The Life of Charlotte Bronte HTML version
The tale of "Shirley" had been begun soon after the publication of "Jane Eyre." If the
reader will refer to the account I have given of Miss Bronte's schooldays at Roe Head, he
will there see how every place surrounding that house was connected with the Luddite
riots, and will learn how stories and anecdotes of that time were rife among the
inhabitants of the neighbouring villages; how Miss Wooler herself, and the elder relations
of most of her schoolfellows, must have known the actors in those grim disturbances.
What Charlotte had heard there as a girl came up in her mind when, as a woman, she
sought a subject for her next work; and she sent to Leeds for a file of the Mercuries of
1812, '13, and '14; in order to understand the spirit of those eventful times. She was
anxious to write of things she had known and seen; and among the number was the West
Yorkshire character, for which any tale laid among the Luddites would afford full scope.
In "Shirley" she took the idea of most of her characters from life, although the incidents
and situations were, of course, fictitious. She thought that if these last were purely
imaginary, she might draw from the real without detection, but in this she was mistaken;
her studies were too closely accurate. This occasionally led her into difficulties. People
recognised themselves, or were recognised by others, in her graphic descriptions of their
personal appearance, and modes of action and turns of thought; though they were placed
in new positions, and figured away in scenes far different to those in which their actual
life had been passed. Miss Bronte was struck by the force or peculiarity of the character
of some one whom she knew; she studied it, and analysed it with subtle power; and
having traced it to its germ, she took that germ as the nucleus of an imaginary character,
and worked outwards;--thus reversing the process of analysation, and unconsciously
reproducing the same external development. The "three curates" were real living men,
haunting Haworth and the neighbouring district; and so obtuse in perception that, after
the first burst of anger at having their ways and habits chronicled was over, they rather
enjoyed the joke of calling each other by the names she had given them. "Mrs. Pryor"
was well known to many who loved the original dearly. The whole family of the Yorkes
were, I have been assured, almost daguerreotypes. Indeed Miss Bronte told me that,
before publication, she had sent those parts of the novel in which these remarkable
persons are introduced, to one of the sons; and his reply, after reading it, was simply that
"she had not drawn them strong enough." From those many-sided sons, I suspect, she
drew all that there was of truth in the characters of the heroes in her first two works.
They, indeed, were almost the only young men she knew intimately, besides her brother.
There was much friendship, and still more confidence between the Bronte family and
them,--although their intercourse was often broken and irregular. There was never any
warmer feeling on either side.
The character of Shirley herself, is Charlotte's representation of Emily. I mention this,
because all that I, a stranger, have been able to learn about her has not tended to give
either me, or my readers, a pleasant impression of her. But we must remember how little
we are acquainted with her, compared to that sister, who, out of her more intimate