On the 2nd of January, 1844, Charlotte arrived at Haworth.
On the 23rd of the month she wrote to her friend:—
"Everyone asks me what I am going to do now that I am returned home, and everyone seems to expect that I should immediately commence a school. In truth it is what I should wish to do. I desire it above all things, I have sufficient money for the undertaking, and I hope now sufficient qualifications to give me a fair chance of success; yet I cannot yet permit myself to enter upon life—to touch the object which seems now within my reach, and which I have been so long straining to attain. You will ask me why? It is on papa's account; he is now, as you know, getting old; and it grieves me to tell you that he is losing his sight. I have felt for some months that I ought not to be away from him, and I feel now that it would be too selfish to leave him (at least as long as Branwell and Anne are absent) in order to pursue selfish interests of my own. With the help of God, I will try to deny myself in this matter, and to wait.
"I suffered much before I left Brussels. I think, however long I live, I shall not forget what the parting with Monsieur Heger cost me. It grieved me so much to grieve him who has been so true, kind, disinterested a friend.... Haworth seems such a lonely quiet spot, buried away from the world. I no longer regard myself as young, indeed, I shall soon be twenty-eight; and it seems as if I ought to be working, and braving the rough realities of the world, as other people do——."
Wait, eager Charlotte, there are in store for you enough and to spare of rude realities, enough of working and braving, in this secluded Haworth. No need to go forth in quest of dangers and trials. The air is growing thick with gloom round your mountain eyrie. High as it is, quiet, lonely, the storms of heaven and the storms of earth have found it out, to break there.
[Footnote 13: Mrs. Gaskell.]
Gradually Charlotte's first depression wore away. Long discussions with Emily, as they took their walks over the moors, long silent brooding of ways and means, as they sat together in the parlour making shirts for Branwell, long thinking, brought new counsel. She went, moreover, to stay with her friend Ellen, and the change helped to restore her weakened health. She writes to her friend:—
"I got home safely and was not too much tired on arriving at Haworth. I feel rather better to-day than I have been, and in time I hope to regain more strength. I found Emily and papa well, and a letter from Branwell intimating that he and Anne are pretty well too. Emily is much obliged to you for the seeds you sent. She wishes to know if the Sicilian pea and the crimson cornflower are hardy flowers, or if they are delicate and should be sown in warm and sheltered situations. Write to me to-morrow and let me know how you all are, if your mother continues to get better....
"Good morning, dear Nell, I shall say no more to you at present.
"Our poor little cat has been ill two days and is just dead. It is piteous to see even an animal lying lifeless. Emily is sorry."
Side by side with all these lighter cares went on the schemes for the school. At last the two sisters determined to begin as soon as they saw a fair chance of getting pupils. They began the search in good earnest; but fortunately, postponed the necessary alterations in the house until they had the secure promise of, at any rate, three or four. Then their demands lessened as day by day that chance became more difficult and fainter. In early summer Charlotte writes: "As soon as I can get a chance of only one pupil, I will have cards of terms printed and will commence the repairs necessary in the house. I wish all to be done before the winter. I think of fixing the board and English education at L25 per annum."
Still no pupil was heard of, but the girls went courageously on, writing to every mother of daughters with whom they could claim acquaintance. But, alas, it was the case with one, that her children were already at school in Liverpool, with another that her child had just been promised to Miss C., with a third that she thought the undertaking praiseworthy, but Haworth was so very remote a spot. In vain did the girls explain that from some points of view the retired situation was an advantage; since, had they set up school in some fashionable place, they would have had house-rent to pay, and could not possibly have offered an excellent education for L25 a year. Parents are an expectant people. Still, every lady promised to recommend the school to mothers less squeamish, or less engaged; and, knowing how well they would show themselves worthy of the chance, once they had obtained it, Charlotte and Emily took heart to hope.
The holidays arrived and still nothing was settled. Anne came home and helped in the laying of schemes and writing of letters—but, alas, Branwell also came home, irritable, extravagant, wildly gay, or gloomily moping. His sisters could no longer blind themselves to the fact that he drank, drank habitually, to excess. And Anne had fears—vague, terrible, foreboding—which she could not altogether make plain.
By this time they had raised the charge to L35, considering, perhaps, that their first offer had been so low as to discredit their attempt. But still they got no favourable answers. It was hard, for the girls had not been chary of time, money, or trouble to fit themselves for their occupation. Looking round they could count up many schoolmistresses far less thoroughly equipped. Only the Brontes had no interest.
Meanwhile Branwell amused himself as best he could. There was always the "Black Bull," with its admiring circle of drink-fellows, and the girls who admired Patrick's courteous bow and Patrick's winning smile. Good people all, who little dreamed how much vice, how much misery they were encouraging by their approbation. Mr. Grundy, too, came over now and then to see his old friend. "I knew them all," he says—"The father, upright, handsome, distantly courteous, white-haired, tall; knowing me as his son's friend, he would treat me in the Grandisonian fashion, coming himself down to the little inn to invite me, a boy, up to his house, where I would be coldly uncomfortable until I could escape with Patrick Branwell to the moors. The daughters—distant and distrait, large of nose, small of figure, red of hair (!), prominent of spectacles; showing great intellectual development, but with eyes constantly cast down, very silent, painfully retiring. This was about the time of their first literary adventures, say 1843 or 1844."
But of literary adventure there was at present little thought. The school still occupied their thoughts and dreams. At last, no pupil coming forward, some cards of terms were printed and given for distribution to the friends of Charlotte and Anne; Emily had no friends.
There are none left of them, those pitiful cards of terms never granted; records of such unfruitful hopes. They have fitly vanished, like the ghosts of children never born; and quicker still to vanish was the dream that called them forth. The weeks went on, and every week of seven letterless mornings, every week of seven anxious nights, made the sisters more fully aware that notice and employment would not come to them in the way they had dreamed; made them think it well that Branwell's home should not be the dwelling of innocent children.
Anne went back to her work leaving the future as uncertain as before.
In October Charlotte, always the spokeswoman, writes again to her friend and diligent helper in this matter:—
"I, Emily, and Anne are truly obliged to you for the efforts you have made in our behalf; and if you have not been successful you are only like ourselves. Everyone wishes us well; but there are no pupils to be had. We have no present intention, however, of breaking our hearts on the subject; still less of feeling mortified at our defeat. The effort must be beneficial, whatever the result may be, because it teaches us experience and an additional knowledge of this world.
"I send you two additional circulars, and will send you two more, if you desire it, when I write again."
Those four circulars also came to nothing; it was now more than six months since the three sisters had begun their earnest search for pupils: more than three years since they had taken for the ruling aim of their endeavours the formation of this little school. Not one pupil could they secure; not one promise. At last they knew that they were beaten.
In November Charlotte writes again to Ellen:—
"We have made no alterations yet in our house. It would be folly to do so while there is so little likelihood of our ever getting pupils. I fear you are giving yourself too much trouble on our account.
"Depend on it, if you were to persuade a mama to bring her child to Haworth, the aspect of the place would frighten her, and she would probably take the dear girl back with her instanter. We are glad that we have made the attempt, and we will not be cast down because it has not succeeded."
There was no more to be said, only to put carefully by, as one puts by the thoughts of an interrupted marriage, all the dreams that had filled so many months only to lay aside in a drawer, as one lays aside the long sewn at garments of a still-born child, the plans drawn out for the builder, the printed cards, the lists of books to get; only to face again a future of separate toil among strangers, to renounce the vision of a home together.
[Footnote 14: 'Pictures of the Past.']
[Footnote 15: Mrs. Gaskell.]
As the spring grew upon the moors, dappling them with fresh verdant shoots, clearing the sky overhead, loosening the winds to rush across them; as the beautiful season grew ripe in Haworth, every one of its days made clearer to the two anxious women waiting there in what shape their blurred foreboding would come true at last. They seldom spoke of Branwell now.
It was a hard and anxious time, ever expectant of an evil just at hand. Minor troubles, too, gathered round this shapeless boded grief: Mr. Bronte was growing blind; Charlotte, ever nervous, feared the same fate, and could do but little sewing with her weak, cherished eyesight. Anne's letters told of health worn out by constant, agonising suspicion. It was Emily, that strong bearer of burdens, on whom the largest share of work was laid.
