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In Which Jane Austen Reviews A Book And Makes Me Laugh

The engraving of Jane Austen

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m currently doing some research for a post, about Jane Austen. It’s taking a lot longer than I’d thought it would so I’ll share a brief part of what I’ve noted and add to it.

On Sunday 25th November 1798, Jane wrote from Steventon to her sister Cassandra about a variety of things that were happening. Her letters to Cassandra are often lengthy, and at present I have a hunch (from the bit of research completed so far) that she is more open about her opinions of books to her sister than to anyone else; this is to be expected – as we know, they were very close.

On this day, Jane included a fair paragraph of fun background context and opinion of a book that had been published earlier that year; I’ve not been able to trace the month, but it was Arthur Fitz-Albini by Samuel Egerton Brydges, a novelist/bibliographer. Here is Jane’s opinion:

“We have got ‘Fitz-Albini’; my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading of it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed – I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton’s. There is very little story, and what there is told in a strange, uncorrected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognise any of them hitherto, except Dr. and Mrs. Hey and Mr. Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated.” (Jane Austen in Le Faye (ed.) (2011), pp. 22-23)

Had they been a thing, I think she may have given it one star.

I’ve made a cursory search for contemporary reviews of this long-forgotten book, but it’s been difficult to find any. What I did find was an obituary for Brydges, written by John Bowyer Nichols and published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1837. I’ve redacted it down to the most poignant sections on the man himself as well as the novel because as you might expect, it’s Dickensian in length:

“The biography of this gifted and laborious litterateur, this imaginative poet, and in one sense we may accurately say, this imaginary character, can scarcely be treated in the sober detail of our ordinary narrative; yet, as our object in this place is always the relation of facts, we shall, in the first instance at least, state the circumstances of his birth and early life as we should do those of any other distinguished individual, premising that the particulars are derived from his own account …

The hopes and disappointments of his early years are disclosed in his Novel, called Arthur Fitz-Albini, in which he clothed a fictitious personage with his own sentiments and aspirations, and at the same time depicted with the utmost freedom the foibles not only of his neighbours and acquaintances, but even those of his own family and relations. In Arthur Fitz-Albini, “the few, whose penetration and freedom from envy enabled them to appreciate such a character, beheld the eloquence of the enlightened senator, with the independence of the country-gentleman, and the spirit and hospitality of the feudal chief, without his fierceness, his tyranny, or his uncultivated mind. Before such a man, all the paths of glory seemed to open, and the ascent to fame appeared to be covered with flowers.”


In these and many similar passages may be traced the adumbrations of Sir Egerton’s own character, and proofs that he was not unconscious of the defects which repelled the affections of his fellow-creatures, though unhappily destitute of that sober discretion and that Christian humility which would have proved the only efficient means to control or correct them (pp.534-539)

It’s likely that, with this obituary, and references to Brydges’ own forays into writing for the magazine, there is at least one review of the book out there, likely favourable.

Later notes about the book can be found in various biographies. A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (1816) notes on page 43:

“Sir S. E. B. has distinguished himself in almost every sort of polite literature, but more particularly as a critic of English poesy, in which character it is not too much to say that he stands unrivalled by any living author.”

Next, a rather lengthy biography, which is titled an autobiography, likely due to John Gibson Lockhart’s over-use of Brydges’ own words (an amount that would cause a superb number of cautions for anyone using another’s material today) was published in the Quarterly Review, no. 51, in 1834. It does cite positive points, but the majority leans towards the negative in a way that rather supports Austen’s own view:

“The other great grievance is Sir Egerton’s literary one. With respect to it, we cannot do better than re-quote an emphatic sentence from Mr. Sharp’s “Letters:” namely, “A want of harmony between the talents and the temperament is, wherever it is found, the fruitful source of faults and of sufferings. Perhaps few are less happy than those who are ambitious without industry who pant for the prize, but will not run the race.” Sir Egerton has all his days been busy without industry — perpetually panting for the prize, but never sufficiently persevering to make out one real heat.”

Over all, biographies and other writings published later than the book was published speak moderately to highly of Egerton, who was an MP who it seems tried to style himself as the then-head of a baronetcy he was not entitled to. Nevertheless, whatever the objective truth to the novel may be (I must say I don’t plan to read it) Austen’s effective review is definitely, if snarky, the most entertaining there is. Unfortunately, perhaps, for Brydges, it’s also likely the one that will last the longest when it comes to literary studies.



A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (1816) Henry Colburn, London
Courtier, Peter L (1806) The Lyre Of Love: Volume 2, John Sharpe, London
Le Faye, Deirdre (ed.) (2011) Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th edition, Oxford University Press


Gibson Lockhart, John (1834) Autobiography of Sir Egerton Brydges, Quarterly Review, no. 51, pp.342-365
Nichols, John Bowyer (1837) Obituary: Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges, The Gentleman’s Magazine, New Series, Vol 2, pp.534-539

Little Women: Why Is Meg’s First Kiss Given To Marmee?

A screenshot of John and Meg at their wedding taken from the BBC's 2017 production of Little Women

Screen shot from Little Women, copyright © 2017 BBC.

It wasn’t at all the thing, I’m afraid, but the minute she was fairly married, Meg cried, “The first kiss for Marmee!” and turning, gave it with her heart on her lips. During the next fifteen minutes she looked more like a rose than ever, for everyone availed themselves of their privileges to the fullest extent, from Mr. Laurence to old Hannah, who, adorned with a headdress fearfully and wonderfully made, fell upon her in the hall, crying with a sob and a chuckle, “Bless you, deary, a hundred times! The cake ain’t hurt a mite, and everything looks lovely.” (Alcott, Chapter 25)

This scene in Little Women Part Two (Good Wives) wherein Meg marries John is one that balances the continuation of the story – it gets you right back into it after what, at the time of publication, had been a gap of three months1 – and a new beginning – the sisters are starting to come into adulthood, and they are getting married just as Alcott’s readers wanted and Alcott half wanted (she wanted Jo to remain single).

