading the dough, she would glance at the book propped up before her. ‘Those who worked with her in the kitchen, young girls called in to help in stress of business, remember how she would keep a scrap of paper, a pencil at her side, and how when the moment came that she could pause in her cooking or her ironing, she would jot down some impatient thought and then resume her work. With these girls she was always friendly and hearty – pleasant, sometimes quite jovial like a boy! So genial and kind, a little masculine, “say my informants”, but of strangers she was exceedingly timid, and if the butcher’s boy or the baker’s man came to the kitchen door she would be off like a bird into the hall or the parlour till she heard their hobnails clumping down the path.’ The people of the village said that she ‘was more like a boy than a girl’, and that her figure looked ‘loose and boyish when she slouched over the moors, whistling to her dogs and taking
long strides’. She disliked men and, with one exception, was not even ordinarily polite to her father’s curates; this was the Rev. William Weightman. He is described as young and fair, eloquent and witty; and there was about him ‘a certain girlishness of looks, manner and taste’. He was known in the family as Miss Celia Amelia. Emily got on famously with him. It is not difficult to know why. May Sinclair, in her book called The Three Brontës, constantly uses the word virile when she speaks of her. Romer Wilson, speaking of Emily, asks: ‘Did the lonely father see himself in her and feel that she was the only other male spirit in his house? … She early knew the boy in herself, and later knew the man.’ Shirley, in Charlotte’s novel, is understood to have been modelled on Emily; it is curious that Shirley’s old governess should reprove her for constantly speaking of herself as though she were a male; it is not a usual thing for a girl to do, and one can only suppose that it was a habit of Emily’s. Much in her character and behaviour that disconcerted her contemporaries can today be easily explained. Homosexuality was not at that period openly discussed as it is now, often to an embarrassing extent, but it existed, both in men and women, as it has always done, and it may well be that neither Emily herself, her family nor her family’s friends, for, as I have said, she had none of her own, recognised what made her so strange.

 
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