Charlotte grew really weak as the summer came. Her sensitive, vehement nature felt anxiety as a physical pain. She was constantly with her father; her spirit sank with his, as month by month his sight grew sensibly weaker. The old man, to whom his own importance was so dear, suffered keenly, indeed, from the fear of actual blindness, and more from the horror of dependence, than from the dread of pain or privation. "He fears he will be nothing in the parish," says sorrowful Charlotte. And as her father, never impatient, never peevish, became more deeply cast down and anxious, she, too, became nervous and fearful; she, too, dejected.
At last, when June came and brought no brightness to that grey old house, with the invisible shadow ever hovering above it, Charlotte was persuaded to seek rest and change in the home of her friend near Leeds.
Anne was home now; she had come back ill, miserable. She had suspicions that made her feel herself degraded, pure soul, concerning her brother's relation with her employer's wife. Many letters had passed between them, through her hands too. Too often had she heard her unthinking little pupils threaten their mother into more than customary indulgence, saying: "Unless you do as we wish, we shall tell papa about Mr. Bronte." The poor girl felt herself an involuntary accomplice to that treachery, that deceit.
To lie down at night under the roof, to break by day the bread of the good, sick, bedridden man, whose honour, she could not but fear, was in jeopardy from her own brother, such dire strain was too great for that frail, dejected nature. And yet to say openly to herself that Branwell had committed this disgrace—it was impossible. Rather must her suspicions be the morbid promptings of a diseased mind. She was wicked to have felt them. Poor, gentle Anne, sweet, "prim, little body," such scenes, such unhallowed vicinities of lust, were not for you. At last sickness came and set her free. She went home.
Home, with its constant labour, pure air of good works; home, with its sickness and love, its dread for others and noble sacrifice of self; how welcome was it to her wounded spirit! And yet this infinitely lighter torment was wearing Charlotte out. They persuaded her to go away, and, when she had yielded, strove to keep her away.
Emily writes to Ellen in July:—
"DEAR MISS NUSSEY—If you have set your heart on Charlotte staying another week, she has our united consent. I, for one, will take everything easy on Sunday. I am glad she is enjoying herself; let her make the most of the next seven days to return stout and hearty. Love to her and you from Anne and myself, and tell her all are well at home.—Yours,
Charlotte stayed the extra week, benefiting largely thereby. She started for home, and enjoyed her journey, for she travelled with a French gentleman, and talked again with delight the sweet language which had left such lingering echoes in her memory, which forbade her to feel quite contented any more in her secluded Yorkshire home. Slight as it was, the little excitement did her good; feeling brave and ready to face and fight with a legion of shadows, she reached the gate of her own home, went in. Branwell was there.
He had been sent home a day or two before, apparently for a holiday. He must have known that some discovery had been made at last; he must have felt he never would return. Anne, too, must have had some misgivings; yet the worst was not known yet. Emily, at least, could not guess it. Not for long this truce with open disgrace. The very day of Charlotte's return a letter had come for Branwell from his employer. All had been found out. This letter commanded Branwell never to see again the mother of the children under his care, never set foot in her home, never write or speak to her. Branwell, who loved her passionately, had in that moment no thought for the shame, the black disgrace, he had brought on his father's house. He stormed, raved, swore he could not live without her; cried out against her next for staying with her husband. Then prayed the sick man might die soon; they would yet be happy. Ah, he would never see her again!
A strange scene in the quiet parlour of a country vicarage, this anguish of guilty love, these revulsions from shameful ecstasy to shameful despair. Branwell raved on, delirious, agonised; and the blind father listened, sick at heart, maybe self-reproachful; and the gentle sister listened, shuddering, as if she saw hell lying open at her feet. Emily listened, too, indignant at the treachery, horrified at the shame; yet with an immense pity in her fierce and loving breast.
To this scene Charlotte entered.
Charlotte, with her vehement sense of right; Charlotte, with her sturdy indignation; when she, at last understood the whole guilty corrupted passion that had wrecked two homes, she turned away with something in her heart suddenly stiffened, dead. It was her passionate love for this shameful, erring brother, once as dear to her as her own soul. Yet she was very patient. She writes to a friend quietly and without too much disdain:—
"We have had sad work with Branwell. He thought of nothing but stunning or drowning his agony of mind" (in what fashion, the reader knows ere now) "no one in this house could have rest, and at last we have been obliged to send him from home for a week, with some one to look after him. He has written to me this morning, expressing some sense of contrition ... but as long as he remains at home, I scarce dare hope for peace in the house. We must all, I fear, prepare for a season of distress and disquietude."
A weary and a hopeless time. Branwell came back, better in body, but in nowise holier in mind. His one hope was that his enemy might die, die soon, and that things might be as they had been before. No thought of repentance. What money he had, he spent in gin or opium, anything to deaden recollection. A woman still lives at Haworth, who used to help in the housework at the "Black Bull." She still remembers how, in the early morning, pale, red-eyed, he would come into the passage of the inn, with his beautiful bow and sweep of the lifted hat, with his courteous smile and ready "Good morning, Anne!" Then he would turn to the bar, and feeling in his pockets for what small moneys he might have—sixpence, eightpence, tenpence, as the case might be—he would order so much gin and sit there drinking till it was all gone, then still sit there silent; or sometimes he would passionately speak of the woman he loved, of her beauty, sweetness, of how he longed to see her again; he loved to speak of her even to a dog; he would talk of her by the hour to his dog. Yet—lest we pity this real despair—let us glance at one of this man's letters. How could such vulgar weakness, such corrupt and loathsome sentimentality, such maudlin Micawber-penitence, yet feel so much! No easy task to judge of a misery too perverse for pity, too sincere for absolute contempt.
It is again to Mr. Grundy that he writes:—
"Since I last shook hands with you in Halifax, two summers ago, my life, till lately, has been one of apparent happiness and indulgence. You will ask—'Why does he complain then?' I can only reply by showing the undercurrent of distress which bore my bark to a whirl-pool, despite the surface-waves of life that seemed floating me to peace. In a letter begun in the spring of 1843" (sic; 1845?) "and never finished owing to incessant attacks of illness, I tried to tell you that I was tutor to the son of a wealthy gentleman whose wife is sister to the wife of ——, an M.P., and the cousin of Lord ——. This lady (though her husband detested me) showed me a degree of kindness which, when I was deeply grieved one day at her husband's conduct, ripened into declarations of more than ordinary feeling. My admiration of her mental and personal attractions, my knowledge of her unselfish sincerity, her sweet temper, and unwearied care for others, with but unrequited return where most should have been given ... although she is seventeen years my senior, all combined to an attachment on my part, and led to reciprocations which I had little looked for. Three months since I received a furious letter from my employer, threatening to shoot me if I returned from my vacation which I was passing at home; and letters from her lady's-maid and physician informed me of the outbreak, only checked by her firm courage and resolution that whatever harm came to her none should come to me.... I have lain for nine long weeks, utterly shattered in body and broken down in mind. The probability of her becoming free to give me herself and estate never rose to drive away the prospect of her decline under her present grief. I dreaded, too, the wreck of my mind and body, which—God knows—during a short life have been most severely tried. Eleven continuous nights of sleepless horror reduced me to almost blindness, and being taken into Wales to recover, the sweet scenery, the sea, the sound of music caused me fits of unspeakable distress. You will say: 'What a fool!' But if you knew the many causes that I have for sorrow, which I cannot even hint at here, you would perhaps pity as well as blame. At the kind request of Mr. Macaulay and Mr. Baines, I have striven to arouse my mind by writing something worthy of being read, but I really cannot do so. Of course you will despise the writer of all this. I can only answer that the writer does the same and would not wish to live, if he did not hope that work and change may yet restore him.
"Apologising sincerely for what seems like whining egotism, and hardly daring to hint about days when, in your company, I could sometimes sink the thoughts which 'remind me of departed days,' I fear 'departed never to return,' I remain, &c."
Unhappy Branwell! some consolation he derives in his utmost sorrow from the fact that the lady of his love can employ her own lady's-maid and physician to write letters to her exiled lover. It is clear that his pride is gratified by this irregular association with a lord. He can afford to wait, stupefied with drink and drugs, till that happy time shall come when he can step forward and claim "herself and estate," henceforward Branwell Bronte, Esq., J.P., and a person of position in the county. Such paradisal future dawns above this present purgatory of pains and confusion.
