Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray

Charlotte Bronte imagewilliam-makepeace-thackeray image

Charlotte Bronte’s tremendous admiration for William Makepeace Thackeray is well known. Not only did she express reverence for his work and belief in his abilities in biblical terms in her famous preface to the second edition of ‘Jane Eyre’, (1) but her personal correspondence is replete with praise of, and commentary on his novels. I liked Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ but the zealousness and intensity of Bronte’s praise for Thackeray has always puzzled me a little. Several reasons underpin this slight perplexity at Charlotte’s almost boundless regard for the author of ‘Vanity Fair’.

There are radical discrepancies between the two authors in their conception and delineation of female characters; Bronte being far more naturalistic and egalitarian than her contemporary in this respect. Thackeray’s ideal women were not exactly simplistic but were heavily sentimentalised: ‘Amelia’ of ‘Vanity Fair’ is a loving, soft-hearted, doting wife and mother (she, in significant respects, embodies Victorian ideals of womanhood). She is also weak, undiscerning, and possesses no real notion of selfhood independent of her status as wife and mother. Amelia is wholly unintellectual. Thackeray decidedly disliked intellectual women, and while ‘Amelia’ is subjected to significant criticism in the novel, there is no denying that Thackeray was simultaneously drawn to, and in a large part upheld, the model of womanhood she represented.

Thackeray repeatedly sought to distinguish himself from Dickens by his emphasis on ‘realism’: resistance to drawing caricatures and eschewal of too many improbable plot contrivances. (2)  There are important thematic differences between the authors as well. Though Thackeray partially idealises Amelia, ‘Vanity Fair’ exposes the tyranny weak people like her can also exert, their capacity for selfishness and their desire for domination.  In a work of Dickens, it is probable that a character like Amelia would have been uncritically extolled until the final chapter. However, stylistically, Dickens and Thackeray are much closer than is often acknowledged. For all the ‘Greek fire of his sarcasm’,(3) gushing sentimentality is as much a fixture in Thackeray’s work as it is in Dickens. Indeed, in the case of the former, the narratorial voice not infrequently becomes tinged with smugness.  Lest I be misunderstood I do think that both Dickens and Thackeray were genuinely great authors, but aspects of their writing and characterisation do ruffle me.  Their heroines, be it ‘Amelia Sedley’ of ‘Vanity Fair’ or ‘Florence Dombey’ of ‘Dombey and Son’ are a far cry from the ‘Jane Eyre’s’ or ‘Lucy Snow’s’ of Bronte’s novels. Bronte’s work is marked by a naturalism that is not measured up to by either Dickens or Thackeray. She exhibits the interior lives, and interesting and expanded minds of her heroines with a skill, eloquence, and power which is matched by few, if any, of her contemporaries. Bronte’s heroines were highly intelligent, intellectual women (indeed, how could they be otherwise when they often constituted varied versions of Charlotte herself at different stages of her life). As Jane observes as she wanders about the halls and grounds of Thornfield:

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” (4)

In Charlotte Bronte’s novel ‘Shirley’, Shirley (a heroine Charlotte modelled on her sister Emily) Shirley remarks to Caroline:

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women. They do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil. Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations—worshipping the heroine of such a poem, novel, drama—thinking it fine, divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial—false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.’” (5)

It can safely be assumed that Charlotte Bronte here is giving expression to her own objections regarding the way women have been characterised by her eminent male contemporaries. Indeed the ‘half-doll, half-angel’ woman and ‘fiend’ at the other end of the spectrum sound remarkably like ‘Amelia Sedley’ and ‘Becky Sharp’ of ‘Vanity Fair’.  I actually think that despite Thackeray’s emphasis on ‘realism’ Becky at times appears to be something of a caricature herself. Even amongst the passages of extensive praise for Thackeray, Charlotte did occasionally voice these objections.  She, however, never really expands on this theme. In an 1852 letter to George Smith she writes:

“As usual, he is unjust to women; quite unjust. There is hardly any punishment he does not deserve for making Lady Castlewood peep through a keyhole, listen at a door, and be jealous of a boy and a milkmaid. Many other things I noticed that, for my part, grieved and exasperated me as I read; but then, again, came passages so true, so deeply thought, so tenderly felt, one could not help forgiving and admiring.”(6)

