IT HAS BEEN thought that all the works published
under the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, were, in reality, the production of one person. This mistake I endeavoured
to rectify by a few words of disclaimer prefixed to the third edition of Jane Eyre. These, too, it appears, failed to gain
general credence, and now, on the occasion of a reprint of Wuthering Heights I am advised distinctly to state how the case
Indeed, I feel myself that it is time the obscurity attending those two names
Ellis and Acton was done away. The little mystery, which formerly yielded some harmless pleasure, has lost its interest; circumstances
are changed. It becomes, then, my duty to explain briefly the origin and authorship of the books written by Currer, Ellis,
and Acton Bell.
About five years ago, my two sisters and myself, after a somewhat prolonged period
of separation, found ourselves reunited, and at home. Resident in a remote district, where education had made little progress,
and where, consequently, there was no inducement to seek social intercourse beyond our own domestic circle, we were wholly
dependent on ourselves and each other, on books and study, for the enjoyments and occupations of life. The highest stimulus,
as well as the liveliest pleasure we had known from childhood upwards, lay in attempts at literary composition; formerly we
used to show each other what we wrote, but of late years this habit of communication and consultation had been discontinued;
hence it ensued, that we were mutually ignorant of the progress we might respectively have made.
One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a Ms. volume of verse
in my sister Emilys 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 musicwild,
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 Emilys had given me pleasure, I might like to look at hers. I could not but be a partial judge, yet I thought
that these verses, too, had a sweet and 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, becausewithout at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called femininewe
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 weapon 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 outset; 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 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.
Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a wonderful
zest to existence; it must be pursued. We each set to work on a prose tale: Ellis Bell produced Wuthering Heights, Acton Bell
Agnes Grey, and Currer Bell also wrote a narrative in one volume. These Mss. were perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers
for the space of a year and a half; usually, their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal.
At last Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were accepted on terms somewhat impoverishing
to the two authors; Currer Bells book found acceptance nowhere, nor any acknowledgment of merit, so that something like the
chill of despair began to invade his heart. As a forlorn hope, he tried one publishing house moreMessrs. Smith, Elder and
Co. Ere long, in a much shorter space than that on which experience had taught him to calculatethere came a letter, which
he opened in the dreary expectation of finding two hard hopeless lines, intimating that Messrs. Smith, Elder and Co. were
not disposed to publish the Ms., and, instead, he took out of the envelope a letter of two pages. He read it trembling. It
declined, indeed, to publish that tale, for business reasons, but it discussed its merits and demerits so courteously, so
considerately, in a spirit so rational, with a discrimination so enlightened, that this very refusal cheered the author better
than a vulgarly expressed acceptance would have done. It was added, that a work in three volumes would meet with careful attention.
I was just then completing Jane Eyre, at which I had been working while the one-volume
tale was plodding its weary round in London: in three weeks I sent it off; friendly and skilful hands took it in. This was
in the commencement of September 1847; it came out before the close of October following, while Wuthering Heights and Agnes
Grey, my sisters works, which had already been in the press for months, still lingered under a different management.
They appeared at last. Critics failed to do them justice. The immature but very
real powers revealed in Wuthering Heights were scarcely recognised; its import and nature were misunderstood; the identity
of its author was misrepresented; it was said that this was an earlier and ruder attempt of the same pen which had produced
Jane Eyre. Unjust and grievous error! We laughed at it at first, but I deeply lament it now. Hence, I fear, arose a prejudice
against the book. That writer who could attempt to palm off an inferior and immature production under cover of one successful
effort, must indeed be unduly eager after the secondary and sordid result of authorship, and pitiably indifferent to its true
and honourable meed. If reviewers and the public truly believed this, no wonder that they looked darkly on the cheat.
Yet I must not be understood to make these things subject for reproach or complaint;
I dare not do so; respect for my sisters memory forbids me. By her any such querulous manifestation would have been regarded
as an unworthy and offensive weakness.
It is my duty, as well as my pleasure, to acknowledge one exception to the general
rule of criticism. One writer [See the Palladium for September, 1850.], endowed with the keen vision and fine sympathies of
genius, has discerned the real nature of Wuthering Heights, and has, with equal accuracy, noted its beauties and touched on
its faults. Too often do reviewers remind us of the mob of Astrologers, Chaldeans, and Soothsayers gathered before the writing
on the wall, and unable to read the characters or make known the interpretation. We have a right to rejoice when a true seer
comes at last, some man in whom is an excellent spirit, to whom have been given light, wisdom, and understanding; who can
accurately read the Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin of an original mind (however unripe, however inefficiently cultured and partially
expanded that mind may be); and who can say with confidence, This is the interpretation thereof.
