March 13, 2016
A Letter from Charlotte Bronte
Why I read the Brontës
Lately, I have been immersing myself in the life of the Brontes because I am in love with their books (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) and also because Charlotte, Emily, and Anne amaze and inspire me. These young women lived through incredible loss and hardship, (that’s a whole other blog), and still they remained loyal to their imaginations and true to themselves. Sadly, Charlotte was the only one of her sisters who lived beyond 30, dying at 38. Anne died at 29. Emily at 30. And, yet this 19th century trio of English writers left a legacy of lasting beauty and wholly original thought. Despite the overwhelming obstacles that continually assailed them, they NEVER made excuses. They rose above.
I am always on the look out for inspiration, which I consider a defense of the spirit, and when I came across the following letter from 16 year-old Charlotte (Jane Eyre) to her best friend Ellen Nussey, I couldn’t help being inspired by her ideals. What strikes me is not the eloquence of the writing, but the depth of thought, desire for virtue, and love of ideas. This is a letter written by a 16 year-old girl! Can our day and age produce teenagers capable of this mindstream? Keep in mind Charlotte was a poor clergyman’s daughter who had far less access to books and education than we do.
I believe we agreed to correspond once a month; that space of time has now elapsed since I received your last interesting letter, and I now therefore hasten to reply. Accept my congratulations on the arrival of the ‘New Year’, every succeeding day of which will I trust, find you wiser and better in the true sense of those much used words. The first day of January always presents to my mind a train of very solemn and important reflections, and a question more easily asked than answered, frequently occurs, viz.: How have I improved the past year, and with what good intentions do I view the dawn of its successor? These, my dearest Ellen, are weighty considerations which (young as we are) neither you nor I can too deeply or too seriously ponder.
I am sorry your two great diffidences, arising, I think, from the want of sufficient confidence in your own capabilities, prevented you from writing to me in French, as I think the attempt would have materially contributed to your improvement in that language. You very kindly caution me against being tempted by the fondness of my sisters to consider myself of too much importance, and then in a parenthesis you beg me not to be offended. O! Ellen, do you think I could be offended by any good advice you may give me? No, I thank you heartily, and love you, if possible, better for it.
. . .
I am glad you like Kenilworth; it is certainly a splendid production, more resembling a Romance than a Novel, and in my opinion one of the most interesting works that ever emanated from the great Sir Walter [Scott’s] pen. I was exceedingly amused at the characteristic and naive manner in which you expressed your detestation of Varney’s character, so much so indeed, that I could not forbear laughing aloud when I perused that part of your letter; he is certainly the personification of consummate villainy, and in the delineation of his dark and profoundly artful mind, Scott exhibits a wonderful knowledge of human nature, as well as surprising skill in embodying his perceptions so as to enable others to become participators in that knowledge.
Excuse the want of news in this very barren epistle, for I really have none to communicate. Emily and Anne beg to be kindly remembered to you. Give my best love to your mother and sisters, and as it is very late permit me to conclude with the assurance of my unchanged, unchanging, and unchangeable affection for you.Adieu, my sweetest Ellen; I am ever yours, Charlotte” January 1, 1833
I came across the above letter in this fascinating and charmingly opinionated compilation of essays and letters by Muriel Spark, another writer deeply inspired by the Brontës.
“How have I improved the past year, and with what good intentions do I view the dawn of its successor?”
This letter may sound pretentious to some, but Charlotte wasn’t pretending anything–she cared intensely about all the points in her letter. Improvement, the study of French, a love of literature, and a striving for virtue were lifelong preoccupations. It sounds strange in today’s world of social media madness that two teenage girls could converse like this. (How can our schools eradicate cursive?!!!) It goes to show that we become what we direct our attention toward. What we read or don’t read, what we watch or scan or write becomes a part of our mindstream. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t is in denial. Whether we elevate or degrade our own minds and therefore our spirits is entirely up to us.
No matter what we see, no matter what we suffer, we are responsible for our quality of mind. There are no excuses.
Charlotte writes to Ellen that “Scott exhibits a wonderful knowledge of human nature, as well as surprising skill in embodying his perceptions so as to enable others to become participators in that knowledge.” If only she knew at 16, that one day she too would do just that! Her impossible dreams and lofty striving were not in vain and so, she has touched a million hearts. Bravo Charlotte!