This book has been sitting on my shelf for years--more than a decade. I finally pulled it down earlier this year, feeling very studious and scholarly, and wanting to know more about the Brontes. It felt like what my friend Kristin would call a "spinach read"--something educational and good for me, but not necessarily very enjoyable. Something I could feel learned and smug about having read, if I finished it.
Scholarly, schmolarly. This is just a ripping good read. As in, hard to put down at times. Most of the letters here are from Charlotte. She was, after all, the longest living of the Bronte children, and the most socially outward. And, as it turns out, she was a kickass correspondent. Oh, to have been on the receiving end of her letters! We are fortunate indeed that one of her closest friends and frequent correspondents, Ellen Nussey, made a promise she had no intention of keeping: After their marriage, Charlotte's husband demanded that Charlotte's friends burn all her letters so as to leave no trace that could be interpreted as impropriety. Friend Mary Taylor apparently kept that promise, and there are few letters surviving to her. But Nussey did keep the letters, and they comprise a big chunk of the book. It's a shame we don't have all of the letters to Taylor, as apparently Charlotte was more forthcoming about her literary ambitions to her than she was to Nussey. It can't be helped, but let's just be thankful for what we do have.
And what we do have is the story of the very close Bronte family, their efforts to earn a living in the hardscrabble town of Haworth, the travels they undertook to find a living, the disastrous consequences of that living on Branwell and the tragic deaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne, all within just a few months of one another. Charlotte's anguish in the letters after those deaths is palpable, as in this one, written shortly after Branwell and Emily had died and while it was becoming clear that Anne was gravely ill:
"My letters had better be brief at present--they cannot be cheerful. I am however still sustained, and still, while looking with dismay on the desolation sickness and death have wrought in our home I can combine with awe of God's judgements a sense of gratitude for his mercies. Yet life has become very void, and hope has proved a strange traitor: when I shall again be able to put confidence in her suggestions, I know not; she kept whispering that Emily would not--could not die--and where is she now? Out of my reach,--out of my world, torn from me."
Haworth is nearly unbearable in its silence and memories, but she is steadfast in her determination to remain with her father.
But then there's the long-suffering curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, whose love for Charlotte is spurned at first, not just by Charlotte, but by her father and several of her friends. The amount of interference that went into this dragged-out courtship is staggering. But in the end, he won her hand; in the letters dated between their wedding and her becoming pregnant, which proved deadly to her, you can see her fondness and respect for him growing into something deeper. And then...
There are far fewer letters from Emily and Anne, although a diary page from Emily speaks volumes about her:
"I am quite contented for myself--not as idle as formerly, altogether as hearty and having learnt to make the most of the present and hope for the future with less fidgetiness that I cannot do all that I wish--seldom or ever troubled with nothing to do and merely desiring that every body could be as comfortable as myself and as undesponding and then we should have a very tolerable world of it--"
A lovely, lovely read, and it's clearly time for me to return to some of these great novels.