Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë, ed Margaret Smith

Charlotte Brontë's riveting letters tell how she survived heartbreak to triumph in her art
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The Independent Culture

Margaret Smith's exemplary three-volume edition of all Charlotte Brontë's surviving letters has now spawned this very welcome selection at an affordable price. About 950 letters from Charlotte, written between 1829, when she was immersed in the creation of her juvenile imaginary world of Angria in collaboration with her brother Branwell, and February 1855, a month before her death in the early stages of pregnancy, exist either in print or manuscript sources. This selection publishes about a fifth of them, and manages to include examples written to a wide range of Charlotte's correspondents, while at the same time conveying the salient aspects of the moving and dramatic Brontë story.

Most important, from posterity's point of view, are the letters to Charlotte's schoolfriend Ellen Nussey, "a conscientious, observant, calm, well-bred Yorkshire girl", without "romance" or intellectual pretension. Although Ellen later destroyed many letters that she considered too sensitive for publication, we have reason to be grateful to her for preserving so many which provide us with much detailed insight into the Brontës' lives. Among the most riveting in this selection are the four letters that Charlotte wrote from Haworth to her Brussels professor, Constantin Heger, after her return to England in 1844, which reveal the extent of her infatuation with him and her longing for the assurance of his continuing friendship for her. To her great distress, it was not forthcoming. In November 1845 she told him that: "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... Day after day I await a letter and day after day disappointment flings me down again into overwhelming misery..." Her heart's loss was Charlotte's creative gain. From the relationship with Heger, and her time in Belgium, flowed the genius of Jane Eyre and Villette.

Margaret Smith has printed some of Charlotte's letters to her publisher Smith, Elder which chart the rise of her fame (and notoriety for her lack of "taste"); and a large number of those to W S Williams, Smith, Elder's literary adviser, who encouraged her after the firm rejected her first novel, The Professor, and who recommended acceptance of Jane Eyre. Some of Charlotte's most poignant letters on the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne were addressed to Williams. "A year ago," she wrote to him, after witnessing the death from tuberculosis of her sole surviving sibling Anne, "had a prophet warned me how I should stand in June 1849 – how stripped and bereaved – had he foretold the autumn, the winter, the spring of sickness and suffering to be gone through – I should have thought – this can never be endured. It is over. Branwell – Emily –Anne are gone like dreams... One by one I have watched them fall asleep on my arm – and closed their glazed eyes..."

Charlotte's letters to Williams also range freely over her views of contemporary writers, and of her own position as Currer Bell, the artist. From these emerges a strong sense of Charlotte as a survivor, of the professional writer, confident in her craft, who stands back from the brink of despair, and transmutes her experience into art: "The faculty of imagination lifted me when I was sinking three months ago." She wrote to him after the completion of Shirley, "Its active exercise has kept my head above water since – its results cheer me now – for I feel they have enabled me to give pleasure to others – I am thankful to God who gave me the faculty – and it is for me a part of my religion to defend this gift and to profit by its possession."

Margaret Smith has more than earned the plaudits of Brontë lovers for her patient and scrupulous work in establishing reliable texts of Charlotte's letters, and in annotating them so expertly. My only, very slight, regret about this selected edition is that she has omitted the extraordinary story of the letters' afterlife. This centres on the activities of one of the great forgers of the age, T J Wise, who wheedled Charlotte's letters from Ellen Nussey, promising that they would never be "scattered abroad", but would be preserved in the South Kensington Museum, and used "to enhance the honour & reputation of their gloriously gifted writer". In an act of blatant desecration, Wise proceeded to sell Charlotte's letters at auction. In his zeal for selling to the highest bidder, many of the letters were split up and lost forever to untraceable locations. It is a tale rich in skulduggery and deceit which still remains to be told in full.