Charlotte Brontë [Currer Bell]

The Letters of Charlotte Brontë: With a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends, Vol. 2: 1848–1851

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Editor’s NoteTo Mary Taylor, 4 September 18481


Dear Polly

I write to you a great many more letters than you write to me—though whether they all reach you or not, Heaven knows. I daresay you will not be without a certain desire to know how our affairs get on—I will give you therefore a notion—as briefly as may be.

"Acton Bell" has published another book2—it is in 3. vols. but I do not like it quite as well as "Agnes Grey" the subject not being such as the author had pleasure in handling—it has been praised by some reviews and blamed by others—as yet only £25 have been realized for the copyright—and as "Acton Bell's" publisher is a shuffling scamp—I expect no more.3

About 2 months since, I had a letter from my publishers, Smith & Elder—saying that "Jane Eyre" had had a great run in America—and that a published4 there had consequently bid high for the first sheets of the next work by "Currer Bell", which they had promised to let him have.

Presently after came a second missive from Smith & Elder—all in alarm, suspicion<s> and wrath—their American correspondent had written to them complaining that the first sheets of a new work by "Currer Bell" had been pg 112already received and not by their house but by a rival publisher5—and asking the meaning of such false play—it inclosed an extract from a letter from Mr. Newby (A & E. Bell's publisher) affirming that "to the best of his belief" "Jane Eyre" "Wuthering Heights"—Agnes Grey"—and the "Tenant of Wildfell Hall" (the new work) were all the production of one writer"6

This was a lie, as Newby had been told repeatedly that they were the productions of 3 different authors—but the fact was he wanted to make a dishonest move in the game—to make the Public & "the Trade" believe that he had got hold of "Currer Bell" & thus cheat Smith & Elder—by securing the American publishers' bid.

The upshot of it was that on the very day I received Smith & Elder's letter7—Anne & I packed up a small box, sent it down to Keighley—set out ourselves after tea—walked through a thunderstorm8 to the station, got to Leeds and whirled up by the Night train to London—with the view of proving our separate identity to Smith & Elder and confronting Newby with his lie—

We arrived at the Chapter Coffee House9—(our old place Polly—we did not well know where else to go) about eight o'clock in the morning—We washed ourselves—had some breakfast—sat a few minutes and then set of[f] in queer, inward excitement, to 65. Cornhill. Neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Williams knew we were coming     they had never seen us—they did not know whether we were men or women—but had always written to us as men.

We found 65—to be a large bookseller's shop in a street almost as bustling as the Strand—we went in—walked up to the counter—there were a great many young men and lads here and there—I said to the first I could accost—"May I see Mr. Smith—?" he hesitated, looked a little surprised—but went to fetch him—We sat down and waited awhile—looking a[t] some books on the counter—publications of theirs well known to us—of many of which they had sent us copies as presents.10 At last somebody came up and said dubiously

"Did you wish to see me, Ma'am?"

"Is it Mr. Smith?" ‵I said′ looking up through my spectacles at a young, tall, gentlemanly man

"It is."

I then put his own letter into his hand directed to "Currer Bell." He looked at it—then at me—again—yet again—I laughed at his queer perplexity—A recognition took place—.11 I gave my real name—"Miss Brontë—" We were both hurried from the shop into a little back room—ceiled with a great skylight and only large enough to hold 3 chairs and a desk—and there explanations were rapidly gone into—Mr. Newby being anathematized, I fear with undue vehemence. Smith hurried out and returned quickly with one whom he introduced as Mr. Williams—a pale, mild, stooping man of fifty—very much like a faded Tom Dixon12—Another recognition—a long, nervous shaking of hands—Then followed talk—talk—talk—Mr. Williams being silent—Mr. Smith loquacious— pg 113"Allow me to introduce you to my mother & sisters13—How long do you stay in Town.? You must make the most of the time—to-night you must go to the Italian opera—you must see the Exhibition—Mr. Thackeray would be pleased to see you14—If Mr. Lewes knew "Currer Bell" was in town—he would have to be shut up15—I will ask them both to dinner at my house &c." I stopped his projects and discourse by a grave explanation—that though I should very much like to see both Mr. Lewes and still more Mr. Thackeray—we were as resolved as ever to preserve our incognito—We had only confessed ourselves to our publisher—in order to do away with the inconveniences that had arisen from our too well preserved mystery—to all the rest of the world we must be "gentlemen" as heretofore.

Williams understood me directly—Smith comprehended by slower degrees—he did not like the quiet plan—he would have liked some excitement, eclat &c.

He then urged us to meet a literary party incognito—he would introduce us a[s] "country cousins"     The desire to see some of the personages whose names he mentioned—kindled in me very strongly—but when I found on further examination that he could not venture to ask such men as Thackeray &c. at a short notice, without giving them a hint as to whom they were to meet, I declined even this—I felt it would have ended in our being made a show of—a thing I have ever resolved to avoid.

