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


Corzich is not a member of this site said...

Heartbreaking, as I suppose most deaths are. Back then, as you no doubt know, it was not at all unusual to die at that age or even younger (half of 18th century Germans died before 30, not a precise analogue, but it's a fact I have close to hand), but still, it seemed no-one was ready to let her go.

I was much more amused by all the fuss over privacy and burning of letters--reminds me of the present hysteria over the evils of the oh-so-dangerous "internet".

David said...

"[I]t is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife."

These are splendid clips.

ksotikoula said...

Hi Helen! I haven't got much time but I passed to say that I disagree with you on two points in this post. The first one is about the cause of Charlotte's death. Tuberculosis is the least possible in my opinion illness according to her symptoms. She mentions vomiting so much that in the end what comes out is mixed with blood but that blood must have come out of her stomach not lungs. She didn't have pain in the chest or cough and tuberculosis could not account for missing out her periods (which was something that must have led her to believe that she was pregnant). I could accept typhus better. In fact I don't see why she couldn't be pregnant at all. Her being little or 38 years old doesn't mean that she couldn't have children (her mother was quite as old and small when she married and had 6). Anyway I would really like to believe she died out of something different than "Hyperemesis gravidarum" because that would take some guilt out of poor Arthur, which leads me to the second point of my disagreement: his using "his potent persuasive skills". This means that you don't believe that he truly loved Charlotte, while his whole conduct shows he was the most generous and disinterested person. He loved her for 7 years and waited for her another 2 to decide. She had no doubt of his constancy and love and reliability and lets face it Charlotte was never that rich that he would be in need to make her write her belongings to him. I am very sorry that Ellen Nussey was so much deceitful in his account, being jealous of him from the beginning and even forging Charlotte's letters to make him appear on the wrong. Even if she loved Charlotte very much, she was in my opinion too keen to enforce her image of Charlotte's of Christian purity to the world, let alone wanting to remain herself famous as her best friend. She even went as far saying to Nicholls that if he hadn't been so selfish Charlotte would still live. You don't say things like that to a widower.

Green-Eyed Mystic said...

The two issues where I greatly diverge from the general Bronte scholars and appreciators is her supposed pregnancy and her relationship with Arthur. I am aware that my thoughts on both issues can be (at this point, unless more evidence is provided) of my own imagination.

For one, I am not a fan of those who say definitively that Charlotte was pregnant. I realize now that I was perhaps a bit too emphatic in this post with my reasons for believing she may not have been -- e.g. her weight/height. But, that is a factor in many women's ability to conceive and is another reason (among the lack of scientific evidence) to at least consider if one is going to say so positively that she was pregnant. As for what killed her I suppose it is difficult to say -- cancer, TB, a cold that turned into something more deadly (she first becomes sick after getting wet when she takes the walk with Arthur to the waterfall).

I am not a fan of Arthur. I will not be so disparaging as to say that he was not a good husband to her. However, I am not a fan of his telling Ellen to burn Charlotte's letters to her, or his dislike of Charlotte writing "Emma". I am also suspicious of Charlotte's supposed last words that were spoken before her death. Who is to say that Gaskell -- who, we know, is not entirely reliable, although good-intentioned with her biography -- can be relied upon to know what Charlotte said before her death if she herself was not present. My supposing that Arthur may have had a deal in Charlotte's transference of her property to him in her will is entirely conjectural, I am very aware, but I think it is a little bit probable if one looks at how much he felt a need to protect Charlotte through her letters. I could very well see him persuading Charlotte that if she were to die -- as at the point of transference seemed probable -- that he would be the best person to look after her literary legacy.

ksotikoula said...

