A few days ago, The Nation posted a powerful article by Deborah Copaken Kogen ("My So-Called 'Post-Feminist' Life in Arts and Letters") that sketched out the immense vicissitudes of her publishing career as a woman.
It's a damning indictment of the publishing industry's seeming bent to warp Kogen's wonderful work (even forcing upon her the title of her first book, Shutterbabe, against her will), but even more powerful as a testament to Kogen's admirable persistence to write and be heard. I shared the article widely on social media.
At the end of her article, Kogen cites a single line of a letter written in 1837 by Robert Southey, who was then poet laureate of England, to Charlotte Brontë (whose birthday is today).
Kogen quotes Southey as saying: ""Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be."
The quotation piqued my interest to explore that letter a bit further. Robert Southey's been much on my mind the last few years because I've been writing a new play where he is a central character -- along with his great nemesis George Gordon, Lord Byron and, um, the Luddites. So I couldn't resist the urge to peek back into his letters to recall just what he wrote to Charlotte Brontë and in what context he said that to her. (The full correspondence is included at the end of this post.)
Southey was best known in his own day as a poet, but the bulk of his work after 1809 or so was in prose -- biographies and political articles that cemented his conversion from youthful Jacobinism to a fervent Toryism. His poems as laureate were mostly miserable, and he suffered immense personal embarrassment in 1817 when Wat Tyler -- an early poem about revolution he'd written in the full flood of his youthful liberalism and likely forgotten about -- was published without his consent, sparking a scandal in Parliament and branding the author of numerous articles calling for extreme measures against the press and reformers as a hypocrite.
Southey is now remembered mostly for picking a losing fight with Byron -- who lampooned Southey mercilessly as an apostate turncoat and lackey to power in his comic masterpieces A Vision of Judgement and Don Juan. (Southey was, interestingly enough, also the author of that most famous children's story The Three Bears -- though he rarely gets credit for that.)
Though Southey is much maligned even today -- and rightly so, even his most sympathetic biographers find immense faults in him -- he was reportedly generous and affable in person and took delight in conversing with young people.
Twenty-six years before he wrote to Brontë, for instance, Southey befriended poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when he and his first wife Harriet wandered up to Keswick, and reported their long conversations in letters with bemusement and empathy.
Shelley, for his part, quickly warmed to Southey but then angrily stalked away just as quickly when he discovered that Southey's political opinions -- which were nearing the end of their radical transformation to fervent Toryism -- to be repellent to him.
So let's quickly set the scene of the Brontë/Southey correspondence that Kogen cites in her article. It's 1837. Charlotte Brontë is a teacher at Roe Head. She's 20 years old, still nine years away from publishing her joint volume of poetry with sisters Emily and Anne (as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell), and ten years away from Jane Eyre.
Southey, two decades removed from the tumult of the Wat Tyler controversy and bitter polemics with Byron, is in his early 60s and only six years away from his death. He's almost finished his last book, a prose biography of the lives of British admirals.
Charlotte Brontë's original letter to Southey has been lost, but we have Southey's reply and two subsequent letters. I don't think reading the entire exchange of correspondence exonerates Southey. That was, indeed, his view of women and writing -- and the view of, say, 99.9% of male writers at the time. But I think reading Southey's letter in its entirety does muddy up the matter a bit. It's harsh advice, but it takes in a bit more than Bronte's gender alone. So while it's a tidy line for Kogen to pluck out, it might not be entirely fair. (Or useful, seeing as it was the Regency.)
See what you think after reading the letters.
A curious end note: Charlotte Brontë's reaction in her reply to Southey's letter is fascinating -- simultaneously brave and defensive. (Remember, she just sent her poems to the Poet Laureate.) But I found a web trace of something else in the Christie's notice about the auction of these letters and another letter in 1995.
