Piecing together the lost letters of Charlotte Bronte

IT WAS an unspeakable bereavement. His wife and their six children had all gone and only their letters remained.

Curator Sarah Laycock with an envelope addressed by Charlotte Brontë. PIC: Charlotte Graham/Guzelian

Charlotte, his last surviving daughter, had succumbed to suspected tuberculosis at 38. She was carrying his grandchild.

In the outpouring of grief that followed, her admirers implored The Rev Patrick Brontë to send them samples of her handwriting as keepsakes. He took out his scissors, put the fragments into envelopes and sent them into the world.

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A century and a half later, they are still trying to piece them back together.

It was, said Ann Dinsdale, principal curator at the Brontë Society, like a game of fridge poetry magnets.

This week, however, another tile fell into place.

The Brontë Museum, inside Patrick’s former parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire, paid £5,000 at auction to acquire the address panel of a letter Charlotte had sent to her father from Scarborough, in 1849.

She had taken her ailing younger sister, Anne, to the seaside, in the vain hope that the sea air would relieve her symptoms of consumption.

“A dreadful darkness closes in”, Anne had written of her terminal illness.

In her letter home, six years before her own death, Charlotte told her father she would soon return to Haworth, and detailed Anne’s funeral expenses.

“It’s such a poignant image. Patrick, in his old age, cutting the letters into snippets,” Ms Dinsdale said.

“I’ve no idea why he thought it wouldn’t be more important to preserve the letters.”

The letter from Scarborough was not the only one he cut to bits, but given its content, it is among the most significant.

Fragments of it are in Texas and New York but others are missing. One was already back at the parsonage, where its journey had begun. Its text has been unscrambled from the surviving pieces.

Ironically, the admirers who wanted samples of Charlotte’s handwriting may not have known for sure who she was. Jane Eyre, whose publication in 1847 created a literary sensation, had been published under the pseudonym Currer Bell, and the author’s identity was the subject of fevered debate.

A separate letter acquired by the museum at the same Mayfair auction this week, written by the social reformer Caroline Norton to her friend, Lady Dacre, speculated that the author’s real name was Mrs Butler.

“It’s the sort of discussion people would have on Facebook today,” Ms Dinsdale said.

“But Jane Eyre created a sensation. Charlotte literally woke up to find herself famous, and everyone wanted to know who Currer Bell could possibly be.”

Six years after Charlotte’s passing, the Rev Brontë was dead too, at 84. Among his last acts had been to cooperate with Elizabeth Gaskell on her biography.

• THE Brontë Museum acquired four lots at this week’s auction of family memorabilia.

Among the others were a portrait of Charlotte by Vanessa Bell, which was later glazed into a dinner service commemorating famous women, commissioned by the historian Kenneth Clark in the 1930s. It was outbid on an envelope addressed by Emily Brontë to the sisters’ friend, Ellen Nussey.

The new acquisitions will go on display next year.