I recently talked about Thackeray’s dislike of Regency clothing. One of my favorite historical anecdotes about unfortunate coincidences and social awkwardness is about him and Charlotte Brontë.
I’m not actually sure how many times I’ve read Jane Eyre. The scene where Mr. Rochester talks about how there’s a thread from his chest to hers, and if they were separated he might take to bleeding internally—I swoon every time. A few years ago, I got a copy that reprinted the preface to the second edition. I laughed and laughed. Here’s the relevant bit in its entirety, because you don’t really get the scale of the fullsome earnestness otherwise:
“There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital—a mien as dauntless and daring. Is the satirist of Vanity Fair admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time—they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Ramoth-Gilead.
Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day—as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterize his talent. They say he is like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humor, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humor attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud, does to the electric death-spark hid in his womb. Finally, I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him—if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger—I have dedicated this second edition of Jane Eyre.
Dec. 21st, 1847.”
Now, Thackeray is a very Victorian, moral writer, and he does have social/political/moral points to make with his books. But he’s also a snarky guy who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. And Charlotte Brontë is a genius, and Thackeray loved Jane Eyre, but…her sense of humor isn’t really her strong point, is it? I can’t imagine Thackeray reading this incredibly sincere, dramatic, serious dedication without laughing yet also being sort of vicariously embarrassed. I don’t think his intention was ever to save anyone from a fatal Ramoth-Gilead*, you know?
So I laughed, and I thought no more about it. But THEN I was reading a biography of Thackeray that my dad had lying around the house and discovered there was more to the story!**
Thackeray’s wife, like the first Mrs. Rochester, was mentally ill. Which Charlotte Brontë would have had no way of knowing. But there was ALREADY a rumor going around that “Currer Bell” was Thackeray’s children’s governess, getting back at him for his unflattering portrayal of her as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (which came out in serial form the same year). So when this dedication was printed a lot of people saw it as proof.
Yes! They were convinced that Jane was a Mary Sue for Charlotte Brontë and that Jane Eyre was about her and Thackeray’s forbidden love!
This rumor was so popular it was still going around THIRTEEN YEARS LATER. In 1860 Thackeray was at a dinner party, and an American lady asked, “Is it true, the dreadful story about you and Currer Bell?”
Thackeray said, “Alas, madam, it is all too true. And the fruits of that unhallowed intimacy were six children. I slew them all with my own hand.”
I love Thackeray a lot.
Now I’m wondering if Georgette Heyer was inspired by this misunderstanding when she wrote Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle.
*I looked up Ramoth-Gilead, in case any of you were wondering. Apparently the reference is to 1 Kings 22: all the prophets except Micaiah tell King Ahab he’ll win if he fights to take back Ramoth-Gilead from the Syrians. Micaiah says, “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the LORD said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace.” Ahab gets really mad and throws Micaiah in prison and goes into battle anyway. Of course he loses and gets killed.
…It doesn’t say whether they let Micaiah out of prison after that.
**For this post, I confirmed the details in Love’s Madness by Helen Small.