As if anticipating the indifference of the public, the poems presented a world of almost unrelieved gloom. The concentration was on death (particularly young death), illness, betrayal, separation from loved ones by distance or time, the beauty of children and the brevity of childhood, the natural world and its pitilessness, remembrance of the dead, emotional anguish and its forbidden ecstasies, the rapture of death, the tomb, desire for death under the weight of misery, and faith and its fragility. It was a fantastically morbid collection — understandably so, since the Brontës had not only lost their mother at an early age but had witnessed the deaths of two sisters in childhood from tuberculosis, Maria and Elizabeth, in 1825.
The title of the sisters’ collection was a gem of cryptography. Each pseudonym was chosen so as to have the same initials as the real sister — CB, EB and AB respectively. Charlotte, writing in 1850 after the deaths of her two surviving sisters (Emily died in 1848 at the age of 30, and Anne in 1849 at the age of 29) gave a partial explanation of the names:
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.The sisters thus chose the ‘ambiguous’ Christian names of Currer, Ellis and Acton (though who would call a girl ‘Acton’?) because to take masculine Christian names — say, Christopher, Edward and Andrew Bell — would have been outright deceit, and they feared they would be either sneered at or patronized if they revealed themselves to be female. But why these hermaphroditic names in particular? And why Bell?
Biographers of the sisters agree that ‘Currer’ was almost certainly for Frances Mary Richardson Currer, one of the founders of the Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge which Charlotte and Emily both attended. Frances Currer was a well-known bibliophile and scholar, and had one of the largest libraries in the north of England. In 1936 the clergyman Thomas Dibdin called her ‘the head of all female collectors in Europe’ and ‘a sort of modern Christina of the North’.
Acton Bell is likely to have come from Eliza Acton, a poetess who had found fame with her first book of poems in 1826. Many of her poems were moodily Brontëan in theme: ‘The Grave’; ‘On the Death of Ellen Sharp’; ‘Let Me Sit in the Twilight Hour Alone’; ‘A Shadow, Dark as Death’; ‘Go, Cold and Fickle Trifler’; and ‘Come to My Grave’. Her most enduring success, however, rested on her cookery book of 1845, the year before the Brontë sisters published their poems. Modern Cookery for Private Families went into three editions in the year of its publication, and was still in print by 1914. Elizabeth David called it ‘the greatest cookery book in our language’. The fusion, in the person of Eliza Acton, of the wild, the passionate, the morbid, and the handily domestic, may well have appealed to Anne Brontë.
What then of Ellis Bell? In a 1994 paper the critic Marianne Thormahlen pointed to an intriguing candidate: Sarah Ellis, the author of a number of conduct manuals for girls and women, including The Daughters of England, The Mothers of England, The Beautiful in Nature and Art and The Education of the Heart. This is perhaps the most controversial link of the three, given that Sarah Ellis placed much emphasis on woman’s worth as a mother and wife; but some of Ellis’s other ideas chimed with what we know of the Brontës’ views. She argued in The Mothers of England that girls should be given the freedom of the outdoors from an early age: ‘they should climb the craggy rock, penetrate the forest, and ramble over hill and dale.’ Such an idea would have appealed strongly to Emily Brontë. Ellis further urged women to acquire a general knowledge of politics and society, to be conversant with social issues such as slavery, temperance and cruelty to animals, and made frequent and admiring reference to Byron and Scott (the former a Brontë favourite). She reserved special praise for governesses (all the Brontës were trained as governesses):
And here I must beg to call the attention of the mothers of England to one particular class of women, whose rights and whose sufferings ought to occupy, more than they do, the attention of benevolent Christians. I allude to governesses, and I believe that in this class, taken as a whole, is to be found more refinement of mind, and consequently more susceptibility of feeling, than in any other.And the pseudonymous surname ‘Bell’? The traditional explanation is that it derived from the middle name of Patrick Brontë’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was a novelty in the household in 1845/6, and married Charlotte in 1849. But ‘Bell’ might also have had a feminine origin. The sisters’ immediate concern was to have a name beginning with ‘B’ to match ‘Brontë’, and the ‘B’ nearest at hand would have been their mother’s maiden name, Branwell, shared by their aunt Elizabeth, who had supplied the money for them to publish the poems. The name ‘Branwell’ itself could not be used, of course, being too immediately recognizable (it was also the name of their errant brother), but removing its middle letters would yield ‘Bell’. Might the sisters have chosen ‘Bell’ as a hidden tribute to their aunt and mother?
The sisters, pleasantly stimulated by their failure, then turned to novel-writing. In 1847, the following year, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey were all accepted for publication, all still under the pseudonyms of Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell. All were immediately successful. The Bell siblings — their sex was still not known, even to their publishers — became famous, and speculation mounted on their true identities. The remaining copies of the 1846 Poems were bought up from Aylott and Jones by a new publisher, Smith, Elder & Co., and re-issued with new bindings. Sales were brisk. The two copies that had been sold the previous year, with the couple of dozen review and gift copies sent out by Charlotte, were the only ones remaining with the original Aylott and Jones imprint. Fewer than ten are believed to be extant today. These copies of the despised little book are now among the most precious rarities of nineteenth-century literature.
Gérin, Winifred: The Brontës (Harlow, 1973)
Thormahlen, Marianne: ‘The Brontë Pseudonyms’, English Studies, Vol. 75, No. 3 (1994)
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