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)

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