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
thereof.

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
dishonest doubt?

'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,
blameless life.

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
truly great.

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.

CURRER BELL
September 19, 1850.





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