A Yorkshire Woman In London: Charlotte Brontë

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

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.


52 thoughts on “A Yorkshire Woman In London: Charlotte Brontë

    1. Great talent is often accompanied by an odd manner, Sidey, isn’t it? And that makes me feel comfortable. The final chapter of this story focuses on how Charlotte and her plain manner fare when she begins to meet London society. It is quite the tale…

    1. I’ve really enjoyed these narratives since I first came across them, Julie. They have such frank charm: George Smith, whose account appeared in the Cornhill Magazine in 1900,was a very straightforward chap, by all accounts, and all the Brontes threw in their lot with him eventually, I believe.

  1. I had to look up “clownishness”, how you do broaden my vocabulary! It meant what I thought it meant. Which is to say I’ve never thought of them as ignorant and lacking in sophistication. I think it’s charming, and I love them all the more for it.

    1. The way I read these accounts, Katie, these two stood out a mile because they did not feel the need to fit in, but only to observe. Most of us would have been in those London shops Saturday afternoon buying a posh outfit: but not Charlotte and Anne. As you say, their very resolution, their sense of self is admirable. And I see it often in Charlotte’s heroine, Jane.

  2. Wonderful post, Kate. How exciting for them to travel into London for a short stay, with such a delightful invitation to the Opera.

    Speaking of Yorkshire, we finished Season 3 of Downton last night . . . not the happy ending that we observed at the end of Season 2. Sad that two characters opted out of the series, putting its fans into a tailspin.

    And, speaking of writing . . . Congratulations! You made the finals in The Writer’s Desk Contest! If you want to invite your friends, fans, and followers to come vote for you, here’s the link:



    1. No, Downton’s taken a downturn. I didn’t say anything: didn’t want to spoil it for you. Just when everything’s nice….

      Thank you for making me a finalist! I did not expect it in the slightest: for me the pleasure has been in seeing everyone’s varied ways of writing, and in drawing common threads. A top competition, Nancy, quite inspired. Thank you.

      1. I actually “read ahead” of viewing the episodes so had an inkling of what was coming . . . glad I didn’t watch the Season Finale on Christmas Day. More than a few fans claimed that Julian Fellowes had RUINED Christmas for them.

        Best of luck in the vote, Kate! And thanks for playing along.

  3. Delightful. Two things which particularly came to my mind: surprise that they were not more overwhelmed by the opera experience, and picturing the fine ladies and gentlemen kicking themselves later when they realised who had been within easy chatting distance of them.

    1. I think they were most self possessed young women, Col. I would have been out that Saturday buying a new frock for teh evening: but they did not panic. They went as they were, happy to be observers.

      Yes: the ire of the gentlefolks when they realised they had missed such huge celebrities must have been something to behold.

      1. Those observant enough to have noticed them at all could have rescued the situation by dropping causally, ‘Guess who I saw at the opera the other night?’

  4. Ooh, a serial! I like it.

    (I nearly said ‘cereal’, it’s on my mind because our new fresh milk was off this morning. It’s really soured my day as you can tell, otherwise I wouldn’t have mentioned it!)

  5. Wonderful piece. I started reading David Kynaston’s “The History of the City of London” recently and he opens with this marvellous (and perceptive) quote of Charlotte’s from Villette:

    “I have seen the West End, the parks, the fine squares, but I love the City far better. The City seems so much more in earnest; its business, its rush, its roar are such serious things, sights and sounds. The City is getting its living – the West End, but enjoying its pleasure. At the West End you may be amused, but in the City you are deeply excited.”

    1. Mark, what a fantastic piece of text to highlight – it sheds new light on how Charlotte must have felt about London. A serious sort, she valued the weight and industriousness of the City far more than places designated for pleasure.
      Absorbing stuff. Thank you!

    1. It’s an absorbing story, Cameron: and I think I shall have to collet around me all her papers, not just the ones to over which I have stumbled recently. She did a great many things during this and subsequent visits to London…

      1. They were still incognito that time. Emily would not let Charlotte tell even her best friend that she was published. Even the next time Charlotte went after her sisters died her identity was still very little known, but after that she became more widely known.

      2. Thank for that, Luv. Perhaps, as a researcher on this subject, you can help me: I’m looking to date Charlotte’s visit to Thackeray – George Smith brought her along to introduce her, I believe. Any idea which of her visits that might have been?

      3. Charlotte met Thackeray at George’s house December 4 1849 but the visit to Thackeray’s house was June 12 1850.

  6. I enjoy picturing the Brontë’s as young women experiencing the world and introduced to new social structures. Charlotte’s life was so short and you’re giving me the sense that perhaps she experienced more diversity in her life than I previously thought. I almost speak her name in hushed tones…so short life and all, she is someone we still care very deeply about knowing. I look forward to more, Kate. I do love the Brontë sisters!

  7. For everyone’s attention: Vocalist & composer Val Wiseman, a lifelong passionate Bronte fan, presents her one-woman show, The Bronte Legacy, next Sunday 30th March, at the St James theatre, 12 Palace St, SW1E 5JA, at 7pm. Val is widely known as a poll-winning jazz vocalist but it must be stressed that this show is not jazz but comprises her own compositions. March 30th is also Mother’s Day and this show should interest people looking for somewhere special to take mother. Bookings and more information can be found online at http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk or box office 0844 264 2140.

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