That phrase concerning "herself and estate" is peculiarly apocalyptic. It sheds a quite new light upon a fact which, in Mrs. Gaskell's time, was regarded as a proof that some remains of conscience still stirred within this miserable fellow. Some months after his dismissal, towards the end of this unhappy year of 1845, he met this lady at Harrogate by appointment. It is said that she proposed a flight together, ready to forfeit all her grandeur. It was Branwell who advised patience, and a little longer waiting. Maybe, though she herself was dear, "although seventeen years my senior," "herself and estate" was estimably dearer.
And yet he was in earnest, yet it was a question of life and death, of heaven or hell, with him. If he could not have her, he would have nothing. He would ruin himself and all he could. Most like, in this rage of vain despair, some passionate baby that shrieks, and hits, and tears, convulsed because it may not have the moon.
Small wonder that Charlotte's coldness, aggravated by continual outrage on Branwell's part, gradually became contempt and silence. In proportion as she had exulted in this brother, hoped all for him, did she now shrink from him, bitterly chill at heart.
"I begin to fear," she says, the once ambitious sister, "that he has rendered himself incapable of filling any respectable station in life." She cannot ask Ellen to come to see her, because he is in the house. "And while he is here, you shall not come. I am more confirmed in that resolution the more I see of him. I wish I could say one word to you in his favour, but I cannot. I will hold my tongue."
For some while she hoped that the crisis would pass, and that then—no matter how humbly, the more obscurely the better—he would at least earn honest bread away from home. Such was not his intention. He professed to be too ill to leave Haworth; and ill, no doubt, he was from continual eating of opium, and daily drinking of drams. He stuck to his comfortable quarters, to the "Black Bull" just across the churchyard, heedless of what discomfort he gave to others. "Branwell offers no prospect of hope," says Charlotte, again. "How can we be more comfortable so long as Branwell stays at home and degenerates instead of improving? It has been intimated that he would be received again where he was formerly stationed if he would behave more steadily, but he refuses to make the effort. He will not work, and at home he is a drain on every resource, an impediment to all happiness. But there's no use in complaining——"
Small use indeed; yet once more she forced herself to make the hopeless effort, after some more than customary outbreak of the man who was drinking himself into madness and ruin. She writes in the March of 1846 to her friend and comforter, Ellen:—
"I went into the room where Branwell was, to speak to him, about an hour after I got home; it was very forced work to address him. I might have spared myself the trouble, as he took no notice, and made no reply; he was stupefied. My fears were not vain. I hear that he got a sovereign while I have been away, under pretence of paying a pressing debt; he went immediately and changed it at a public-house, and has employed it as was to be expected..., concluded her account by saying that he was a 'hopeless being.' It is too true. In his present state it is scarcely possible to stay in the room where he is."
It must be about that time that she for ever gave up expostulation or complaint in this matter. "I will hold my tongue," she had said, and she kept her word. For more than two years she held an utter silence to him; living under the same roof, witnessing day by day his ever-deepening degradation, no syllable crossed her lips to him. Since she could not (for the sake of those she loved and might comfort) refuse the loathsome daily touch and presence of sin, she endured it, but would have no fellowship therewith. She had no right over it, it none over her. She looked on speechless; that man was dead to her.
Anne, in whom the fibre of indignation was less strong, followed less sternly in her sister's wake.
"She had," says Charlotte in her 'Memoir,' "in the course of her life been called upon 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 went very deeply into her mind; it did her harm."
The spectacle of this harm, coming undeserved to so dear, frail and innocent a creature, absorbed all Charlotte's pity. There was none left for Branwell.
But there was one woman's heart strong enough in its compassion to bear the daily disgusts, weaknesses, sins of Branwell's life, and yet persist in aid and affection. Night after night, when Mr. Bronte was in bed, when Anne and Charlotte had gone upstairs to their room, Emily still sat up, waiting. She often had very long to wait in the silent house before the staggering tread, the muttered oath, the fumbling hand at the door, bade her rouse herself from her sad thoughts and rise to let in the prodigal, and lead him in safety to his rest. But she never wearied in her kindness. In that silent home, it was the silent Emily who had ever a cheering word for Branwell; it was Emily who still remembered that he was her brother, without that remembrance freezing her heart to numbness. She still hoped to win him back by love; and the very force and sincerity of his guilty passion (an additional horror and sin in her sisters' eyes) was a claim on Emily, ever sympathetic to violent feeling. Thus it was she who, more than the others, became familiarised with the agony, and doubts, and shame of that tormented soul; and if, in her little knowledge of the world, she imagined such wrested passions to be natural, it is not upon her, of a certainty, that the blame of her pity shall be laid.
As the time went on and Branwell grew worse and wilder, it was well for the lonely watcher that she was strong. At last he grew ill, and would be content to go to bed early and lie there half-stupefied with opium and drink. One such night, their father and Branwell being in bed, the sisters came upstairs to sleep. Emily had gone on first into the little passage room where she still slept, when Charlotte, passing Branwell's partly-opened door, saw a strange bright flare inside.
"Oh, Emily!" she cried, "the house is on fire!"
Emily came out, her fingers at her lips. She had remembered her father's great horror of fire; it was the one dread of a brave man; he would have no muslin curtains, no light dresses in his house. She came out silently and saw the flame; then, very white and determined, dashed from her room downstairs into the passage, where every night full pails of water stood. One in each hand she came upstairs. Anne, Charlotte, the young servant, shrinking against the wall, huddled together in amazed horror—Emily went straight on and entered the blazing room. In a short while the bright light ceased to flare. Fortunately the flame had not reached the woodwork: drunken Branwell, turning in his bed, must have upset the light on to his sheets, for they and the bed were all on fire, and he unconscious in the midst when Emily went in, even as Jane Eyre found Mr. Rochester. But it was with no reasonable, thankful human creature with whom Emily had to deal. After a few long moments, those still standing in the passage saw her stagger out, white, with singed clothes, half-carrying in her arms, half-dragging, her besotted brother. She placed him in her bed, and took away the light; then assuring the hysterical girls that there could be no further danger, she bade them go and rest—but where she slept herself that night no one remembers now.
It must be very soon after this that Branwell began to sleep in his father's room. The old man, courageous enough, and conceiving that his presence might be some slight restraint on the drunken furies of his unhappy son, persisted in this arrangement, though often enough the girls begged him to relinquish it, knowing well enough what risk of life he ran. Not infrequently Branwell would declare that either he or his father should be dead before the morning; and well might it happen that in his insensate delirium he should murder the blind old man.
"The sisters often listened for the report of a pistol in the dead of the night, till watchful eye and hearkening ear grew heavy and dull with the perpetual strain upon their nerves. In the mornings young Bronte would saunter out, saying with a drunkard's incontinence of speech, 'The poor old man and I have had a terrible night of it. He does his best—the poor old man!—but it's all over with me'" (whimpering) "'it's her fault, her fault.'"
And in such fatal progress two years went on, bringing the suffering in that house ever lower, ever deeper, sinking it day by day from bad to worse.
[Footnote 16: Mrs. Gaskell.]
[Footnote 17: 'Pictures of the Past.']
[Footnote 18: Mrs. Gaskell.]
[Footnote 19: Mrs. Gaskell.]
[Footnote 20: Mrs. Gaskell.]
While Emily Bronte's hands were full of trivial labour, while her heart was buried with its charge of shame and sorrow, think not that her mind was more at rest. She had always used her leisure to study or create; and the dreariness of existence made this inner life of hers doubly precious now. There is a tiny copy of the 'Poems' of Ellis, Currer, and Acton Bell, which was Emily's own, marked with her name and with the date of every poem carefully written under its title, in her own cramped and tidy writing. It has been of great use to me in classifying the order of these poems, chiefly hymns to imagination, Emily's "Comforter," her "Fairy-love;" beseeching her to light such a light in the soul that the dull clouds of earthly skies may seem of scant significance.
The light that should be lit was indeed of supernatural brightness; a flame from under the earth; a flame of lightning from the skies; a beacon of awful warning. Although so much is scarcely evident in these early poems, gleaming with fantastic glow-worm fires, fairy prettinesses, or burning as solemnly and pale as tapers lit in daylight round a bier, yet, in whatever shape, "the light that never was on sea or land," the strange transfiguring shine of imagination, is present there.
No one in the house ever saw what things Emily wrote in the moments of pause from her pastry-making, in those brief sittings under the currants, in those long and lonely watches for her drunken brother. She did not write to be read, but only to relieve a burdened heart. "One day," writes Charlotte in 1850, recollecting the near, vanished past, "one day in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verse in my sister Emily's 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, not 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 music, wild, melancholy and elevating."