While Bronte had almost unabated enthusiasm for Thackeray’s writing and faith in his calling as the ‘first social regenerator of the day’, Thackeray’s own opinion of Charlotte Bronte and her novels was far more mixed. He was considerably moved by ‘Jane Eyre’ and recognised the genius of the woman who had penned it,(7) but their personal interactions were marked by an uneasiness and perhaps mutual misunderstanding. (8) George Smith, the publisher and close friend of both Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray offers the following significant insight:

“Thackeray’s wit was not a ready one and he had not the quickness necessary for repartee. A clever woman always, and easily, had the better of him in that respect, and, to tell the truth, Thackeray was not fond of the society of what are called “clever women”; women, that is, whom he felt to be critical and with whom talk involved any mental strain. For that reason he did not like Charlotte Bronte, and the two did not get on well together. She was vexed because he, in his talk with her, would never be serious about his literature. He would talk in a bantering and burlesque way, as though he were ashamed of it. But this was only by way of defence against Charlotte Bronte’s earnest and heroic views of the “sacredness” and “dignity” of literature.”(9)

On pursuing ‘Villette’ Thackeray stated “There’s a fire and fury raging in that little woman, a rage scorching her heart which doesn’t suit me.” (10) His condescending and supercilious extended comments on the novel are contained within an 1853 letter directed to Lucy Baxter:

“So you are all reading Villette to one another- a pretty amusement to be sure- I wish I was hearing you and smoking of a cigar the while…. And it amuses me to read the author’s naïve confession of being in love with two men at the same time; and her readiness to fall in love at anytime. The poor little woman of genius! The fiery little eager brave tremulous homely-faced creature! I can read a great deal of her life as I fancy in her book, and see that rather than have fame, rather than any other earthly good…she wants some Tomkins or another to love her and be in love with. But you see she is a little bit of a creature without a penny of good looks, thirty years old I should think, buried in the country and eating her own heart up there, and no Tomkins will come…here is one a genius, a noble heart longing to mate itself and destined to wither away into old maidenhood with no chance to fulfil the burning desire.”  (11)

I understand Charlotte Bronte’s regard for William Makepeace Thackeray to a significant extent. I do think he was a fine writer, even if his prose did (not infrequently) lapse into sentimental gush, and even if his female characters were at times poorly conceived. There are numerous passages of ‘Vanity Fair’ which I genuinely admire (most notably the confrontation scene between Dobbins and Amelia near the end of the novel). But I don’t think that the flaws identified above are insignificant, and accordingly I find it somewhat puzzling that Charlotte Bronte hero-worshiped him to the extent that she did. ©

 

 

(1) Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (Essex: Longman, 1991) xxvi-xxvii

(2) Charles Mauskopf, “Thackeray’s attitudes towards Dickens’ writing” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 21 (1966): 21-33

(3) Bronte, Jane Eyre, xxvi

(4) Ibid, 113

(5) Charlotte Bronte, Shirley, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993): 264

(6) Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, (London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1857)

(7) Richard Mullen, “Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray” Bronte Studies 36 (2011): 85-94

(8) Ibid

(9) Charlotte Bronte, “The Letters of Charlotte Bronte: With a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends: Volume II: 1848-1851”, Margaret Smith ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000): 416

(10) Mullen, “Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray”, 92

(11) William Makepeace Thackeray, The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, Gordon N. Ray ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1945-46)

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Charlotte Bronte and ‘Dr. John’

George Smith (charcoal on paper)

George Smith as a young man

‘Had I been too hasty? I used to ask myself; and this question would occur with a cruel sharpness after some brief chance interview with Dr. John. He still had such kind looks, such a warm hand; his voice still kept so pleasant a tone for my name, I never liked ‘Lucy’ so well as when he uttered it. But I learnt in time that this benignity, this cordiality, this music, belonged in no shape to me: it was a part of himself; it was the honey of his temper: it was the balm of his mellow mood; he imparted it as the ripe fruit rewards with sweetness the rifling bee; he diffused it about him, as sweet plants shed their perfume. Does the nectarine love either the bee or bird it feeds? Is the sweet briar enamoured of the air?

