A Woman's Way
And yet when she had the opportunity of exemplifying her own wise teaching, womanlike, she refused to do so. How very much easier it is to philosophise than to be a philosopher! The truth is that Charlotte Bronte's mind alone had changed. Her heart remained unaltered; it still longed, and longed ardently, for the coming of some great, consuming passion.
"Doubtless," she wrote to Ellen Nussey, in September, 1850, "there are men whom, if I chose to encourage, I might marry; but no matrimonial lot is even remotely offered me which seems truly desirable."
And at the time there were at least two men devotedly in love with her. The first, Mr. James Taylor, was a London publisher, and for some time Charlotte considered his suit earnestly. But no, she could not bring herself to marry him. And the unhappy man, after his rejection, left England, and went to India "to recover." He was away five years.
"I am sure he has sterling and estimable qualities," she wrote after he had gone, "but ... it was impossible for me in my inward heart to think of him as one that might one day be acceptable as my husband. . . . I looked for something of the gentleman - something, I mean, of the natural gentleman; you know I can dispense with acquired polish; and for looks, I know myself too well to think that I have any right to be exacting on that point. . No; if Mr. Taylor be the only husband fate offers me, single I must always remain."
But James Taylor was not the only husband offered. There was yet another, a parson, like two of his predecessors, and also an Irishman. Now, the Rev. Arthur Nicholls first came to Haworth in 1844 as Mr. Bronte's curate. He was not a remarkable young man, merely moderately good-looking, merely moderately intelligent, but thoroughly conscientious. Charlotte he failed to interest in any way. "I cannot for my life," she wrote to a friend, "see those interesting germs of goodness in him you discovered; his narrowness of mind always strikes me chiefly. I fear he is indebted to your imagination for his hidden treasure."
And yet, in spite of this, a rumour soon sprang into being that Charlotte was engaged to him. She denied the report warmly. "A cold, far-away sort of civility," she wrote, "are the only terms on which I have ever been with Mr. Nicholls."
Yes; but Arthur Nicholls' feelings were very different, bewitched as he was by the magic spell of Charlotte's influence. Indeed, he loved her from the very moment when first she met his eyes; loved and adored her with all the love and reverence of a good and honest man, with a devotion that Henry Nussey never could have offered, a passion such as never could have fired the heart of the impressionable young Irishman who once had wooed her. And yet he could not speak of this great love. He dared not. He saw that Charlotte was indifferent to him, knew what would be her answer. And to be sent away rejected and miserable - no. It seemed better to worship in secret and from afar. This right, at least, no one could deny him.
Besides, what right had he to ask one of the most famous women of the day to marry him, an obscure, unheard-of curate, with the princely income of £100 a year? Love can be very cruel. And Arthur Nicholls he tortured by making Charlotte the pivot of his life, around which revolved his work, his hopes, his very being.
And for several years he suffered. But to all human endurance there is a limit. Until the very end of the year 1853, it is true, somehow he restrained himself. But then - Charlotte has herself described the scene.
It was a day in late December. The curate had come to the rectory to talk to Mr. Bronte. "As usual," wrote Charlotte, "Mr. Nicholls sat with papa till between eight and nine o'clock. I then heard him open the parlour door as if going. I expected the clash of the front door; he tapped; like lightning it flashed on me what was coming.
"Shaking from head to foot, looking deadly pale, speaking low, vehemently, yet with difficulty, he made me for the first time feel what it costs a man to declare affection where he doubts response. He spoke of sufferings he had borne for months, of sufferings he could endure no longer, and craved leave for some hope."
But what hope could Charlotte give? What could she say? She knew not what to do. It was hard to be cruel, very hard, even though only in order to be kind. And so she took the line of least resistance, and asked Mr. Nicholls to refer the matter to her father. As to his opinion she had a very shrewd idea. So apparently had Mr. Nicholls. He dared not, he said, approach Mr. Bronte.
So Charlotte did on his behalf. Nor was she disappointed in her hopes. Mr. Bronte was inordinately angry with his audacious curate; in fact, he swore and raved at the unhappy man so violently that even Charlotte, forgetful for the moment that he was doing exactly what she had hoped he would, was moved to indignation and to pity. The truth is, Mr. Bronte, having never in his life done anything to help his daughter, attributed her success entirely to his own unaided efforts. Charlotte knew this. And she knew that her father longed to see her make a brilliant marriage. Hence her appeal to him.