Very true; these poems with their surplus of imagination, their instinctive music and irregular rightness of form, their sweeping impressiveness, effects of landscape, their scant allusions to dogma or perfidious man, are, indeed, not at all like the poetry women generally write. The hand that painted this single line,
"The dim moon struggling in the sky,"
should have shaken hands with Coleridge. The voice might have sung in concert with Blake that sang this single bit of a song:
"Hope was but a timid friend; She sat without the grated den, Watching how my fate would tend, Even as selfish-hearted men.
"She was cruel in her fear; Through the bars, one dreary day, I looked out to see her there, And she turned her face away!"
Had the poem ended here it would have been perfect, but it and many more of these lyrics have the uncertainty of close that usually marks early work. Often incoherent, too, the pictures of a dream rapidly succeeding each other without logical connection; yet scarcely marred by the incoherence, since the effect they seek to produce is not an emotion, not a conviction, but an impression of beauty, or horror, or ecstasy. The uncertain outlines are bathed in a vague golden air of imagination, and are shown to us with the magic touch of a Coleridge, a Leopardi—the touch which gives a mood, a scene, with scarce an obvious detail of either mood or scene. We may not understand the purport of the song, we understand the feeling that prompted the song, as, having done with reading 'Kubla Khan,' there remains in our mind, not the pictured vision of palace or dancer, but a personal participation in Coleridge's heightened fancy, a setting-on of reverie, an impression.
Read this poem, written in October, 1845—
"Enough of thought, philosopher, Too long hast thou been dreaming Unlightened, in this chamber drear, While summer's sun is beaming! Space-sweeping soul, what sad refrain Concludes thy musings once again?
"Oh, for the time when I shall sleep Without identity, And never care how rain may steep, Or snow may cover me! No promised heaven, these wild desires Could all, or half fulfil; No threatened hell, with quenchless fires, Subdue this quenchless will!
"So said I, and still say the same; Still, to my death, will say— Three gods, within this little frame, Are warring night and day; Heaven could not hold them all, and yet They all are held in me, And must be mine till I forget My present entity! Oh, for the time, when in my breast Their struggles will be o'er! Oh, for the day, when I shall rest, And never suffer more!
"I saw a spirit, standing, man, Where thou dost stand—an hour ago, And round his feet three rivers ran, Of equal depth, and equal flow— A golden stream, and one like blood, And one like sapphire seemed to be; But, where they joined their triple flood It tumbled in an inky sea. The spirit sent his dazzling gaze Down through that ocean's gloomy night Then, kindling all, with sudden blaze, The glad deep sparkled wide and bright— White as the sun, far, far more fair, Than its divided sources were!
"And even for that spirit, seer, I've watched and sought my life-time long; Sought him in heaven, hell, earth and air— An endless search, and always wrong! Had I but seen his glorious eye Once light the clouds that 'wilder me, I ne'er had raised this coward cry To cease to think, and cease to be; I ne'er had called oblivion blest, Nor, stretching eager hands to death, Implored to change for senseless rest This sentient soul, this living breath—
"Oh, let me die—that power and will Their cruel strife may close; And conquered good, and conquering ill Be lost in one repose!"
Some semblance of coherence may, no doubt, be given to this poem by making the three first and the last stanzas to be spoken by the questioner, and the fourth by the philosopher. Even so, the subject has little charm. What we care for is the surprising energy with which the successive images are projected, the earnest ring of the verse, the imagination which invests all its changes. The man and the philosopher are but the clumsy machinery of the magic-lantern, the more kept out of view the better.
"Conquered good and conquering ill!" A thought that must often have risen in Emily's mind during this year and those succeeding. A gloomy thought, sufficiently strange in a country parson's daughter; one destined to have a great result in her work.
Of these visions which make the larger half of Emily's contribution to the tiny book, none has a more eerie grace than this day-dream of the 5th of March, 1844, sampled here by a few verses snatched out of their setting rudely enough:—
"On a sunny brae, alone I lay One summer afternoon; It was the marriage-time of May With her young lover, June.
* * * * *
"The trees did wave their plumy crests, The glad birds carolled clear; And I, of all the wedding guests, Was only sullen there.
* * * * *
"Now, whether it were really so, I never could be sure, But as in fit of peevish woe, I stretched me on the moor,
"A thousand thousand gleaming fires Seemed kindling in the air; A thousand thousand silvery lyres Resounded far and near:
"Methought, the very breath I breathed Was full of sparks divine, And all my heather-couch was wreathed By that celestial shine!
"And, while the wide earth echoing rung To their strange minstrelsy, The little glittering spirits sung, Or seemed to sing, to me."
* * * * *
What they sang is indeed of little moment enough—a strain of the vague pantheistic sentiment common always to poets, but her manner of representing the little airy symphony is charming. It recalls the fairy-like brilliance of the moors at sunset, when the sun, slipping behind a western hill, streams in level rays on to an opposite crest, gilding with pale gold the fawn-coloured faded grass; tangled in the film of lilac seeding grasses, spread, like the bloom on a grape, over all the heath; sparkling on the crisp edges of the heather blooms, pure white, wild-rose colour, shell-tinted, purple; emphasising every grey-green spur of the undergrowth of ground-lichen; striking every scarlet-splashed, white-budded spray of ling: an iridescent, shimmering, dancing effect of white and pink and purple flowers; of lilac bloom, of grey-green and whitish-grey buds and branches, all crisply moving and dancing together in the breeze on the hilltop. I have quoted that windy night in a line—
"The dim moon struggling in the sky."
Here is another verse to show how well she watched from her bedroom's wide window the grey far-stretching skies above the black far-stretching moors—
"And oh, how slow that keen-eyed star Has tracked the chilly grey; What, watching yet! how very far The morning lies away."
Such direct, vital touches recall well-known passages in 'Wuthering Heights:' Catharine's pictures of the moors; that exquisite allusion to Gimmerton Chapel bells, not to be heard on the moors in summer when the trees are in leaf, but always heard at Wuthering Heights on quiet days following a great thaw or a season of steady rain.
But not, alas! in such fantasy, in such loving intimacy with nature, might much of Emily's sorrowful days be passed. Nor was it in her nature that all her dreams should be cheerful. The finest songs, the most peculiarly her own, are all of defiance and mourning, moods so natural to her that she seems to scarcely need the intervention of words in their confession. The wild, melancholy, and elevating music of which Charlotte wisely speaks is strong enough to move our very hearts to sorrow in such verses as the following, things which would not touch us at all were they written in prose; which have no personal note. Yet listen—
"Death! that struck when I was most confiding In my certain faith of joy to be— Strike again, Time's withered branch dividing From the fresh root of Eternity!
"Leaves, upon Time's branch, were growing brightly, Full of sap, and full of silver dew; Birds beneath its shelter gathered nightly; Daily round its flowers the wild bees flew.
"Sorrow passed, and plucked the golden blossom."
Solemn, haunting with a passion infinitely beyond the mere words, the mere image; because, in some wonderful way, the very music of the verse impresses, reminds us, declares the holy inevitable losses of death.
A finer poem yet is 'Remembrance,' written two years later, in the March of 1845; here the words and the thought are worthy of the music and the mood. It has vital passion in it; though it can scarcely be personal passion, since, "fifteen wild Decembers" before 1845, Emily Bronte was a girl of twelve years old, companionless, save for still living sisters, Branwell, her aunt, and the vicarage servants. Here, as elsewhere in the present volume, the creative instinct reveals itself in imagining emotions and not characters. The artist has supplied the passion of the lover.
"Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee, Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave! Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee, Severed at last by Time's all-severing wave?
"Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover Over the mountains, on that northern shore, Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover Thy noble heart for ever, evermore?
"Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers, From those brown hills, have melted into spring: Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers After such years of change and suffering!
"Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee, While the world's tide is bearing me along; Other desires and other hopes beset me, Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong.
"No later light has lightened up my heaven, No second morn has ever shone for me; All my life's bliss from thy dear life was given, All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee.
"But, when the days of golden dreams had perished, And even Despair was powerless to destroy, Then did I learn how existence could be cherished, Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.
"Then did I check the tears of useless passion— Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine; Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten Down to that tomb already more than mine.
"And, even yet, I dare not let it languish, Dare not indulge in memory's rapturous pain; Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish, How could I seek the empty world again?"
Better still, of a standard excellence, is a little poem, which, by some shy ostrich prompting, Emily chose to call
"THE OLD STOIC.
