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 The difficulty that presented itself most strongly to me, when I first had the honour of being requested to write this biography, was how I could show what a noble, true, and tender woman Charlotte Brontë really was, without mingling1 up with her life too much of the personal history of her nearest and most intimate friends. After much consideration of this point, I came to the resolution of writing truly, if I wrote at all; of withholding3 nothing, though some things, from their very nature, could not be spoken of so fully4 as others.  
One of the deepest interests of her life centres naturally round her marriage, and the preceding circumstances; but more than all other events (because of more recent date, and concerning another as intimately as herself), it requires delicate handling on my part, lest I intrude5 too roughly on what is most sacred to memory. Yet I have two reasons, which seem to me good and valid6 ones, for giving some particulars of the course of events which led to her few months of wedded7 life—that short spell of exceeding happiness. The first is my desire to call attention to the fact that Mr. Nicholls was one who had seen her almost daily for years; seen her as a daughter, a sister, a mistress and a friend. He was not a man to be attracted by any kind of literary fame. I imagine that this, by itself, would rather repel8 him when he saw it in the possession of a woman. He was a grave, reserved, conscientious9 man, with a deep sense of religion, and of his duties as one of its ministers.
In silence he had watched her, and loved her long. The love of such a man—a daily spectator of her manner of life for years—is a great testimony10 to her character as a woman.
How deep his affection was I scarcely dare to tell, even if I could in words. She did not know—she had hardly begun to suspect—that she was the object of any peculiar11 regard on his part, when, in this very December, he came one evening to tea. After tea, she returned from the study to her own sitting-room12, as was her custom, leaving her father and his curate together. Presently she heard the study-door open, and expected to hear the succeeding clash of the front door. Instead, came a tap; and, "like lightning, it flashed upon me what was coming. He entered. He stood before me. What his words were you can imagine; his manner you can hardly realise, nor can I forget it. He made me, for the first time, feel what it costs a man to declare affection when he doubts response. . . . The spectacle of one, ordinarily so statue-like, thus trembling, stirred, and overcome, gave me a strange shock. I could only entreat13 him to leave me then, and promise a reply on the morrow. I asked if he had spoken to Papa. He said he dared not. I think I half led, half put him out of the room."
So deep, so fervent14, and so enduring was the affection Miss Brontë had inspired in the heart of this good man! It is an honour to her; and, as such, I have thought it my duty to speak thus much, and quote thus fully from her letter about it. And now I pass to my second reason for dwelling15 on a subject which may possibly be considered by some, at first sight, of too private a nature for publication. When Mr. Nicholls had left her, Charlotte went immediately to her father and told him all. He always disapproved17 of marriages, and constantly talked against them. But he more than disapproved at this time; he could not bear the idea of this attachment18 of Mr. Nicholls to his daughter. Fearing the consequences of agitation19 to one so recently an invalid20, she made haste to give her father a promise that, on the morrow, Mr. Nicholls should have a distinct refusal. Thus quietly and modestly did she, on whom such hard judgments22 had been passed by ignorant reviewers, receive this vehement23, passionate24 declaration of love,—thus thoughtfully for her father, and unselfishly for herself, put aside all consideration of how she should reply, excepting as he wished!
The immediate16 result of Mr. Nicholls' declaration of attachment was, that he sent in his resignation of the curacy of Haworth; and that Miss Brontë held herself simply passive, as far as words and actions went, while she suffered acute pain from the strong expressions which her father used in speaking of Mr. Nicholls, and from the too evident distress25 and failure of health on the part of the latter. Under these circumstances she, more gladly than ever, availed herself of Mrs. Smith's proposal, that she should again visit them in London; and thither27 she accordingly went in the first week of the year 1853.
From thence I received the following letter. It is with a sad, proud pleasure I copy her words of friendship now.
"January 12th, 1853.
"It is with YOU the ball rests. I have not heard from you since I wrote last; but I thought I knew the reason of your silence, viz. application to work,—and therefore I accept it, not merely with resignation, but with satisfaction.
