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A non-fiction by Elbert Hubbard

Charlotte Bronte

Title:     Charlotte Bronte
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

I was not surprised, when I went down into the hall, to see that a brilliant June morning had succeeded to the tempest of the night, and to feel through the open glass door the breathing of a fresh and fragrant breeze. Nature must be gladsome when I was so happy. A beggar woman and her little boy, pale, ragged objects both, were coming up the walk, and I ran down and gave them all the money I happened to have in my purse--some three or four shillings: good or bad they must partake of my jubilee. The rooks cawed and blither birds sung, but nothing was so merry or so musical as my own rejoicing heart.

---Jane Eyre

Rumor has it that there be Americans who are never happy unless passing for Englishmen. And I think I have discovered a like anomaly on the part of the sons of Ireland--a wish to pass for Frenchmen. On Continental hotel-registers the good, honest name of O'Brian often turns queer somersaults, and more than once in "The States" does the kingly prefix of O evolve itself into Van or De, which perhaps is quite proper, seeing they all mean the same thing. One cause of this tendency may lie in the fact that Saint Patrick was a native of France; although Saint Patrick may or may not have been chosen patron saint on account of his nationality. But the patron saint of Ireland being a Frenchman, what more natural, and therefore what more proper, than that the whole Emerald Isle should slant toward the people who love art and rabbit-stew! Anyway, from the proud patronymic of Patricius to plain Pat is quite a drop, and my heart is with Paddy in his efforts to get back.

When Patrick Prunty of County Down, Ireland, shook off the shackles of environment, and the mud of the peat-bog, and went across to England, presenting himself at the gates of Saint John's College, Cambridge, asking for admittance, I am glad he handed in his name as Mr. P. Bronte, accent on the last syllable.

There is a gentle myth abroad that preachers are "called," while other men adopt a profession or get a job, but no Protestant Episcopal clergyman I have ever known, and I have known many, ever made any such claim. They take up the profession because it supplies honors and a "living." Then they can do good, too, and all men want to do good. So they hie them to a divinity school and are taught the mysteries of theological tierce and thrust; and interviewing a clerical tailor they are ready to accept the honors and partake of the living. After a careful study of the life of Patrick Bronte I can not find that his ambition extended beyond the desirable things I have named--that is to say, inclusively, honors and a living.

He was tall, athletic, dark, and surely a fellow of force and ambition to set his back on the old and boldly rap for admittance at the gates of Cambridge. He was a pretty good student, too, although a bit quarrelsome and sometimes mischievous--throwing his force into quite unnecessary ways, as Irishmen are apt to do. He fell in love, of course, and has not an Irishman in love been likened to Vesuvius in state of eruption? We know of at least one charming girl who refused to marry him, because he declined, unlike Othello, to tell the story of his life. And it was assumed that any man who would not tell who "his folks" were, was a rogue and a varlet and a vagrom at heart. And all the while Monsieur Bronte had nothing worse to conceal than that he was from County Down and his name Prunty. He wouldn't give in and tell the story of his life to slow music, and so the girl wept and then stormed, and finally Bronte stormed and went away, and the girl and her parents were sure that the Frenchman was a murderer escaping justice. Fortunate, aye, thrice fortunate is it for the world that neither Bronte nor the girl wavered even in the estimation of a hair.

Bronte got through school and came out with tuppence worth of honors. When thirty, we find him established as curate at the shabby little town of Hartshead, in Yorkshire. Little Miss Branwell, from Penzance, came up there on a visit to her uncle, and the Reverend Mr. Bronte at once fell violently in love with her dainty form and gentle ways. I say "violently," for that's the kind of man Bronte was. Darwin says, "The faculty of amativeness is not aroused except by the unfamiliar." Girls who go away visiting, wearing their best bib and tucker, find lovers without fail. One-third of all marriages in the United States occur in just this way: the bib and tucker being sprung on the young man as a surprise, dazzles and hypnotizes him into an avowal and an engagement.