The scene is also distinctly uncomfortable – albeit that it’s prefaced with an apology. As we can see from the extract above, after Meg and John have made their vows, Meg gives her first kiss to Marmee. How John felt about this is anyone’s guess – and whether Meg kissed him after kissing Marmee we’ll never know.

It is all contained in one sentence, a very brief interlude. Likely readers accepted it – Alcott’s apology tries to mitigate any criticism before the fact. But regardless, the scene is… icky, particularly as Meg doesn’t just kiss Marmee but ‘gave it with her heart on her lips’, rather as she ought to be kissing John. An act that signals the confirmation and the beginning of a romantic union is effectively changed, pushed aside by one of the two people it affects the most.

So why does it happen? There are a few book-related and Alcott-related reasons to consider. Looking at the novel first, at both parts in their entirety, we see that for all four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – Marmee comes first. This is evident from the first scenes, wherein Marmee returns home to a great reception – the sisters have been thinking about how they will spend their money and decide to buy Christmas presents for their mother. When she arrives home and there’s a letter from their father – he’s a member of the clergy during the American Civil War – they all gather around her in positions of affection to hear her read it. It’s incredibly sweet, a sign of a loving family, and in many ways that’s ‘just’ what the book is about. It’s also, perhaps, influenced by the absence of the father, how it has affected everyone and pulled them closer together. But one thing it definitely is is a sign of the domesticity to come.

Looking at the wedding, Marmee coming first for the sisters is evidenced by the first kiss. Unfortunately for John, he’s a bit player on his wedding day. Sarah Rivas touches on the scene in her article, Defining Nineteeth-Century Womanhood: The Cult of Marmee and Little Women (2014). Rivas looks at Marmee’s influence as a whole, and points out something about Jo that we can apply to Meg’s first kiss. She discusses a passage that is included in the novel later on; Jo says, in response to Marmee telling her to wait ‘until the best lover of all’ comes along, that ‘mothers are the best lovers in the world’ (Alcott, Chapter 42). This passage comes as Jo is struggling with the idea of being in a relationship with Laurie. Jo’s response, says Rivas, indicates that ‘though Jo is interested in a romantic relationship, her interest does not supersede her adoration and reverence for her mother’ (Rivas, p.55). It’s certainly a response that’s edging towards being irrelevant to the subject at hand – out of context, one might consider Jo to be much younger than she really is.

We can presume that Meg feels the same way as Jo, this ‘adoration and reverence’ that Rivas notes. Meg’s action, kissing Marmee instead of her husband, is an action to match Jo’s words. As Rivas says, the kiss ‘illustrates only one of several incidents in the text in which Marmee is equated with a male lover’ (ibid.). Jo’s response to her mother certainly suggests the value of Rivas’ statement, and the descriptions and dialogues of and about Marmee take this further.

Given what we know about the book in relation to the author – both parts of the novel are largely autobiographical; Jo is Alcott and the sisters her own – should we assume that the happily single Alcott’s rebellion against a marriage for her fictional counterpart plays a role in Meg’s action? It’s possible, but if so it is in terms of the overall context rather than specific to Meg. If we look at Jo as Alcott then she could have extended her thoughts towards Meg but it’s unlikely – Meg is based on Anna Alcott, who likewise married a man called John, and thus the writer was likely happy to include the wedding in her book.

But even if the rebellion against marriage doesn’t play a role in Meg’s first kiss, Alcott’s family life in general does. Alcott was interested in including a lot of domesticity in her book, as is apparent in the text, and it matched her world. She had a reverence for her family. This is where all the love for Marmee comes into the Alcott-related reason for the kiss. A look at Alcott’s diaries, collected by Ednah Cheney, shows just how well the fiction matches the reality, extremely positive language and even the occasional use of ‘kiss’ in entries and letters about and to family.

Affection was important, and no more to the rest of the family than to Alcott. There are examples aplenty so we will stick to those that include kisses. Here is one from 1843, when Alcott was ten and the family were living at Fruitlands, a fairly short-lived attempt at a utopian community that was formed by the Transcendentalist society they were members of:

October 8th.– When I woke up, the first thought I got was, “It’s Mother’s birthday: I must be very good.” I ran and wished her a happy birthday, and gave her my kiss. After breakfast we gave her our presents. I had a moss cross and a piece of poetry for her (Cheney, 1898, p.37).

Two years later she wrote a poem for her mother. We have this as well as the text of the letter her mother sent in return:

Dearest Mother,-I have tried to be more contented, and I think I have been more so. I have been thinking about my little room, which I suppose I never shall have. I should want to be there about all the time, and I should go there and sing and think.

But I’ll be contented
With what I have got;
Of folly repented,
Then sweet is my lot.

From your trying daughter,
Louy. (ibid., p.46)

My dear Louisa,-Your note gave me so much delight that I cannot close my eyes without first thanking you, dear, for making me so happy, and blessing God who gave you this tender love for your mother.

I have observed all day your patience with baby, your obedience to me, and your kindness to all.

Go on “trying,” my child; God will give you strength and courage, and help you fill each day with words and deeds of love. I shall lay this on your pillow, put a warm kiss on your lips, and say a little prayer over you in your sleep.

Mother (ibid.).

