Charlotte Bronte and Bridget Jones

Literary Notes: Brian Wilkes

WHEN CHARLOTTE Bronte turned her back on her father's curate to flirt with her publisher George Smith, he turned his back on her by getting engaged and married. Once she knew, Charlotte let fly two splendidly bitchy letters making it clear that she had been rejecting proposals while he had been making them; she was glad to hear of his happiness and hoped it would last!

On the rebound, with the Rev Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's fellow Irishman and curate, still showing interest, Charlotte gave him a searching look, wrote to him without her father knowing, had a series of secret meetings and got engaged.

She was dead within a year of her marriage, six months pregnant. By sending Bronte into Arthur Nicholls's arms the publisher who gave the world Jane Eyre seems also to have consigned her to an early death. As we thank him for the one we grieve for the other.

Charlotte was a passionate woman who claimed when asked that "she knew what love was". Jane Eyre was clear on the matter: "To gain some real affection . . . from any whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest."

Used to sleeping with her closest friend, Ellen Nussey, from their schooldays well into their thirties, she was nevertheless in July 1854 ready to swap her female "bed mate" for a male. She never regretted that swap, telling everyone that Arthur was the best earthly comfort woman ever knew, on her deathbed claiming that she had been "so happy".

The woman who could write of St John Rivers's experimental kiss in Jane Eyre had evidently found real kisses in the arms of Arthur Nicholls. The lonely Charlotte had found the warmth she had longed for in her wretched loneliness after the death of her brother Branwell, and her sister novelists Emily and Anne. What courage she showed in risking all for love in the true Shakespearean tradition.

Perhaps due to Mrs Gaskell's storytelling magic in her biography of Charlotte, everyone knows that the Rev Patrick Bronte had an apoplectic fit when his impoverished Irish curate had the effrontery to ask for Charlotte's hand. Wasn't she a best-selling novelist with the London literary world at her feet and the snivelling curate merely a bounty hunter and insincere trouble-maker?

In fact there is no account of Arthur's conversation with Patrick Bronte other than Charlotte's own breathless letter written to her best friend (intimations of Bridget Jones's Diary perhaps?). There being no telephone, it was Charlotte's habit to whizz off a letter saying more or less, "Guess what . . . I've just had a proposal of marriage, I shall of course refuse - you know we are both destined to be old maids! Can't wait to see you to tell you all the interesting bits."

Charlotte Bronte, like her contemporary Mrs Gaskell, has a storymaking impulse. Her letters telling of her rejecting proposals (there were four in all that we know of) are worthy of Jane Austen. Read aloud they are splendid. One of them tells of her horror, ". . . each moment he came near me, and that I could see his eye fastened upon me my veins ran ice. Now that he has gone away I feel far more gently towards him, it is only close by that I go rigid . . . if [he] be the only husband fate offers me, single I must remain."

When she heard of her publishers' engagement and marriage she confessed to Ellen Nussey that she had been living in dreamland. Wakening with a bump, there was Arthur still adoring as ever so, as Jane memorably said, "Reader I married him." She seems to have enjoyed it too.

Brian Wilks is Vice- President of the Bronte Society and author of `Charlotte in Love: the story of Charlotte Bronte's courtship and marriage' (Michael O'Mara, pounds 20)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions