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Title: Biographical Notes on the Pseudonymous Bells
Author: Brontë, Charlotte
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Biographical Notes on the Pseudonymous Bells" ***

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Transcribed from the 1910 John Murray edition (preface to _Wuthering
Heights_) by David Price, email ccx074@pglaf.org

                      [Picture: Public domain cover]



IT has been thought that all the works published under the names of
Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were, in reality, the production of one
person.  This mistake I endeavoured to rectify by a few words of
disclaimer prefixed to the third edition of ‘Jane Eyre.’  These, too, it
appears, failed to gain general credence, and now, on the occasion of a
reprint of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey,’ I am advised distinctly
to state how the case really stands.

Indeed, I feel myself that it is time the obscurity attending those two
names—Ellis and Acton—was done away.  The little mystery, which formerly
yielded some harmless pleasure, has lost its interest; circumstances are
changed.  It becomes, then, my duty to explain briefly the origin and
authorship of the books written by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

About five years ago, my two sisters and myself, after a somewhat
prolonged period of separation, found ourselves reunited, and at home.
Resident in a remote district, where education had made little progress,
and where, consequently, there was no inducement to seek social
intercourse beyond our own domestic circle, we were wholly dependent on
ourselves and each other, on books and study, for the enjoyments and
occupations of life.  The highest stimulus, as well as the liveliest
pleasure we had known from childhood upwards, lay in attempts at literary
composition; formerly we used to show each other what we wrote, but of
late years this habit of communication and consultation had been
discontinued; hence it ensued, that we were mutually ignorant of the
progress we might respectively have made.

One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a MS. volume of
verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting.  Of course, I was not surprised,
knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and
something more than surprise seized me—a deep conviction that these were
not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write.
I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine.  To my ear they
had also a peculiar music—wild, melancholy, and elevating.

My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one on
the recesses of whose mind and feelings even those nearest and dearest to
her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed; it took hours to reconcile
her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems
merited publication.  I knew, however, that a mind like hers could not be
without some latent spark of honourable ambition, and refused to be
discouraged in my attempts to fan that spark to flame.

Meantime, my younger sister quietly produced some of her own
compositions, intimating that, since Emily’s had given me pleasure, I
might like to look at hers.  I could not but be a partial judge, yet I
thought that these verses, too, had a sweet, sincere pathos of their own.

We had very early cherished the dream of one day becoming authors.  This
dream, never relinquished even when distance divided and absorbing tasks
occupied us, now suddenly acquired strength and consistency: it took the
character of a resolve.  We agreed to arrange a small selection of our
poems, and, if possible, to get them printed.  Averse to personal
publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and
Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of
conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine,
while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that
time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is
called ‘feminine’—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable
to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use
for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a
flattery, which is not true praise.

The bringing out of our little book was hard work.  As was to be
expected, neither we nor our poems were at all wanted; but for this we
had been prepared at the outset; though inexperienced ourselves, we had
read the experience of others.  The great puzzle lay in the difficulty of
getting answers of any kind from the publishers to whom we applied.
Being greatly harassed by this obstacle, I ventured to apply to the
Messrs. Chambers, of Edinburgh, for a word of advice; _they_ may have
forgotten the circumstance, but _I_ have not, for from them I received a
brief and business-like, but civil and sensible reply, on which we acted,
and at last made a way.

The book was printed: it is scarcely known, and all of it that merits to
be known are the poems of Ellis Bell.  The fixed conviction I held, and
hold, of the worth of these poems has not indeed received the
confirmation of much favourable criticism; but I must retain it

Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a
wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued.  We each set to work on
a prose tale: Ellis Bell produced ‘Wuthering Heights,’ Acton Bell ‘Agnes
Grey,’ and Currer Bell also wrote a narrative in one volume.  These MSS.
were perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers for the space of a
year and a half; usually, their fate was an ignominious and abrupt

