The Life of Charlotte Bronte


This is an excerpt of Ms. Gaskell's book The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857), published in the collection: Women of History: Selected from the Writings of Standard Authors (1890).
The Life of Charlotte Bronte

BORN 1816. DIED 1855.

THE authoress of "Jane Eyre" and other works is, as she calls herself [August 1850], undeveloped then, and more than half a head shorter than I am. Soft brown hair, not very dark; eyes very good and expressive, looking straight and open at you, of the same colour as her hair; a large mouth; the forehead square, broad, and rather overhanging. She has a very sweet voice; rather hesitates in choosing her expressions, but when chosen they seem without an effort admirable, and just befitting the occasion; there is nothing overstrained, but perfectly simple. Her nerves were severely taxed by the effort of going among strangers. On one occasion, though the number of the party could not exceed twelve, she suffered the whole day from acute headache, brought on by apprehension of the evening.

It was now [1853] two or three years since I had witnessed a similar effect produced on her, in anticipation of a quiet evening at a friend's home; and since then she had seen many and various people in London; but the physical sensations produced by shyness were still the same, and on the following day she laboured under severe headache. I had several opportunities of perceiving how this nervousness was ingrained in her constitution, and how acutely she suffered in trying to overcome it. One evening we had, among other guests, two sisters who sung Scotch ballads exquisitely. Miss Brontë had been sitting quiet and constrained, till they began "The Bonnie House of Airlie;" but the effect of that, and "Carlyle Yetts" which followed, was as irresistible as the playing of the piper of Hamelin. The beautiful clear light came into her eyes; her lips quivered with emotion; she forgot herself, rose and crossed the room to the piano, where she asked eagerly for song after song. The sisters begged her to come and see them next morning, when they would sing as long as ever she liked, and she promised gladly and thankfully. But on reaching the house her courage failed. We walked some time up and down the street, she upbraiding herself all the while for her folly, and trying to dwell on the sweet echoes in her memory, rather than on the thought of a third sister who would have to be faced if we went in. But it was of no use; and dreading lest this struggle with herself might bring on one of her trying headaches, I entered at last, and made the best apology I could for her non-appearance.

Much of this nervous dread of encountering strangers I ascribed to the idea of her personal ugliness, which had been strongly impressed upon her imagination early in life, and which she exaggerated to herself in a remarkable manner. "I notice," said she, "that after a stranger has once looked at my face, he is careful not to let his eyes wander to that part of the room again." A more untrue idea never entered into any one's head. Two gentlemen who saw her during this visit, without knowing at the time who she was, were singularly attracted by her appearance; and this feeling of attraction towards a pleasant countenance, sweet voice, and gentle, timid manners, was so strong in one as to conquer a dislike he had previously entertained to her works.

There was another circumstance that came to my knowledge at this period, which told secrets about the finely-strung frame. One night I was on the point of narrating some dismal ghost-story, just before bed-time. She shrank from hearing it, and confessed she was superstitious, and prone at all times to the involuntary recurrence of any thoughts of ominous gloom which might have been suggested to her. She said that in first coming to us, she had found a letter on her dressing-table from a friend in Yorkshire, containing a story which had impressed her vividly ever since; that it mingled with her dreams at night, and made her sleep restless and unrefreshing.

[There was a peculiarity about Charlotte Brontë's death.] Not long after her marriage with the Rev. Mr Nicholls, she was attacked by new sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness. "A wren would have starved on what she ate during these last six weeks." Long days and long nights went by; still the same relentless nausea and faintness, and still borne on in patient trust. About the third week in March [1856], there was a change; a low wandering delirium came on, and in it she begged constantly for food, and even for stimulants; she swallowed eagerly now, but it was too late. Wakening for an instant from this stupor of intelligence, she saw her husband's woe-worn face, and caught the sound of some murmured words of prayer that God would spare her. "Oh," she whispered forth, "I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy." Early on Saturday morning, March 31, the solemn tolling of Haworth Church bell spoke forth the fact of her death to the villagers who had known her from a child, and whose hearts shivered within them as they thought of the two sitting together [the father and husband] in the old grey house.


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