And so they were married--were the Reverend Patrick Bronte and Miss Maria Branwell. He was big, bold and dictatorial; she was little, shy and sensitive. The babies came--one in less than a year, then a year apart. The dainty little woman had her troubles, we are sure of that. Her voice comes to us only as a plaintive echo. When she asked to have the bread passed, she always apologized. Once her aunt sent her a present of a pretty silk dress, for country clergymen's wives do not have many luxuries--don't you know that?--and Patrick Bronte cut the dress into strips before her eyes and then threw the pieces, and the little slippers to match, into the fireplace, to teach his wife humility. He used to practise with a pistol and shoot in the house to steady the lady's nerves, and occasionally he got plain drunk. A man like Bronte in a little town with a tired little wife, and with inferior people, is a despot. He busies himself with trifles, looks after foolish details, and the neighbors let him have his own way and his wife has to, and the result is that he becomes convinced in his own mind that he is the people and that wisdom will die with him.

And yet Bronte wrote some pretty good poetry, and had faculties that rightly developed might have made him an excellent man. He should have gone down to London (or up, because it is south) and there come into competition with men as strong as himself. Fate should have seized him by the hair and bumped his head against stone walls and cuffed him thoroughly, and kicked him into line, teaching him humility, then out of the scrimmage we might have gotten a really superior product.

Mrs. Bronte became a confirmed invalid. A man can not always badger a woman; God is good--she dies. Little Maria Branwell had been married eight years; when she passed out she left six children, "all of a size," a neighbor woman has written. Over her grave is a tablet erected by her husband informing the wayfarer that "she has gone to meet her Savior." At the bottom is this warning to all women: "Be ye also ready; for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh."

Five of these motherless children were girls and one a boy.

As you stand there in that stone church at Haworth reading the inscription above Maria Branwell's grave, you can also read the death record of the babes she left. The mother died on September Fifteenth, Eighteen Hundred Twenty-one; her oldest daughter, Maria, on May Sixth, Eighteen Hundred Twenty-five; Elizabeth, June Fifteenth, Eighteen Hundred Twenty-five; Patrick Branwell, on September Twenty-fourth, Eighteen Hundred Forty-eight; Emily, December Nineteenth, Eighteen Hundred Forty-eight; Anne, May Twenty-eighth, Eighteen Hundred Forty-nine; and Charlotte, on March Thirty-first, Eighteen Hundred Fifty-five. Those whom the gods love die young: the Reverend Patrick Bronte lived to be eighty-five years old.

* * * * *

I got out of the train at Keighley, which you must pronounce "Keethley," and leaving my valise with the station-master started on foot for Haworth, four miles away.

Keighley is a manufacturing town where various old mansions have been turned into factories, and new factories have sprung up, square, spick-span, trimmed-stone buildings, with fire-escapes and red tanks on top.

One of these old mansions I saw had a fine copper roof that shone in the sun like a monster Lake Superior agate. It stands a bit back from the road, and on one great gatepost is a brass plate reading "Cardigan Hall," and on the other a sign, "No Admittance--Apply at the Office." So I applied at the office, which is evidently the ancient lodge, and asked if Mr. Cardigan was in. Four clerks perched on high stools, crouching over big ledgers, dropped their pens and turning on their spiral seats looked at me with staring eyes, and with mouths wide open. I repeated the question and one of the quartette, a wheezy little old man in spectacles and with whiskers on his neck, clambered down from his elevated position and ambled over near, walking around me, eying me curiously.

"Go wan wi' yer wurruk, ye idlers!" he suddenly commanded the others. And then he explained to me that Mr. Cardigan was not in, neither was Mr. Jackson. In fact, Mr. Cardigan had not been in for a hundred years--being dead. But if I wanted to look at goods I could be accommodated with bargains fully five per cent below Lunnon market. The little old man was in such serious earnest that I felt it would be a sin to continue a joke. I explained that I was only a tourist in search of the picturesque, and thereby did I drop ten points in the old man's estimation. But this did I learn, that Lord Cardigan has won deathless fame by attaching his name to a knit jacket, just as the name Jaeger will go clattering down the corridors of time attached to a "combination suit."

