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Just Visiting: Charlotte Bronte (1 of 2)

My small quest began with a plan mentioned in one of Charlotte Brontë’s letters, written on January 19, 1853 while she was on a visit to London from her home in Haworth, Yorkshire. “Being allowed to have my own choice of sights this time—I selected the real rather than the decorative side of Life—I have been over two prisons ancient & modern—Newgate and Pentonville—also the Bank, the Exchange ‘the Foundling Hospital,’—and to-day if all be well, I go with Dr. Forbes to see Bethlehem Hospital.”1

Did Charlotte Brontë actually go to Bethlem? I scribbled a note at the time to check whether the visit came off, little knowing how crooked a trail I would walk before satisfying myself—more or less—of the answer.

It’s such a tiny detail, of little importance to most of the biographers who have excavated the life of Charlotte Brontë from her birth in 1816 through her authorship of Jane Eyre to her death in 1855, about two years after the planned visit. Most of those who mention her January sightseeing tour skim over the details while using it to speculate about Brontë’s psychology and perhaps her intentions. Did she plan to write one of the social-issue novels so popular at the time? Was she drawn to prisons and hospitals for the insane because of the mental and physical breakdown of her brother, Branwell Brontë, before his death in 1848?

My focus was different. I had dipped into Margaret Smith’s magisterial three-volume compilation of Charlotte Brontë’s letters while starting research on my fifth novel, ranging over mid-nineteenth century sources to get a feel for the texture of the period. I knew that my novel would be centred on a notorious member of my husband’s family who was incarcerated in the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum at the Bethlem Royal Hospital during the 1840s and 50s. Drawn up short by reading that Brontë might have visited Bethlem at the time, I wanted to confirm the visit and, more important, discover whether she had left any record of her impressions of the hospital and its inmates.

I quickly found that there is no further reference to Bethlem in any known Brontë letter, and the many biographers whose books I consulted wrote that the visit had come off without saying how they had confirmed this. In a footnote, Margaret Smith writes that on January 28, Brontë presented a copy of her new novel, Villette, to Dr. John Forbes, the physician who was supposed to take her to the hospital, inscribing it personally “in acknowledgment of kindness.”2 This could be taken as confirming the visit, but I wondered if it was enough.

Forbes was a distinguished lung specialist, a friend of Brontë’s publisher George Smith and a former schoolmate of Smith’s father in Scotland. In 1849, at Smith’s suggestion, Brontë had consulted Forbes about the care of her sister, Anne Brontë, who was dying of tuberculosis. It seemed possible that the visit to Bethlem had not come off, but that Brontë wished to thank Forbes for agreeing to take her, and for his help with Anne. After all, she signed books on January 28 for several friends and acquaintances.

Why was I sceptical? Brontë was often ill and painfully shy, and it was common for her to cancel visits. In her biography, Elizabeth Gaskell records a rather charming incident during a visit Brontë made to her house in Manchester in April, 1853.

“One evening we had, among other guests, two sisters who sang Scottish ballads exquisitely. Miss Brontë had been sitting quiet and constrained till they began “The Bonnie House of Airlie,” but the effect of that and “Carlisle Yetts,” which followed, was as irresistible as the playing of the Piper of Hamelin. The beautiful clear light came into her eyes; her lips quivered with emotion; she forgot herself, rose, and crossed the room to the piano, where she asked eagerly for song after song. The sisters begged her to come and see them the next morning, when they would sing as long as ever she liked; and she promised gladly and thankfully. But on reaching the house her courage failed. We walked some time up and down the street; she upbraiding herself all the while for folly, and trying to dwell on the sweet echoes in her memory rather than on the thought of a third sister who would have to be faced if we went in. But it was of no use; and dreading lest this struggle with herself might bring on one of her trying headaches, I entered at last and made the best apology I could for her non-appearance.”3

A woman so highly strung, burdened with memories of her brother’s breakdown and facing the daunting edifice of Bethlem, might just as easily have paced up and down outside, got back in the carriage and asked to be driven home.

To be continued.