We demand a lot of our heroes and heroines.
Our heroes must not just be insanely talented: they must look good, and be personable. Bill Hayley was nothing in comparison to Elvis the Adonis; shady Nixon was perceived by radio audiences in 1960 as having just come out on top of the presidential debate; while television audiences panned him in favour of the face of the moment, Kennedy.
We come across a prodigious talent and we think, who could be behind this? Whoever it is must be a formidable person.
And we stitch a little fantasy to which they must match up.
The strange little women who stood in the offices of Smith And Elder, publishers, one Saturday morning some time in 1848, could not have been more different to the preconceptions of the seasoned professional who sat behind the desk. Currer and Acton Bell purported to be men, for a start. And though George Smith had suspected for a long time that the author of Jane Eyre was a woman, nothing could have prepared him for his first encounter with Charlotte and Anne Brontë.
But the moment he realised the true identity of these odd, grave Saturday morning visitors, he was all interest and excitement: despite what he describes as their ‘rather quaint’ dress.
He called his chief reader, Mr Williams, down to meet the pair and began to plan great things for them. “I tried to persuade them to come and say at our house.” he writes, “This they positively declined to do, but they agreed that I should call with my sister and take them to the Opera in the evening.”
Who can imagine a greater contrast for the sisters, so at home with the wild places of Yorkshire, than the opera? A place for lavish taffeta and glittering pearls at the ears, for bib and tucker and opera glasses. The young women had dresses for best: but they were high-necked and plain, quite the opposite of the glittering creations favoured by the London smart set. Nevertheless, dress they did, and they found themselves at a performance of The Barber Of Seville; “Very brilliant,” recalls Charlotte, “though I fancy there are things I should like better.”
And how did the fashionable of this great city respond to those they knew so well, yet knew not at all? George records Charlotte’s response in an edition of the Cornhill Magazine. “Fine ladies and gentlemen glanced at us, as we stood by the box-door, which was not yet opened, with a slight graceful superciliousness, quite warranted by the circumstances.
“Still,” she adds, “I felt pleasurably excited, in spite of headache, sickness and constant clownishness.”
The opera went on, as was its wont, until late, and the Brontës arrived back at their lodgings after one o’ clock in the morning: an unheard of hour at Haworth, the Parsonage back in Yorkshire. It must be remembered that the night before, the girls had had a sleepless night, travelling on the steam train from Yorkshire to London. ” We had been in constant excitement for twenty-four hours; you may imagine we were tired.”
The girls were overwhelmed. Three days, they stayed in London, and then got on the next train back to Yorkshire.
But Charlotte had enjoyed herself; and she would be back.
Of which, more another day.