Two months after the death of her friend, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote to George Smith (their publisher) asking for a copy, either an engraving or daguerreotype, of the 1850 Richmond portrait.
You can see the portrait in question hanging in the drawing room at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House.
While Elizabeth wanted a memorial of the friend she ‘honoured and loved’, she also had wanted, at some point in the distant future when:
‘no one is living whom such a publication would hurt, [to] publish what I know of her, and make the world (if I am but strong enough in expression,) honour the woman as much as they have admired the writer’(31 May, 1855, Letters, L. 241)
However, the chance to honour her friend came much sooner than expected.
The following month, Ellen Nussey wrote to Charlotte’s widower Arthur Bell Nicholls that she had read some very disturbing information about Charlotte in an article entitled A Few Words about ‘Jane Eyre’ published in Sharpe’s London Magazine, June 1855.
Nussey went on to say:
I wish Mrs Gaskell, who is every way capable, would undertake a reply and would give a sound castigation to the writer (The Brontës Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence, vol., 4, p. 189).
The irony here is twofold. Firstly, that after their marriage Arthur Bell Nicholls had forbidden any communication between Charlotte and the Gaskell family on the grounds of religious difference, and secondly, that Elizabeth may well have been the initiator, either wittingly or unwittingly, of that particular article. Margaret Smith, the editor of the Brontë letters, speculates that the article was written by Frank Smedley, a former editor of Sharpe’s and an acquaintance of Catherine Winkworth who was one of Elizabeth’s friends.
While Arthur Bell Nicholls did not wish for a biography to be written at all, Patrick was keen to have a reputable writer like Elizabeth take on the task, and Arthur Nicholls acceded to what Elizabeth calls ‘Mr. Brontë’s impetuous wish’. On 6 July 1855 Patrick Bronte wrote to Elizabeth explaining why he felt the need for a biography and asking her to accept the commission.
Finding a great many scribblers, as well as some clever and truthful writers, have published articles in newspapers… respecting my dear daughter Charlotte since her death, and seeing that many things that have been said are untrue;… and having reason to think that some may venture to write her life who are ill qualified for the undertaking, I can see no better plan under the circumstances than to apply to an established author to write a brief account of her life and to make some remarks on her works. You seem to me to be the best qualified for doing what I wish should be done.
Patrick also offered to put any resources that the family had at her disposal. His last words to Elizabeth before she left Haworth on 23 June were: ‘No quailing Mrs Gaskell. No drawing back’.
Elizabeth’s response to this request was one of consternation as you can see from this letter to her publisher, George Smith:
I have received (most unexpectedly) the enclosed letter from Mr Brontë, I have taken some time to consider the request…,but I have consented to write it, as well as I (L. 245)
The problem she faced was that a biography published so soon after the subject’s death was very different from a personal book of recollections, not least because the latter, if published at all, would not be released until many of those who knew Charlotte personally were dead.
‘I shall now have to omit a good deal of detail as to her home, and the circumstances, which, must have had so much to do in forming her character’ (L. 245).
Already the book was being shaped but with the knowledge that ‘the truth’ which she was always so eager to write could not be told in full.
Dr Diane Duffy, Chair, The Gaskell Society
This post originally appeared on the Elizabeth Gaskell House website and is kindly reproduced here with their, and the author’s permission.