Biographies live or die by the documents their subjects leave behind. If the paper trail is thin—few letters or bills, not much in the way of diaries—filling out even a basic life’s outline, especially from the distance of years and years, gets increasingly tougher. All the people who knew the subject die, and with them, any chance at a living, breathing book which cuts to the essence, which says something new in a way we haven’t read before.
And letters, in particular, are vital. “Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience,” Janet Malcolm once explained.
One of the best documented novelists of the 19th century is Charlotte Brontë, thanks in large part to the fact that she was a lifelong, avid writer of notes, stories, little (sometimes just three inches tall) books and manuscripts, and of letters. Over her lifetime Charlotte wrote thousands of letters to a wide array of correspondents: her family, when she was away from home; close friends; and later in life, her publisher and editors, as well as other famous writers. Her two longest correspondences were with her closest school friends—the smart, outspoken, and liberal Mary Taylor, and the quiet, more proper Ellen Nussey.
Much of what we know of Charlotte’s life is thanks to Miss Nussey, who disobeyed a classic but understandable request. Charlotte, newly married in 1854, just months before her death, wrote to her friend of 23 years:
“Arthur [Charlotte’s new husband, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nichols] has just been glancing over this note—He thinks I have written to freely about Amelia [another school friend of theirs] &c. Men don’t seem to understand making letters a vehicle of communication—they always seem to think us incautious. I’m sure I don’t think I have said anything rash—however you must burn it when read. Arthur says such letters as mine never ought to be kept — they are dangerous as lucifer matches—so be sure to follow a recommendation he has just given ‘fire them’—or ‘there will be no more.’ Such is his resolve. I can’t help laughing—this seems to me so funny, Arthur however says he is quite serious and looks it, I assure you—he is bending over the desk with his eyes full of concern.”
Ellen’s reply to Charlotte’s letter, unsurprisingly, does not survive—Arthur likely ‘fired’ plenty of things after his famous wife’s demise, but 10 days later, Charlotte wrote another letter, still concerned with her non-literary output. “Arthur complains that you do not distinctly promise to burn my letters as you receive them,” she informed Ellen. “He says you must give him a plain pledge to that effect—or he will read every line I write and elect himself censor of our correspondence.”
“He says women are most rash in letter-writing,” she added.
Ellen, saver of paper that she was, kept a copy of the promise she dutifully fired off to Mr. Nicholls, who she addressed as The Magister, suggesting much of this was humorous, if only to her:
“As you seem to hold in great horror the ardentia verba of feminine epistles, I pledge myself to the destruction of Charlotte’s epistles henceforth, if You pledge yourself to no censorship in the matter communicated.”
Charlotte’s reply, days later, arrive: “We may now write any dangerous stuff we please to each other.”
This long exchange is hard to read: burn the letters of Charlotte Brontë?! Modern eyebrows raise at the suggestion of a new husband “censoring” the “rash” correspondence of two women—lifelong friends. But it’s all made easier to ingest by the fact that we know “dear Nell,” as Charlotte often called her, who lived until 1892, never made good on her promise, and 380 letters that Charlotte wrote to her over a span of 24 years survive. Indeed, Ellen devoted the remainder of her life to trying to get the letters published and into the hands of people who would understand their value. In this massive corpus, one gets precious glimpses of the everyday life of the famed novelist, and her equally talented but less prolific sisters, Emily and Anne. Ellen, Charlotte’s closest friend, received letters on the deaths of Branwell and Emily. Indeed, Ellen accompanied Charlotte and Anne to the spa town of Scarborough, where Anne would die in May 1849, two single women giving a last look at the sea to a mortally ill and frail companion.
The correspondence is deeply moving for students of Charlotte’s history. The novelist had up and married quite quickly after seeming for years to be arm in arm with Ellen in their combined spinsterhood. Ellen was, it seems, quite miffed at the prospect of her friend abandoning their singlehood, and the long-standing friendship between the two suffered its most serious cooling off during the period of Charlotte’s engagement. Mary Taylor, their common friend, took Ellen to task in a letter which Ellen, of course, saved for posterity:
“You talk wonderful nonsense about C. Brontë in yr letter. What do you mean about “bearing her position so long, and enduring to the end”? And still better—“bearing our lot whatever it is.” If its C’s lot to be married shd n’t she bear that too? or does your strange morality mean that she shd refuse to ameliorate her lot when it lies in her power. How wd. she be inconsistent with herself in marrying? Because she considers her own pleasure? If this is so new for her to do, it is high time she began to make it more common.”