"Riches I hold in light esteem; And Love I laugh to scorn; And lust of fame was but a dream That vanished with the morn:
"And if I pray, the only prayer That moves my lips for me Is, 'Leave the heart that now I bear, And give me liberty!'
"Yes, as my swift days near their goal, 'Tis all that I implore; In life and death, a chainless soul, With courage to endure."
Throughout the book one recognises the capacity for producing something finer and quite different from what is here produced; one recognises so much, but not the author of 'Wuthering Heights.' Grand impressions of mood and landscape reveal a remarkably receptive artistic temperament; splendid and vigorous movement of lines shows that the artist is a poet. Then we are in a cul-de-sac. There is no hint of what kind of poet—too reserved to be consistently lyric, there is not sufficient evidence of the dramatic faculty to help us on to the true scent. All we can say is that we have before us a mind capable of very complete and real illusions, haunted by imagination, always fantastic, and often terrible; a temperament reserved, fearless and brooding; a character of great strength and ruggedness, extremely tenacious of impressions. We must call in Monsieur Taine and his Milieu to account for 'Wuthering Heights.'
This first volume reveals an overpowering imagination which has not yet reached its proper outlet. It is painful, in reading these early poems, to feel how ruthless and horrible that strong imagination often was, as yet directed on no purposed line. Sometimes, indeed, sweet fancies came to Emily, but often they were visions of black dungeons, scenes of death, and hopeless parting, of madness and agony.
"So stood I, in Heaven's glorious sun, And in the glare of Hell; My spirit drank a mingled tone, Of seraph's song, and demon's moan; What my soul bore, my soul alone Within itself may tell!"
It is painful, indeed, to think that the surroundings of this violent imagination, with its bias towards the capricious and the terrifying, were loneliness, sorrow, enforced companionship with degradation; a life so bitter, for a long time, and made so bitter through another's fault, that Emily welcomed her fancies, even the gloomiest, as a happy outlet from reality.
"Oh, dreadful is the check—intense the agony— When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see; When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again, The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain."
Such were the verses that Charlotte discovered one autumn day of 1845, which surprised her, with good reason, by their originality and music. Emily was not pleased by what in her eyes, so jealous of her liberty, must have seemed a deliberate interference with her property. "My sister Emily," continues Charlotte, "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 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 Emily's had given me pleasure, I might like to look at some of hers. I could not but be a partial judge, yet I thought that these verses, too, had a sweet sincere pathos of their own."
Only a partial judge could find anything much to praise in gentle Anne's trivial verses. Had the book an index of first lines, what a scathing criticism on the contents would it be!
"Sweet are thy strains, celestial bard." "I'll rest me in this sheltered bower." "Oh, I am very weary, though tears no longer flow."
From such beginnings we too clearly foresee the hopeless bathos of the end. Poor child, her real, deep sorrows, expressed in such worn-out ill-fitting phrases, are as little touching as the beauty of a London shopgirl under the ready-made cast-off adornments of her second-hand finery.
Charlotte, however, knowing the real sorrow, the real meekness that inspired them, not unnaturally put into the trivial verses the pathos of the writer's circumstances. Of a truth, her own poems are not such as would justify any great rigour of criticism. They are often, as poems, actually inferior to Anne's, her manner of dragging in a tale or a moral at the end of a lyric having quite a comical effect; yet, on the whole, her share of the book clearly distinguishes her as an eloquent and imaginative raconteuse, at the same time that it denies her the least sprout, the smallest leaf, of that flowerless wreath of bays which Emily might claim. But at that time the difference was not so clearly distinguishable; though Charlotte ever felt and owned her sister's superiority in this respect, it was not recognised as of a sort to quite outshine her own little tales in verse, and quite outlustre Anne's pious effusions.
A packet of manuscript was selected, a little packet written in three different hands and signed by three names. The sisters did not wish to reveal their identity; they decided on a nom de plume, and chose the common north-country surname of Bell. They did not wish to be known as women: "we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudices;" yet their fastidious honour prevented them from wearing a mask they had no warrant for; to satisfy both scruples they assumed names that might equally belong to a man or a woman. In the part of Yorkshire where they lived children are often christened by family names; over the shops they would see "Sunderland Akroyd," varied by "Pighills Sunderland," with scarce a John or James to bear them company. So there was nothing strange to them in the fashion so ingeniously turned to their own uses. Ellis veiled Emily; Currer, Charlotte; Acton, Anne. The first and last are common names enough—a Miss Currer who was one of the subscribers to Cowan's Bridge may have suggested her pseudonym to Charlotte. At last every detail was discussed, decided, and the packet sent off to London to try its fortunes in the world:—
"This 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."
Ultimately the three sisters found a publisher who would undertake the work upon commission; a favourable answer came from Messrs. Aylott & Jones, of Paternoster Row, who estimated the expense of the book at thirty guineas. It was a great deal for the three sisters to spare from their earnings, but they were eager to print, eager to make sacrifices, as though in some dim way they saw already the glorious goal. But at present there was business to do. They bought one of the numerous little primers that are always on sale to show the poor vain moth of amateur authorship how least to burn his wings—little books more eagerly bought and read than any of those that they bring into the world. Such a publisher's guide, meant for ambitious schoolboys, the Brontes bought and studied as anxiously as they. By the end of February all was settled, the type decided upon, the money despatched, the printers at work. Emily Bronte's copy is dated May 7th, 1846.
What eagerness at the untying of the parcel in which those first copies came! What disappointment, chequered with ecstasy, at reading their own verse, unaltered, yet in print! An experience not so common then as now; to be a poetess in those days had a certain distinction, and the three sisters must have anxiously waited for a greeting. The poems had been despatched to many magazines: Colburne's, Bentley's, Hood's, Jerrold's, Blackwood's, their early idol; to the Edinburgh Review, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, the Dublin University Magazine; to the Athenaeum, the Literary Gazette, the Critic, and to the Daily News, the Times, and to the Britannia newspaper. Surely from some quarter they would hear such an authentic word of warning or welcome as should confirm at once their hopes or their despairs. They had grown used to waiting; but they had long to wait. At last, on July 4th, the Athenaeum reviewed their book in a short paragraph, and it is remarkable that, though in such reviews of the poems as appeared after the publication of 'Jane Eyre,' it is always Currer Bell's "fine sense of nature," Currer Bell's "matured intellect and masterly hand," that wins all the praise; still, in this early notice, the yet unblinded critic has perceived to whom the palm is due. Ellis Bell he places first of the three supposed brothers, naming him "a fine quaint spirit with an evident power of wing that may reach heights not here attempted." Next to him the critic ranks Currer, lastly Anne. Scarce another notice did they see.
The little book was evidently a failure; it had fallen still-born from the press. Were all their hopes to die as soon as they were born? At least they resolved not to be too soon baffled, and already, in the thick of their disappointment, began to lay the plots of the novels they would write. Like our army, they gained their battles by never owning they were beaten.
They kept it all to themselves, this disappointment, these resolutions. When the inquisitive postman asked Mr. Bronte if he knew who was that Mr. Currer Bell for whom so many letters always came, the old gentleman answered with a sense of authority, "My good man, there is no such person in the parish;" and when, on rare occasions, Branwell came into the room where they were writing, no word was said of the work that was going on. Not even to the sisterly Ellen, so near to all their hearts, was any confession made of the way they spent their time.
"We have done nothing (to speak of) since you were here," says conscientious Anne. Nevertheless their friend drew her conclusions. About this time she came to stay at Haworth, and sometimes (a little amused at their reticence) she would tease them with her suspicions, to Charlotte's alarmed surprise. Once, at this time, when they were walking on the moor together, a sudden change and light came into the sky. "Look," said Charlotte; and the four girls looked up and saw three suns shining clearly overhead. They stood a little while silently gazing at the beautiful parhelion; Charlotte, her friend, and Anne clustered together, Emily a little higher, standing on a heathery knoll. "That is you!" said Ellen at last. "You are the three suns." "Hush!" cried Charlotte, indignant at the too shrewd nonsense of her friend; but as Ellen, her suspicions confirmed by Charlotte's violence, lowered her eyes to the earth again, she looked a moment at Emily. She was still standing on her knoll, quiet, satisfied; and round her lips there hovered a very soft and happy smile. She was not angry, the independent Emily. She had liked the little speech.
[Footnote 21: 'Memoir.' C. B.]