Considering Alcott’s age here, we can only use these extracts to help illustrate the sense of family and the values of those Alcott was growing up amongst rather than as an absolute reason for Meg’s action, but that in itself is very telling. Most telling, however, and most useful in our case, is the following extract from Alcott’s journal, written in May 1860 when the writer was twenty-eight. Interestingly, it’s titled ‘Meg’s wedding’:

The dear girl was married on the 23d, the same day as Mother’s wedding. A lovely day; the house full of sunshine, flowers, friends, and happiness. Uncle S. J. May married them, with no fuss, but much love; and we all stood round her. She in her silver-gray silk, with lilies of the valley (John’s flower) in her bosom and hair. We in gray thin stuff and roses,–sackcloth, I called it, and ashes of roses; for I mourn the loss of my Nan, and am not comforted. We have had a little feast, sent by good Mrs. Judge Shaw; then the old 122 folks danced round the bridal pair on the lawn in the German fashion, making a pretty picture to remember, under our Revolutionary elm.

Then, with tears and kisses, our dear girl, in her little white bonnet, went happily away with her good John; and we ended our first wedding. Mr. Emerson kissed her; and I thought that honor would make even matrimony endurable, for he is the god of my idolatry, and has been for years (ibid. pp.121-122).

From this we can see that as much as Alcott may have been happy for her sister on the occasion of her marriage, she was also filled with a sense of loss – her sister was leaving the family to set up home with her husband. There is no mention of the first kiss, but there is the mention of the fact that Anna was getting married on her parents’ wedding anniversary. That this is mentioned is a further sign of the Alcott family life and values.

The kiss that is mentioned is that given to Anna by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a close friend of the family. But it is not the fact of the kiss itself that is poignant here, but the remainder of what Alcott says about him, that he is ‘the god of my idolatry’. Alcott is comforted by Emerson’s gesture to her sister; she looks at the situation with something that resembles a crush. Alcott doesn’t want to marry, but if being a bride meant being kissed by Emerson – not as the bridegroom, though her words edge towards that idea – she might well be happy. It says a lot about how she felt about him.

Alcott didn’t mince her words – she really did see Emerson in a particularly brilliant light. As editor of Alcott’s journals and letters, Ednah Cheney adds her own commentary to the collection. Here is a paragraph from a letter Alcott wrote to a friend followed by a paragraph from Cheney’s commentary on it. The letter was written later in Alcott’s life about a time during her fifteenth year:

Not till many years later did I tell my Goethe of this early romance and the part he played in it. He was much amused, and begged for his letters, kindly saying he felt honored to be so worshipped. The letters were burnt long ago, but Emerson remained my “Master” while he lived, doing more for me,–as for many another,–than he knew, by the simple beauty of his life, the truth and wisdom of his books, the example of a great, good man, untempted and unspoiled by the world which he made better while in it, and left richer and nobler when he went.


Miss Alcott was safe in choosing her idol. Worship of Emerson could only refine and elevate her thoughts, and her intimate acquaintance with his beautiful home chastened her idolatry into pure reverent friendship which never failed her. She kept her worship to herself, and never sent him the letters in which she poured out the longings and raptures which filled her girlish heart (ibid. p.345).

This ‘worship’ of Emerson, particularly when combined with the journal entry about Anna’s marriage, is something that brings us back to Rivas’ concept of the cult of Marmee, and the opinion, which Rivas includes, of the critics Gregory K Eiselein and Anne Phillips who call Marmee an ‘omnipotent presence’ (Rivas, p.54). As well as the statement about Marmee being equated to a male lover, there is another from Rivas which is particularly relevant here: ‘throughout the novel, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy do not seem to question Marmee’s goodness, wisdom, or absolute authority’ (ibid., p.55).

It is in this way that Alcott’s worship of Emerson and her love for her mother intersect: her idol kissed her sister after her wedding, and it had a great impact on the way she, Alcott, saw the concept of marriage – or, at least, a wedding – if only for a moment. In her novel, closely following reality, Alcott replaces her idol with Marmee, who receives the adoration and reverence from Meg that we can see Alcott feeling for Emerson, an emotion only heightened by the way she’s included her mother, too. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that Alcott actively replaced Emerson with Marmee, but the same emotions hold forth in the fiction as they did in reality. And if Anna felt similarly about her mother as did her sister, then perhaps this is why Alcott felt comfortable writing the wedding scene in her novel in the way she so chose.

It is incredibly interesting that Alcott prefaces her scene with a note about the inappropriate nature of what Meg is about to do; it suggests that she knew it might not be well-received but that she wanted to do it regardless, and with so much passion. Perhaps Alcott knew her family might read it and wonder why she’d written it, or perhaps it really did happen with Anna and thus was included. Whatever the reason, it shows that she realised it wasn’t the best idea in the book, and that the idea went too far away from what she knew. Perhaps it is where the real domesticity meets the perfect, utopian domesticity that was a part of her world.


1 Part one was published in September 1868 and part two three months later.

Book References

Alcott, Louisa May (1869) Good Wives, Roberts Brothers, Boston
Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1898) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Rivas, Sarah (2014) Defining Nineteeth-Century Womanhood – The Cult of Marmee and Little Women, Scientia et Humanitas, Vol 4, pp. 53-64

Exploring The Question ‘How Old Was Alice In Wonderland?’

An illustration by John Tenniel from the original edition of the book, it shows, in black and white, Alice sat down in a circle of small animals and birds - Alice is smaller than them

The other day I was looking through my site statistics as I sometimes do, and noted a plethora of searches to do with the aforementioned book. They were specifically to do with Alice’s age. I won’t list them because if Google happens to see value in this post it might start sending the searchers here and my writing today isn’t about answering the question (though I will answer the question later because I’ll need to).

Instead I want to explore that plethora itself. You’ll often see similar search phrases that result in the one answer; everyone words things differently. It was the sheer number of differences that struck me, the differences suggesting that the motives behind the questioned differed too. I wondered why people were asking. (There was also a bit of ‘why now?’ in there – I wrote about the reading age for the book almost a year ago and it’s only recently that numbers have swelled.)