Ellen and Charlotte were reconciled shortly after, and Ellen went on to become a primary source for Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote the first biography of Charlotte after she died. Charlotte’s father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, also cooperated with Gaskell—though he regretted it once he read her portrayal of him as harsh and eccentric.
Charlotte Brontë was an adept correspondent who tailored the tone and content of her letters to their recipients. Her letters to Ellen are full of everyday family details, friendly gossip, and affection. The few letters which remain of her correspondence with Mary Taylor are—as one could guess from the scorching tone of Mary’s letter to Ellen—more political and fiery. Mary was a different kind of friend than Ellen: the kind who protectively torched most of her friend’s letters after her death, never mind the rabid appetites of biographers.
But Charlotte also kept much from her friends. Though she shared her hardships over her beloved brother Branwell’s descent into addiction, she didn’t utter a word about her foray into the world of authorship, even as the three sisters published a book of poetry, and then, their first novels: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey, all of which appeared in 1847. The secret wasn’t kept long, of course, as many of the characters and scenes in the books were so clearly reminiscent of their Yorkshire village and its surroundings. She also appears to have shared nothing of her painful experience in Belgium when, at the age of 26, she went to teach and learn French at a school run by a husband and wife duo, the Hégers (dragging Emily along, too).
By far the most moving and painful pieces in all the Brontë correspondence are the four letters that have survived of Charlotte’s communication with Constantin Héger, her French teacher from her two years abroad, from 1842 to 1844. Charlotte remained alone in Brussels long after Emily darted back home, and she formed an attachment to Héger while there. Indeed, she was clearly in love with him. He respected her talents and challenged her intellect.
Upon her somewhat abrupt, permanent return home in January 1844, Charlotte fell into a deep depression which would end finally in her embarking on her literary career in earnest. Evidence suggests she wrote to Héger about twice a week until—at the insistence of his wife—she confined herself to writing just every six months.
The letters begin in July of 1844, clearly mid-correspondence. All of them are written in French.
“Monsieur, I am well aware that it is not my turn to write to you,” as she goes on to say that a friend was heading to Belgium, so she was taking the opportunity to send a quick note along with her. She expresses worry for his health and workload, and she makes it clear she’d like to hear from him more often. She writes a bit about a plan to start a school, and her work in studying French. But she quickly veers off:
“I fear nothing so much as idleness—lack of employment—inertia — lethargy of the faculties—when the body is idle, the spirit suffers cruelly. I would not experience this lethargy if I could write—once upon a time I used to spend whole days, weeks, complete months in writing and not quite in vain since Southey and Coleridge—two of our best authors, to whom I sent some manuscripts were pleased to express their approval of them—but at present my sight is too weak for writing—if I wrote a lot I would become blind. This weakness of sight is a terrible privation for me—without it, do you know what I would do, Monsieur?—I would write a book and I would dedicate it to my literature master—to the only master I have ever had—to you Monsieur. I have often told you in French how much I respect you—how much I am indebted to your kindness, to your advice, I would like to tell you for once in English—That cannot be—it must not be thought of—a literary career is closed to me…”
The next letter which survives was written three months after the first.
“I am afraid of bothering you. I would just like to ask whether you heard from me at the beginning of May and then in the month of August? For all those six months I have been expecting a letter from you, Monsieur—six months of waiting—That is a very long time indeed.”
The third letter, again after a passage of three months, is heartbreaking.
“Forgive me then Monsieur if I take the step of writing to you again—How can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its sufferings?
“I know that you will lose patience with me when you read this letter—You will say that I am over-excited—that I have black thoughts etc. So be it Monsieur—I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches—all I know—is that I cannot—that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship—I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope—if he gives me a little friendship—a very little—I shall be content—happy, I would have a motive for living—for working.
“Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on—they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich men’s table—but if they are refused these crumbs—they die of hunger—No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love—I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship—I am not accustomed to it—but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels—and I cling to the preservation of this little interest—I cling to it as I would cling on to life.”
The letter gives more than a few clues to the powerful writer Charlotte had become, and her desperate object is clear: she must induce him to respond, trolling him with different voices: now desperate, then logical; but she ends her letter in that other hallmark of her voice, anger.