“Goodnight Dr. John; you are good, you are beautiful but you are not mine. Goodnight and God bless you!”'(1)

These lines extracted from the novel ‘Villette’ are amongst the most poignant I have ever read. They are directed from ‘Lucy’ (a character strongly representing Charlotte Bronte) towards ‘Dr. John’ (her real life publisher and object of love George Smith). As mentioned in an earlier post Villette chronicles Charlotte Bronte’s early experiences as a student/teacher in Brussels. In 1842 Charlotte and her sister Emily embarked upon the journey to Brussels with the intent of learning languages; French Italian and some German, all of which would, the sister’s hoped, give them a competitive advantage when they  returned to set up their own school in England. In exchange for lodging and lessons delivered by Constantin Heger at the Pensionnat, Charlotte taught English at the same boarding school and Emily music. Interaction with M. Heger provided deep intellectual stimulation for Charlotte, and lay the foundation for the strong feelings she came to harbour for him. M. Heger was a married man, and while he was solicitous of the welfare of both sisters, and deemed them to be no ordinary students, Charlotte’s feelings for him were not reciprocated. It is extremely unlikely that Charlotte sought a romantic liaison or affair of sorts with him, but in reading her frenzied and ardent letters to him, he was aware that her feelings had extended beyond the purely platonic realm. He consistently refused to reply to the letters she subsequently wrote on her return to Yorkshire, for fear that it might constitute encouragement.  Constantin Heger is the irascible and irrepressible ‘Paul Emanuel’ of Villette, cantankerous and difficult to get along with, and yet possessing some sterling good qualities.

Heger has been of sustained interest to Charlotte Bronte’s biographers, and they have devoted considerable space to investigating the nature of her association with him. One commentator has even deemed that Charlotte’s time in Brussels’ amounted to “the greatest single emotional experience of her life.” (2) I am inclined to take issue with this identification of M. Heger as the primary and most important love interest in Charlotte Bronte’s life. She probably did love him; Prior to Brussels she had lived a somewhat isolated existence, and he was the first man to leave a forceful intellectual impress upon her mind. However, while Villette, in a sense documents her contrary feelings towards Heger; her mingled respect and disdain, warmth and utter exasperation towards him, the novel is also a testament to her deep and passionate love for ‘Dr John’ or rather George Smith, her publisher. While biographers are obliged to comment on Charlotte’s association with Smith, the relatively little attention devoted to him is indeed surprising, given the strength of feeling ‘Lucy Snowe’ evinces for him and the directness with which this is expressed. ‘Dr. John’ as portrayed by Charlotte Bronte in Villette possesses a highly attractive personality. There are over a dozen allusions in the novel to how handsome and physically prepossessing he is, but more than that he is a thoughtful, feeling, talented and benevolent man. When you read the novel, it’s pretty clear that Charlotte Bronte was crazy about this guy. He and his mother Mrs. Louisa Bretton (a faithful representation of George Smith’s mother Elizabeth Smith) have braved considerable material adversity and Dr. John is a rising physician also living and working in Villette (Brussels). Louisa Bretton had acted as Lucy’s God-mother when the latter was a girl of fourteen, and Lucy has accordingly known both mother and son from childhood. Circumstances throw them apart, and Lucy is again acquainted with Dr. John nine years later when his services are secured by Madame Beck (the directress of the boarding school where Lucy is employed as English teacher). He fails to recognise her, but she soon enough identifies him as the ‘Graham’ of old. It is evident that Lucy admires him deeply and has very strong feelings for him, but she never allows herself to fully express these sentiments; the prospect of their being together is remote, and (she feels) almost ludicrous. Charlotte Bronte remained acutely conscious of her unprepossessing exterior throughout her life, and Lucy Snowe is the medium through which these entrenched insecurities find expression.

