Charlotte Brontë's Life, in Her Own Words

In today's email- (and text-) centric world, it seems quaint to recall that handwritten letters were, for centuries, the dominant form of communication. Margaret Smith's 2007 book Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë returns us to that time while giving us great insights into the cloistered world of Charlotte and her literary sisters.

It is a delight to hear Charlotte's unique voice shining from her letters. Their mixture of kindness, propriety, humility, and sharp frankness will sound familiar to any Jane Eyre fan. Smith's frequent footnotes explain people and events mentioned in the letters, further fleshing out Charlotte's world.

I don't know how many letters Smith was able to "select" from. This volume includes 169 of them, the vast majority of which are addressed to either her long-time friend Ellen Nussey or various representatives of Smith, Elder & Co., her publisher, which had taken a chance on Jane Eyre after numerous rejections elsewhere. To Ellen, Charlotte writes of mutual friends, planned visits, and some of her philosophies of life. She also engages very personally with the publishers, who show her kindness by hosting her visits to London. A smattering of letters go to others, including members of her family; her future biographer (The Life of Charlotte Brontë), Elizabeth Gaskell; and former teachers, in particular Constantin Heger, her dear "master" and inspiration for main characters in Shirley and The Professor.

Here is a sample passage (about her friendship with Ellen Nussey, from a letter to W.S. Williams of Smith, Elder) that illustrates the rich prose inhabiting her letters just as much as her books:

"You allude to the subject of female friendship and express wonder at the infrequency of sincere attachments amongst women — As to married women, I can well understand that they should be absorbed in their husbands and children — but single women often like each other much and derive great solace from their mutual regard — Friendship however is a plant which cannot be forced true friendship is no gourd springing in a night and withering in a day."

Far better than an article could, these letters help the reader trace the rise and fall of Charlotte and, naturally to a lesser extent, her sisters: their daily routines, their literary dreams and successes, their struggles to find a proper place in the society of that time, Charlotte's opportunities for romance, and — sadly — their health problems and early passings. The final letter in this book, the only one not by Charlotte, was written by her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, to Ellen Nussey. "Our dear Charlotte is no more ... For the last two or three weeks we had become very uneasy about her, but it was not until Sunday Evening that it became apparent that her sojourn with us was likely to be short ...." Knowing little about the Rev. Nicholls, I was surprised by the depth of the actions and feelings exchanged between him and Charlotte. It is comforting to know that she took her last breaths while under the care of someone whose love delighted her.

This book isn't cheap, but its cost worked out to less than 40 cents per letter — a small price, in my view, for the sheer pleasure of hearing of Charlotte's life in her own distinctive voice. Warmly recommended.