The Letters of Charlotte Brontë: Volume Three 1852-1855 ed Margaret Smith

A sorry tale of deceit, corruption and literary con men

The appearance of this third and final volume of all Charlotte Brontë's surviving letters, with a selection of those by her friends and family, marks the culmination of a monumental publishing achievement. Roughly 950 letters written by Charlotte between 1829 and February 1855, a month before her untimely death in the early stages of pregnancy at the age of 39, have been located.

This is a poor tally when set against the collected correspondence of other Victorian literary giants, like Dickens or the Carlyles; but when compared with the extreme paucity of the surviving correspondence of the other Brontë siblings - about 50 letters from Branwell, five from Anne, and a mere three from Emily - their importance in our understanding of the Brontës' lives is immediately apparent.

In her opening volume, the editor Margaret Smith related something of the letters' history. Surrounding the attempts to publish them, in the decades following Charlotte's death, is a tale of deceit, which gives off a strong whiff of corruption. At the centre of it lies Ellen Nussey's disastrous decision to entrust her valuable cache of Charlotte's letters to the literary forger T J Wise. Ellen was a schoolgirl friend of Charlotte's from their days at Roe Head, and possessed the largest collection of her correspondence: 394 letters received from Charlotte over more than two decades.

Ellen had already prepared a private edition of the letters she owned in the late 1880s, but had got cold feet about the project and then destroyed practically all the sets of 30,000 printed sheets in a huge bonfire over many weeks, assisted by the minister of her local church. This left her as easy prey for Wise and his front man, the biographer and critic-about-town Clement Shorter. Together they extracted the originals from her for £125 and the promise that they would be preserved in the South Kensington Museum "to enhance the honour & reputation of their gloriously gifted writer". In fact, within a couple of years it became evident that Wise was selling the manuscripts piecemeal at auction.

With Charlotte's letters scattered to the four winds, and often untraceable, an authoritative edition of all the surviving correspondence became, as the years passed, increasingly unlikely. Margaret Smith, therefore, deserves the highest praise for the sheer doggedness with which she has pursued bits and pieces of letters through salerooms and private collections (most strikingly, she pieced together one letter, cut up for autograph hunters, from scraps in five separate locations). She is also a model editor. The standard of her annotations is superb, and no worthwhile cross-reference to the Brontës' lives or works is allowed to slip through her net.

This last volume opens at the beginning of 1852, and finds Charlotte writing her final novel and masterpiece, Villette, while fighting against lingering and depressive illness. Her letters reveal an intense loneliness, and a longing for company, which she suppresses on account of her work. "I am afraid of caring for you too much," she writes to Ellen, and as Smith observes, much of Villette's power derives "from similar fluctuations between suppression and the extreme emotion of all too brief fulfilment".

However, this is also a period in which Charlotte's tantalising epistolary relationship with her young publisher at Cornhill, George Smith, still flourishes, and in which her friendship with fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, founded on their mutual respect for each other as writers, finds expression on paper. The possibility that the link with Smith might grow beyond the boundaries of author and publisher is suddenly halted at the end of 1853, with the news of Smith's engagement to Elizabeth Blakeway and Charlotte's curt note of "congratulation". But standing in the wings is Charlotte's prospective husband, her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls.

One of Charlotte's most dramatic letters is her description to Ellen of Nicholls's sudden, unexpected proposal of marriage in December 1852: "He stopped in the passage: he tapped: like lightning it flashed on me what was coming. He entered - he stood before me... Shaking from head to foot, looking deadly pale, speaking low, vehemently yet with difficulty - he made me feel for the first time what it costs a man to declare affection where he doubts response." Slowly overcoming her own doubts, and her father's bitter refusal to countenance her marriage to his curate, Charlotte finally married Nicholls in June 1854. In a recently discovered fragment Charlotte describes her purchase of wedding-dress and veil. "If I must make a fool of myself", she says " - it shall be on an economical plan."

One can only regret that so many of Charlotte's letters have been destroyed, including her correspondence with Nicholls, who was "so tender, so good, helpful, patient" to his wife at the end. But this wonderful collection does allow us clearly to hear the impassioned voice of one of the greatest letter-writers in the language. Three cheers to Margaret Smith and the Clarendon Press for an immaculate edition.

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