On 29 December (1836), Charlotte sent some of her poems to the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. They were accompanied by a letter which has not survived, but the playback in Southey’s famous reply shows that Charlotte had confided to him that she lived in a visionary world, assuming Southey did likewise and would stoop to speak to her ‘from a throne of light & glory’. She also confided an explicit ambition ‘to be forever known’ as a poet.
It was three months before Southey’s reply came. He was replying to a ‘flighty’ girl in need of a ‘dose of cooling admonition’:
… Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity…
This is taken from Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, and it includes Brontë’s reply to Southey, which is superficially apologetic and uses all the right language to placate the receiver, but filled with veiled humor and even a little mocking. Lyndall uses this exchange as just one of her examples of how Brontë maintained two quite distinct personas – the private ambitious and passionate woman vs. the demure, duty-bound public woman. Lyndall demonstrates that these personas were not just “faces” that Brontë switched easily between, but were elements of herself that battled against each other. It was not socially or morally acceptable for Brontë to strive for a literary career or to enjoy the passionate fictional landscape that lived inside of her – and she suffered greatly for this.
I’ll be taking this excellent biography with me on a short trip to the US this week and next.