The History of Dialogue (4): Literary Ambition and Gender

Ten years before she would publish Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë sent a poem to poet laureate Robert Southey asking for his opinion. Their resulting exchange is interesting in the context of the recent publication of The Count 2010 by VIDA, as well as the defensive response from several editors that men both submit more and are more likely to resubmit having been rejected.

Perhaps. But we read Southey and Brontë’s exchange as uncomfortably familiar:

Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë, Keswick, March 1837



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.

[ …]

Though I may be an ungracious advisor, you will allow me … to subscribe myself, with the best wishes for your happiness here and hereafter, your true friend,


Charlotte Brontë to Robert Southey, Roe Head, March 16th, 1837


I cannot rest till I have answered your letter … I must thank you for the kind and wise advice you have condescended to give me.


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 pursue 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 preoccupation 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 counseled 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.

[ …]

Again, therefore, I must sign myself


(Read the full text of both letters on pages 126-120.)