"I am now in London, as the date above will show; staying very quietly at my publisher's, and correcting proofs, etc. Before receiving yours, I had felt, and expressed to Mr. Smith, reluctance29 to come in the way of 'Ruth;' not that I think SHE would suffer from contact with 'Villette'—we know not but that the damage might be the other way; but I have ever held comparisons to be odious30, and would fain that neither I nor my friends should be made subjects for the same. Mr. Smith proposes, accordingly, to defer31 the publication of my book till the 24th inst.; he says that will give 'Ruth' the start in the papers daily and weekly, and also will leave free to her all the February magazines. Should this delay appear to you insufficient32, speak! and it shall be protracted33.
"I dare say, arrange as we may, we shall not be able wholly to prevent comparisons; it is the nature of some critics to be invidious; but we need not care we can set them at defiance34; they SHALL not make us foes35, they SHALL not mingle36 with our mutual37 feelings one taint38 of jealousy39 there is my hand on that; I know you will give clasp for clasp.
"'Villette' has indeed no right to push itself before 'Ruth.' There is a goodness, a philanthropic purpose, a social use in the latter to which the former cannot for an instant pretend; nor can it claim precedence on the ground of surpassing power I think it much quieter than 'Jane Eyre.'
* * * * *
"I wish to see YOU, probably at least as much as you can wish to see ME, and therefore shall consider your invitation for March as an engagement; about the close of that month, then, I hope to pay you a brief visit. With kindest remembrances to Mr. Gaskell and all your precious circle, I am," etc.
This visit at Mrs. Smith's was passed more quietly than any previous one, and was consequently more in accordance with her own tastes. She saw things rather than persons; and being allowed to have her own choice of sights, she selected the "REAL in preference to the DECORATIVE40 side of life." She went over two prisons,—one ancient, the other modern,—Newgate and Pentonville; over two hospitals, the Foundling and Bethlehem. She was also taken, at her own request, to see several of the great City sights; the Bank, the Exchange, Rothschild's, etc.
The power of vast yet minute organisation41, always called out her respect and admiration42. She appreciated it more fully than most women are able to do. All that she saw during this last visit to London impressed her deeply—so much so as to render her incapable43 of the immediate expression of her feelings, or of reasoning upon her impressions while they were so vivid. If she had lived, her deep heart would sooner or later have spoken out on these things.
What she saw dwelt in her thoughts, and lay heavy on her spirits. She received the utmost kindness from her hosts, and had the old, warm, and grateful regard for them. But looking back, with the knowledge of what was then the future, which Time has given, one cannot but imagine that there was a toning-down in preparation for the final farewell to these kind friends, whom she saw for the last time on a Wednesday morning in February. She met her friend E—— at Keighley, on her return, and the two proceeded to Haworth together.
"Villette"—which, if less interesting as a mere28 story than "Jane Eyre," displays yet more of the extraordinary genius of the author—was received with one burst of acclamation. Out of so small a circle of characters, dwelling in so dull and monotonous44 an area as a "pension," this wonderful tale was evolved!
See how she receives the good tidings of her success!
"Feb. 15th, 1853.
"I got a budget of no less than seven papers yesterday and to-day. The import of all the notices is such as to make my heart swell45 with thankfulness to Him, who takes note both of suffering, and work, and motives46. Papa is pleased too. As to friends in general, I believe I can love them still, without expecting them to take any large share in this sort of gratification. The longer I live, the more plainly I see that gentle must be the strain on fragile human nature; it will not bear much."
I suspect that the touch of slight disappointment, perceptible in the last few lines, arose from her great susceptibility to an opinion she valued much,—that of Miss Martineau, who, both in an article on 'Villette' in the Daily News, and in a private letter to Miss Brontë, wounded her to the quick by expressions of censure47 which she believed to be unjust and unfounded, but which, if correct and true, went deeper than any merely artistic48 fault. An author may bring himself to believe that he can bear blame with equanimity49, from whatever quarter it comes; but its force is derived50 altogether from the character of this. To the public, one reviewer may be the same impersonal51 being as another; but an author has frequently a far deeper significance to attach to opinions. They are the verdicts of those whom he respects and admires, or the mere words of those for whose judgment21 he cares not a jot52. It is this knowledge of the individual worth of the reviewer's opinion, which makes the censures53 of some sink so deep, and prey54 so heavily upon an author's heart. And thus, in proportion to her true, firm regard for Miss Martineau, did Miss Brontë suffer under what she considered her misjudgment not merely of writing, but of character.
