25 September 2010

Charlotte Bronte letters (1853 - 55): "Dangerous as lucifer matches"

A. B. NICHOLLS, PART 2. See previous blog for Part 1.


Charlotte Bronte wrote to and received letters from A. B. Nicholls upon his exit from Haworth for a new parish. None of these letters exist. She also visited him amongst mixed company. Charlotte finally accepted his proposal of marriage, against the initial wishes of her father and her best friend Ellen Nussey.

The REVD. PATRICK BRONTE to CHARLOTTE BRONTE, January 1853, fragment

I wish him [Nicholls] no ill -- but rather good, and wish that every woman may avoid him, forever, unless she should be determined on her own misery -- All the produce of the Australian ?Diggins would 'not' make him and any wife he might have, happy. (106)

MARY TAYLOR to ELLEN NUSSEY, 24 February to 3 March 1854

You talk wonderful nonsense abt C. Bronte in yr letter. What do you mean about "bearing her position so long, & enduring to the end"? & still better -- "bearing our lot whatever it is". If it's C's lot to be married shd n't she bear that too? or does your strange morality mean that she shd refuse to ameliorate her lot when it lies in her power. how wd. she be inconsistent with herself in marrying? Because she considers her own pleasure? If this is so new for her to do, it is high time she began to make it more common. It is an outrageous exaction to expect her to give up her choice in a manner so important, & I think her to blame in having been hitherto so yielding that her friends can think of making such an impudent demand. (228)

Charlotte was not in love with Nicholls when she accepted his proposal. It seems likely that her acceptance was merely to ensure security for her father. Nicholls promised Charlotte that he would take care of her father if she died before her father.

to ELLEN NUSSEY, 11 April 1854

For Myself -- dear Ellen -- while thankful to One who seems to have guided me through much difficulty, much and deep distress and perplexity of mind -- I am still very calm -- very -- inexpectant. What I taste of happiness is of the soberest order. I trust to love my husband -- I am grateful for his tender love to me -- I believe him to be an affectionate -- a conscientious -- a high-principled man -- and if with all this, I should yield to regrets -- that fine talents, congenial 'tastes' and thoughts are not added -- it seems to me I should be most presumptuous and thankless.

Providence offers me this destiny. Doubtless then it is best for me -- Nor do I shrink from wishing those dear to me one not less happy. (240)

This sober view of her coming marriage is not what one would expect from the author of such passionate and willful characters.

to MRS. GASKELL, 26 April 1854

I know that when once married I shall often have to hold my tongue on topics which heretofore have rarely failed to set that unruly member in tolerably facile motion. (252)

to MRS. ANN CLAPHAM, {?28 December 1854]

...there are some cases, as I need not remind you, where wives have just to put their own judgment on the shelf and do as they are bid. (313)

to MRS. GASKELL, 18 April 1854

My destiny will not be brilliant, certainly, but Mr Nicholls is conscientious, affectionate, pure in heart and life. He offers a most constant and tried attachment -- I am very grateful to him. (247)


If only he is not altogether far too narrow for her, one can fancy her much more really happy with such a man than with one who might have made her more in love, and I am sure she will be really good to him. But I guess the true love was Paul Emanuel [Charlotte's character in VILLETTE based off M. Heger] after all, and is dead; but I don't know, and don't think that Lily [Mrs. Gaskell] knows... (258)

Her father, Patrick Bronte, did not attend the wedding, although he was much more relaxed about his daughter marrying; her former teacher and friend Margaret Wooler gave her away.

to CATHERINE WOOLER [Margaret's sister], 18 July 1854

I believe my dear husband to be a good man, and trust I have done right in marrying him. I hope too I shall be enabled always to feel grateful for the kindness and affection he shews me. (278)

to ELLEN NUSSEY, 9 August [1854]

