Lesson #218: Learning From A Letter – Charlotte Bronte’s words to her Aunt

Since yesterday (April 21st) was the 205th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, I thought it would be nice to have a look at some of the personal letters that she wrote during her lifetime.

📚 Most people remember her for her classic Jane Eyre (1847) or even Villette (1853), both of which considered what life could be like for a young woman trying to earn a living early in the Victorian era, but we often forget that in many ways they were inspired by such a young woman – Charlotte Bronte herself.

That is why I love to read her letters – they have such immediacy and vitality. Some of them are very carefully constructed, being directed at a professional acquaintance perhaps, while others, having been written to her closest friends, have a lively and even humourous tone in them.📜

For this reason, I am turning today to one of her letters to her dear Aunt Branwell, the woman who had helped to raise Charlotte, her brother and sisters, after their mother passed away, and a woman who sacrificed much herself to help the Bronte children achieve their best. Without good Aunt Branwell, it is doubtful whether Charlotte and her sisters Emily and Anne would have ever become the famous and memorable writers that we now know them as.

✍️ I hope this Lesson will show you some of the key points to bear in mind when you write your own correspondence, whether professional or personal.

Pay attention to the following points:

  • How the letter begins and ends (address, greeting, date)
  • How she uses connective and transition words (e.g., ‘meantime’, ‘moreover’, ‘of course’)
  • The tone of her letter: is it informal or formal?

💡 Read on till the end of this Lesson to find out what are my suggestions on these points!

📝 #1 THE LETTER ITSELF (Source: Oxford World Classics’ Charlotte Bronte: Selected Letters, edited by M. Smith, 2010)

📘 To Elizabeth Branwell

Upperwood House, Rawdon.

29th September 1841

Dear Aunt,

 I have heard nothing of Miss Wooler yet since I wrote to her intimating that I would accept her offer. I cannot conjecture the reason of this long silence, unless some unforeseen impediment has occurred in concluding the bargain. Meantime, a plan has been suggested and approved by Mr. and Mrs. White, and others, which I wish now to impart to you. My friends recommend me, if I desire to secure permanent success, to delay commencing the school for six months longer, and by all means to contrive, by hook or by crook, to spend the intervening time in some school on the continent. They say schools in England are so numerous, competition so great, that without some such step towards attaining superiority we shall probably have a very hard struggle, and may fail in the end. They say, moreover, that the loan of £100, which you have been so kind as to offer us, will, perhaps, not be all required now, as Miss Wooler will lend us the furniture; and that, if the speculation is intended to be a good and successful one, half the sum, at least, ought to be laid out in the manner I have mentioned, thereby insuring a more speedy repayment both of interest and principal.

 I would not go to France or to Paris. I would go to Brussels, in Belgium. The cost of the journey there, at the dearest rate of travelling, would be £5; living is there little more than half as dear as it is in England, and the facilities for education are equal or superior to any other place in Europe. In half a year, I could acquire a thorough familiarity with French. I could improve greatly in Italian, and even get a dash of German, i.e., providing my health continued as good as it is now. Martha Taylor is now staying in Brussels, at a first-rate establishment there. I should not think of going to the Chateau de Kockleberg, where she is resident, as the terms are much too high; but if I wrote to her, she, with the assistance of Mrs Jenkins, the wife of the British Consul, would be able to secure me a cheap and decent residence and respectable protection. I should have the opportunity of seeing her freqeuntly, she would make me acquainted with the city; and, with the assistance of her cousins, I should probably in time be introduced to connections far more improving, polished, and cultivated, than any I have yet known.

 These are advantages which would turn to vast account, when we actually commenced a school – and, if Emily could share them with me, only for a single half-year, we could take a footing in the world afterwards which we can never do now. I say Emily instead of Anne; for Anne might take her turn at some future period, if our school answered. I feel certain, while I am writing, that you will see the propriety of what I say; you always like to use your money to the best advantage; you are not fond of making shabby purchases; when you do confer a favour, it is often done in style; and depend upon it £50, or £100, thus laid out, would be well employed. Of course, I know no other friend in the world to whom I could apply on this subject except yourself. I feel an absolute conviction that, if this advantage were allowed us, it would be the making of us for life. Papa will perhaps think it a wild and ambitious scheme; but who ever rose in the world without ambition? When he left Ireland to go to Cambridge University, he was as ambitious as I am now. I want us all to go on. I know we have talents, and I want them to be turned to account. I look to you, aunt, to help us. I think you will not refuse. I know, if you consent, it shall not be my fault if you ever repent your kindness. With love to all, and the hope that you are all well, – Believe me, dear aunt, your affectionate niece,

