Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Letter from Mary Taylor to Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte had a remarkable friend, Mary Taylor, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1845, but moved back ten years later and became a writier. She was bright and progressive, a feminist and a religious skeptic. Her letter to Charlotte (delivered 5 months after it was mailed) is an interesting historical artifact all by itself, in addition to its connection to the Brontes. Although I doubt she'd end up with an entry in the Encyclopedia of New Zealand without the connection.

The Morgan has the first of four pages on display but here conveniently is the entire transcription of the letter. Bronte had sent her a copy of Jane Eyre to read and she discusses it. She complains to Bronte that she as "no doctrine to preach" unlike Mary. She also includes a nasty bit of anti-Semitism - it seems that the trope of calling Jews cheap has been around for quite awhile. But even though the expression was common, and Mary Taylor herself probably did not know any Jews at all, and didn't think of the expression literally, it's disappointing she used it.

I do find it amusing that she mentions an acquaintance who read Jane Eyre and who thought Jane should have gone off with St. John Rivers - a man after my mother's own heart.

Dear Charlotte
About a month since I received & read Jane Eyre. It seemed to me incredible that you had actually written a book. Such events did not happen while I was in England. I begin to believe in your existence much as I do in Mr Rochester’s. In a believing mood I don’t doubt either of them. After I had read it I went on to the top of Mt. Victoria & looked for a ship to carry a letter to you. There was a little thing with one mast, & also H.M.S. Fly & nothing else. If a cattle vessel came from Sydney she would probably return in a few days & would take a mail, but we have had east wind for a month & nothing can come in.—July 1. The Harlequin has just come from Otago & is to sail for Singapore when the wind changes & by that road route (which I hope to take myself sometime) I send you this. Much good may it do you. 
Your novel surprised me by being so perfect as a work of art. I expected something more changeable & unfinished. You have polished to some purpose. If I were to do so I should get tired & weary every one else in about two pages. No sign of this weariness is in your book—you must have had abundance, having kept it all to yourself! 
You are very different from me in having no doctrine to preach. It is impossible to squeeze a moral out of your production. Has the world gone so well with you that you have no protest to make against its absurdities? Did you never sneer or declaim in your first sketches? I will scold you well when I see you.—I don’t believe in Mr Rivers. There are no good men of the Brocklehurst species. A missionary either goes into his office for a piece of bread, or he goes from enthusiasm, & that is both too good & too bad a quality for St. John. It’s a bit of your absurd charity to believe in such a man. You have done wisely in choosing to imagine a high class of readers. You never stop to explain or defend anything & never seem bothered with the idea—if Mrs. Fairfax or any other well intentioned fool gets hold of this what will she think? And yet you know the world is made up of such, & worse. Once more, how have you written through 3 vols. without declaring war to the knife against a few dozen absurd doctrines each of which is supported by “a large & respectable class of readers”? 
Emily seems to have had such a class in her eye when she wrote that strange thing Wuthering Heights. Ann[e] too stops repeatedly to preach commonplace truths. She has had a still lower class in her mind’s eye. Emily seems to have followed t[he] [b]ookseller’s advice. As to the price you got it [was] certainly Jewish. But what could the people do? lf they had asked you to fix it, how do you know yourself how many cyphers your sum would have had? And how should they know better? And if they did, that’s the knowledge they get their living by. If I were in your place the idea of being bound in the sale of 2! more would prevent [me]from ever writing again. Yet you are probably now busy with another. It is curious to me to see among the old letters one from A[unt] Sarah sending a copy of a whole article on the currency question written by Fonblanque! I exceedingly regret having burnt your letters in a fit of caution, & I’ve forgotten all the names. Was the reader Albert Smith? What do they all think of you?
I perceive I’ve betrayed my habit of writing only on one side of the paper. Go onto the next page.
I mention the book to no one & hear no opinions. I lend it a good deal because it’s a novel & it’s as good as another! They say “it makes them cry.” They are not literary enough to give an opinion. If ever I hear one I’ll embalm it for you. 
As to my own affair I have written 100 pages & lately 50 more. It’s no use writing faster. I get so disgusted I can do nothing. I have sent 3 or 4 things to Joe for Tait. Troup (Ed.) never acknowledges them though he promised either to pay or send them back. Joe sent one to Chambers who thought it unsuitable in which I agree with them. 
