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 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 literary 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 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. 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