The last letter, apparently written by Brontë to Southey's son, the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Southey, has an interesting take on the correspondence 13 years later. Southey's son was assembling a selection of his father's correspondence, and here is Christie's description of Brontë's letter to him:
Autograph letter signed ('C. Bronte') to the Revd. C.C. Southey, Haworth, 26 August 1850, replying to his letter asking for permission to publish two letters his father had written to her, adding that she feels they should be published but without her name and omitting a passage she had marked which seemed to her 'somewhat silly', and commenting, 'At this moment I am grateful to his memory for the well-timed check received in my girlhood at his hand, 2 pages, 8vo.
The correspondence below is taken from Letters of Robert Southey: A Selection (1912), edited by Maurice H. Fitzgerald. (Oxford University Press) The image is a lampoon of Southey as Poet Laureate during the Wat Tyler scandal.
* * * * * *
Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë
Keswick, March, 1837.
MADAM, You will probably, ere this, have given up all expectation of receiving an answer to your letter of December 29. I was on the borders of Cornwall when that letter was written ; it found me a fortnight afterwards in Hampshire. During my subsequent movements in different parts of the country, and a tarriance of three busy weeks in London, I had no leisure for replying to it ; and now that I am once more at home, and am clearing off the arrears of business which had accumulated during a long absence, it has lain unanswered till the last of a numerous file, not from disrespect or indifference to its contents, but because, in truth, it is not an easy task to answer it, nor a pleasant one to cast a damp over the high spirits and the generous desires of youth.
What you are I can only infer from your letter, which appears to be written in sincerity ; though I may suspect that you have used a fictitious signature. Be that as it may, the letter and the verses bear the same stamp ; and I can well understand the state of mind which they indicate. What I am you might have learnt by such of my publications as have come into your hands; and, had you happened to be acquainted with me, a little personal knowledge would have tempered your enthusiasm. You might have had your ardour in some degree abated by seeing a poet in the decline of life, and witnessing the effect which age produces upon our hopes and aspirations ; yet I am neither a disappointed man nor a discontented one, and you would never have heard from me any chilling sermons upon the text, ' All is vanity.'
It is not my advice that you have asked as to the direction of your talents, but my opinion of them ; and yet the opinion may be worth little, and the advice much. You evidently possess, and in no inconsiderable degree, what Wordsworth calls ' the faculty of verse '. I am not depreciating it when I say that in these times it is not rare. Many volumes of poems are now published every year without attracting public attention, any one of which, if it had appeared half a century ago, would have obtained a high reputation for its author. Whoever, therefore, is ambitious of distinction in this way, ought to be prepared for disappointment.
But it is not with a view to distinction that you should cultivate this talent, if you consult your own happiness. I, who have made literature my profession, and devoted my life to it, and have never for a moment repented of the deliberate choice, think myself nevertheless bound in duty to caution every young man who applies as an aspirant to me for encouragement and advice against taking so perilous a course. You will say, that a woman has no need of such a caution : there can be no peril in it for her. In a certain sense this is true ; but there is a danger of which I would, with all kindness and all earnestness, warn you. The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind ; and in proportion as all the ordinary uses of the world seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else. Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and, when you are, you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement, of which the vicissitudes of this life, and the anxieties from which you must not hope to be exempted, be your state what it may, will bring with them but too much.
But do not suppose that I disparage the gift which you possess ; nor that I would discourage you from exercising it. I only exhort you so to think of it, and so to use it, as to render it conducive to your own permanent good. Write poetry for its own sake ; not in a spirit of emulation, and not with a view to celebrity : the less you aim at that, the more likely you will be to deserve, and finally to obtain it. So written, it is wholesome both for the heart and soul ; it may be made the surest means, next to religion, of soothing the mind, and elevating it. You may embody in it your best thoughts and your wisest feelings, and in so doing discipline and strengthen them.
