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Thackeray and Charlotte Brontë

As Special Collections celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Makepeace Thackeray, this blog turns to highlight authors who have been influenced by Thackeray’s writing.  The first to be highlighted is Charlotte Brontë.

Thackeray was one of Charlotte Brontë’s biggest literary heroes.  Smith, Elder and Co., the publisher of Charlotte’s first novel Jane Eyre, sent a pre-publication copy of the book to Thackeray.  He enthusiastically told them that the novel “interested me so much that I have lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it….Give my respects and thanks to the author – whose novel is the first English one … that I’ve been able to read for many a day.”  Charlotte was flattered: “One good word from such a man is worth pages of praise from ordinary judges.”

Moved by Thackeray’s favorable comments about Jane Eyre, Brontë dedicated the second edition of her novel to her hero.  Unfortunately this caused embarrassment for Thackeray, since unbeknownst to Charlotte, he had a mentally ill wife who he was unable to divorce and who had been placed in an institution – an unfortunate parallel to the character Mr. Rochester.  The dedication also caused speculation that “Currer Bell” had been a governess to Thackeray’s two daughters, since the character Jane was a governess.  Charlotte was herself embarrassed when she learned that her dedication had spread gossip about Thackeray rather than being complimentary, and when she finally met him at a dinner party given by her publisher in late 1849, she was too nervous to eat or speak.

Thackeray actually held a dinner party of women authors in Charlotte’s honor in the summer of 1850, but her painful shyness and self-consciousness about her appearance made the party a spectacular failure.  Charlotte ignored the other guests, who were critical of her looks and her lack of conversation, and Thackeray reportedly sneaked off to his club partway through the evening.

Charlotte Brontë initially admired Thackeray for his novels’ attacks on the foibles and weaknesses of  English society and human nature, but on acquaintance, she found him worldly, skeptical, and too fond of mixing with the gentry which he satirized in his works.  In 1852, she told her publisher, “Mr. Thackeray is easy and indolent and very seldom cares to do his best” at writing.  Despite their uneasy literary acquaintance, Thackeray posthumously published  Charlotte’s fragment “Emma” in his Cornhill Magazine (March 1860) with a personal tribute to her — a portion of this article is reproduced above.

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