Then he said we must come and stay at his house—but we were not prepared for a long stay & declined this also—as we took leave—he told us he should bring his sisters to call on us that evening—We returned to our Inn—and I paid for the excitement of the interview by a thundering head-ache & harrassing sickness—towards evening as I got no<t> better & expected the Smiths to call—I took a strong dose of sal volatile—it roused me a little—still I was in grievous bodily case when they were announced—They came in two elegant, young ladies in full dress—prepared for the Opera—Smith himself in evening costume white gloves &c. a distinguished, handsome fellow enough—We had by no means understood that it was settled that we were to go to the Opera—and were not ready—Moreover we had no fine, elegant dresses either with us or in the world. however on brief rumination, I though[t] it would be wise to make no objections—I put my headache in my pocket—we attired ourselves in the plain—high-made, country garments we possessed—and went with them to their carriage—where we found Williams likewise in full dress. They must have thought us queer, quizzical looking beings—especially me with my spectacles—I smiled inwardly at the contrast which must have been apparent between me and Mr. Smith as I walked with him up the crimson carpeted staircase of the Opera House and stood amongst a brilliant throng at the box-door which was not yet open.16 Fine ladies & gentlemen glanced at us with a slight, graceful superciliousness quite warranted by the circumstances—Still I felt pleasurably pg 114excited—in spite of headache sickness & conscious clownishness; and I saw Anne was calm and gentle which she always is—

The Performance was Ros[s]ini's opera of the "Barber of Seville17—" very brilliant though I fancy there are things I should like better—We got home after one o'-clock—We had never been in bed the night before—had been in constant excitement for 24 hours—you may imagine we were tired.

The next day—(Sunday) Mr. Williams came early to take us to church18—he was so quiet but so sincere in his attentions—one could not but have a most friendly leaning towards him—he has a nervous hesitation in speech and a difficulty in finding appropriate language in which to express himself—which throws him into the background in conversation—but I had been his correspondent—and therefore knew with what intelligence he could write—so that I was not in danger of underrating him.

In the afternoon—Mr. Smith came in his carriage with his Mother—<and took> ‵to take′ us to his house to dine—I should mention by the way that neither his Mother nor his Sisters knew who we were—and their strange perplexity would have been ludicrous if one had dared to laugh—To be brought down to a part of the city into whose obscure, narrow streets they said they had never penetrated before—to an old, dark strange-looking Inn—to take up in their fine carriage a couple of odd-looking country-women—to see their elegant, handsome son & brother treating with scrupulous politeness these insignificant     spinsters—must     have     puzzled     them     thoroughly     Mr.     Smith's residence is at Bayswater, 6 miles from Cornhill19—a very fine place—the rooms—the drawing-room especially looked splendid to us—There was no company—only his mother his two grown up sisters—and his brother a lad of 12–13 and a little sister20—the youngest of the family—very like himself—they are all dark-eyed—dark-haired and have clear & pale faces—the Mother is a portly, handsome woman of her age—and all <the> ‵her′ children more or less well-looking—one of the daughters decidedly pretty—except that the expression of her countenance—is not equal to the beauty of her features.21 We had a fine dinner—which neither Anne nor I had appetite to eat—and were glad when it was over—I always feel under awkward constraint at table. Dining-out would be a hideous bore to me.

Mr. Smith made himself very pleasant,—he is a firm, intelligent man of business though so young—bent on getting on—and I think desirous to make his way by fair, honourable means—he is enterprising—but likewise cool & cautious. Mr. Smith is practical man—I wish Mr. Williams were more so—but he is altogether of the contemplative, theorizing order—Mr. Williams lives too much in abstractions—

On Monday we went to the Exhibition of the Royal Academy—the National Gallery,22 dined again at Mr. Smith's—then went home with Mr. Williams to tea—and saw his ‵comparatively′ humble but neat residence and his fine family pg 115of eight children—his wife was ill.23 A daughter of Leigh Hunts' was there—she sung some little Italian airs which she had picked up amongst the peasantry in Tuscany, in a manner that charmed me24 —For herself she was a rattling good-natured personage enough—

On Tuesday Morning we left London—laden with books Mr. Smith had given us—and got safely home. A more jaded wretch than I looked when I returned, it would be difficult to conceive—I was thin when I went but was meagre indeed when I returned, my face looked grey & very old—with strange, deep lines plough[ed] in it—my eyes stared unnaturally—I was weak and yet restless. In a while however these bad effects of excitement went off and I regained my normal condition—