C. Bronte.

📝 #2 VOCABULARY FROM THE LETTER

Here are some words which may be new for you:

intimating: < intimate (verb): to state or make known, to announce; to imply or hint

conjecture: (verb) to form or make an opinion or guess made without full information; (noun) such an opinion, made without being fully informed

impediment: an obstacle or hindrance to doing or completing something. Also, a defect in someone’s speech (like a lisp or stammer)

impart: to give (information) to someone

contrive: to create, arrange, or bring about (a situation or an object) through skill and sometimes artiface

by hook or by crook: [idiomatic] by any possible means, somehow (no matter what)

the continent (sometimes written as ‘the Continent’): the European Continent (mainly countries such as Belgium, France, German, Italy, the Netherlands, etc.)

attaining: < attain: to succeed in achieving or gaining (something worked for); reach (a goal)

speculation: forming a theory or guess without the evidence to support it. Also, investment in stocks, property, etc. with the hope of making a profit.

to be laid out: [This is Bronte’s turn of phrase, but we can understand from the context that it means] to invest a loan or amount of money in something

dearest rate: [British] the most expensive rate

acquire: to obtain or buy something (for oneself)

terms: [in this context] the price, fees, costs

polished (adjective): accomplished, skillful

cultivated (adjective): refined and well educated

vast: immense

take a footing in the world: [we could] establish ourselves financially and securely in the world

Anne might take her turn: Anne might try to do the same

if our school answered: if our school became successful, if it ‘responded’ to the good expectations we have of it

propriety: decorum, decency, correct behaviour and standards

shabby: in a bad condition due to overuse or lack of care

confer: to grant; give a favour, regard, etc. Also, to discuss and exchange opinions.

in style: in a way that is impressive, luxurious, or grand.

thus laid out: [Bronte’s expression] invested in this way

would be well employed: would be well invested

apply: to make a [formal] application or request. Also to be applicable or relevant to something.

the making of us: it would make us secure and successful in life; [it would provide] the essential quality that we need to be successful in life.

turned to account: turned into / proven to have been good and useful

consent: to give permission for something to go ahead or take place

if you ever repent your kindness: if you ever regret having been kind … [Charlotte Bronte is telling her aunt in this sentence as a whole that ‘if you ever regret having been kind to us, it will not be because I didn’t do the very best with what you gave me’ or ‘I will do the very best with what you give me so that you will never have to regret your kindness to us’]

📝 #3 TAKE-HOME LESSONS FROM CHARLOTTE’S LETTER

As you can see, Charlotte Bronte began her letter by placing her own address and the date on the top right-hand corner; she then commenced her message with ‘Dear …’ which can be used to begin either formal correspondence or letters to someone you feel close to (someone dear to you).

👉 I mention this because it differs from French and other languages where the equivalent of ‘dear’ (e.g., ‘cher/chère’ in French) is only ever used in personal or private but never in professional correspondence.

Here are some connective transition words that Charlotte Bronte uses to good effect. Did you notice them yourself while reading the letter, and how might you use them selectively when writing to different kinds of people?

  • meantime
  • moreover
  • perhaps
  • thereby
  • as (like ‘since’)
  • but
  • while
  • of course

The tone of her letter is somewhere between formal and informal. In fact, I would say that it is mostly informal because she uses little colloquial or idiomatic phrases like ‘by hook or by crook’ and ‘of course’, ‘dearest rate’ and ‘shabby purchases’ – none of which would be used in formal correspondence.

✍️ However, she uses a lot of words that we would now consider suitable for professional correspondence, including: impart, contrive, intimating, speculation, attain, acquire, confer, etc.

💡 If you pay attention, you can see how most of the ‘formal’ vocabulary that she uses can be found in the first half of the letter, almost as if she is a bit shy to approach her aunt and so starts her letter very politely, becoming more familiar and confident of what she has to share later on in the letter.

I hope you have enjoyed reading Charlotte Bronte’s letter as much as I have! Not only is it a good example of how we write letters in English (structure, vocabulary, tone differences), but it is interesting in itself – it shows us how brave and studious Charlotte Bronte was, preparing herself to go to Brussels to study and qualify as a teacher so that she could eventually open her own school in England.

Even great writers like Bronte were students once upon a time! 🖋️