At last ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey’ were accepted on terms
somewhat impoverishing to the two authors; Currer Bell’s book found
acceptance nowhere, nor any acknowledgment of merit, so that something
like the chill of despair began to invade her heart.  As a forlorn hope,
she tried one publishing house more—Messrs. Smith, Elder and Co.  Ere
long, in a much shorter space than that on which experience had taught
her to calculate—there came a letter, which she opened in the dreary
expectation of finding two hard, hopeless lines, intimating that Messrs.
Smith, Elder and Co. ‘were not disposed to publish the MS.,’ and,
instead, she took out of the envelope a letter of two pages.  She read it
trembling.  It declined, indeed, to publish that tale, for business
reasons, but it discussed its merits and demerits so courteously, so
considerately, in a spirit so rational, with a discrimination so
enlightened, that this very refusal cheered the author better than a
vulgarly expressed acceptance would have done.  It was added, that a work
in three volumes would meet with careful attention.

I was then just completing ‘Jane Eyre,’ at which I had been working while
the one-volume tale was plodding its weary round in London: in three
weeks I sent it off; friendly and skilful hands took it in.  This was in
the commencement of September, 1847; it came out before the close of
October following, while ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey,’ my
sisters’ works, which had already been in the press for months, still
lingered under a different management.

They appeared at last.  Critics failed to do them justice.  The immature
but very real powers revealed in ‘Wuthering Heights’ were scarcely
recognised; its import and nature were misunderstood; the identity of its
author was misrepresented; it was said that this was an earlier and ruder
attempt of the same pen which had produced ‘Jane Eyre.’  Unjust and
grievous error!  We laughed at it at first, but I deeply lament it now.
Hence, I fear, arose a prejudice against the book.  That writer who could
attempt to palm off an inferior and immature production under cover of
one successful effort, must indeed be unduly eager after the secondary
and sordid result of authorship, and pitiably indifferent to its true and
honourable meed.  If reviewers and the public truly believed this, no
wonder that they looked darkly on the cheat.

Yet I must not be understood to make these things subject for reproach or
complaint; I dare not do so; respect for my sister’s memory forbids me.
By her any such querulous manifestation would have been regarded as an
unworthy and offensive weakness.

It is my duty, as well as my pleasure, to acknowledge one exception to
the general rule of criticism.  One writer, endowed with the keen vision
and fine sympathies of genius, has discerned the real nature of
‘Wuthering Heights,’ and has, with equal accuracy, noted its beauties and
touched on its faults.  Too often do reviewers remind us of the mob of
Astrologers, Chaldeans, and Soothsayers gathered before the ‘writing on
the wall,’ and unable to read the characters or make known the
interpretation.  We have a right to rejoice when a true seer comes at
last, some man in whom is an excellent spirit, to whom have been given
light, wisdom, and understanding; who can accurately read the ‘Mene,
Mene, Tekel, Upharsin’ of an original mind (however unripe, however
inefficiently cultured and partially expanded that mind may be); and who
can say with confidence, ‘This is the interpretation thereof.

Yet even the writer to whom I allude shares the mistake about the
authorship, and does me the injustice to suppose that there was equivoque
in my former rejection of this honour (as an honour I regard it).  May I
assure him that I would scorn in this and in every other case to deal in
equivoque; I believe language to have been given us to make our meaning
clear, and not to wrap it in dishonest doubt?

‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,’ by Acton Bell, had likewise an
unfavourable reception.  At this I cannot wonder.  The choice of subject
was an entire mistake.  Nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature
could be conceived.  The motives which dictated this choice were pure,
but, I think, slightly morbid.  She had, in the course of her life, been
called on to contemplate, near at hand, and for a long time, the terrible
effects of talents misused and faculties abused: hers was naturally a
sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply
into her mind; it did her harm.  She brooded over it till she believed it
to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course with fictitious
characters, incidents, and situations), as a warning to others.  She
hated her work, but would pursue it.  When reasoned with on the subject,
she regarded such reasonings as a temptation to self-indulgence.  She
must be honest; she must not varnish, soften, nor conceal.  This
well-meant resolution brought on her misconstruction, and some abuse,
which she bore, as it was her custom to bear whatever was unpleasant,
with mild, steady patience.  She was a very sincere, and practical
Christian, but the tinge of religious melancholy communicated a sad shade
to her brief, blameless life.