We saw Newby—but of him more another [time]25

Good by—God bless you— write CBpg 116pg 117Editor’s Note

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
MS Rylands. W & S 390 (part). Studies in Bibliography (Charlottesville, Va., 1971), 102–7.
Address: not in MS.
PM: not in MS.
Annotation at head of letter in pencil, unknown hand: to Miss Taylor
Editor’s Note
1. Mary Taylor sent this letter to Mrs Gaskell on 23 Jan. 1856 for her use in the Life, and postmarks on the envelope in Rylands show that it reached Manchester on 14 May 1856. See Angus Easson's full account of Mrs Gaskell's copying, paraphrasing, and finally revising it after George Smith 'intervened as elsewhere to reduce his own role, with respect at least to personal details' (Life, ed. Angus Easson (Oxford, 1996), 535–8). It had originally crossed with Mary's letter to CB of June–24 July 1848 (q.v., pp. 87–90) in which she regretted having burnt CB's previous letters 'in a fit of caution'.
Editor’s Note
2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. See WSW 31.7.1848 nn. 3 and 4.
Editor’s Note
3. See GS 17.2.1848 n. 3 and CB's statement to GS, 18.9.1850.
Editor’s Note
4. Harper and Brothers of New York had published the first American edn. of JE in Jan. 1848, and (perhaps misled by Newby's advertisements) Wuthering Heights 'By the author of "Jane Eyre"' in Apr. 1848. Their special arrangement with Smith, Elder meant that they were able to publish Shirley in a one-volume Library edn. at $1 and a paper-covered version at 3712 cents in Nov. 1849 (dated 1850 on the title-page) less than a month after the English three-volume edn.
Editor’s Note
5. In his 'Recollections' GS plays down his 'alarm, suspicion and wrath'. See WSW 8.7.[1848] n. 1.
Editor’s Note
6. Newby's lies were perpetuated in later American editions. Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book, 40 (Mar. 1850), 221, reports that 'T. B. Peterson, 98 Chestnut Street, has also sent us copies of "agnes grey, an autobiography," and of "david copperfield, the younger." The first-named work is by the author of "Jane Eyre," "Shirley," etc. etc. . . . In reference to its early publication in this country, something is due to the enterprise of Mr. Peterson, who received it in proof impressions from the London press, in advance of its publication in that city.' The editor also wrongly attributes David Copperfield, the Younger to Dickens.
Editor’s Note
7. On Friday, 7 July 1848, to catch the 12.20 a.m. night-train via Derby and Rugby to Euston (Life, ed. Angus Easson (Oxford, 1996), 538).
Editor’s Note
8. Strangely transformed into a 'snowstorm' in Shorter's note to Life 1900, 366.
Editor’s Note
9. See WSW 8.7.[1848] n. 1. Many publishers had their premises in Paternoster Row near the Coffee House, where 18th-century booksellers had met 'to talk over their plans, and many a germ of most valuable projects was originated here. . . including [Johnson's] Lives of the English Poets.' Chatterton and other writers had been 'familiar' there; later it was a resort of 'poor parsons, who stood there ready for hire' (Henry Curwen, A History of Booksellers, the Old and the New (1873), 67–8). See also Philip Norman's drawing of the Chapter Coffee House in 1899, reproduced in, for example, Huxley opp. 60, and cf. William Crimsworth's treasured memory of the 'little dingy room' from which he 'first heard the great bell of St. Paul's telling London it was midnight' in The Professor, ch. 7, 57, and Lucy Snowe's experiences in the inn near 'the dome' in Villette, chs. 6 and 7.
Editor’s Note
10. See WSW 15.6.1848, GS 15.6.1848, 13.7.1848 and notes.
Editor’s Note
11. George Smith's 'Recollections', written in the 1890s, differ in detail from this account. According to him, his first meeting with the 'two quaintly dressed little ladies, pale-faced and anxious-looking' was in his own room, where he was 'in the midst of [his] Indian correspondence' (National Library of Scotland MS 23191, i. 103; GS 'Charlotte Brontë' 783–4).
Editor’s Note
12. Thomas Dixon (1821–65), Mary Taylor's cousin, whom CB had met in Brussels. See CBL i, EN 6.3.[1843] n. 7.
Editor’s Note
13. See WSW 13.7.1848 n. 2. GS recalled his mother's 'most indomitable courage', and cheerful humour during a period of crisis in the firm, when she helped him to sustain 'the combined stress of anxiety and work'. He acknowledged that she was the original of 'Mrs. Bretton' in Villette and that several of her expressions were given verbatim (GS 'Charlotte Brontë' 779, 793).
Editor’s Note
14. CB did not meet Thackeray until 4 Dec. 1849. See PB 5.12.1849. In July 1848 the sisters were introduced (as the 'Misses Brown') to as few people as possible.
Editor’s Note