Farewell, Madam. It is not because I have forgotten that I was once young myself, that I write to you in this strain ; but because I remember it. You will neither doubt my sincerity, nor my goodwill ; and, however ill what has here been said may accord with your present views and temper, the longer you live the more reasonable it will appear to you. Though I may be but an ungracious adviser, you will allow me, therefore, to subscribe myself, with the best wishes for your happiness here and hereafter,
Your true friend, ROBERT SOUTHEY.
Charlotte Brontë to Robert Southey
March 16 .
SIR, I cannot rest till I have answered your letter, even though by addressing you a second' time I should appear a little intrusive ; but I must thank you for the kind and wise advice you have condescended to give me. I had not ventured to hope for such a reply ; so considerate in its tone, so noble in its spirit. I must suppress what I feel, or you will think me foolishly enthusiastic-
At the first perusal of your letter I felt only shame and regret that I had ever ventured to trouble you with my crude rhapsody ; I felt a painful heat rise to my face when I thought of the quires of paper I had covered with what once gave me so much delight, but which now was only a source of confusion ; but after I had thought a little, and read it again and again, the prospect seemed to clear. You do not forbid me to write ; you do not say that what I write is utterly destitute of merit. You only warn me against the folly of neglecting real duties for the sake of imaginative pleasures ; of writing for the love of fame ; for the selfish excitement of emulation. You kindly allow me to write poetry for its own sake, provided I leave undone nothing which I ought to do, in order to fureue that single, absorbing, exquisite gratification, I am afraid, sir, you think me very foolish. I know the first letter I wrote to you was all senseless trash from beginning to end ; but I am not altogether the idle dreaming being it would seem to denote. My father is a clergyman of limited though competent income, and I am the eldest of his children. He expended quite as much in my education as he could afford in justice to the rest. I thought it therefore my duty, when I left school, to become a governess. In that capacity I find enough to occupy my thoughts all day long, and my head and hands too, without having a moment's time for one dream of the imagination. In the evenings, I confess, I do think, but I never trouble any one else with my thoughts. I carefully avoid any appearance of pre- occupation and eccentricity, which might lead those I live amongst to suspect the nature of my pursuits. Following my father's advice who from my childhood has counselled me, just in the wise and friendly tone of your letter I have endeavoured not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfil, but to feel deeply interested in them. I don't always succeed, for sometimes when I'm teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing ; but I try to deny myself ; and my father's approbation amply rewarded me for the privation.
Once more allow me to thank you with sincere gratitude. I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print ; if the wish should rise, I'll look at Southey's letter, and suppress it. It is honour enough for me that I have written to him, and received an answer. That letter is consecrated ; no one shall ever see it but papa and my brother and sisters. Again I thank you. This incident, I suppose, will be renewed no more ; if I live to be an old woman, I shall remember it thirty years hence as a bright dream. The signature which you suspected of being fictitious is my real name.
Again, therefore, I must sign myself C. BRONTE.
PS. Pray, sir, excuse me for writing to you a second time ; I could not help writing, partly to tell you how thankful I am for your kindness, and partly to let you know that your advice shall not be wasted, however sorrowfully and reluctantly it may at first be followed. C. B.
Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë
Keswick, March 22, 1837.
DEAR MADAM, Your letter has given me great pleasure, and I should not forgive myself if I did not tell you so. You have received admonition as considerately and as kindly as it was given. Let me now request that, if you ever should come to these lakes while I am living here, you will let me see you. You would then think of me afterwards with the more goodwill, because you would perceive that there is neither severity nor moroseness in the state of mind to which years and observation have brought me.
It is, by God's mercy, in our power to attain a degree of self-government, which is essential to our own happiness, and contributes greatly to that of those around us. Take care of over-excitement, and endeavour to keep a quiet mind (even for your health it is the best advice that can be given you) : your moral and spiritual improvement will then keep pace with the culture of your intellectual powers.
And now, Madam, God bless you ! Farewell, and believe me to be your sincere friend, ROBERT SOUTHEY.