For me, any incongruity in their union really arises from Lucy’s temperament, and not her external appearance. Lucy is a solitary figure with a desire to make her way in the world with integrity, and without having to take favours from anyone. She is also rather morbid and, one would think, needlessly inclined to take a pessimistic view of things. Indeed, her fixation with her appearance, and pretty premature conclusion that Dr. John can never be hers, was a source of frustration to me the first time I read the novel. Even looking at the novel retrospectively, persistent self-consciousness and insecurity about one’s looks is something I associate with adolescence, and by the time you hit your twenties you generally become a lot more at ease about your appearance. Accordingly, Lucy’s preoccupation with her lack of beauty, and belief that this removes any chance of marriage with Dr. John, did irritate me a little. Why should anyone be so morose about their prospects, I would wonder: Lucy clearly has a brain, and self-respect; aren’t those treasures in themselves?  I was aware that the novel had been written by Charlotte following a period of deep depression, ill-health, and melancholia experienced on the early deaths of her siblings, but these qualms about Lucy’s characterisation remained. In a November 1852 letter to George Smith, preceding the publication of Villette, Charlotte writes:

“Lucy must not marry Dr. John; he is far too youthful, handsome, bright spirited, and sweet tempered; he is a ‘curled darling’ of Nature and Fortune, and must draw a prize in life’s lottery. His wife must be young, rich, pretty; he must be made very happy indeed. If Lucy marries anybody, it must be the Professor-a man in whom there is much to forgive, much to ‘put up with’.”  (3)

In a subsequent letter she expands on this theme, writing:

“I must pronounce you right again, in your complaint of the transfer of interest in the third volume, from one set of characters to another. It is not pleasant, and it will probably be found as unwelcome to the reader, as it was, in a sense, compulsory upon the writer. The spirit of romance would have indicated another course; far more flowery and inviting; it would have fashioned a paramount hero, kept faithfully with him, and made him supremely worshipful: he should have been an idol, and not a mute unresponding idol either, but this would be unlike real LIFE-inconsistent with truth-at variance with probability.” (4)

If you think about it, it is quite extraordinarily that Villette was written and published at all, given the content it contains. It is an open declaration by Charlotte of her love (indeed passion) for her publisher, love which she knows is not requited (certainly not to the same extent). Smith obviously had regard for Charlotte (a distinguished author and woman of genius) but whether he felt anything approaching love is open to question. Villette is in a large part a study and glowing delineation of George Smith, and was forwarded by Charlotte for publication by him. In Charlotte’s circle of literary friends and acquaintances ‘Dr. John’ and ‘Louisa Bretton’ could very easily be identified as George Smith and his mother. Hence Charlotte’s request that the novel be published anonymously. (5) This request was civilly declined as the name of ‘Currer Bell’ (Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym) was required to generate the requisite interest in the novel and assure sales. I also subsequently learned that Charlotte Bronte’s belief that her looks posed a serious hindrance to prospective marriage with Smith, was not without foundation.

In a letter written to Mrs Humphry Ward almost five decades later, George Smith discusses the sentiment he harboured for Charlotte Bronte:

“No, I never was in the least bit in love with Charlotte Bronte. I am afraid that the confession will not raise me in your opinion, but the truth is, I never could have loved any woman who had not some charm or grace of person, and Charlotte Bronte had none- I liked her and was interested in her, and I admired her- especially when she was in Yorkshire and I was in London. I was never a coxcomb enough to suppose that she was in love with me. But, I believe that my mother was at one time rather alarmed…”  (6)

It is questionable as to how far we can take this communication at face value.  I do not believe Smith when he says ‘I was never a coxcomb enough to suppose that she was in love with me”. That Charlotte was in love with him is plain enough; Villette is a powerful testament to this fact. Was he indeed romantically indifferent to her, their relationship being a “curious one-sided friendship which was half marble and  half life; only on one hand truth and on the other perhaps a jest”, as suggested by Bronte in Villette? There is his insistence in 1850 that Charlotte accompany him and his family on a trip to the Rhine, a proposal which was met with resistance by his mother. (7) There are also, in the written exchanges between them, fragments suggesting that at one stage he had seriously contemplated proposing to her. This was shortly after she declined to accompany his family to the Rhine (chiefly citing her health as the reason), and it is suggested by Sir Tresham Lever, that he was at this point on the brink of proposing to her, but lost his nerve. Parts of their correspondence (some of which was conspicuously withheld by Smith’s family members from subsequent publication) indicates that this was a distinct possibility. (8) All of this precedes Villette, the bulk of which was not written until mid 1852, in which he would have received a very clear indication of her feelings towards him.