15. The sociable Lewes, whom GS recalled as one of the best talkers in Douglas Jerrold's 'Museum Club', would have been delighted to share the news of a meeting with the 'Bells' with the 'journalists, theatre people, bohemians in general' whose company he sought at this period (Ashton 65). By Nov. 1849 Lewes had heard of the identity of 'Currer Bell' from one of her former school fellows, and he was to meet her during her visit to the Smiths in the summer of 1850. See WSW [? 5.11.1849], EN [12.6.1850].
Editor’s Note
16. Cf. Lucy Snowe's 'pang of regret' on recognizing her own reflection when in the company of the handsome young Dr Bretton (Villette, ch. 20, 298). Sarah and Eliza Smith would have worn the fashionably low-cut evening dresses of the period. W S. Williams later told Mrs Gaskell that at Covent Garden CB had involuntarily pressed his arm and whispered 'You know I am not accustomed to this sort of thing.' (Life ii. 74).
Editor’s Note
17. Performed by the Royal Italian Opera Company on 8 July, with Madame Persiani (Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani, 1812–67) as Rosina, the baritone Antonio Tamburini (1800–76) as Figaro, and the French bass Joseph Tagliafico (1821–1900) as Basilio. All were famous singers, Madame Persiani having a 'polished' soprano voice, an 'almost impeccable' technique 'with an extraordinary agility in embellishing', and an 'ethereal' stage presence (The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (1980), xviii. 517). The 'fine ladies and gentlemen' of the audience included the Earl and Countess of Desart, Lord Henry Lennox, Lady Morgan, Viscount Lascelles, and Miss Burdett-Coutts.
Editor’s Note
18. 'Their wish had been to hear Dr. Croly on the Sunday morning, and Mr. Williams escorted them to St. Stephen's, Walbrook; but they were disappointed, as Dr. Croly did not preach.' (Life ii. 74). Wren's fine church is less than half a mile from Paternoster Row. Dr George Croly (1780–1860), Rector of St Stephen's 1835–47, was an eloquent preacher, an author, dramatic critic, and contributor to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. The Brontës would know of him and his works, including the tragedy Catiline of 1822, and his recent novel Marston (1846), set in the French Revolutionary period, but might also recall Byron's mockery of him in Don Juan, xi. 57: 'And Pegasus hath a psalmodic amble | Beneath the very Reverend Rowley Powley, | Who shoes the glorious animal with stilts, | A modern Ancient Pistol—by the hilts!.'
Editor’s Note
19. See WSW 13.7.1848 n. 2.
Editor’s Note
20. Cf. the 'handsome, tall, well-made' Mrs Bretton in Villette, 'though dark . . . yet wearing always the clearness of health in her brunette cheek, and its vivacity in a pair of fine, cheerful black eyes' (ch. 1, 6).
Editor’s Note
21. Cf. JE ch. 13, 151: 'the features and countenance are so much at variance.'
Editor’s Note
22. See WSW 13.7.1848 n. 5.
Editor’s Note
23. See WSW 8.7.[1848] and n. 2. Mr Williams had been friendly with the Hunts since the 1820s or earlier, and his 6-year-old son Thornton Arthur was probably named after Thornton Hunt (1810–73), Leigh Hunt's eldest son. The Hunts lived at 32 Edwardes Square, Kensington, not far from the Williams family. Leigh Hunt had married Marianne Kent on 3 July 1809, and they and six of their children had lived in Italy, helped at first by Byron and Shelley, from 1822 to 1825. Carlyle described their untidy English home in 1834 as a 'Tinkerdom' with 'a whole shoal of well-conditioned wild children.'(Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Carlyle, ed. C. R. Sanders (1977), vii. 225). Most of the family had musical talent.
Editor’s Note
24. Leigh Hunt's daughters were the beautiful Mary Florimel Leigh Hunt, later Mrs John Gliddon (born in the prison to which her father was sentenced 1813–15 for his aspersions on the Prince Regent), Julia Trelawny Leigh Hunt (d. 1872), and Jacintha, who married the engraver Charles Chetnam in 1849. The singer of the 'Italian airs' was perhaps Julia, 'the girl with the sparkling black eyes and the fine soprano'. Her brother 'Henry, when he sings, has as fine a tenor; and the two have a trick of going out dressed as street singers and giving favourite passages from operas in West End squares. . . . Julia, a coquette, did not grow old' (Edmund Blunden, Leigh Hunt: A Biography (1930), 302–3). Julia was granted a civil list pension of £75 on 19 Apr. 1861. Anna Williams recalled the acquaintance with the Hunts and G. H. Lewes, and the talents of her own musical brothers and sisters, who 'all had voices' (quoted in 'A Great Singer: Death of Anna Williams', The Times, 5 Sept. 1924, 13, cols. 3 and 4).
Editor’s Note
25. Unfortunately CB's account of this meeting with Newby has apparently not survived.
Editor’s Note
n. 24 line 4 for Chetnam read Cheltnam
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