Morgan Library: Charlotte’s letter to William S. Williams

Many of my favorite items from the exhibit were early works by Charlotte and her siblings, but I also found a framed letter addressed to William S. Williams, dated October 28, 1846, particularly compelling.


It’s a little tough to read (and it only shows one page!), so I went to the exhibit’s website for a transcription of the entire letter:

Bronte writes to defend the originality of her own work and confirm the “reality” of Helen Burns as a character–one modeled after her own sister, in fact. Some at Williams’ firm, which published Jane Eyre, seem to have accused Bronte of pulling plot elements from other novels. Additionally, they cast doubt on the reality of Burns, who they apparently deem too good to be true.

Bronte’s response, in colloquial terms, is pretty sassy and fabulous; to the accusation of semi-plagiarism, Bronte writes, “Mr. Thackeray remarks that [Jane Eyre’s plot] is familiar to him; but having read comparatively few novels, I never chanced to meet with it, and I thought it original.” By the letter’s end, Bronte turns to ironic, self-deprecating comments, suggesting her “mere domestic novel will…seem trivial to men of large views and solid attainments.” This statement, which I can only imagine as scathing critique , seems to directly relate to our class’ ongoing discussion of the personal being political, as demonstrated in the work of Nancy Armstrong and Gayatri Spivak. Additionally, her letter truly reinforces the concept of Jane as a largely autobiographical character; it’s not hard to imagine her subtly but powerfully attacking a critic in a similar manner!


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