Why, moreover, was he displeased on reading the third volume of Villette, where there was a transferal of interest from him to Paul Emmanuel (M. Heger)? What precisely was it that ‘stuck in his throat’? Was it merely a case of hurt ego and thwarted vanity; with George Smith wanting the focus to be retained on him right until the end of the novel? I find this rather puzzling: Charlotte furnishes him with a beautiful and interesting heroine, Countess Paulina de Bassompierre, and he is projected as a chivalric ideal and man of integrity throughout the third volume as well. Did he feel that readers might construe ‘Dr John’s’  failure to ever contemplate marriage with Lucy as manifesting a shallowness of mind? Villette is not written in a manner as to suggest this or to censure him for his preference for Paulina. If George Smith was not in love with Charlotte Bronte, why would he even want a book written which indicated otherwise? Or did his sentiments towards her, actually approximate to something akin to love, and did he feel that she had not adequately understood him? Clearly, there are more questions here than answers. We can really only speculate as to the precise nature and scope of his feelings towards Charlotte, and why he responded with displeasure to the third volume of Villette. When George Smith became engaged to the beautiful Elizabeth Blakeway, the daughter of a wealthy London wine merchant in 1853, this was Charlotte Bronte’s very telling communication to him:

“My Dear Sir,

In great happiness, as in great grief- words of sympathy should be few. Accept my meed of congratulation- and believe me

Sincerely yours

C.B. Bronte” (9)

Smith was a dauntless, enterprising person with a good head for business, and significant literary discernment. He also had a forthright, dynamic personality and cultivated strong professional and personal relationships with several intellectual luminaries of the day:  John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray, Alfred Tennyson, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Matthew Arnold, Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope are amongst the list of eminent writers whose works Smith published. He achieved tremendous success as a publisher, and also revived his publishing firm with skill and dexterity when it encountered severe debacles (whether due to the financial impropriety and fraudulent conduct of some of its employees, or events outside Smith’s control, such as the Indian mutiny which affected the company’s external branches). Margaret Smith, in her compilation of, and commentary on the letters of Charlotte Bronte, indicates that later on in his life George Smith did not always live up to Charlotte’s ‘princely ideal’ of him.  ‘Dr John’, however, as depicted in Villette is a very admirable man with many qualities which really draw you to him, and after reading the book, I certainly wanted to know more about the real life personage he was modeled on, even if the real did not always fully match up to the ideal. We can really only conjecture as to the exact feelings George Smith’s entertained for Charlotte Bronte. Perhaps she herself was right when she wrote the following:

‘I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the sky-lights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call. It was not so handsome as the chambers where he lodged his male friends; it was not like the hall where he accommodated his philanthropy, or the library where he treasured his science, still less did it resemble the pavilion where his marriage feast was splendidly spread; yet, gradually, by long and equal kindness, he proved to me that he kept one little closet, over the door of which was written “Lucy’s Room.” I kept a place for him, too — a place of which I never took the measure, either by rule or compass: I think it was like the tent of Peri-Banou. All my life long I carried it folded in the hollow of my hand yet, released from that hold and constriction, I know not but its innate capacity for expanse might have magnified it into a tabernacle for a host.’ (10)

-Lucy Snow divulging her thoughts in the ‘Cloud’ chapter of Villette. ©

 

 

(1) Charlotte Bronte, Villette (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1993), 376

(2) Gina Luria, “Review: Charlotte Bronte”The Self-Conceived by Helene Morgan”Elizabeth Gaskell: A biography by Winifred Geri; Jane Austen and the War of Ideas by Marilyn Butler” Signs, 4 (1978): 374

(3) Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1857)

(4) Ibid

(5) Ibid

(6) Margaret Smith, “George Smith, Prince of Publishers and William Smith Williams” Bronte Studies, 36 (2011): 75-84

(7) Tresham Lever, “Charlotte Bronte and George Smith” Bronte Society Transactions, 19 (1977): 106-114

(8) Ibid

(9) Ibid

(10) Charlotte Bronte, Villette, 474