I think I told you I built a house. I get 12/– a week for it. Moreover I in accordance with a late letter of John’s I borrow money from him & Joe & buy cattle with it. I have already spent £100 or so & intend to buy some more as soon as War[ing] can pay me the money. —perhaps as much as by degrees as £400, or £500. As I only pay 5 per Ct. interest I expect [to] profit much by this. viz about 30 per Ct. a year—perhaps 40 or 50. Thus if I borrow £500 in two years’ time (I cannot have it quicker) I shall perhaps make £250 to £300. I am pretty certain of being able to pay principal & interest. If I could command £300 & £50 a year afterwards I would “hallock” about N.Z. for a twelvemonth then go home by way of India & write my travels which would prepare the way for my novel. With the benefit of your experience I should perhaps make a better bargain than you. I am most afraid of my health. Not that I shd die but perhaps sink into state of betweenity, neither well nor ill, in which I shd observe nothing & be very miserable besides. —My life here is not disagreeable. I have a great resource in the piano, & a little employment in teaching. 
Then I go to Mrs. Taylor’s & astonish the poor girl with calling her favorite parson a spoon. She thinks I am astonishingly learned but rather wicked, & tries hard to persuade me to go to church chapel, though I tell her I only go for amusement. She would have sense but for her wretched health which is getting rapidly worse from her irrational mode of living. 
 I can hardly explain to you the queer feeling of living as I do in 2 places at once. One world containing books England & all the people with whom I can exchange an idea; the other all that I actually see & hear & speak to. The separation is as complete as between the things in a picture & the things in the room. The puzzle is that both move & act, & [I] must say my say as one of each. The result is that one world at least must think me crazy. I am just now in a sad mess. A drover who has got rich with cattle dealing wanted me to go & teach his daughter. As the man is a widower I astonished this world when I accepted his proposal, & still more because I asked too high a price (£70) a year. Now that I have begun the same people can’t conceive why I don’t go on & marry the man at once which they imagine must have been my original intention. For my part I shall possibly astonish them a little more for I feel a great inclination to make use of his interested civilities to visit his daughter &see the district of Porirua. 
If I had a little more money & could afford a horse (she rides) I certainly would. But I can see nothing till I get a horse, which I shall have if I’m lucky in 2 or 3 years.
I have just made acquaintance with Dr & Mrs. Logan. He is a retired navy doctor & has more general knowledge than any one I have talked to here. For instance he had heard of Phillippe Egalite—of a camera obscura; of the resemblance the English language has to the German &c &c. Mrs. Taylor Miss Knox & Mrs. Logan sat in mute admiration while we mentioned these things, being employed in the meantime in making a patchwork quilt. Did you never notice that the women of the middle classes are generally too ignorant to talk to? & that you are thrown entirely on the men for conversation? There is no such feminine inferiority in the lower. The women go hand in hand with the men in the degree of cultivation they are able to reach. I can talk very well to a joiner’s wife, but seldom to a merchant’s.
I must now tell you the fate of your cow. The creature gave so little milk that she is doomed to be fatted & killed. In about 2 months she will fetch perhaps £15 with which I shall buy 3 heifers. Thus you have the chance of getting a calf sometime. My own thrive well & possibly I [shall] have a calf myself. Before this reaches England I shall have 3 or 4. 
It’s a pity you don’t live in this world that I might entertain you about the price of meat. Do you know I bought 6 heifers the other day for £23? & now it is turned so cold I expect to hear one half of them are dead. One man bought 20 sheep for £8 & they are all dead but 1. Another bought £150 & has 40 left; and people have begun to drive cattle through a valley into the Wairau plains & thence across the straits of Wellington. &c &c. This is the only legitimate subject of conversation we have the rest is gos[sip] concerning our superiors in station who don’t know us on the road, but it is astonishing how well we know all their private affairs, making allowance always for the distortion in our own organs of vision. 
I have now told you everything I can think of except that the cat’s on the table & that I’m going to borrow a new book to read. No less than an account of all the systems of philosophy of modern Europe. I have lately met with a wonder a man who thinks Jane Eyre would have done better [to] marry Mr Rivers! He gives no reasons—such people never do. 
Mary Taylor

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