This splendid old mansion was once the ancestral home of a branch of the noble family of Cardigan. But things got somewhat shuffled, through too many hot suppers up to London (being south), and stacks of reds and stacks of blues were drawn in towards the dealer, and so the old mansion fell under the hammer of the auctioneer. What an all-powerful thing is an auctioneer's hammer! And now from the great parlors, and the library, and the "hall," and the guest-chambers echo the rattle of spinning-jennies and the dull booming of whirling pulleys. And above the song of whirring wheels came the songs of girls at their work--voices that alone might have been harsh and discordant, but blending with the monotone of the factory's roar were really melodious.

"We cawn't keep the nasty things from singin'," said the old man apologetically.

"Why should you?" I asked.

"Huh, mon! but they sing sacred songs, and chaunts, and a' that, and say all together from twenty rooms, a hundred times a day, 'Aws ut wuz in th' beginnin,' uz now awn ever shawl be, worl' wi'out end, Aamen.' It's not right. I've told Mr. Jackson. Listen now, didn't I tell ye?"

"Then you are a Churchman?"

And the old man wiped his glasses and told me that he was a Churchman, although an unworthy one, and had been for fifty-four years, come Michaelmas. Yes, he had always lived here, was born only across the beck away--his father was gamekeeper for Lord Cardigan, and afterwards agent. He had been to Haworth many times, although not for ten years. He knew the Reverend Patrick Bronte well, for the Incumbent from Haworth used to preach at Keighley once a year, and sometimes twice. Bronte was a fine man, with a splendid voice for intoning, and very strict about keeping out all heresies and such. He had a lot of trouble, had Bronte: his wife died and left him with eight or ten children, all smart, but rather wild. They gave him a lot of bother, especially the boy. One of the girls married Mr. Bronte's curate, Mr. Nicholls, a very decent kind of man who comes to Keighley once a year, and always comes to the factory to ask how things are going.

Yes, Mr. Nicholls' first wife died years and years ago. She used to write things--novels; but no one should read novels; novels are stories that are not so--things that never happened; they tell of folks that never was.

Having no argument to present in way of rebuttal, I shook hands with the old man and started away. He walked with me to the road to put me on the right way to Haworth.

Looking back as I reached the corner, I saw four "clarks" watching me intently from the office windows, and above the roar and jangle of machinery was borne on the summer breeze the sound of sacred song--shrill feminine voices:

"Aws ut wuz in th' beginnin', uz now awn ever shawl be, worl' wi'out end--Aamen!"

* * * * *

As one moves out of Keighley the country becomes stony; the trees are left behind, and there rises on all sides billow on billow of purple heather. The way is rough as the Pilgrim's Progress road to Paradise. These hillside moors are filled with springs that high up form rills, then brooks, then cascades or "becks," and along the Haworth road, wherever one of these hurrying, scurrying, dancing becks crosses the highway, there is a factory devoted to keeping alive the name of Cardigan. Next to the factory is a "pub.," and publics and factories checker themselves all along the route. Mixed in with these are long rows of tenement-houses well built of stone, with slate roofs, but with a grimy air of desolation about them that surely drives their occupants to drink. To have a home a man must build it himself. Forty houses in a row, all alike, are not homes at all.

I believe an observant man once wrote of the hand being subdued to what it works in. The man who wrote that surely never tramped along the Haworth road as the bell rang for twelve o'clock. From out the factories poured a motley mob of men, women and children, not only with hands dyed, but with clothing, faces and heads as well. Girls with bright-green hair, and lemon-colored faces, leered and jeered at me as they hastened pellmell with hats askew, and stockings down, and dragging shawls, for home or public-house. Red and maroon children ran, and bright-scarlet men smoked stolidly, taking their time with genuine grim Yorkshire sullen sourness.

"How far is it to Haworth?" I asked one such specimen.

"Ef ye pay th' siller for a double pot a' 'arf and 'arf. Hi might tell ye"; and he jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward a ginshop near by.

"Very well," said I; "I'll buy you a double pot of 'arf and 'arf, this time."

