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‘Dangerous as Lucifer matches’: A Note on Charlotte Brontë’s Epistolary Activity

stella halkyard

If, as Madeleine Callaghan claims, ‘letters describe human dramas [to] become vitally significant modes of thought and feeling’, few demonstrate these qualities more than the one shown here, sent from Haworth by Charlotte Brontë in 1848 to her friend Polly/Mary Taylor in New Zealand. It is a rare epistolary trace of a friendship that lasted Charlotte’s lifetime. In keeping with the Victorian practice of destroying personal correspondence post mortem, Mary sought to maintain Charlotte’s ‘ostrich longing for concealment’ (Deborah Lutz), in tune (at some level) with Arthur Nicholls’ view that Charlotte’s letters were incendiary, ‘dangerous as Lucifer matches’.

This letter, full of incidental details, ‘something that was not intended for our eyes’ (Carolyn Steedman), seems to give the reader privileged insight into the vibrant inner world of Charlotte’s character, thoughts, views and feelings, and maybe even ‘transmit a part of her soul’ (Deborah Lutz). It also makes us privy to some of her secrets, as putting pen to many pages of paper she seeks to diminish the distance between her and the friend whose absence she felt ‘as if a great planet fell out of the sky’. By conjuring a ‘fantasy of presence’ (Esther Milne) her letter creates a private space where secrets can be shared and intimacies exchanged which we, with twenty-first-century prying eyes, witness too. The specific confidence disclosed here tells of how Currer and Acton Bell ‘packed up a small box, […] set out after tea – walked through a thunderstorm to the station, got to Leeds and whirled up by the night train to London’ to prove their separate authorial identities to their various publishers. In so doing they of course also revealed that the crea-

tion of art was the work of women.

Any third-party reader of this letter also discovers that Mary Taylor, Charlotte’s ‘substitute sister’ (Claire Harman), had known who was the true author of Jane Eyre for some time. Proof of Mary’s probity suggests Charlotte probably used the epistolary form for confidential correspondences in many other contexts too. And while we know that many letters were sent (for Charlotte tantalisingly tells Mary in this letter here, ‘I write to you a great deal many more letters than you write to me’)

they are all gone, their voice lost forever.

Ironically, through the lighting of Lucifer matches Mary chose destruction as the better form of valour except in the very letter where Charlotte resolved to preserve her incognito for fear of ‘being made a show of – a thing I have ever resolved to avoid’. In all likelihood the contradiction might have pleased Charlotte, a person who needed ‘to pass invisible among others’, in equal measure with a ‘relish for adulation’ (Lutz).

Letter from Charlotte Brontë to Mary Taylor, 4 September 1848, Rylands

MSS EL B91/F/1. (© The University of Manchester, 2021)