Neither Ellis nor Acton allowed herself for one moment to sink under want
of encouragement; energy nerved the one, and endurance upheld the other.
They were both prepared to try again; I would fain think that hope and
the sense of power were yet strong within them.  But a great change
approached; affliction came in that shape which to anticipate is dread;
to look back on, grief.  In the very heat and burden of the day, the
labourers failed over their work.

My sister Emily first declined.  The details of her illness are
deep-branded in my memory, but to dwell on them, either in thought or
narrative, is not in my power.  Never in all her life had she lingered
over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now.  She sank
rapidly.  She made haste to leave us.  Yet, while physically she
perished, mentally she grew stronger than we had yet known her.  Day by
day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on her with
an anguish of wonder and love.  I have seen nothing like it; but, indeed,
I have never seen her parallel in anything.  Stronger than a man, simpler
than a child, her nature stood alone.  The awful point was, that while
full of ruth for others, on herself she had no pity; the spirit was
inexorable to the flesh; from the trembling hand, the unnerved limbs, the
faded eyes, the same service was exacted as they had rendered in health.
To stand by and witness this, and not dare to remonstrate, was a pain no
words can render.

Two cruel months of hope and fear passed painfully by, and the day came
at last when the terrors and pains of death were to be undergone by this
treasure, which had grown dearer and dearer to our hearts as it wasted
before our eyes.  Towards the decline of that day, we had nothing of
Emily but her mortal remains as consumption left them.  She died December
19, 1848.

We thought this enough: but we were utterly and presumptuously wrong.
She was not buried ere Anne fell ill.  She had not been committed to the
grave a fortnight, before we received distinct intimation that it was
necessary to prepare our minds to see the younger sister go after the
elder.  Accordingly, she followed in the same path with slower step, and
with a patience that equalled the other’s fortitude.  I have said that
she was religious, and it was by leaning on those Christian doctrines in
which she firmly believed, that she found support through her most
painful journey.  I witnessed their efficacy in her latest hour and
greatest trial, and must bear my testimony to the calm triumph with which
they brought her through.  She died May 28, 1849.

What more shall I say about them?  I cannot and need not say much more.
In externals, they were two unobtrusive women; a perfectly secluded life
gave them retiring manners and habits.  In Emily’s nature the extremes of
vigour and simplicity seemed to meet.  Under an unsophisticated culture,
inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside, lay a secret power and
fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero;
but she had no worldly wisdom; her powers were unadapted to the practical
business of life; she would fail to defend her most manifest rights, to
consult her most legitimate advantage.  An interpreter ought always to
have stood between her and the world.  Her will was not very flexible,
and it generally opposed her interest.  Her temper was magnanimous, but
warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending.

Anne’s character was milder and more subdued; she wanted the power, the
fire, the originality of her sister, but was well endowed with quiet
virtues of her own.  Long-suffering, self-denying, reflective, and
intelligent, a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her
in the shade, and covered her mind, and especially her feelings, with a
sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted.  Neither Emily nor Anne
was learned; they had no thought of filling their pitchers at the
well-spring of other minds; they always wrote from the impulse of nature,
the dictates of intuition, and from such stores of observation as their
limited experience had enabled them to amass.  I may sum up all by
saying, that for strangers they were nothing, for superficial observers
less than nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in
the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly

This notice has been written because I felt it a sacred duty to wipe the
dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil.

                                                               CURRER BELL

_September_ 19, 1850.