And hence, also, what happened subsequently. By his violence Mr. Bronte defeated both his own and Charlotte's object. In short, he awakened in his daughter pity, and where pity ends and love begins no man can say.
But, surely, Mr. Nicholls' wretched lot would have stirred any woman's pity. For days he neither ate nor spoke. Indeed, he barely moved out of doors, the pattern of abject misery. Yet still he clung to his post. Not until the following May did he decide to abandon the scene of his defeat.
And then, on the eve of his departure, he came to the rectory to bid farewell to the man with whom now he had worked for ten long years. Mr. Bronte received him alone. And he left the house without even hearing Charlotte's voice. "But," she wrote afterwards, "perceiving that he stayed long before going out of the gate . I took courage, and went out, trembling and miserable. I found him leaning against the garden door in a paroxysm of anguish, sobbing as a woman never sobbed. Of course, I went straight to him. Very few words were exchanged, those few barely articulate. . . . Poor fellow! But he wanted such hope and encouragement as I could never give him."
It was a sorry scene. "However," was Charlotte's comment, "he is gone - gone, and there's an end of it." Yes, but an end which proved merely to be the true beginning, for after Nicholls' departure even Charlotte, for some strange reason, felt lonely at Haworth; a sort of emptiness seemed somehow to creep into her life. And Mr. Bronte missed his late curate sadly. He tried several others, but could not find one to suit him. And so at last, in April, 1854, his daughter suggested to him that he should ask Mr. Nicholls to return. And her father consented, though both she and he knew what that return would mean. So did Mr. Nicholls. That perhaps is why he came.
A Sober Happiness
"While thankful," wrote Charlotte, a few weeks later, "to One who seems to have guided me through much difficulty, much and deep distress and perplexity of mind, I am still very calm, very inexpectant. What I taste of happiness is of the soberest order. I trust to love my husband. I am grateful for his tender love to me. I believe him to be an affectionate, a conscientious, a high-principled man; and if with this I should yield to regrets that fine talents, congenial tasks and thoughts are not added, it seems to me I should be most presumptuous and thankless."
On June 29 she married him and that day ended the career of the author of "jane Eyre," "Shirley," and "Villette." Henceforth she ceased to be a novelist, and became a wife. She found it impossible to be both. "Whenever Arthur is in," she declared, "I must have occupations in which he can share. . . . Thus a multitude of little matters get put off till he goes out, and then I am quite busy."
Yes, he was an exacting man, but still a rare and devoted husband. Charlotte Bronte could not have married a more noble one. And she married him in strict accordance with her own philosophy. "No young lady should fall in love till the offer has been made, accepted, the marriage ceremony performed, and the first half year of wedded life has passed away." But she made two mistakes. She forgot that she was no longer a young lady; she waited not a half-year, but nearly a whole year.
It was the 31st of March, in fact, 1855. Mrs. Nicholls, then on the verge of motherhood, woke from a long and heavy sleep. She opened her eyes and looked around her. She felt very, very ill. Then she noticed her husband. He was kneeling at her bedside, praying. Feebly she stretched out her hand towards him. Her words were barely audible.
"I'm not going to die, am I?" she said. "He will not separate us. We have been so happy."
But Charlotte Bronte's mission in life had been fulfilled. And a few hours later the solemn booming of the bell above the church told Haworth that the last of the parson's children had sunk into her final sleep.
In concluding this sketch of one whose passionate heart knew so well what true love means, we may quote an inimitable passage from "Villette":
"Warm, jealous, and haughty, I knew not till now that my nature had such a mood; he gathered me near his heart. I was full of faults; he took them and me all home. For the moment of utmost mutiny, he reserved the one deep spell of peace. These words caressed my ear:
" 'lucy, take my love. One day share my life. Be my dearest, first on earth.'
"We walked back to the Rue Fossette by moonlight - such moonlight as fell on Eden - shining through the shades of the Great Garden, and haply gilding a path glorious for a step divine, a Presence nameless. Once in their lives some men and women go back to these first fresh days of our great sire and mother - taste that grand morning's dew, bathe in its sunrise."