Yours insincerely, Charlotte Bronte

Sarcastically written, meticulously salvaged, poorly prefaced. Lyndall Gordon sees light shed on an enigma
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The Independent Culture
The Letters of Charlotte Bronte

Vol 1: 1829-1847

Edited by Margaret Smith

Oxford, pounds 55

"I cannot be formal in a letter,'' Charlotte Bronte apologised to an impossibly conventional ex-suitor, Henry Nussey. "If I write at all, I must write as I think.'' At that time, in 1841, a governess to the White family in Rawdon, Yorkshire, she confides her discontent with indulged children to this dull clergyman who, she knew, understood her not at all. It is this incaution, this need to explain herself against the odds, that makes her a great writer of letters. She seems to invite condemnation ("I am dwelling too much on my own concerns and feelings... I repent having written it'') so that a literal reader would find it easy to vilify or pity her, but none of her states of mind are exactly what they seem. It was improper for a clergyman's daughter in the 19th century to murmur against her lot, but she does so with a swelling commitment to another life which reveals a characteristic and unexpected strength: "my home is humble and unattractive to strangers but to me it contains what I shall find nowhere else in the world - [the] profound, and intense affection which brothers and sisters feel for each other when their minds are cast in the same mould''.

Behind these words lies a writer's life which Charlotte shared with her sisters, Emily and Anne, and brother, Branwell, and which was to issue in the phenomenally successful Jane Eyre in 1847. The date marks a logical end to this, the first of three projected volumes of letters. What do the letters tell us of the transformation of an apparently subdued governess to the novelist who could declare in a letter to her publishers on 4 January 1848: "It would take a great deal to crush me''?

Though modest quiet was expected of ladies, Charlotte could not contain the upsurge of language any more than she could deny her thought. Some of her most formative letters - letters in which we hear for the first time her complex authorial voice - were written to men who would not grant what she wished. When Charlotte sent the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, some of her poems, he told her in 1837 that "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life''. She replied with apparent propriety which completely reassured Southey, but her letter reverberates with veiled sarcasm which the editor of this volume does not hear: "In the evenings, I confess, I do think, but I never trouble any one else with my thoughts... I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should rise, I'll look at Southey's letter, and suppress it.'' The brilliant verbal glide of her abjection to Southey was her first public performance of a role she made her own - hiding undaunted creative fire under a mask of perfect docility.

When Charlotte refused Henry Nussey in 1839, her letter explained in a patient and kindly tone that she was not the right wife for him, and prescribed instead a similar caricature of meek womanhood: "Her character should not be too marked, ardent and original - her temper should be mild...'' Again, the editor misses the scorn, and suggests that this tepid and passionless construct lies behind the marriage of Jane Eyre (yes, Jane Eyre who unites with her husband as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.) Curiously, in the same letter, there is also a strong element of candour where Charlotte actually owns to being "satirical'' to the very man whose taste she's sending up.

It is telling to compare this layered letter with Charlotte's more direct explanation of her "natural home-character'' in a letter to Nussey's sister, Ellen. If she ever married, she must have an "intense attachment''. Nor could she "sit all day long making a grave face before my husband - I would laugh...'' To Ellen and to her other lifelong friend, Mary Taylor, she wrote in a bracing, unguarded, often humorous way. After her death, Mary, an outspoken feminist, destroyed all but one of Charlotte's letters as dangers to her reputation. Ellen preserved several hundred because she understood their future importance. Wishing to publish them and at the same time protect the docile image Charlotte herself had promoted, Ellen went through decades of anxiety. Her indecisiveness and growing bitterness made her an easy target for predators such as the arch-hypocrite, T J Wise, who bullied her into surrendering her letters. He promised that this treasure would go to the nation; instead, he sold off many letters (along with other Bronteana) to the highest bidders around the world. The history of the Bronte letters is a story as bizarre in its way as that of Jane Eyre.

The most famous letters in this volume are the four Charlotte wrote in French in 1844-45 to her beloved teacher in Brussels, M. Heger. The fact that Madame Heger pieced three of these letters together from torn fragments she found in her husband's bin suggests that Madame did not consider this tie negligible. There has been much speculation whether these surviving letters were adulterous or innocent. This is a misunderstanding of Charlotte's capacity for an indefinable form of love that thrived on Monsieur's recognition of her potential as a writer, his capacity to know her as she perceived herself to be. If we think of these letters in view of the great novels to come, they may be seen as the source of a new model of manhood: a hero who will engage with a hidden "other'' in a woman; who does not exclude it as alien. This future fictional enlargement on M. Heger gains its imaginative licence from distance - the correspondent's invisibility as reader. In this sense, what Charlotte undertook was not quite a real correspondence which reflects the correspondent; it was more an invented correspondence, close to an imaginative act and supplemented, probably, by many letters which Charlotte composed (in her mind or even on paper) but did not send. This ingredient of invention may explain Monsieur's increasing reluctance to reply. And although this was painful to Charlotte as a pupil, it was to her advantage as a rising writer to have to imagine passion, not enact it, for this freed her to imagine from a woman's point of view.

It has taken 140 years since Charlotte Bronte's death for a proper edition of her letters to be published. Readers must be grateful to Margaret Smith for the recovery of accurate texts - as accurate as they can be at this point in time, given their wanderings, dismemberments and mutilations. One letter was discovered to be in five fragments in five different libraries. The restoration of the texts themselves is a triumph of meticulous labour. Yet the clouding of Charlotte Bronte is not quite over. For between the reader and the letters is a laborious biographical introduction. Instead of trusting the letters to speak for themselves, the editor pre-empts Charlotte's witty, blistering, multi-shaded voice with a flattened account. We are told of religious anxiety in the late 1830s and "torments'' over M. Heger in the next phase, but we are not told about Charlotte Bronte's imaginative power to turn the losses of her life to gain. So, why undertake this edition? Her aim, the editor declares, is "to enhance'' our understanding of a woman who wrote novels. So are the letters only a set of useful commentaries rather than works of art? Margaret Smith comes to a strangely lame conclusion for a person with the privilege of editing one of the greatest letter- writers in the English language.