Alice’s age is provided by Carroll in the sequel, Through The Looking-Glass – seven years old. Whilst not given in the first book, we can assume she was six or seven then because the first takes place a few months before the second, May and November respectively. So we’ve an easy answer to the question of why people are asking – the age isn’t provided in the first book and it’s safe to assume that a good number of people don’t get to the second. The question also means that it’s more likely people haven’t read either book and are perhaps looking to ascertain how appropriate it would be for their own child to read. It tends1 to be the case, after all, that in children’s literature, the character’s ages match the intended audience. One of the phrases in my stats was specifically requesting an Alice book ‘for kids’ – clearly this person (a parent?) had misgivings about the story, and I don’t blame them – after reading it myself a few years ago I decided not to buy a copy for my nephew until he was a little older than Alice herself.

(I’ll note here that there were a few searches in the same vein as our main question for Through The Looking-Glass. This could be a different, shorter, post but I think it’s best summed up as wanting to make sure the story doesn’t move too far ahead from the first as to mean that a child – likely deemed old enough for Alice by whatever metric – would have to mature in order to continue. It’s safe to assume that Carroll was looking for or was asked to provide more of the same, hence the short time frame between them.)

This leads us neatly onto the topic of context – are people asking in order to understand the Victorian context of this 1865 book? In my post about the target audience for the book, I wrote about the way the book was clearly written for children but how cultural change means that in our modern world it’s pretty violent and a bit too strange. Certainly Alice is a mix of very mature and not so, which reflects both her age and environment and suits her character’s role in the didactic book. It is interesting to look at the novel in the context of its time, to compare it to others – few have stood the passing of the centuries like Carroll’s – and see where morals and values as well as views about childhood come into play.

In this way I wonder if the secondary meaning behind asking about Alice’s age is relevant here – how old is the book that bears her name?

And on that note, therefore, somewhat, what is the reading level of the book? Does the appropriate age group of a modern child match the target reading level? When I gave it to my nephew, via grandma, I said it might be best read together; he’s a good reader but he necessarily lacks a Victorian child’s mindset. One searcher wanted to know if the book could be read by five-year-olds.

Lastly, looking at different interpretations of phrases, I think it’s possible some searchers are looking to study the content’s appropriateness in terms of Alice’s age, maybe also in terms of her social context. How appropriate is it for a child of seven to be dreaming of heads being cut off and what would her environment have been like? The law was different back then, and as we know from the information available about the progression of early children’s literature, childhood had until recently been viewed very differently to the way we view it now; the idea of childhood began in the 1600s.

I don’t think there are any conclusions to be made here; this post must remain exploratory. But certainly, wondering about the background behind these searches was interesting in a way wondering the same about other searches was not – I gave pondering other search subjects a try in order to ascertain the worth of this post.

When did you last ask ‘why’ of something in literature and what did you discover?


1 I say tends because we very much have to exclude Lyra and Will. On that note it’s interesting that the sales information for The Secret Commonwealth notes that it is for adults. Despite Lyra’s older age, it’s naturally going to mistaken sometimes for a children’s book.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society: The Book In A Book

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society book cover

Allow me a little extraneous backstory. I am constantly going back to The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society; I’ve read it twice since buying it around 2015, and have re-read sections about four times since then. Most recently the reason was the film; it had highlighted to me things I’d not really thought, the cultural aspects of Juliet’s period – clothes, for example. For some reason I’d always pictured her in 1990s gear, so caught up was I in the story of the war. I also think much of my overlooking of things was due to the fact of letters rather than regular prose, description of a certain kind. (Incidently, I enjoyed the film, and thought it handled the source material, the limits imposed by letters, very well.) It’s apt that I was always seeing the book, its cover, everywhere, because this is what led me to buy it – it had seemingly followed me around, taunting me to read it, and since I gave in it’s continued to follow me, if now at my bidding.

It was during one of those later dips into the book that I realised the meta concept – author Mary Ann Shaffers’ book is fictional writer Juliet’s book.

Juliet needs to write an article to ‘address the practical, moral, and philosophical value of reading… I am to cover the philosophical side of the debate’ (p. 28). Over the course of the novel we see Juliet finding material for this article (which ends up becoming a book) and in so creating this narrative for Juliet, Shaffers in turn writes the same book. Guernsey is a book in a book.

Of course this idea contains a fair amount of conjecture on my part; if there’s something I’ve learned over the time spent planning this post it’s that we unlikely to find more background to the writing of the novel than we have. Shaffers’ death before its completion – happily, she knew it was to be published, after having handed it to her niece to finish (if I recall correctly, Barrows’ input was mostly in the editing of it1) – means that what we already know, partly from Barrows, will likely be it. We have a brief background, that’s included at the front of the book – at least in the UK edition; it was a trip to Guernsey that American Shaffers made, as well as persuasion from her book club to write, that got her started. Given the content of the book, the fictional literary society (which we can give the catch-all term of ‘book club’ to), together with the ‘value of reading’, as quoted in the previous paragraph, it’s fair to say that Shaffers mixed her day-to-day reality with her experience of Guernsey2 – we can see why she wrote what she did, the further content than the occupation. Juliet needed to write an article, needed something to continue the success she found in being a best-selling novelist. Shaffers needed a book, needed to write something after her peers told her she should. It’s pretty similar.

So then, in effect, Shaffers is the writer ‘part’ of Juliet. Shaffers uses Juliet’s experiences to look at the affect reading can have on people, to look at the way it can be used, both conventionally and unconventionally – if we consider its role as a loophole for which the residents of Guernsey could get around the banning of meeting in groups – and the way it brings people together in various ways. Most obvious is the use of the literary society with its colourful cast of characters; there is also the beginnings of Juliet’s trip – the love of Charles Lamb uniting two people, as well as the fact of the secondhand book trade in itself. There’s the use of what we can call marginalia for its effect – the name of a reader written into a book, which forms a connection as the book passes hands. (Here Shaffers brings in the musings of a reader who finds evidence of a previous owner, connecting the two readers in her fictional reality.) Reading brings Juliet and Dawsy together, it brings residents of an occupied island together, and its final result is that it brings the history of Guernsey to a wide readership, both the off-stage readers Juliet is looking to reach and the real-world readers of Shaffers’ novel. All those values of reading that Juliet lists, Shaffers satisfies in her work. And as to the practical, educational side, well, that’s what the literary discussions are for.

