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Friday, 6 July 2012

Sympathy for poor governesses


News Release:

New Charlotte Brontë letter at Parsonage Museum betrays her sympathy for poor governesses.

An important letter has returned to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, 150 years after Charlotte Brontë wrote it there.

Miss Mary Holmes was a struggling writer and musician originally from Gargrave, North Yorkshire, who wrote to Charlotte for advice on her book. She worked as music teacher to the daughters of novelist William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, and he had already kindly found someone to review the book in a national newspaper, as well as offering to help pay for it to be privately printed. Thackeray passed on Charlotte’s address so that Miss Holmes could send it to the now-famous Haworth author for some advice – they came from villages just 20 miles apart.

Charlotte’s response, dated 22 April 1852, and sent from the Parsonage in Haworth, was friendly and encouraging – which was not always the case: the author of Jane Eyre, by now a bestselling literary star, could be dismissive of fellow authors seeking advice. Either she was keen to do Thackeray a favour, though, or she spotted genuine talent in Miss Holmes’s work, for she wrote that the book: seems to [me] very clever and very learned. You erred in telling me to skip the first chapters; I am glad I disobeyed the injunction.

Miss Holmes has clearly mentioned in her letter to Charlotte that she has worked as a governess. Charlotte replies: You are right in supposing that I must feel a degree of interest in the details of a Governess-life. That life has on me the hold of actual experience; to all who live it – I cannot but incline with a certain sympathy; and any kind feeling they express for me – comes pleasantly and meets with grateful acceptance.

This is, of course, the same Charlotte, who, in 1839 wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey about life as a governess: I will only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me - thrown at once into the midst of a large Family - proud as peacocks and wealthy as Jews.

Charlotte herself had not always had a favourable response when writing to the literary stars of the day for advice. The poet laureate Robert Southey famously wrote to her: ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be’

Bronte Parsonage Museum Director Andrew McCarthy commented on the new acquisition:

In 1852 Charlotte was riding the crest of her success; life was very different from when she too had been a struggling governess. Of all the Brontës Charlotte was probably the most ambitious; a letter such as this gives a quick glimpse into what it meant for her to have achieved the fame she had sought for so long.

The letter was purchased from an auction at Bonham’s in London on 12 June 2012.

It will be displayed from early 2013.

6 comments:

  1. What a pity Charlotte couldn't have been more encouraging to her brother.

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    1. I believe that was a case of, " There, but for the grace of God go I ". Charlotte was pining for and suffering greatly over an impossible love, just as Branwell was. However his utter lack of self control and emotional free fall over his lost love ,I believe frighten Charlotte deeply. What was keeping her from doing the same? She pushed him away in order not to go down with him. It's his very closeness to her that caused her to cut him off and protect herself with anger. It was a life or death choice . She choose herself and life. When Branwell died and the danger was past, she again felt her love and pity.

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    2. Indeed Charlotte Brontë, like her father before her ,was ambitious. But without Patrick Brontë's strong ambition, there would have been no Brontës of Haworth .....and without Charlotte Brontë's strong ambition, it's very likely there would have been no Brontë novels. Luckily for us in this regard, the apple did not fall far from the tree.

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    3. Yes Anne, I agree with your first post completely; but if only she could have said..'I know what it's like...I've been there....' I believe the 'emotional free fall' was because he was bi-polar; he couldn't be any other way. Whatever her reasons - and I think you're right - it was yet another rejection for him.

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  2. Please tell me that she was not antisemetic, Please?
    Or was it simply the norm to mention Jewish people
    in that way?
    I am a 27 y o Jewish girl with a career in child phsycology and dev, so a rather modern day governess...
    Please someone leave me a feedback

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    1. I think you'll find that she had no experience of Jewish people, therefore subscribed to the common view at the time. I suspect she had little time for anybody she perceived as 'rich' because of her experiences as a governess.

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