“I don’t want to re-read this letter—I am sending it as I have written it—Nevertheless I am as it were dimly aware that there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it—“she is raving”—My sole revenge is to wish these people—a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months—then we should see whether they wouldn’t be raving too.”
And through these long months of “torment” that Charlotte was enduring, her letters back and forth to Ellen and others continued, in stark relief to the emotional letters to her “master,” they give no hint to her near constant turmoil.
In mid-November of 1845, Charlotte sent what was likely her last letter to Héger, and certainly the last to survive. She opens by noting that—as promised—it’s been six months since her last letter, then continues:
“The summer and autumn have seemed very long to me; to tell the truth I have made painful efforts to endure until now the privation I imposed on myself: you, Monsieur—you cannot conceive what that means—but imagine for a moment that one of your children is separated from you by a distance of 160 leagues, and that you have to let six months go by without writing to him, without receiving news of him, without hearing him spoken of, without knowing how he is, then you will easily understand what hardship there is in such an obligation. I will tell you candidly that during this time of waiting I have tried to forget you, for the memory of a person one believes one is never to see again, and whom one nevertheless greatly respects, torments the mind exceedingly and when one has suffered this kind of anxiety for one or two years, one is ready to do anything to regain peace of mind.”
It is clear that the tone of this letter is slightly more resigned, though no less fervent, than the ones which preceded it. In fact, Charlotte was already deeply committed to editing her poems and at work on her first novel, The Professor, which was not published in her lifetime. The book’s subject is clear from the title, but there are clear echoes of Héger in both Jane Eyre’s Edward Rochester, and even more so in Villette’s Paul Emanuel. Charlotte had already begun to spin her painful experiences into powerful prose, though Jane Eyre would not be published for another two years.
She continues, ending the letter on an extremely grim but defiant note: “To forbid me to write to you, to refuse to reply to me—that will be to tear from me the only joy I have on earth—to deprive me of my last remaining privilege—a privilege which I will never consent to renounce voluntarily.”
These letters were shown to the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell by Monsieur Héger, less than a year after Charlotte’s death, when she travelled to Brussels on the trail of writing her biography of the author, the first of many. Gaskell chose—for somewhat obvious reasons—not to publish the letters and to suppress almost completely the relationship between Héger and Charlotte. Three of the four letters were at some point torn apart then painstakingly sewn and taped back together. They eventually passed to one of Héger’s children after his death, and were published in The Times in July of 1913 before being given to the British Library. They were received by the world, of course, with shock, and have changed biographers’ view of her almost completely since.
Taken as a whole, these letters descend into such gut wrenching, desperate sadness, that they do indeed force the reader to consider that maybe it would have been better had they not survived. When reading them, one is deeply aware of seeing something never intended for our eyes. Instead, they made it, with one still showing Héger’s scribbled marks—the address of a local shoemaker, perhaps—as if the letter had sat carelessly on his desk. They remain, simultaneously so carefully preserved and such evidence of having been tossed away.
However, they are also the best, and most direct gaze into the creative process of Charlotte Brontë’s genius. These four letters alone contain the emotional inspiration for most of her novels. Nowhere else in her long and glorious surviving correspondence—the latest version three volumes—is she so deeply exposed and honest. In fact Brontë so affected the people in her life that many of them saved what so often is lost to literary history. Her publisher, George Smith, kept the manuscripts for all her published work, along with hundreds of letters she’d written. Today, those manuscripts and the letters to Héger live permanently in the British Museum, while much of the rest of her surviving collection is housed at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, in Yorkshire, in Charlotte’s former home.
It’s no wonder Arthur wanted the whole of it committed to fire, but thankfully for us prying fangirls, he didn’t get his wish. The story of the survival and publication of Charlotte Bronte’s private letters is a wonderful example of the problem of biography as laid out by Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman and indeed, after reading Charlotte’s letters, one is certainly left with the feeling of “simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.” Malcolm writes that the “transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre.” In the letters of Charlotte Bronte—editorialized anew every few years, leading to scant improvement of the narrative story of her life—we find these words embodied completely.
Laura June is a Staff Writer for The Cut. She burns all of your letters.
Illustration by Bobby Finger. Image of Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre manuscript via Getty. Letter via the British Library.