I understand why you don't like his advice to Ellen to burn Charlotte's letters but those letters referred to him as well. The letter that Charlotte first mentions his objection starts by narrating how Arthur did not like Amelia at all and didn't want to stay under the same roof with her especially when seeing that she had become best friends with a former lover of her husband. Now we all gossip a little but is it necessary to leave written evidence? That is what Arthur objected to, let alone that he was more aware that Charlotte ever was of her celebrity (for example after CB's death Ellen gave the letters to a very wrong man who sold them to collectors and Nicholls had to bid to reclaim the letter where Charlotte narrated how he was overcome by his feeling in front of all his parishioners). And sometimes when people like Barker misunderstand on purpose and distort the meaning of her letters I think that maybe he was right. What gave them the right to judge her on so personal matters and destroying her image as a person? What I mean is that Ellen although she didn't want to, she made the worst possible use of Charlotte's letters justifying Arthur's worst fears.

I am too a little skeptical about Charlotte's last words, but in fact they say they were related by the servants present and then to tell you the truth Gaskell didn't like Nicholls any better than Ellen because he was against Gaskell's using his wife's letter to Ellen (so no motive there). In fact it was Gaskell who created the myth that Arthur was against Charlotte's continuing to write, but in fact he says that they never made any agreement of that type and in fact Charlotte had read him Emma (his only objection to which was that they would blame her for using a school as a setting, to which Charlotte said that she would change that because she always started at least three times a story before she was satisfied - this is very important because it shows she was going to continue writing and she tried to make Artur part of her writing life). Now it was Arthur who gave Emma and also allowed "The professor" to be published. In fact he edited the book himself because Sir Key Shuttleworth (a very annoying Lord who tried to approach Charlotte in the past and claim her friendship) wanted to edit the book but Gaskell and Arthur both knew Charlotte's aversion to his person and so Arthur decided to do the editing all by himself making very slight changes to the manuscript while Gaskell who was publishing her biography said to Smith that she wished he had edited more (so he was less conservative and more faithful to Charlotte's art than Gaskell would have been). Now he never tried to profit from Charlotte's writings or personal belongings (he cherished till the end of his life the juvenilias and ordered her wedding dress to be destroyed after his death because it was of a very personal object to him - in fact he had a disagreement with Gaskell because she wanted to describe CB's purchases before the marriage including underwear - so he had a point with all the Bronte-madness and if he wanted to make money he could easily sell many items). In fact he was wronged by his own actions because he, like Mary Taylor, destroyed his correspondence with Charlotte (he could sell these letters if he wanted too). So in the whole I pity this man that suffered the whole 9 years until he married Charlotte, to live only 9 months with her, to be accused of turning a first rate writer to a housewife, to be blamed for her death and still take care of her father who was so much against his marrying her. This was a very bad deal if you ask me. Oh, and by the time that Charlotte changed her will it was long after she had strength to write anything. He could not have foreseen or make a plan about it, so no need to silence anything.

Anne said...

Charlotte's remarks about marriage to Ellen cannot be taken entirely at face value imo. Charlotte would hardly tell her it was wonderful when Ellen would not likely enjoy the same benefit. Their friendship suffered a major breakdown over Mr. Nicholls in July '53 and was patched up with help from Miss Wooler months later Charlotte would speak carefully, even disparagingly, so Ellen's jealously would not over boil again.

To get closer to CBN's feelings about her marriage, one must read her letters to Miss Wooler, who was happy in her single state and happy for Charlotte

Of Arthur Charlotte wrote to Miss Wooler in Sept '54

" ...to merit and win such a character was better than to earn either Wealth or Fame or Power...

This is from someone who won all three

As for Charlotte's last words, what convinces me in part was when writing to Mrs. Humphy Ward many years later Arthur said " I'm told by a literary friend (undoubtedly Shorter) that it's believed her marriage was not happy. I would think her letters written from her death bed would make this incredible , but I'm told it is so"

If the last words weren't true, imo he would have evoked the words. But Arthur pointed to Charlotte's last letters...which imo back up the words.Why wouldn't those words be true when she had written such words and more already to Ellen and Amelia Taylor? And let's not forget Martha Brown visited Arthur many times in Ireland in later years...and became a friend to the 2nd Mrs Nicholls . She would hardly do so if he was a rotter.

When Arthur married Charlotte, as far as he knew he would not see a penny of her earnings or even be informed about how they were invested. Joe Taylor was in charge of that, all three singed a prenup in May 54