Yet even the writer to whom I allude shares the mistake about the authorship,
and does me the injustice to suppose that there was equivoque in my former rejection of this honour (as an honour I regard
it). May I assure him that I would scorn in this and in every other case to deal in equivoque; I believe language to have
been given us to make our meaning clear, and not to wrap it in dishonest doubt.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Acton Bell, had likewise an unfavourable reception.
At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writers nature could
be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid. She had, in the course of her
life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand, and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties
abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did
her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course with fictitious characters,
incidents, and situations), as a warning to others. She hated her work, but would pursue it. When reasoned with on the subject,
she regarded such reasonings as a temptation to self-indulgence. She must be honest: she must not varnish, soften, or conceal.
This well-meant resolution brought on her misconstruction, and some abuse, which she bore, as it was her custom to bear whatever
was unpleasant, with mild, steady patience. She was a very sincere and practical Christian, but the tinge of religious melancholy
communicated a sad shape to her brief, blameless life.
Neither Ellis nor Acton allowed herself for one moment to sink under want of encouragement;
energy nerved the one, and endurance upheld the other. They were both prepared to try again; I would fain think that hope
and the sense of power was yet strong within them. But a great change approached: affliction came in that shape which to anticipate
is dread: to look back on, grief. In the very heat and burden of the day, the labourers failed over their work.
My sister Emily first declined. The details of her illness are deep-branded in
my memory, but to dwell on them, either in thought or narrative, is not in my power. Never in all her life had she lingered
over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us. Yet, while physically
she perished, mentally she grew stronger than we had yet known her. Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering,
I looked on her with an anguish of wonder and love. I have seen nothing like it; but, indeed, I have never seen her parallel
in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone. The awful point was, that while full of ruth
for others, on herself she had no pity; the spirit was inexorable to the flesh; from the trembling hand, the unnerved limbs,
the faded eyes, the same service was exacted as they had rendered in health. To stand by and witness this, and not dare to
remonstrate, was a pain no words can render.
Two cruel months of hope and fear passed painfully by, and the day came at last
when the terrors and pains of death were to be undergone by this treasure, which had grown dearer and dearer to our hearts
as it wasted before our eyes. Towards the decline of that day, we had nothing of Emily but her mortal remains as consumption
left them. She died December 19, 1848.
We thought this enough: but we were utterly and presumptuously wrong. She was
not buried ere Anne fell ill. She had not been committed to the grave a fortnight, before we received distinct intimation
that it was necessary to prepare our minds to see the younger sister go after the elder. Accordingly, she followed in the
same path with slower step, and with a patience that equalled the others fortitude. I have said that she was religious, and
it was by leaning on those Christian doctrines in which she firmly believed that she found support through her most painful
journey. I witnessed their efficacy in her latest hour and greatest trial, and must bear my testimony to the calm triumph
with which they brought her through. She died May 28, 1849.
What more shall I say about them? I cannot and need not say much more. In externals,
they were two unobtrusive women; a perfectly secluded life gave them retiring manners and habits. In Emilys nature the extremes
of vigour and simplicity seemed to meet. Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside,
lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero; but she had no worldly wisdom;
her powers were unadapted to the practical business of life: she would fail to defend her most manifest rights, to consult
her most legitimate advantage. An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world. Her will was not very
flexible, and it generally opposed her interest. Her temper was magnanimous, but warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending.
Annes character was milder and more subdued; she wanted the power, the fire, the
originality of her sister, but was well endowed with quiet virtues of her own. Long-suffering, self-denying, reflective, and
intelligent, a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her in the shade, and covered her mind, and especially
her feelings, with a sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted. Neither Emily nor Anne was learned; they had no thought
of filling their pitchers at the wellspring of other minds; they always wrote from the impulse of nature, the dictates of
intuition, and from such stores of observation as their limited experience had enabled them to amass. I may sum up all by
saying, that for strangers they were nothing, for superficial observers less than nothing; but for those who had known them
all their lives in intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.
This notice has been written, because I felt it a sacred duty to wipe the dust
off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil.
CURRER BELL [Charlotte Bronte] September 19, 1850.