Dear Nell -- during the last 6 weeks -- the colour of my thoughts is a good deal changed: I know more of the realities of life than I once did. I think many false ideas are propagated -- perhaps unintentionally. I think those married women who indiscriminately urge their acquaintance to marry -- much to blame. For my part -- I can only say with deeper sincerity and fuller significance -- what I always said in theory -- Wait God's will. Indeed -- indeed Nell -- it is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife. (284)

to MARGARET WOOLER, 22 August 1854

I feel comforted to think that this marriage has secured Papa good aid in his old age. (287)

One of the villagers in proposing my husband's health described him as "a consistent Christian and a kind gentleman." I am disposed to echo that high but simple eulogium now. If I can do so with sincerity and conviction seven years -- or even a year hence -- I shall esteem myself a happy woman. Faultless my husband is not -- faultless no human being is; but as you well know -- I did not expect perfection. (286)

Marriage certainly makes a difference in some things and amongst others the disposition and consumption of time. I really seem to have had scarcely a spare moment since that dim quiet June Morning when you, E. Nussey and myself all walked down to Haworth church --. Not that I have been hurried or oppressed -- but the fact is my time is not my own now; Somebody else wants a good portion of it -- and says we must do so and so. We do "so and so" accordingly, and it generally seems the right thing -- only I sometimes wish that I could have written the letter as well as taken the walk. (286)


Gaskell's religion did not coincide with A. B. Nicholls'

MRS. GASKELL to JOHN FORSTER, [23 April 1854] Extract

I mean that she [CB] would never have been happy but with an exacting, rigid, law-giving, passionate man -- only you see, I'm afraid one of his laws will be to shut us out, & so I am making a sort of selfish moan over it & have got out of temper I suppose with the very thing I have been wanting for her this six months past... (248)

to ELLEN NUSSEY, [?20 October 1854]

Arthur has just been glancing over this note -- He thinks I have written too freely about *Amelia &c. Men don't seem to understand making letters a vehicle of communication -- they always seem to think us incautious. I'm sure I don't think I have said anything rash -- however you must burn[three underlines] it when read. Arthur says such letters as mine never ought to be kept -- they are dangerous as lucifer matches -- so be sure to follow a recommendation he has just given "fire them" -= or "there will be no more." Such is his resolve. I can't help laughing -- this seems to me so funny, Arthur however says he is quite "serious and looks it, I assure you -- he is bending over the desk with his eyes full of concern. I am now desired "to have done with it--" so with his kind regards and mine -- Good-bye dear Ellen

Yours affectionately
CB: Nicholls (295)

to ELLEN NUSSEY, 31 October 1854

Dear Ellen -- Arthur complains that you do not distinctly promise to burn my letters as you receive them. He says you must give him a plain pledge to that effect -- or he will read every line I write and elect himself censor of our correspondence. (296)

He says women are more rash in letter-writing -- they think only of the trustworthiness of their immediate friend -- and do not look to contingencies -- a letter may fall into any hand. You must give the promise -- I believe -- at least he says so, with his best regards -- or else you will get such notes as he writes to Mr. *Sowden - plain, brief statements of facts without the adornment of a single flourish. (296-97)

ELLEN NUSSEY to A. B. NICHOLLS, [November 1854]

My dear Mr Nicholls

As you seem to hold in great horror the ardentia verba [burning words] of feminine epistles, I pledge myself to the destruction of Charlotte's 'epistles' henceforth, if You, pledge yourself to no censorship in the matter communicated

Yours very truly
E. Nussey (297)

to ELLEN NUSSEY, 7 November 1854

Arthur thanks you for the promise     He was out when I commenced this letter, but he is just come in -- on my asking him whether he would give the pledge required in return -- he says "yes we may now write any dangerous stuff we please to each other -- it is not "old friends" he mistrusts, but the chances of war -- the accidental passing of letters into hands and under eyes for which they were never written." (298)

Obviously, Ellen did not burn Charlotte's letters. Ellen was a pious lady and it is terribly surprising that she would lie in this instance, but we are eternally grateful that she did as we would know very little about Charlotte and her sisters if not for these letters. Over 300 exist. Ellen maintained that despite her avowal that she would burn the letters, Nicholls continued to censor Charlotte's letters for the short time she lived subsequent to this date.