On page 34, Amelia Maugery notes that Juliet’s bestseller (Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War3) had provided her with an update on what those in Guernsey didn’t know about the war elsewhere. Juliet’s response, page 35, includes, ‘…the Spectator felt a light approach to the bad news would serve as an antidote and that humour would help to raise London’s low morale. I am very glad Izzy served that purpose, but the need to be humorous against the odds is – thank goodness – over. I would never make fun of anyone who loved reading.’ This somewhat coincides with Shaffers’ book – a happy tone where appropriate – and as much as she provides the bad, it is in effect an antidote to it, showing the humanity in an otherwise inhumane situation. (It’s interesting to compare the book with Caroline Lea’s more recent When The Sky Fell Apart – a book about occupied Jersey that uses a different method to tell a similar tale (the occupation of the Channel Islands). Happiness in the face of occupation, friendship and society doing what they can.

I’ve wanted to explore this topic without too much contemplation of facts because I found a lot more there for the taking than there was when just looking for the book’s backstory. There is so much of the idea and reasons for literature in itself in this book and the crafting of it that we’re not going to hear about directly from the authors. However there is this, at the end of Shaffers’ part of the acknowledgements that needs to be looked at:

If nothing else, I hope these characters and their story shed some light on the sufferings and strength of the people of the Channel Islands during the German Occupation. I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art – be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music – enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.

It surely does.


1 From the acknowledgements of the book (Bloomsbury edition): “…Annie, who stepped in to finish this book after unexpected health issues interrupted my ability to work shortly after the manuscript was sold.” Barrows took it on once it had been passed to an editor. Wikipedia (n.d.) notes, ‘After the manuscript had been accepted for publication (2006), the book’s editor requested some changes that would require substantial rewriting’, however there is no citation for this.
2 From the acknowledgements: “I had travelled to England to research another book and while there learned of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands. On a whim, I flew to Guernsey and was fascinated by my brief glimpse of the island’s history and beauty. From that visit came this book, albeit many years later.” Shaffers also notes her daughters insisting she sit down and type, to get the book written.
3 Issac Bickerstaff was the pseudonym Jonathan Swift used as part of a hoax to predict someone’s death.


Shaffers, Mary Ann and Barrows, Annie (2008) The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, Bloomsbury, London.
Wikipedia (n.d.) The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, accessed 16th May 2019.

How Did Charlotte’s Brontë’s Sisters Influence Jane Eyre?

Book cover of Jane Eyre

The result of a couple of weeks’ worth of work in total, this post is over 4000 words. I have thus formatted it as a research article and for convenience linked to the various sections.

Table Of Contents

Working Together
Plain Jane
The Other Sisters
Appendix A: Contemporary Reception of Life
Appendix B: Anne’s Own Influences – Agnes’ Horrific First Placement


In planning and writing this piece I chose for the most part to stick to primary and early secondary sources; this naturally afforded the opportunity to study the work of those closest to Charlotte (both in terms of relationships and era) without too many tertiary sources, and made research a lot easier in terms of access. I often made use of the Project Gutenberg versions of texts; where page numbers were not included I referred to digital versions of the originals. Contemporary sources, both first-hand accounts and literary criticism, are vast, and Charlotte’s own comments on her writing abundant; I decided to limit my research to Charlotte and her sisters – when I had the thought to look at their brother, Branwell, I discovered sources that are not considered trustworthy (this is the opinion of a number of other contemporary sources)1, and in terms of the family in general there is a great amount of information extending past the nuclear family that would have made this piece far too long. (William Wright’s 1893 book, The Brontë’s In Ireland, seems to have been well-regarded by his fellow enthusiasts.) This said, whilst I have focused on the sisters and Charlotte’s opinion of herself, I have allowed for slight wandering where I have discovered further interesting information as a result of my research.


LifeThe Life Of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cowan Bridge – Casterton Clergy Daughters’ School, in the village of Cowan Bridge (Charlotte often refers to it by the village’s name).


“You think, because I always do as you bid me, I have no judgment of my own: but only try me – that is all I ask – and you shall see what I can do.” (2017, p.9)

This is from chapter one of Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. In chapter twenty-three of Jane Eyre, written after Anne’s book (though ultimately published before), older sister Charlotte included a line that is rather similar, and more well-known:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart!” (2007a, pp.305-306)

The two lines are, in terms of phrasing and language, the same. They also share a similar context in terms of self-belief, and of course they are both uttered by characters who are known to be formed from the traits and values of their authors. But the wider contexts are entirely different. Agnes is responding to her family’s teasing that she is too young and dependent and so forth to go to work as a governess. She’s 18; the baby of the family. Jane is in the midst of a passionate argument with Rochester in regards to her belief that he’s about to marry marriage Blanche Ingram. She’s also rebuffing the way he treats her (Jane).

A comparison could be made in regards to the literary treatment, and questions asked about whether the two Brontë sisters felt a lack of self belief in themselves. Then there are the social, gender, contexts of the day to consider. But that’s not what I was thinking of when I found the two lines. Instead I wondered about the bigger picture of the sisters writing and how much they might have influenced each other, particularly, if it could be found, in this case of Agnes and Jane. (Gaskell reported that Charlotte’s character Shirley represented Emily2.) Having struggled and failed to find a publisher for her first manuscript, The Professor, yet succeeding in getting both Anne’s and Emily’s novels accepted as a two volume publication, and knowing that Charlotte read both, how much would Anne and Emily have influenced Charlotte as she tried to write something ‘acceptable’? And, knowing that Jane is in many respects Charlotte herself, how does her line from above relate?