I HAVE just read over ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and, for the first time, have
obtained a clear glimpse of what are termed (and, perhaps, really are)
its faults; have gained a definite notion of how it appears to other
people—to strangers who knew nothing of the author; who are unacquainted
with the locality where the scenes of the story are laid; to whom the
inhabitants, the customs, the natural characteristics of the outlying
hills and hamlets in the West Riding of Yorkshire are things alien and

To all such ‘Wuthering Heights’ must appear a rude and strange
production.  The wild moors of the North of England can for them have no
interest: the language, the manners, the very dwellings and household
customs of the scattered inhabitants of those districts must be to such
readers in a great measure unintelligible, and—where
intelligible—repulsive.  Men and women who, perhaps, naturally very calm,
and with feelings moderate in degree, and little marked in kind, have
been trained from their cradle to observe the utmost evenness of manner
and guardedness of language, will hardly know what to make of the rough,
strong utterance, the harshly manifested passions, the unbridled
aversions, and headlong partialities of unlettered moorland hinds and
rugged moorland squires, who have grown up untaught and unchecked, except
by Mentors as harsh as themselves.  A large class of readers, likewise,
will suffer greatly from the introduction into the pages of this work of
words printed with all their letters, which it has become the custom to
represent by the initial and final letter only—a blank line filling the
interval.  I may as well say at once that, for this circumstance, it is
out of my power to apologise; deeming it, myself, a rational plan to
write words at full length.  The practice of hinting by single letters
those expletives with which profane and violent persons are wont to
garnish their discourse, strikes me as a proceeding which, however well
meant, is weak and futile.  I cannot tell what good it does—what feeling
it spares—what horror it conceals.

With regard to the rusticity of ‘Wuthering heights,’ I admit the charge,
for I feel the quality.  It is rustic all through.  It is moorish, and
wild, and knotty as a root of heath.  Nor was it natural that it should
be otherwise; the author being herself a native and nursling of the
moors.  Doubtless, had her lot been cast in a town, her writings, if she
had written at all, would have possessed another character.  Even had
chance or taste led her to choose a similar subject, she would have
treated it otherwise.  Had Ellis Bell been a lady or a gentleman
accustomed to what is called ‘the world,’ her view of a remote and
unreclaimed region, as well as of the dwellers therein, would have
differed greatly from that actually taken by the home-bred country girl.
Doubtless it would have been wider—more comprehensive: whether it would
have been more original or more truthful is not so certain.  As far as
the scenery and locality are concerned, it could scarcely have been so
sympathetic: Ellis Bell did not describe as one whose eye and taste alone
found pleasure in the prospect; her native hills were far more to her
than a spectacle; they were what she lived in, and by, as much as the
wild birds, their tenants, or as the heather, their produce.  Her
descriptions, then, of natural scenery are what they should be, and all
they should be.

Where delineation of human character is concerned, the case is different.
I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the
peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people
who sometimes pass her convent gates.  My sister’s disposition was not
naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to
seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely
crossed the threshold of home.  Though her feeling for the people round
was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very
few exceptions, ever experienced.  And yet she know them: knew their
ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with
interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate;
but _with_ them, she rarely exchanged a word.  Hence it ensued that what
her mind had gathered of the real concerning them, was too exclusively
confined to those tragic and terrible traits of which, in listening to
the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes
compelled to receive the impress.  Her imagination, which was a spirit
more sombre than sunny, more powerful than sportive, found in such traits
material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like
Catherine.  Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had
done.  If the auditor of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered
under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable, of
spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of
certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night, and disturbed
mental peace by day, Ellis Bell would wonder what was meant, and suspect
the complainant of affectation.  Had she but lived, her mind would of
itself have grown like a strong tree, loftier, straighter,
wider-spreading, and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower
ripeness and sunnier bloom; but on that mind time and experience alone
could work: to the influence of other intellects it was not amenable.