While Emily Bronte was striving to create a world of fancy and romance natural to her passionate spirit, the real, everyday existence in which she had to work and endure was becoming day by day more anxious and troubled. An almost unliveable life it seems, recalling it, stifled with the vulgar tragedy of Branwell's woes, the sordid cares that his debts entailed, the wearing anxiety that watched the oncoming blindness of old Mr. Bronte. These months of 1846 during which, let us remember, Emily was writing 'Wuthering Heights,' must have been the heaviest and dreariest of her days; it was during their weary course that she at last perceived how utterly hopeless, how insensible to good, must be the remaining life of her brother.
For so long as the future was left him, Branwell never reached the limit of abasement. He drank to drown sorrow, to deaden memory and the flight of time; he went far, but not too far to turn back when the day should dawn which should recall him to prosperity and happiness. He was still, though perverted and debased, capable of reform and susceptible to holy influences. He had not finally cast away goodness and honour; they were but momentarily discarded, like rings taken off for heavy work; by-and-by he would put them on again.
Suddenly the future was taken away. One morning, about six months after his dismissal, a letter came for Branwell announcing the death of his former employer. All he had ever hoped for lay at his feet—the good, wronged man was dead. His wife, his wealth, should now make Branwell glad. A new life, earned by sin and hatred, should begin; a new good life, honourable and happy. It was in Branwell's nature to be glad when peace and honour came to him, although he would make no effort to attain them, and this morning he was very happy.
"He fair danced down the churchyard as if he were out of his mind; he was so fond of that woman," says my informant.
The next morning he rose, dressed himself with care, and prepared for a journey, but before he had even set out from Haworth two men came riding to the village post haste. They sent for Branwell, and when he arrived, in a great state of excitement, one of the riders dismounted and went with him into the "Black Bull." They went into the brown parlour of the inn, the cheerful, wainscotted parlour, where Branwell had so often lorded it over his boon companions from his great three-cornered chair. After some time the messenger rose and left; and those who were in the inn thought they heard a strange noise in the parlour—a bleating like a calf's. Yet, being busy people, they did not go in to see if anything had happened, and amid the throng of their employments the sound passed out of their ears and out of their memory. Hours afterwards the young girl who used to help in the housework at the inn, the Anne who still remembers Branwell's fluent greetings, found occasion to enter the parlour. She went in and found him on the floor, looking changed and dreadful. He had fallen down in a sort of stupefied fit. After that day he was an altered being.
The message he had heard had changed the current of his life. It was not the summons he expected; but a prayer from the woman he loved not to come near her, not to tempt her to ruin; if she saw him once, the care of her children, the trust of their fortunes, all was forfeited. She entreated him to keep away; anxious, perhaps, in this sudden loneliness of death, to retrieve the past, or by some tender superstition made less willing to betray the dead than the living; or, it may be, merely eager to retain at all costs the rank, the station, the honours to which she was accustomed. Be it as it may, Branwell found himself forgotten.
"Oh, dreadful heart of woman, That in one day forgets what man remembers, Forgetting him therewith."
After that day he was different. He despaired, and drank himself to death, drinking to the grave and forgetfulness, gods of his Sabbath, and borrowing a transient pleasure at fearful interest. But to such a man the one supreme temptation is enjoyment: it must be had, though life and heaven go forfeit. And while he caroused, "and by his whole manner gave indications of intense enjoyment," his old father grew quite blind, Anne day by day more delicate and short of breath, ambitious Charlotte pined like an eagle in a cage, and Emily, writing 'Wuthering Heights,' called those affected who found the story more terrible than life.
It was she who saw most of her abandoned brother, for Anne could only shudder at his sin, and Charlotte was too indignant for pity. But Emily, the stern, charitable woman, who spared herself no pang, who loved to carry tenderly the broken-winged nestlings in her hardworking hands, Emily was not revolted by his weakness. Shall I despise the deer for his timid swiftness to fly, or the leveret because it cannot die bravely, or mock the death-agony of the wolf because the beast is gaunt and foul to see? she asks herself in one of the few personal poems she has left us. No! An emphatic no; for Emily Bronte had a place in her heart for all the wild children of nature, and to despise them for their natural instincts was impossible to her. And thus it came about that she ceased to grow indignant at Branwell's follies; she made up her mind to accept with angerless sorrow his natural vices. All that was left of her ready disdain was an extreme patience which expected no reform, asked no improvement; the patience she had for the leveret and the wolf, things contemptible and full of harm, yet not so by their own choice; the patience of acquiescent and hopeless despair.
Branwell's pity was all for himself. He did not spare the pious household forced into the contamination of his evil habits. "Nothing happens at Haworth," says Charlotte; "nothing at least of a pleasant kind. One little incident occurred about a week ago to sting us into life; but, if it give no more pleasure for you to hear than it does for us to witness, you will scarcely thank me for adverting to it. It was merely the arrival of a sheriff's officer on a visit to Branwell, inviting him either to pay his debts or take a trip to York. Of course his debts had to be paid. It is not agreeable to lose money, time after time, in this way; but where is the use of dwelling on such subjects. It will make him no better."
Reproaches only hardened his heart and made him feel himself more than ever abused by circumstances and fate. "Sometimes," says Mr. Phillips, "he would complain of the way he was treated at home, and, as an instance, related the following:—
"One of the Sunday-school girls, in whom he and all his house took much interest, fell very sick, and they were afraid she would not live.
"'I went to see the poor little thing,' he said, 'sat with her half-an-hour and read a psalm to her and a hymn at her request. I felt very much like praying with her too,' he added, his voice trembling with emotion, 'but you see I was not good enough. How dare I pray for another, who had almost forgotten how to pray for myself? I came away with a heavy heart, for I felt sure she would die, and went straight home, where I fell into melancholy musings. I wanted somebody to cheer me. I often do; but no kind word finds its way to my ears, much less to my heart. Charlotte observed my depression, and asked what ailed me. So I told her. She looked at me with a look which I shall never forget, if I live to be a hundred years old—which I never shall. It was not like her at all. It wounded me, as if some one had struck me a blow in the mouth. It involved ever so many things in it. It was a dubious look. It ran over me, questioning and examining, as if I had been a wild beast. It said, 'Did my ears deceive me, or did I hear ought?' And then came the painful, baffled expression which was worse than all. It said, 'I wonder if that's true?' But, as she left the room, she seemed to accuse herself of having wronged me, and smiled kindly upon me and said, 'She is my little scholar and I will go and see her.' I replied not a word. I was too much cut up. When she was gone, I came over here to the "Black Bull" and made a night of it in sheer disgust and desperation. Why could they not give me some credit when I was trying to be good?'"
In such wise the summer of 1846 drew on, wearily enough, with increased economies in the already frugal household, that Branwell's debts might honourably be paid, with gathering fears for the father, on whom dyspepsia and blindness were laying heavy hands. He could no longer see to read; he, the great walker who loved to ramble alone, could barely grope his way about; all that was left to him of sight was the ability to recognise well-known figures standing in a strong light. Yet he still continued to preach; standing grey and sightless in the pulpit, uttering what words (perforce unstudied) came to his lips. Himself in his sorrowful age and stern endurance a most noble and comprehensible sermon.
His spirits were much depressed; for now he could no longer forget himself in his lonely studies, no longer walk on the free moors alone when trouble invaded the narrow house below. He lived now of necessity in intimate relation with his children; he depended on them. And now he made acquaintance with the heroic nature of his daughters, and saw the petty drudgery of their lives, and how worthily they turned it to a grace in the wearing of it. And now he saw clearly the vain, dependent, passionate temperament of his son, and knew how, by the lack of training, the plant had been ruined and draggled in the mire, which might have beautifully flowered and borne good fruit had it been staked and supported; the poor espalier thing that could not stand alone. Nemesis had visited his home. He felt the consequences of his selfishness, his arrogance, his cold isolation, and bitterly, bitterly he mourned.
The cataract grew month by month, a thickening veil that blotted out the world; and month by month the old blind man sat wearily thinking through the day of his dear son's ruin, for he had ever loved Branwell the best, and lay at night listening for his footsteps; while below, alone, his daughter watched as wearily for the prodigal's return.
The three girls looked on and longed to help. All that they could do they did, Charlotte being her father's constant helper and companion; but all they could do was little. They would not reconcile themselves to see him sink into blindness. They busied themselves in collecting what information they could glean concerning operations upon cataract, and the names of oculists. But at present there was nothing to do but wait and endure; for even they, with their limited knowledge, could tell that their father's eyes were not ready yet for the surgeon's knife.