Working Together

The sisters retained the old habit, which was begun in their aunt’s life-time, of putting away their work at nine o’clock, and beginning their study, pacing up and down the sitting room. At this time, they talked over the stories they were engaged upon, and described their plots. Once or twice a week, each read to the others what she had written, and heard what they had to say about it. Charlotte told me, that the remarks made had seldom any effect in inducing her to alter her work… It was on one of these occasions that Charlotte determined to make her heroine plain, small, and unattractive, in defiance of the accepted canon. (Gaskell, 1857a, pp. 10-11)

In Life, Gaskell sets the scene, inferring that the sisters discussed their writing every evening. It’s interesting to note the words ascribed directly to Charlotte here: ‘remarks’, ‘seldom any effect’, and, particularly, ‘inducing’. It could be that Gaskell herself composed the sentence, and that would possibly be the opinion of others who knew Charlotte, given their reception of Life (see Appendix A), but if we consider the account to be verbatim, then those words are very similar in their approach and mood, and they are pointed. Why ‘remarks’ instead of the softer ‘comments’ or ‘thoughts’? ‘Seldom any effect’ – nowadays this phrasing might be taken as haughty, but if we exclude that idea and consider that that might not be the case here, we still have a phrase with two possible subtexts: firstly, that the ‘remarks’ truly didn’t have an effect, and secondly, that they did and Charlotte wished to say otherwise.

It’s the use of ‘inducing’ that rounds it all off – did Charlotte think her sister’s opinions unworthy or were they being quite forceful in their feedback? Was Charlotte perhaps covering up her positive reception of their feedback? Certainly she edited her sisters’ works3; would they not have been able to do likewise, if not publicly?

There is another, more specific, occasion recounted in Life, the original source cited only in vague terms that might therefore have been lost on us now if it hadn’t been specified by others. Another literary friend of Charlotte’s who, given Gaskell’s description of their article, “a beautiful obituary”, and, helpfully, “most likely learnt from herself [Charlotte] what is there stated” (Gaskell, 1857a, p. 11) was Harriet Martineau, who says the following:

…She [Charlotte] once told her sisters that they were wrong – even morally wrong – in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course. They replied that it was impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. Her answer was: “I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a heroine as plain and small as myself, who still shall be as interesting as any of yours.” “Hence ‘Jane Eyre,'” said she in telling the anecdote: ‘but she is not myself, any further than that.’ (Martineau, 1869, p.48)4

Not only does this provide insight into the sisters’ working method, it also provides added context for Gaskell’s anecdote.

Plain Jane

In her 1886 book, Hattie Tyng Griswold seemingly expands on the information in Martinteau’s account:

She was extremely sensitive about her personal appearance, considering herself irredeemably ugly, and always thinking that people must be disgusted with her looks. She purposefully made her heroine in “Jane Eyre” unattractive, as she felt it an injustice that a woman must always be judged by her looks, and she felt that novelists were somewhat to blame in the matter, as they always made their heroines beautiful in person, however unattractive in mind or character (p. 296).

We know Charlotte felt negatively about her looks. On 24th March, 1847, Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey5 and said:

I’ll take care not to tell you next time, when I think I am looking specially old and ugly; as if people could not have that privilege, without being supposed to be at the last gasp! I shall be thirty-one next birthday. My youth is gone like a dream; and very little use have I ever made of it.” (cited in Gaskell, 1857a, pp. 18-19)

She also spoke openly to Gaskell about her looks, to which Gaskell adds for the reader her own commentary, ending with a refutation of the opinion:

Much of this nervous dread of encountering strangers I ascribed to the idea of her personal ugliness, which had been strongly impressed upon her imagination early in life, and which she exaggerated to herself in a remarkable manner. “I notice,” said she, “that after a stranger has once looked at my face, he is careful not to let his eyes wander to that part of the room again!” A more untrue idea never entered into any one’s head. (1857a, p. 290)

Of particular interest here, in regards to the use of a ‘plain’ character, is the note that Charlotte’s thoughts had been provided to her – how, we may not know, but in Gaskell’s words is the suggestion that third parties had vocalised their opinions. Perhaps this was why Charlotte was outspoken about her feelings – she was simply repeating (and, sadly, had taken to heart) what others had told her. (Whilst there’s a chance that it was Charlotte who had made the impression herself, Gaskell’s wording makes this unlikely.)

When we add this to Griswold’s extra commentary, and regard both in the light of that statement from Jane to Rochester, we can see someone who had an idea of herself that she was perhaps used to, but nevertheless railed against. And this in itself provides background for Griswold’s statement about injustice – Jane may be plain but that doesn’t mean she is soulless and heartless.

Lastly on this note is this statement by contemporary author Margaret Oliphant, who reviewed Jane Eyre. Oliphant’s words join Gaskell’s ‘more untrue idea’ and put Jane where Charlotte perhaps wanted her to be, a place vastly different to the one other reviewers had set her:

I am not sure, indeed, that anybody believed Miss Brontë when she said her heroine was plain. It is very clear from the story that Jane was never unnoticed, never failed to please, except among the women, whom it is the instinctive art of the novelist to rouse in arms against the central figure, thus demonstrating the jealousy, spite, and rancour native to their minds in respect to the women who please men (1897, p, 18).

It would be fair to say that Charlotte’s construction of a plain heroine, to show her sisters how interesting one such character could be, succeeded. Oliphant’s positive opinion was but one of many; Charlotte could count Thackeray among her readers, and many reviewers loved it. As we know, it quickly became a sensation and went swiftly to a second edition.