The man seemed a bit surprised, but no smile came over his spattered rainbow face as he led the way into the drink-shop. The place was crowded with men and women scrambling for penny sandwiches and drinks fermented and spirituous. Some of these women had babies at their breasts, the babies being brought by appointment by older children who stayed at home while the mothers worked. And as the mothers gulped their Triple XXX, and swallowed hunks of black bread, the little innocents dined. The mothers were rather kindly disposed, though, and occasionally allowed the youngsters to take sips out of their foaming glasses, or at least to drain them. Suddenly a woman with purple hair spied me and called in falsetto:

"Ah, Sawndy McClure has caught a gen'l'mon. Why didn't I see 'im fust an' 'arve 'im fer a pet?"

There was a guffaw at my expense and 'arf and 'arf as well, for all the party, or else quarrel. As it was, my stout stick probably saved me from the "personal touch." I stayed until the factory-bells rang, and out my new-found friends scurried for fear of being the fatal five minutes late and getting locked out. Some of them shook my hand as they went, and others pounded me on the back for luck, and several of the girls got my tag and shouted, "You're it!"

I used to think that Yorkshire folks were hopelessly dull and sublimely stupid, quarrelsome withal and pigheaded to the thirty-second degree; but I have partially come to the conclusion that their glum ways often conceal a peculiar kind of grim humor, and beneath the tough husk is considerable good nature.

The absence of large trees makes it possible to see the village of Haworth several miles away. It seems to cling to the stony hillside as if it feared being blown into space. There is a hurrying, rushing rill here, too, that turns a little woolen-mill. Then there is a "Black Bull" tavern, with a stable-yard at the side and rows of houses on the one street, all very straight up and down. One misses the climbing roses of the ideal merry England, and the soft turf and spreading yews and the flowering hedgerows where throstles and linnets play hide-and-seek the livelong day. It is all cold gray stone, lichen-covered, and the houses do not invite you to enter, and the gardens bid no welcome, and only the great purple wastes of moorland greet you as a friend and brother.

Outside the Black Bull sits a solitary hostler, who feels it would be a weakness to show any good humor. So he bottles his curiosity and scowls from under red, bushy eyebrows.

Turning off the main street is a narrow road leading to the church--square and gray and cold. Next to it is the parsonage, built of the same material, and beyond is the crowded city of the dead.

I plied the knocker at the parsonage door and asked for the rector. He was away at Kendal to attend a funeral, but his wife was at home--a pleasant, matronly woman of near sixty, with smooth, white hair. She came to the door knitting furiously, but from her regulation smile I saw that visitors were not uncommon.

"You want to see the home of the Brontes? That's right, come right in. This was the study of the Reverend Patrick Bronte, Incumbent of this Parish for fifty years."

She sang her little song and knitted and shifted the needles and measured the foot, for the stocking was nearly done. It was a blue stocking (although she wasn't) with a white toe; and all the time she led me from room to room telling me about the Brontes--how there were the father, mother and six children. They all came together. The mother died shortly, and then two of the little girls died. That left three girls and Branwell the boy. He was petted and made too much of by his father and everybody. He was the one that always was going to do great things. He made the girls wait on him and cuffed them if they didn't, and if they did, and all the time told of the things he was going to do. But he never did them, for he spent most of his time at the taverns. After a while he died--died of the tremens.

The three Bronte girls, Emily, Charlotte and Annie, wrote a novel apiece, and never showed them to their father or to any one. They called 'emselves Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and their novels were the greatest ever written--they wrote them 'emselves with no man to help. Their father was awful mad about it, but when the money began to come in he felt better. Emily died when she was twenty-seven. She was the brightest of them all; then Annie died, and only Charlotte and the old man were left. Charlotte married her father's curate, but old Mr. Bronte wouldn't go to the wedding: he went to the Black Bull instead. Miss Wooler gave the bride away--some one had to give her away, you know. The bride was thirty-eight. She died in less them a year, and old Mr. Bronte and Charlotte's husband lived here alone together.

This was Charlotte's room; this is the desk where she wrote "Jane Eyre"--leastwise they say it is. This is the chair she sat in, and under that framed glass are several sheets of her manuscript. The writing is almost too small to read; and so fine and yet so perfect and neat! She was a wonderful tidy body, very small and delicate and gentle, yet with a good deal of her father's energy.