Meanwhile they worked in secret at their novels. So soon as the poems had been sent off, and even when it was evident that that venture, too, had failed, the sisters determined to try and earn a livelihood by writing. They could no longer leave their home, their father being helpless and Branwell worse than helpless; yet, with ever-increasing expenses and no earnings, bare living was difficult to compass. The future, too, was uncertain; should their father's case prove hopeless, should he become quite blind, ill, incapable of work, they would be homeless indeed. With such gloomy boding in their hearts, with such stern impelling necessity bidding them strive and ever strive again, as a baffled swimmer strives for land, these three sisters began their work. Two of them, in after time, were to be known through all the world, were to be influences for all time to come and, a new glory in the world not known before their days, were to make up "with Mrs. Browning, the perfect trinity of English female fame." But with little thought of this, heavily and very wearily, they set out upon their undertaking.
Every evening when the sewing was put away the writing was begun, the three sisters, sitting round the table, or more often marching round and round the room as in their schoolgirl days, would hold solemn council over the progress of their work. The division of chapters, the naming of characters, the progress of events, was then decided, so that each lent a hand to the other's work. Then, such deliberations done, the paper would be drawn out, and the casual notes of the day corrected and writ fair; and for an hour or more there would be no sound save the scratching of pens on the paper and the gusty wailing of the wind outside.
Such methodical work makes rapid progress. In a few months each sister had a novel completed. Charlotte, a grave and quiet study of Belgian life and character, 'The Professor;' Anne, a painstaking account of a governess's trials, which she entitled 'Agnes Grey.' Emily's story was very different, and less perceptibly interwoven with her own experience. We all know at least the name of 'Wuthering Heights.'
The novels were sent off, and at first seemed even less likely of success than the school had been, or the book of verses. Publisher after publisher rejected them; then, thinking that perhaps it was not cunning to send the three novels in a batch, since the ill-success of one might prejudice all, the sisters sent them separately to try their chance. But ever with the same result—month after month, came rejection.
At home affairs continued no less disheartening. Branwell often laid up with violent fits of sickness, Mr. Bronte becoming more utterly blind. At last, in the end of July, Emily and Charlotte set out for Manchester to consult an oculist. There they heard of Mr. Wilson as the best, and to him they went; but only to find that no decisive opinion could be given until their father's eyes had been examined. Yet, not disheartened, they went back to Haworth; for at least they had discovered a physician and had made sure that, even at their father's advanced age, an operation might prove successful. Therefore, at the end of August, Charlotte, who was her father's chief companion and the most easily spared from home, took old Mr. Bronte to Manchester. Mr. Wilson pronounced his eyes ready for the operation, and the old man and his daughter went into lodgings for a month. "I wonder how Emily and Anne will get on at home with Branwell," says Charlotte, accustomed to be the guide and leader of that little household.
Hardly enough, no doubt; for Anne was little fitted now to struggle against fate. She never had completely rallied from the prolonged misery of her sojourn with Branwell in that fatal house which was to blight their future and be blighted by them. She grew weaker and weaker, that "gentle little one," so tender, so ill fitted to her rugged and gloomy path of life. Emily looked on with a breaking heart; trouble encompassed her on every side; her father blind in Manchester; her brother drinking himself to death at home; her sister failing, paling day by day; and every now and then a letter would come announcing that such and such a firm of publishers had no use for 'Agnes Grey' and 'Wuthering Heights.'
Charlotte in Manchester fared little better. 'The Professor' had been returned to her on the very day of her father's operation, when (bearing this unspoken-of blow as best she might) she had to stay in the room while the cataract was removed from his eyes. Exercise makes courage strong; that evening, when her father in his darkened room might no longer speak or be spoken to, that very evening she began 'Jane Eyre.'
This was being braver than brave Emily, who has left us nothing, save a few verses, written later than 'Wuthering Heights.' But at Haworth there was labour and to spare for every instant of the busy days, and Charlotte, in Manchester, found her unaccustomed leisure and unoccupied confinement very dreary.
Towards the end of September Mr. Bronte was pronounced on a fair way to recovery, and he and Charlotte set out for Haworth. It was a happy home-coming, for things had prospered better than Charlotte had dared to hope during the latter weeks of her absence. Every day the old man grew stronger, and little by little his sight came back. He could see the glorious purple of the moors, Emily's moors, no less beloved in her sorrowing womanhood than in her happy hoyden time of youth. He could see his children's faces, and the miserable change in Branwell's features. He began to be able to read a little, a very little at a time, and by November was sufficiently recovered to take the whole duty of the three Sunday services upon himself.
Not long after this time, three members of that quiet household were still further cheered by learning that 'Agnes Grey' and 'Wuthering Heights' had found acceptance at the hands of a publisher. Acceptance; but upon impoverishing terms. Still, for so much they were thankful. To write, and bury unread the things one has written, is playing music upon a dumb piano. Who plays, would fain be heard.
[Footnote 22: George Searle Phillips.]
[Footnote 23: Mrs. Gaskell.]
[Footnote 24: 'Branwell Bronte.' G. S. Phillips.]
[Footnote 25: A. C. Swinburne. 'Note on Charlotte Bronte.']
'WUTHERING HEIGHTS:' ITS ORIGIN.
A grey old Parsonage standing among graves, remote from the world on its wind-beaten hill-top, all round the neighbouring summits wild with moors; a lonely place among half-dead ash-trees and stunted thorns, the world cut off on one side by the still ranks of the serried dead, and distanced on the other by mile-long stretches of heath: such, we know, was Emily Bronte's home.
An old, blind, disillusioned father, once prone to an extraordinary violence of temper, but now grown quiet with age, showing his disappointment with life by a melancholy cynicism that was quite sincere; two sisters, both beloved, one, fired with genius and quick to sentiment, hiding her enthusiasm under the cold demeanour of the ex-governess, unsuccessful, and unrecognised; the other gentler, dearer, fairer, slowly dying, inch by inch, of the blighting neighbourhood of vice. One brother, scarce less dear, of set purpose drinking himself to death out of furious thwarted passion for a mistress that he might not marry: these were the members of Emily Bronte's household.
Herself we know: inexperienced, courageous, passionate, and full of pity. Was it wonderful that she summed up life in one bitter line?—
"Conquered good and conquering ill."
Her own circumstances proved the axiom true, and of other lives she had but little knowledge. Whom should she ask? The gentle Ellen who seemed of another world, and yet had plentiful troubles of her own? The curates she despised for their narrow priggishness? The people in the village of whom she knew nothing save when sickness, wrong, or death summoned her to their homes to give help and protection? Her life had given only one view of the world, and she could not realise that there were others which she had not seen.
"I am bound to avow," says Charlotte, "that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry among whom she lived than a nun has of the country people that pass her convent gates. My sister's disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church, or to take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round her was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought, nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced; and yet she knew them, knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensued that what her mind had gathered of the real concerning them was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny, more powerful than sportive, found in such traits materials whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catharine. Having formed these beings she did not know what she had done. If the auditors of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable—of spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night and disturbed mental peace by day, Ellis Bell would wonder what was meant and suspect the complainant of affectation. Had she but lived, her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree—loftier and straighter, wider spreading—and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripening and sunnier bloom; but on that mind time and experience alone could work, to the influence of other intellects it was not amenable."