The Other Sisters

If we’re to look at Charlotte’s sisters, we must not forget the eldest. There were originally five Brontë sisters; Maria and Elizabeth died young as a result of illness caught at school. The details were summed up in the third volume of Chambers Cyclopaedia of English Literature, published in 1903, in the section about Charlotte:

The two eldest daughters were sent, in July 1824, to a school for clergymen’s daughters at Cowan Bridge near Kirby-Lonsdale, and Charlotte and Emily followed in September. A low fever broke out in the school, and Maria and Elizabeth became seriously ill, and were taken home to die. Though Charlotte was but eight years old, the habit of observation had set in, and she attributed the death of her sisters to their cruel treatment in the school, an injury avenged in the opening scenes of Jane Eyre (p. 520).

The ‘low fever’ was likely tuberculosis – the disease came in the aftermath of a typhoid outbreak at the school (Wikipedia, n.d. b)6.

Like the other descriptions of the Brontës in this era, we can assume Chambers took as its source Life and/or derivative works made from it. Gaskell herself says in particular that Helen Burns is a transcript of Maria, and that those who had been pupils alongside Charlotte recognised in Charlotte “an unconsciously avenging sister of the sufferer” (Gaskell, 1857b, p.73). Following this, Gaskell provides an account from one of those pupils of a day during Maria’s illness when the woman in charge – Gaskell calls her by the name given to her in Jane Eyre, Miss Scatcherd – got angry about Maria not getting out of bed, and ‘abusing her all the time for dirty and untidy habits’ (ibid., pp. 73-74). This information forms part of a vast amount of content provided by Gaskell about Cowan Bridge, comprised of both objective facts and Charlotte’s feelings about her time there.

Helen Burns’ situation is of course dire, a painful disease followed by death that affects Jane a lot. The story is very much the conclusion of an awful time at an awful school, echoing Charlotte’s time and experience, which was perhaps made worse by Charlotte’s young age, the way experiences can be heightened then. Gaskell says, as one of many paragraphs about Cowan Bridge:

Miss Brontë more than once said to me, that she should not have written what she did of Lowood in “Jane Eyre,” if she had thought the place would have been so immediately identified with Cowan Bridge, although there was not a word in her account of the institution but what was true at the time when she knew it; she also said that she had not considered it necessary, in a work of fiction, to state every particular with the impartiality that might be required in a court of justice, nor to seek out motives, and make allowances for human failings, as she might have done, if dispassionately analysing the conduct of those who had the superintendence of the institution. I believe she herself would have been glad of an opportunity to correct the over-strong impression which was made upon the public mind by her vivid picture, though even she, suffering her whole life long, both in heart and body, from the consequences of what happened there, might have been apt, to the last, to take her deep belief in facts for the facts themselves – her conception of truth for the absolute truth (ibid., pp. 64-65).

For a more modern explanation of the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth we can turn to Margaret Smith, recent editor of Charlotte’s letters, who notes that the sisters ‘began or grew worse’ at Cowan Bridge (Smith, in Bronte, 2007b, p.87n). If the latter – ‘worse’ – then it’s perhaps more reasonable that those at Cowan Bridge might be angry – Helen’s fate sets in stone the earlier experiences of Lowood. But to her publishers, of the scenes at Lowood, Charlotte said:

Perhaps too the first part of ‘Jane Eyre’ may suit the public taste better than you anticipate – for it is true and Truth has a severe charm of its own. Had I told all the truth, I might indeed have made it far more exquisitely painful – but I deemed it advisable to soften and retrench many particulars lest the narrative should rather displease than attract (ibid., p.86).

It is here that Charlotte accepts the suggestion to add ‘an autobiography’ to the title. A few months later, in a letter to the publishers’ literary adviser, William Smith Williams, Charlotte spoke about seeing ‘an elderly clergyman reading it the other day, and had the satisfaction of hearing him exclaim…’ (ibid. pp. 96-97) and she notes the man’s declarations of the school and the teachers, which in her transcription is devoid of specifics. (Charlotte makes use of the common literary device of the day wherein references to specific people and places are excluded, presumably, in this case, to lessen any more complaints should anyone else hear of the inclusion of the school, particularly as the words of the ‘elderly clergyman’ – whom Smith says may be Charlotte’s friend, a reverend who had sent his daughters to the school (ibid. p. 97n) – are strong and damning.)


It is clear that Charlotte’s sisters had a big influence on Jane Eyre. Where Emily and Anne were very well placed to provide advice and inspiration in real time, Maria and Elizabeth’s lives, in terms of Charlotte’s memories and the reflections of others, provided content that Charlotte used as the background to her character. Charlotte’s agreement to use ‘an autobiography’ on the title page, together with her openness about her inspiration – an openness that extends to a fair amount of the characters and themes in general – provides evidence; it also provides us a wonderful, detailed, look into Charlotte’s world, both in terms of her mental processes and how she lived. Through her letters and the accounts of those who knew her we can see the turmoil and battles she went through in order to do justice to the various aspects of her life and family, and the strength she kept hold of when negative reactions to her work rolled in. Jane Eyre is as much about her loyalty to her family and their struggles as it is about her time as a governess, gender, and the unrequited love she felt for her teacher, which she had unsuccessfully written about before and would reform in order to create her third publication.