Here are letters she wrote: you can look at them if you choose. This footstool she made and covered herself. It is filled with heather-blossoms--just as she left it. Those books were hers, too--many of them given to her by great authors. See, there is Thackeray's name written by himself, and a letter from him pasted inside the front cover. He was a big man they say, but he wrote very small, and Charlotte wrote just like him, only better, and now there are hundreds of folks write like 'em both. Then here's a book with Miss Martineau's name, and another from Robert Browning--do you know who he was?

Yes, the church is always open. Go in and stay as long as you choose; at the door is a poorbox and if you wish to put something in you can do so--a sixpence most visitors put in, or a shilling if you insist upon it. You know we are not a rich parish--the wool all goes to Manchester now, and the factory-hands are on half-pay and times are scarce. You will come again some time, come when the heather is in bloom, won't you? That's right. Oh, stay! the boxwood there in the garden was planted by Charlotte's own hands--perhaps you would like a sprig of it--there, I thought you would!

* * * * *

All who write concerning the Brontes dwell on the sadness and the tragedy of their lives. They picture Charlotte's earth-journey as one devoid of happiness, lacking all that sweetens and makes for satisfaction. They forget that she wrote "Jane Eyre," and that no person utterly miserable ever did a great work; and I assume that they know not of the wild, splendid, intoxicating joy that follows a performance well done. To be sure, "Jane Eyre" is a tragedy, but the author of a tragedy must be greater than the plot--greater than his puppets. He is their creator, and his life runs through and pervades theirs, just as the life of our Creator flows through us. In Him we live and move and have our being. And I submit that the writer of a tragedy is not cast down or undone at the time he pictures his heroic situations and conjures forth his strutting spirits. When the play ends and the curtain falls on the fifth act, there is still one man alive, and that is the author. He may be gorged with crime and surfeited with blood, but there is a surging exultation in his veins as he views the ruin that his brain has wrought.

Charlotte loved the great stretch of purple moors, hill on hill fading away into eternal mist. And the wild winds that sighed and moaned at casements or raged in sullen wrath, tugging at the roof, were her friends. She loved them all, and thought of them as visiting spirits. They were her properties, and no writer who ever lived has made such splendid use of winds and storm-clouds and driving rain as did Charlotte Bronte. People who point to the chasing, angry clouds and the swish of dripping rosebushes blown against the cottage-windows as proof of Charlotte Bronte's chronic depression know not the eager joy of a storm walk. And I am sure they never did as one I know did last night: saddle a horse at ten o'clock and gallop away into the darkness; splash, splash in the sighing, moaning, bellowing, driving November rain. There's joy for you! ye who toast your feet on the fender and cultivate sick headache around the base-burner--there's a life that ye never guess!

But Charlotte knew the clouds by night and the swift-sailing moon that gave just one peep out and disappeared. She knew the rifts where the stars shone through, and out alone in the breeze that blew away her cares she lifted her voice in thankfulness for the joy of mixing with the elements, and that her spirit was one with the boisterous winds of heaven.

People who live in beautiful, quiet valleys, where roses bloom all the year through, are not necessarily happy.

Southern California--the Garden of Eden of the world--evolves just as many cases per capita of melancholia as bleak, barren Maine. Wild, rocky, forbidding Scotland has produced more genius to the acre than beautiful England: and I have found that sailor Jack, facing the North Atlantic winter storms, year after year, is a deal jollier companion than the Florida cracker whose chief adversary is the mosquito.

Charlotte Bronte wrote three great books: "Jane Eyre," "Shirley" and "Villette." From the lonely, bleak parsonage on that stony hillside she sent forth her swaying filament of thought and lassoed the world. She lived to know that she had won. Money came to her, all she needed, honors, friends and lavish praise. She was the foremost woman author of her day. Her name was on every tongue. She had met the world in fair fight; without patrons, paid advocates, or influential friends she made her way to the very front. Her genius was acknowledged. She accomplished all that she set out to do and more--far more. The great, the learned, the titled, the proud--all those who reverence the tender heart and far-reaching mind--acknowledged her as queen.

So why prate of her sorrows! Did she not work them up into art? Why weep over her troubles when these were the weapons with which she won? Why sit in sackcloth on account of her early death, when it is appointed unto all men once to die, and with her the grave was swallowed up in victory?

[The end]
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