to ELLEN NUSSEY, 7 December 1854

If it just depended on me -- I should come -- but these matters are not quite in my power now -- another must be consulted - and where his wish and judgment have a decided bias to a particular course -- I make no stir, but just adopt it. Arthur is sorry to disappoint both you and me, but it is his fixed wish that a few weeks should be allowed yet to elapse before we meet -- Probably he is confirmed in this desire by my having a cold at present -- I did not achieve the walk to the waterfall with impunity -- yet I felt a chill afterwards, and the same night had sore throat and cold -- however I am better now -- but not 'quite' well. (306)

Many biographers believe that Charlotte died as a result of a complication from recent pregnancy. There is no scientific evidence to support that Charlotte was pregnant. Besides, one must keep in mind that Charlotte was very little at 4' 9" in height and skinny to the point that some have speculated that she was an anorexic, a view I do not hold. It was also only 8 months since her marriage and for a woman of her physique and age (39) it seems unlikely that she would have become pregnant so quickly. Instead, her death could have been a result of Tuberculosis (a common 19th century disease known at this time as Phthisis or Consumption, one that her sisters Emily and Anne succumbed to) for which it seems there is greater evidence. In the following letter Charlotte does not allow Ellen to suppose it is pregnancy that is causing her sickness:

to ELLEN NUSSEY, 19 February 1855

My health has been really very good ever since my return from Ireland till about ten days ago, when the stomach seemed quite suddenly to lose its tone -- indigestion and continual faint sickness have been my portion ever since. Don't conjecture -- dear Nell -- for it is too soon yet -- though I certainly never before felt as I have done lately. (319)

Below, Nicholls marks Charlotte's condition as an "illness". However, the doctor also states it will be of some duration but not dangerous which could suggest that he believes Charlotte may be pregnant.

A. B. NICHOLLS to ELLEN NUSSEY, 1 February 1855

Dr. Macturk saw Charlotte on Tuesday. His opinion was that her illness would be of some duration, -- but that there was no immediate danger -- I trust therefore that in a few weeks she will be well again -- (323)

A month and a half before her death, Nicholls maintains that the source for Charlotte's illness is still unknown.

A. B. NUSSEY to ELLEN NUSSEY, 14 February 1855

It is difficult to write to friends about my wife's illness, as its cause is yet uncertain -- at present she is completely prostrated with weakness & sickness & frequent fever -- All may turn out well in the end, & I hope it will; if you saw [her] you would perceive that she can maintain no correspondence at present -- (324-5)

At this time, Charlotte, perhaps fearing death, re-wrote her will allotting her husband full rights over her property. It is generally assumed that this was a result of Charlotte's growing love for Nicholls. I do wonder -- as no other biographer has speculated -- if in this instance Nicholls used his potent persuasive skills.

to AMELIA TAYLOR, nee RINGROSE [?late February 1855]

Let me speak the plain truth -- my sufferings are very great -- my nights indescribable -- sickness with scarce a reprieve -- I strain until what I vomit is mixed with blood. (327)

Vomiting or coughing up blood is a symptom of Consumption (Tuberculosis)

The day before Charlotte's death, her father writes to Ellen Nussey:


My dear Madam,

We are all in great trouble, and Mr. Nicholls so much so, that he is not so sufficiently strong, and composed as to be able to write --

I therefore devote a few moments, to tell you, that my Dear Daughter is very ill, and apparently on the verge of the grave --

If she could speak, she would no doubt dictate to us whilst answering your kind letter, but we are left to ourselves, to give what answer we can -- The Doctors have no hope of her case, and fondly as we a long time, cherished hope, that hope is now gone, and we [have] only to look forward to the solemn event, with prayer to God, that he will give us grace and Strength sufficient unto our day --

Will you be so kind as to write to Miss Wooler, and Mrs. Joe Taylor, and inform them that we requested you to do so -- telling them of our present condition

Ever truly and
respectfully Yours,

P. Bronte (329-330)

Ellen left that day to arrive at Haworth on 31 March after Charlotte's passing that morning. Charlotte's alleged last moments and words, as related by Mrs. Gaskell -- who was not present -- is: "Wakening for an instant from this stupor of intelligence, she saw her husband's woe-worn face, and caught the sound of some murmured words of prayer that God would spare her. "Oh!" she whispered forth, "I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy."

