`Do you like London, Miss Bront"e?' `Yes and no'

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HER father's name was Brunty, his birthplace a village with a euphonious name, Drumbally-roney, in County Down, Ireland. In an age of remarkable families, he was to become the parent of one of the most remarkable. When he entered Cambridge, he changed the spelling (hence the pronunciation) of his name; it may be that Adm. Horatio Nelson's elevation to the title Duke of Bront"e in 1799 provided a suggestion of distinction. Patrick Bront"e's ordination as pastor in the Church of England enabled him to marry Maria Branwell, sister to the ex-mayor of Penzance, in December 1812. They had six children, two of whom did not survive childhood. The other four, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily, and Anne, established reputations that have made the name Bront"e unforgettable.

Father Patrick was for 41 years the vicar of Howarth, in Yorkshire, 10 miles from Bradford, on the edge of the moors. The Parsonage there became the stage for the Bront"e drama. Although schooling and, later, work as governesses or teachers necessitated the daughters' temporary absence from home, the Parsonage, like a giant magnet, drew them back and back, and Patrick's influence in their lives persisted to the very end, for he outlived them all.

It is difficult to isolate one of these figures for discussion because they were so closely entwined, and, to a greater or lesser degree used one another as models in their books. They began their literary experiments early, for amusement, as there was in their environment little in the way of diversion besides walking on the moors. Anyone who has visited the Parsonage (now a museum) remembers the manuscripts written by these children in script so minuscule as to be indecipherable without a magnifying glass. Their imaginations were stimulated by their reading, their daydreams, and their ambitions to be authors. Their father, who himself had so aspired, encouraged them.

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They chose to write about imaginary islands which they peopled with characters. Charlotte and Branwell invented a state called ``Angria,'' located in West Africa. Emily and Anne chose ``Angora,'' a mountain kingdom of people called ``Gondals,'' in the Arctic.

These literary labors, and they were extensive, continued into their late teens and early 20s. Emily was still at work on poems about the Gondals when she was planning and beginning to write ``Wuthering Heights.''

Of the three sisters, Charlotte was the most enterprising, despite an inherent shyness. Fortunately for posterity, Charlotte's initiative sometimes outstripped her reticence.

Shy people often take refuge in writing privately; throughout her life Charlotte always had a correspondent in whom she could confide. The result is an immense number of letters, some of which, regrettably, were destroyed by her husband after her passing, some of which were suppressed by her biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell. The remaining letters, however, provide intimate -- sometimes startling -- glimpses into the lives, thoughts, moods, and opinions of the self-effacing sisters and their profligate brother.

Charlotte, for all her shyness, reveals herself to be a person of fixed opinions, opinions she sometimes had to relinquish. An outstanding example is her satiric outlook on curates, reflected in her novel ``Shirley''; ultimately she married her father's curate, Arthur Nicholls, whom she had disliked for eight years! Another example is her admiration for that literary lady Harriet Martineau -- up to the point of the latter's adverse review of Charlotte's last novel, ``Villette.'' Thus ended a beautiful friendship!

It was Charlotte's untypical invasion of Emily's privacy that generated the sisters' first published work. Without intending to cause Emily grief, Charlotte one evening discovered in her sister's desk a sheaf of remarkable poems, which she immediately judged to be publishable. She added her own and those of Anne, and sent them off to a publisher, Aylott & Jones, in Paternoster Row, London.

Upon payment of 30 guineas they were privately printed under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Despite Emily's initial anger, the printing of the volume encouraged all three girls to rekindle the flame of authorship which, during their absences from home, had nearly expired. Had it not been for this uncharacteristic drive of shy Charlotte, the name Bront"e would have remained unknown in the annals of English literature.

Charlotte began to write a novel, ``The Professor,'' Emily was soon at work on ``Wuthering Heights,'' and Anne on ``Agnes Grey.''

Charlotte's portrait, a drawing by George Richmond, R. A., in the National Portrait Gallery in London, shows not a shy countenance but a rather stern, determined one with dark eyes full of purpose. Yet, according to her biographers, shyness was her chief characteristic; exaggerated self-consciousness was often her undoing.

Take her relationship with Thackeray, who had reviewed ``Jane Eyre'' enthusiastically even though the fictitious situation of Rochester's sheltering an insane wife was very similar to his own. Now a famous author, Charlotte, as Currer Bell, was lionized in London. She was invited to the homes of the great, in one instance by Thackeray himself.

Tortured by the fear that she was expected to make brilliant and provocative conversation, she found herself almost unable to speak. In the account by Lady Ritchie, Thackeray's daughter, the company included Thomas Carlyle and his wife; Mrs. Procter and her husband, ``Barry Cornwall''; their daughter Adelaide Anne Procter (who wrote ``The Lost Chord''); and several dignitaries:

Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Bront"e retired to the sofa in the study and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess, Miss Truelock. The room looked very dark, the lamp began to smoke a little, the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant. My father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all. Mrs. Brookfield who was in the doorway by the study near the corner in which Miss Bront"e was sitting leant forward with a little commonplace, since brilliance was not to be the order of the evening. ``Do you like London, Miss Bront"e?'' she said; another silence, a pause, then Miss Bront"e answered, ``Yes and no,'' very gravely.

Charlotte left early; Thackeray, unable to face the other guests, sneaked off to his club.

Though retiring and almost dumb in company, Charlotte was no shrinking violet the moment she took up her pen. She wrote fluently and critically in her letters of Thackeray, George Henry Lewes, the actor Macready, and others, never tempering her statements to shade the truth. But in social gatherings her shyness persisted until the extraordinary transformation effected by her marriage on June 29, 1854. For the last 10 months of her life she was the happy heroine, outgoing and unselfconscious: ``Matrimony tends to draw you out of and away from yourself,'' she wrote to her lifelong confidante, Ellen Nussey.

In real life, then, in her own experience at last she realized the role of an unshy, fulfilled Jane Eyre, an unshy, self-confident Villette. One cannot but regret that her marriage did not occur earlier and last longer.

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