Having avowed that over much of ‘Wuthering Heights’ there broods ‘a
horror of great darkness’; that, in its storm-heated and electrical
atmosphere, we seem at times to breathe lightning: let me point to those
spots where clouded day-light and the eclipsed sun still attest their
existence.  For a specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity, look
at the character of Nelly Dean; for an example of constancy and
tenderness, remark that of Edgar Linton.  (Some people will think these
qualities do not shine so well incarnate in a man as they would do in a
woman, but Ellis Bell could never be brought to comprehend this notion:
nothing moved her more than any insinuation that the faithfulness and
clemency, the long-suffering and loving-kindness which are esteemed
virtues in the daughters of Eve, become foibles in the sons of Adam.  She
held that mercy and forgiveness are the divinest attributes of the Great
Being who made both man and woman, and that what clothes the Godhead in
glory, can disgrace no form of feeble humanity.)  There is a dry
saturnine humour in the delineation of old Joseph, and some glimpses of
grace and gaiety animate the younger Catherine.  Nor is even the first
heroine of the name destitute of a certain strange beauty in her
fierceness, or of honesty in the midst of perverted passion and
passionate perversity.

Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his
arrow-straight course to perdition, from the time when ‘the little
black-haired swarthy thing, as dark as if it came from the Devil,’ was
first unrolled out of the bundle and set on its feet in the farmhouse
kitchen, to the hour when Nelly Dean found the grim, stalwart corpse laid
on its back in the panel-enclosed bed, with wide-gazing eyes that seemed
‘to sneer at her attempt to close them, and parted lips and sharp white
teeth that sneered too.’

Heathcliff betrays one solitary human feeling, and that is _not_ his love
for Catherine; which is a sentiment fierce and inhuman: a passion such as
might boil and glow in the bad essence of some evil genius; a fire that
might form the tormented centre—the ever-suffering soul of a magnate of
the infernal world: and by its quenchless and ceaseless ravage effect the
execution of the decree which dooms him to carry Hell with him wherever
he wanders.  No; the single link that connects Heathcliff with humanity
is his rudely-confessed regard for Hareton Earnshaw—the young man whom he
has ruined; and then his half-implied esteem for Nelly Dean.  These
solitary traits omitted, we should say he was child neither of Lascar nor
gipsy, but a man’s shape animated by demon life—a Ghoul—an Afreet.

Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do
not know: I scarcely think it is.  But this I know: the writer who
possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always
master—something that, at times, strangely wills and works for itself.
He may lay down rules and devise principles, and to rules and principles
it will perhaps for years lie in subjection; and then, haply without any
warning of revolt, there comes a time when it will no longer consent to
‘harrow the valleys, or be bound with a band in the furrow’—when it
‘laughs at the multitude of the city, and regards not the crying of the
driver’—when, refusing absolutely to make ropes out of sea-sand any
longer, it sets to work on statue-hewing, and you have a Pluto or a Jove,
a Tisiphone or a Psyche, a Mermaid or a Madonna, as Fate or Inspiration
direct.  Be the work grim or glorious, dread or divine, you have little
choice left but quiescent adoption.  As for you—the nominal artist—your
share in it has been to work passively under dictates you neither
delivered nor could question—that would not be uttered at your prayer,
nor suppressed nor changed at your caprice.  If the result be attractive,
the World will praise you, who little deserve praise; if it be repulsive,
the same World will blame you, who almost as little deserve blame.

‘Wuthering Heights’ was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out
of homely materials.  The statuary found a granite block on a solitary
moor; gazing thereon, he saw how from the crag might be elicited a head,
savage, swart, sinister; a form moulded with at least one element of
grandeur—power.  He wrought with a rude chisel, and from no model but the
vision of his meditations.  With time and labour, the crag took human
shape; and there it stands colossal, dark, and frowning, half statue,
half rock: in the former sense, terrible and goblin-like; in the latter,
almost beautiful, for its colouring is of mellow grey, and moorland moss
clothes it; and heath, with its blooming bells and balmy fragrance, grows
faithfully close to the giant’s foot.

                                                              CURRER BELL.

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