She had long before asked Miss Martineau to tell her whether she considered that any want of womanly delicacy56 or propriety57 was betrayed in "Jane Eyre". And on receiving Miss Martineau's assurance that she did not, Miss Brontë entreated58 her to declare it frankly59 if she thought there was any failure of this description in any future work of "Currer Bell's." The promise then given of faithful truth-speaking, Miss Martineau fulfilled when "Villette" appeared. Miss Brontë writhed60 under what she felt to be injustice61.
This seems a fitting place to state how utterly62 unconscious she was of what was, by some, esteemed63 coarse in her writings. One day, during that visit at the Briery when I first met her, the conversation turned upon the subject of women's writing fiction; and some one remarked on the fact that, in certain instances, authoresses had much outstepped the line which men felt to be proper in works of this kind. Miss Brontë said she wondered how far this was a natural consequence of allowing the imagination to work too constantly; Sir James and Lady Kay Shuttleworth and I expressed our belief that such violations64 of propriety were altogether unconscious on the part of those to whom reference had been made. I remember her grave, earnest way of saying, "I trust God will take from me whatever power of invention or expression I may have, before He lets me become blind to the sense of what is fitting or unfitting to be said!"
Again, she was invariably shocked and distressed65 when she heard of any disapproval66 of "Jane Eyre" on the ground above-mentioned. Some one said to her in London, "You know, you and I, Miss Brontë, have both written naughty books!" She dwelt much on this; and, as if it weighed on her mind, took an opportunity to ask Mrs. Smith, as she would have asked a mother—if she had not been motherless from earliest childhood—whether, indeed, there was anything so wrong in "Jane Eyre."
I do not deny for myself the existence of coarseness here and there in her works, otherwise so entirely67 noble. I only ask those who read them to consider her life,—which has been openly laid bare before them,—and to say how it could be otherwise. She saw few men; and among these few were one or two with whom she had been acquainted since early girlhood,—who had shown her much friendliness68 and kindness,—through whose family she had received many pleasures,—for whose intellect she had a great respect,—but who talked before her, if not to her with as little reticence69 as Rochester talked to Jane Eyre. Take this in connection with her poor brother's sad life, and the out-spoken people among whom she lived,—remember her strong feeling of the duty of representing life as it really is, not as it ought to be,—and then do her justice for all that she was, and all that she would have been (had God spared her), rather than censure her because circumstances forced her to touch pitch, as it were, and by it her hand was for a moment defiled70. It was but skin-deep. Every change in her life was purifying her; it hardly could raise her. Again I cry, "If she had but lived!"
The misunderstanding with Miss Martineau on account of "Villette," was the cause of bitter regret to Miss Brontë. Her woman's nature had been touched, as she thought, with insulting misconception; and she had dearly loved the person who had thus unconsciously wounded her. It was but in the January just past that she had written as follows, in reply to a friend, the tenor71 of whose letter we may guess from this answer:—
"I read attentively72 all you say about Miss Martineau; the sincerity73 and constancy of your solicitude74 touch me very much; I should grieve to neglect or oppose your advice, and yet I do not feel it would be right to give Miss Martineau up entirely. There is in her nature much that is very noble; hundreds have forsaken75 her, more, I fear, in the apprehension76 that their fair names may suffer, if seen in connection with hers, than from any pure convictions, such as you suggest, of harm consequent on her fatal tenets. With these fair-weather friends I cannot bear to rank; and for her sin, is it not one of those of which God and not man must judge?
"To speak the truth, my dear Miss ——, I believe, if you were in my place, and knew Miss Martineau as I do,—if you had shared with me the proofs of her genuine kindliness77, and had seen how she secretly suffers from abandonment,—you would be the last to give her up; you would separate the sinner from the sin, and feel as if the right lay rather in quietly adhering to her in her strait, while that adherence78 is unfashionable and unpopular, than in turning on ............
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