Charlotte Bronte's Notes on the pseudonyms used
Transcribed from the 1910 John Murray edition (Preface to
'Wuthering Heights') by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTICE OF ELLIS AND ACTON BELL
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 notwithstanding.
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 dismissal.
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
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
'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,
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
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.
September 19, 1850.
EDITOR'S PREFACE TO THE NEW EDITION OF 'WUTHERING HEIGHTS'
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 unfamiliar.
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
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.
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