1 Chambers Cyclopaedia of English Literature (vol 3) offers a brief summary about Branwell and Patrick Brontë: ‘Doubtless the book was unusually outspoken. The obsession of Branwell’s conduct and conversation at the time she [Charlotte] wrote it goes further than anything else to account for this. There is also abundant testimony that her father and one or two men who visited her home talked before her, if not to her, with as little reticence as Rochester talked to Jane Eyre.’ (1903, p. 522). Whilst the accounts Chambers references seem to be legitimate, there is an account of a meeting with the family that also fits the description, but is possibly not reliable, in Francis Gundy’s book, Pictures Of The Past (an autobiographical work published in 1879).
2 Charlotte had apparently told Gaskell that Shirley was Emily: ‘The character of Shirley herself, is Charlotte’s representation of Emily. I mention this, because all that I, a stranger, have been able to learn about her has not tended to give either me, or my readers, a pleasant impression of her. But we must remember how little we are acquainted with her, compared to that sister, who, out of her more intimate knowledge, says that she “was genuinely good, and truly great,” and who tried to depict her character in Shirley Keeldar, as what Emily Brontë would have been, had she been placed in health and prosperity.’ (1857a, p.116). But Ellen Nussey, who knew Emily as well as anyone outside the family, did not recognise Emily in Shirley (Wikipedia, n.d. c).
3 The second edition of Emily’s Wuthering Heights, published in 1850, was edited by Charlotte.
4 It is likely to have been the author and critic Clement Shorter who added the first written citation of this reference to Martineau; Shorter’s 1900 edition of Life notes Martineau’s article as having appeared in the Daily News (Shorter, 1900, p.324). The editor of the 1996 edition of Life, Angus Easson, cites the exact date: 6th April 1855 (Easson, 1996, p. 529). Martineau’s book, Biographical Sketches, came later, in 1869, and in it the introduction to Charlotte’s reported dialogue was altered. In addition, the article, seemingly in its original form, was reprinted in the Daily Alta California on 30th May 1855. (See the References section for a link: the Daily News article appears to not be online, so, whilst the American reprint is a little difficult to read, it offers a chance to view it.) Interestingly, this reprint cites the London Morning News, suggesting Martineau’s article had been widely syndicated.
5 Life does not say that the letter was to Ellen, however Shorter identifies it as such (1990, p.331). Nussey was Charlotte’s long-term close friend.
6 The Wikipedia article includes further information about the conditions at the school in regards to Charlotte’s own treatment.

Appendix A: Contemporary Reception of Life

Some years after Life was published, a letter from Charlotte’s father, Patrick, to Gaskell, was discovered. In it, he requests his recipient write about his daughter, saying: “You seem to me to be the best qualified for doing what I wish should be done. If, therefore, you will be so kind as to publish a long or short account of her life and works, just as you may deem expedient and proper, Mr. Nicholls and I will give you such information as you may require.” (Patrick Branwell to Elizabeth Gaskell, 16th June 1855, cited in Shorter, 1900, pp. xxiii-xxiv). However, the resulting text was not well-received. Shorter says later in his introduction, “Not only the public but the intimate relations and friends appeared to be satisfied” and includes letters from Patrick Brontë to the publisher and to Gaskell (Shorter, 1900, p. xxvii), however as the book became widely known, “Mrs. Gaskell found herself in a veritable ‘hornets’ nest’ – as she expressed it. She visited Italy the moment her task was completed, and during April and May of the year 1857 her publishers had to bear the brunt of a considerable number of lawyers’ letters.” (ibid., One of these letters was in regards to the lady Charlotte’s brother, Branwell, had likely had an affair with. Others were in regards to those who had been negatively described: ‘The published text does not go so far as to blame him [the school master] for the deaths of two Brontë sisters, but even so the Carus Wilson family published a rebuttal with the title “A refutation of the statements in ‘The life of Charlotte Bronte,’ regarding the Casterton Clergy Daughters’ School, when at Cowan Bridge”.’ (Wikipedia, n.d. a)

Appendix B: Anne’s Own Influences – Agnes’ Horrific First Placement

Gaskell and Charlotte spoke about the sisters’ writing far beyond methods, editing, and Charlotte’s thoughts as to heroines. In Life, Gaskell writes about a conversation she had with Charlotte in regards to Anne’s first book; this answers a question readers may have as to the reality of the scene in which Agnes swiftly destroys a nest of baby birds in order to prevent the slower, sadistic killing by her young charge:

I was once speaking to her [Charlotte] about “Agnes Grey” – the novel in which her sister Anne pretty literally describes her own experiences as a governess – and alluding more particularly to the account of the stoning of the little nestlings in the presence of the parent birds. She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of “respectable” human nature… (Gaskell, 1857b, pp. 189-190)

Following this, Charlotte had recounted a story from her own life wherein a boy had thrown stones at her.



Brontë, Anne (2017) Agnes Grey, Vintage Classics, London
Brontë, Charlotte (2007-a) Jane Eyre, Vintage Classics, London
Brontë, Charlotte (2007-b) Selected Letters, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Chambers Cyclopaedia of English Literature Vol 3 (3rd ed) (1903), W&R Chambers Ltd, Edinburgh
Easson, Angus (ed.) Explanatory Notes, in Gaskell, Elizabeth, (1996) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857-a) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 2, Smith, Elder & Co., London
Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857-b) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Smith, Elder & Co, London
Griswold, Hattie Tyng (1902) Home Life Of Great Authors, 7th ed, A C McClurg & Co, Chicago
Martineau, Harriet (1869) Biographical Sketches, author’s edition, Leypoldt & Holt, New York
Oliphant, Margaret, “The Sisters Brontë” in Oliphant et al (1897), Women Novelists Of Queen Victoria’s Reign, Hurst & Blackett, London
Shorter, Clement K (ed.) Gaskell, Elizabeth (1900) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Haworth edition, Harper & Brothers, New York/London


Daily Alta California (30th May 1855) Death of Currer Bell, Vol. 6, Number 136, front page, accessed 8th February 2019
Wikipedia (n.d.-a) The Life of Charlotte Brontë, accessed 11th February 2019
Wikipedia (n.d.-b) Cowan Bridge School, accessed 24th April 2019
Wikipedia (n.d.-c) Shirley (novel), accessed 24th April 2019


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