All grammatical errors are those of the authors' and not mine. All italicized words are mine.

The Letters of Charlotte Bronte, Volume III, Margaret Smith editor

09 September 2010

07 September 2010

Charlotte Bronte -- personality

to F. BENNOCH, 29 September 1853

I could not help smiling at what you say respecting your preconceived expectations of Currer Bell [Charlotte Bronte], anticipating in him or her a somewhat positive and overbearing personage. I am afraid my books must be at fault in a way of which I am totally unconscious, for you are by no means singular in your idea; on the contrary I find it shared by almost all strangers. However I cannot help it, and if others consent to look upon the defect as kindly as you do -- I fear I shall scarce trouble myself to regret it. (195)

Elizabeth Gaskell visited Charlotte at the home she shared with her last remaining relative, her father, in Haworth in 1853 and wrote about her visit to John Forster who was a good friend of Charles Dickens.

Mrs. Gaskell to John Forster, 1853

There are some people, whose stock of facts & anecdotes are soon exhausted; but Miss B. is none of these. She has the wild strange facts of her own & her sister's life, -- and beyond & above these she has more original & suggestive thoughts of her own; so that, like the moors, I felt on the last day as if our talk might be extended in any direction without getting to the end of any subject. (199)

Mrs. Gaskell to John Forster, 1853

Here & there from the high moorland summit we saw newly built Churches, -- which her Irish curates see after -- everyone of ?those being literal copies of different curates in the neighbourhood, whose amusement has been ever since to call each other by the names she gave them in Shirley. (198)

Margaret Smith ed. The Letters of Charlotte Bronte vol III

picture: bronte-country.com

04 September 2010

not about Charlotte Bronte

If you had asked me four years if I could ever imagine leaving London willingly I would have vehemently denied it. This is why I no longer trust my decisions -- why I do not hope but with caution.

It will be a week tomorrow that I have not been on my anti-anxiety pills. Doc seems to think that as my life has improved -- I have a job now -- and I am happier and more content than I have been since before I moved to London and came back to my parental habitat after failing grad school -- that I no longer need them. I quietly assented. I have been very dizzy all week. Doc says that I should feel physically different as I go off them. I hope I do not revert back to my former state of anger, unhappiness, and, worse than all, physical sickness.

I haven't written on here about myself in a long while. Have felt no desire to do so. My mental/physical condition improved while on the pills but they did rather sap my energy and emotions to the point where I didn't feel like doing much. I have been much more energetic since going off them.

However, I have been feeling a bit more disgruntled by certain situations than I feel like I would have had I been on the pills -- like the situation with the young woman who tried to convince me to take a 90 cent fine off her library card because she had returned the item on time, although her account said that she returned it three days later. I told her I wouldn't do that, but that she could use her card so long as she had less than $10.00 on her account. One of these days I am going to pull 90 cents out of my pocket and tell these people that I will pay the measly fine for them since they are disinclined to do so themselves.

Summer is practically over. Today it is 50 degrees, although the temperature will go up again this week, but it won't be long before it remains 50 degrees, and then for several weeks or months plummet to the 20's. I have ensured against depression at this sad fact by buying an expensive Calvin Klein coat.

I have this really nice guy in my life right now. I work with him. He makes me laugh and he is very kind to me. I have never known anyone so genuinely kind. I wish I had met someone like that in London. Maybe I would have worked harder on my graduate studies and not had such a manic desire to leave; and then maybe I would still be living there, and not in my parents house, and not taking the same bus I have taken since I first started working at a theatre downtown when I was 12; and maybe then I would know what I am doing with my life and feel like there was some sort of purpose for my existence.