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Just Visiting: Charlotte Bronte (2 of 2)

(continued from previous post)

Lesley Krueger continues:

How to find out whether Charlotte Brontë toured Bethlem? I’m a novelist, far from a Brontë scholar, and this was a little part-time quest. I decided to start at the Bethlem Hospital archives, which I visited last November to research my new novel. Archivist Colin Gale told me he had never seen a reference to a visit by Brontë in any of the archival material, but kindly checked the 1853 visitor’s book—and drew a blank. No Charlotte Brontë, no John Forbes, no “Currer Bell:” Brontë’s pen name. But there were precious few other names that year, either. The book seems to have been neglected in 1853, and it was impossible to take the absence of Brontë’s name as proof she’d never stepped inside.

Back home in Toronto, it occurred to me that while Charlotte Brontë may not have written about her visit to Bethlem, perhaps Forbes did. Dr. Robin A.L. Agnew is the author of a short biography of the doctor, who was knighted in 1853.1 The Brontës aren’t mentioned, but in his footnotes Agnew refers to a collection of Forbes’s unpublished personal papers held by descendants in Australia. I assumed that someone in the Forbes family would have noticed the name “Charlotte Brontë” years ago, but couldn’t help wondering if Forbes had made a reference to Bethlem in early 1853 obscure enough that its significance had been missed. “On a visit to Bethlem with a friend …?”

Robin Agnew proved to be both helpful and gracious. Emailing from England, he confirmed that he had never seen the Brontë name in any Forbes papers, but he put me in touch with David Forbes, a surgeon in Australia who is a direct descendent of the Victorian physician. With equal kindness, the Australian Forbes dashed my hopes. Not only is there no mention of Charlotte Brontë in the papers, there is nothing about Bethlem. No joy, either, from other Forbes papers held by the University of Aberdeen, despite the long-distance help of deputy archivist Andrew MacGregor.

That left me with one other obvious avenue: Brontë’s publisher, George Smith, with whom she stayed during her visit to London. George Smith, A Memoir With Some Pages of Autobiography, was privately published in 1902 by his widow, Elizabeth Smith.2 It contains several articles Smith published in The Cornhill Magazine in 1900, including a memoir of Charlotte Brontë written almost fifty years after he had last seen her. Smith was 76 years old at the time and would die less than a year later, but his biography makes it clear that he was sharp until the end, and I had seen respectful references to the memoir in most authoritative Brontë biographies.3

In Smith’s affectionate portrait of the author, I finally found my reference, obviously known to biographers but going maddeningly unquoted in their published works.

“Charlotte Brontë stayed with us several times,” Smith writes. “The utmost was, of course, done to entertain and please her. We arranged for dinner-parties, at which artistic and literary notabilities, whom she wished to meet, were present. We took her to places which we thought would interest her—the 'Times' office, the General Post Office, the Bank of England, Newgate, Bedlam.”

Bedlam. So there we are.

Or are we? Someone’s memory fifty years after the fact can’t entirely be trusted. Yet Smith is convincing, providing details that ring true. “One thing that which impressed her very much,” he notes, “was the lighted rooms of the newspaper offices in Fleet Street and the Strand, as we drove home in the middle of the night from some City expedition.”

“At Newgate,” he says, in an anecdote often quoted, “she rapidly fixed her attention on an individual prisoner. This was a poor girl with an interesting face, and an expression of the deepest misery. She had, I believe, killed her illegitimate child. Miss Brontë walked up to her, took her hand, and began to talk to her. She was, of course, quickly interrupted by the prison warder with the formula, ‘Visitors are not allowed to speak to the prisoners.’”

I think Charlotte Brontë probably paid her visit to Bethlem, and I would be delighted if anyone could tell me definitively with whom. Smith never names the “we” who took her. Smith and Forbes? Forbes alone, at Smith’s behest? Perhaps the latter, since Smith provides no eye-witness description of the author’s reaction to the hospital, or repeats anything she said. Of course, that was my original hope in trying to track the visit down, and despite some further checking, I remain disappointed. It would have been wonderful to see the asylum through Charlotte Brontë’s eyes. But that is where fiction can come in, and maybe where it will—since, Reader, I am writing a novel.

Lesley Krueger's last novel was The Corner Garden from Penguin Books. Her new novel, The Resident Thief, will be published in 2013.