Yet no human being is wholly free, none wholly independent, of surroundings. And Emily Bronte least of all could claim such immunity. We can with difficulty just imagine her a prosperous heiress, loving and loved, high-spirited and even hoydenish; but with her cavalier fantasy informed by a gracious splendour all her own, we can just imagine Emily Bronte as Shirley Keeldar, but scarcely Shirley Keeldar writing 'Wuthering Heights.' Emily Bronte away from her moors, her loneliness, her poverty, her discipline, her companionship with genius, violence and degradation, would have taken another colour, as hydrangeas grow now red, now blue, according to the nature of the soil. It was not her lack of knowledge of the world that made the novel she wrote become 'Wuthering Heights,' not her inexperience, but rather her experience, limited and perverse, indeed, and specialised by a most singular temperament, yet close and very real. Her imagination was as much inspired by the circumstances of her life, as was Anne's when she wrote the 'Tenant of Wildfell Hall,' or Charlotte's in her masterpiece 'Villette;' but, as in each case the imagination was of a different quality, experience, acting upon it, produced a distinct and dissimilar result; a result obtained no less by the contrariety than by the harmony of circumstance. For our surroundings affect us in two ways; subtly and permanently, tinging us through and through as wine tinges water, or, by some violent neighbourhood of antipathetic force, sending us off at a tangent as far as possible from the antagonistic presence that so detestably environs us. The fact that Charlotte Bronte knew chiefly clergymen is largely responsible for 'Shirley,' that satirical eulogy of the Church and apotheosis of Sunday-school teachers. But Emily, living in this same clerical evangelistic atmosphere, is revolted, forced to the other extreme; and, while sheltering her true opinions from herself under the all-embracing term "Broad Church," we find in her writings no belief so strong as the belief in the present use and glory of life; no love so great as her love for earth—earth the mother and grave; no assertion of immortality, but a deep certainty of rest. There is no note so often struck in all her work, and struck with such variety of emphasis, as this: that good for goodness' sake is desirable, evil for evil's sake detestable, and that for the just and the unjust alike there is rest in the grave.
This quiet clergyman's daughter, always hearing evil of Dissenters, has therefore from pure courage and revolted justice become a dissenter herself. A dissenter in more ways than one. Never was a nature more sensitive to the stupidities and narrowness of conventional opinion, a nature more likely to be found in the ranks of the opposition; and with such a nature indignation is the force that most often looses the gate of speech. The impulse to reveal wrongs and sufferings as they really are, is overwhelmingly strong; although the revelation itself be imperfect. What, then, would this inexperienced Yorkshire parson's daughter reveal? The unlikeness of life to the authorised pictures of life; the force of evil, only conquerable by the slow-revolving process of nature which admits not the eternal duration of the perverse; the grim and fearful lessons of heredity; the sufficiency of the finite to the finite, of life to life, with no other reward than the conduct of life fulfils to him that lives; the all-penetrating kinship of living things, heather-sprig, singing lark, confident child, relentless tyrant; and, not least, not least to her already in its shadow, the sure and universal peace of death.
A strange evangel from such a preacher; but a faith evermore emphasised and deeper rooted in Emily's mind by her incapacity to acquiesce in the stiff, pragmatic teaching, the narrow prejudice, of the Calvinists of Haworth. Yet this very Calvinism influenced her ideas, this doctrine she so passionately rejected, calling herself a disciple of the tolerant and thoughtful Frederick Maurice, and writing, in defiance of its flames and shriekings, the most soothing consolations to mortality that I remember in our tongue.
Nevertheless, so dual-natured is the force of environment, this antagonistic faith, repelling her to the extreme rebound of belief, did not send her out from it before she had assimilated some of its sternest tenets. From this doctrine of reward and punishment she learned that for every unchecked evil tendency there is a fearful expiation; though she placed it not indeed in the flames of hell, but in the perverted instincts of our own children. Terrible theories of doomed incurable sin and predestined loss warned her that an evil stock will only beget contamination: the children of the mad must be liable to madness; the children of the depraved, bent towards depravity; the seed of the poison-plant springs up to blast and ruin, only to be overcome by uprooting and sterilisation, or by the judicious grafting, the patient training of many years.
Thus prejudiced and evangelical Haworth had prepared the woman who rejected its Hebraic dogma, to find out for herself the underlying truths. She accepted them in their full significance. It has been laid as a blame to her that she nowhere shows any proper abhorrence of the fiendish and vindictive Heathcliff. She who reveals him remembers the dubious parentage of that forsaken seaport baby, "Lascar or Gipsy;" she remembers the Ishmaelitish childhood, too much loved and hated, of the little interloper whose hand was against every man's hand. Remembering this, she submits as patiently to his swarthy soul and savage instincts as to his swarthy skin and "gibberish that nobody could understand." From thistles you gather no grapes.
No use, she seems to be saying, in waiting for the children of evil parents to grow, of their own will and unassisted, straight and noble. The very quality of their will is as inherited as their eyes and hair. Heathcliff is no fiend or goblin; the untrained doomed child of some half-savage sailor's holiday, violent and treacherous. And how far shall we hold the sinner responsible for a nature which is itself the punishment of some forefather's crime. Even for such there must be rest. No possibility in the just and reverent mind of Emily Bronte that the God whom she believed to be the very fount and soul of life could condemn to everlasting fire the victims of morbid tendencies not chosen by themselves. No purgatory, and no everlasting flame, is needed to purify the sins of Heathcliff; his grave on the hillside will grow as green as any other spot of grass, moor-sheep will find the grass as sweet, heath and harebells will grow of the same colour on it as over a baby's grave. For life and sin and punishment end with death to the dying man; he slips his burden then on to other shoulders, and no visions mar his rest.
"I wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth." So ends the last page of 'Wuthering Heights.'
So much for the theories of life and evil that the clash of circumstance and character struck out from Emily Bronte. It happened, as we know, that she had occasion to test these theories; and but for that she could never have written 'Wuthering Heights.' Not that the story, the conception, would have failed. After all there is nothing more appalling in the violent history of that upland farm than many a midland manor set thick in elms, many a wild country-house of Wales or Cornwall could unfold. Stories more socially painful than the mere brute violence of the Earnshaws; of madness and treachery, stories of girls entrapped unwillingly into a lunatic marriage that the estate might have an heir; legends of fearful violence, of outcast children, dishonoured wives, horrible and persistent evil. Who, in the secret places of his memory, stores not up such haunting gossip? And Emily, familiar with all the wild stories of Haworth for a century back, and nursed on grisly Irish horrors, tales of 1798, tales of oppression and misery, Emily, with all this eerie lore at her finger-ends, would have the less difficulty in combining and working the separate motives into a consistent whole, that she did not know the real people whose histories she knew by heart. No memory of individual manner, dominance or preference for an individual type, caught and disarranged her theories, her conception being the completer from her ignorance. This much her strong reason and her creative power enabled her to effect. But this is not all.
This is the plot; but to make a character speak, act, rave, love, live, die, through a whole lifetime of events, even as the readers feel convinced he must have acted, must have lived and died, this demands at least so much experience of a somewhat similar nature as may serve for a base to one's imagination, a reserve of certainty and reassurance on which to draw in times of perplexity and doubt. Branwell, who sat to Anne sorrily enough for the portrait of Henry Huntingdon, served his sister Emily, not indeed as a model, a thing to copy, but as a chart of proportions by which to measure, and to which to refer, for correct investiture, the inspired idea. Mr. Wemyss Reid (whose great knowledge of the Bronte history and still greater kindness in admitting me to his advantages as much as might be, I cannot sufficiently acknowledge)—this capable critic perceives a bona fide resemblance between the character of Heathcliff and the character of Branwell Bronte as he appeared to his sister Emily. So much, bearing in mind the verse concerning the leveret, I own I cannot see. Branwell seems to me more nearly akin to Heathcliff's miserable son than to Heathcliff. But that, in depicting Heathcliff's outrageous thwarted love for Catharine, Emily did draw upon her experience of her brother's suffering, this extract from an unpublished lecture of Mr. Reid's will sufficiently reveal:—
"It was in the enforced companionship of this lost and degraded man that Emily received, I am sure, many of the impressions which were subsequently conveyed to the pages of her book. Has it not been said over and over again by critics of every kind that 'Wuthering Heights' reads like the dream of an opium-eater? And here we find that during the whole time of the writing of the book an habitual and avowed opium-eater was at Emily's elbow. I said that perhaps the most striking part of 'Wuthering Heights' was that which deals with the relations of Heathcliff and Catharine after she had become the wife of another. Whole pages of the story are filled with the ravings and ragings of the villain against the man whose life stands between him and the woman he loves. Similar ravings are to be found in all the letters of Branwell Bronte written at this period of his career; and we may be sure that similar ravings were always on his lips as, moody and more than half mad, he wandered about the rooms of the parsonage at Haworth. Nay, I have found some striking verbal coincidences between Branwell's own language and passages in 'Wuthering Heights.' In one of his own letters there are these words in reference to the object of his passion: 'My own life without her will be hell. What can the so-called love of her wretched sickly husband be to her compared with mine?' Now, turn to 'Wuthering Heights' and you will read these words: 'Two words would comprehend my future—death and hell; existence after losing her would be hell. Yet I was a fool to fancy for a moment that she valued Edgar Linton's attachment more than mine. If he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn't love in eighty years as much as I could in a day.'"