The letters of Charlotte Brontë

The letters of Charlotte Brontë

Radio listeners in the UK had a real treat last week, with a series of five daily programmes on the letters of Charlotte Brontë being broadcast on BBC Radio 3. The programmes were excellent in conveying the enormous interest of these letters and their resonance for understanding the development of Charlotte Brontë’s novels and poetry. They also brought home the important role of letter-writing in Brontë’s life. This was in large part due to the insightful discussions of key letters by the programmes’s presenters. These were Claire Harman (two programmes), Lyndall Gordon, Jane Shilling and Rachel Joyce, all of whom have been engaged in different ways in writing about the Brontës in general and/or Charlotte specifically. While many of Charlotte Brontë’s letters were referred to, each programme focused around one letter in particular, with these chosen to illuminate key moments or themes in Brontë’s life, and they were discussed with knowledge, verve and insight.

As well as enjoying the five discussions a great deal, in listening to them I was struck by two connected matters.

The first concerns just how much the chosen letters (out of the circa 900 that are extant) correspond to current notions of ‘the letter’ discussed in previous blogs. This is the view that ‘proper letters’ should have an intensity, passion and strong relational involvement with their addressees, as many of Charlotte Brontë’s do. However, as in the blogs just referred to, my reaction is that this is a world away from the letter-writing of not only the Olive Schreiners of this world, but also the ordinary folks who wrote hundreds of thousands of letters in South Africa over the period that the WWW project is concerned with. In such letters, Charlotte Brontë is certainly responsive to her different correspondents and there are marked differences in how she writes to different people. But looking across them, the overall concern is not expediting activity, concerning ordinary material things, or engaging with social and political matters. In the WWW letters, the converse is true. Put simply, the Charlotte Brontë letters involve a self-project premised on notions of interiority and affect, while the WWW letters evacuate self (and other) in favour of materiality and exteriority: they are written to get the business in hand done. Of course these differences are not absolute, not stark in quite the binary way expressed here, but they are certainly there when looking at Brontë’s letters in total as compared with the ordinary run of the many thousands of WWW letters, and as broad generalisations they are supportable.

The second is that having recently re-read Jane Austen’s novels and also her letters, as I’ve listened to the five programmes I’ve had some interesting moments thinking about how Austen would respond to Brontë’s letters, what she might say about them as letters. I’ve also compared some randomly chosen examples of their letters. Austen comes across as more aware and analytical about her letter-writing as writing and as a representational system, and reflexively engages with this; and also I’m struck by her discernible responsiveness to her particular addressees and their concerns and tastes. Brontë too is very aware of her addressees and modulates her writing accordingly, and she also offers some comments on letters and letter-writing, but these are both fewer and also less about its fabric, its representational/referential stresses, its gift aspects regarding epistolary exchanges and so on that engage Austen, and more about its real or ascribed gender aspects. Also, while modulation is certainly there, this is within an overall project of identity, self and interiority. This comes across very clearly in Brontë’s comments about Austen’s writing, which she coments on as deficient in these and related (eg. emotion and passion) respects.

But I’m still thinking about all of this. Perhaps the very best thing about these five programmes is that they do indeed make you think!

For ‘The Essay: I Am, Yours Sincerely C Brontë’ BBC Radio 3 programmes, go to and follow the links to BBC Radio 3 and then ‘The Essay’; they can be downloaded from there. The programmes are available on download for those who can access the BBC online website from inside the UK and will remain so for 30 days. And for Charlotte Brontë’s letters:

(Ed) Margaret Smith (2007) Charlotte Brontë Selected Letters Oxford UP

(Ed) Margaret Smith (1995, 2000, 2004) The Letters of Charlotte Brontë , Volumes 1, 2, 3 Oxford UP

Last updated: 9 March 2016


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