13 January (1849): Charlotte Bronte to William Smith Williams

At the time of this letter’s writing the Brönte household was in disarray. Branwell, Charlotte’s elder brother, had died from a case of alcoholism-enflamed bronchitis in September 1848. Soon after Branwell’s death, Emily succumbed to tuberculosis. All responsibility of the family’s care and upkeep fell to Charlotte, who took another blow when Anne, the youngest, started with a racking cough. Charlotte addresses William Smith Williams, one of her editors at the publishing house of Smith, Elder, and Co. Her hopes, outlined below, were too generous; Anne’s case of TB proved fatal in May. 

To William S. Williams

13 January 1849


My dear Sir

In sitting down to write to you I feel as if I were doing a wrong and selfish thing; I believe I ought to discontinue my correspondence with you till times change and the tide of calamity which of late days has set so strongly in against us, takes a turn. But the fact is, sometimes I feel it absolutely necessary to unburden my mind. To papa I must only speak cheeringly, to Anne only encouragingly, to you I may give some hint of the dreary truth.

Anne and I sit alone and in seclusion as you fancy us, but we do not study; Anne cannot study now, she can scarcely read; she occupies Emily’s chair—she does not get on well. A week ago we sent for a Medical Man of skill and experience from Leeds to see her; he examined her with a Stethoscope; his report I forbear to dwell on for the resent; even skilful [sic] physicians have often been mistaken in their conjectures…

When we lost Emily I thought we had drained the very dregs of our cup of trial, but now when I hear Anne cough as Emily coughed, I tremble lest there should be exquisite bitterness yet to taste. However I must not look forwards, nor must I look backwards. Too often I feel like one crossing an abyss on a narrow plank—a glance might quite unnerve.

So circumstanced, my dear Sir, what claim have I on your friendship—what right to the comfort of your letters—my literary character is effaced for the time—and it is by that only you know me—care of Papa and Anne is necessarily my chief present object in life to the exclusion of all that could give me interest with my Publishers or their connexions—Should Anne get better, I think I could rally and become Currer Bell once more—but if otherwise—I look no farther [sic]—sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.

Anne is very patient in her illness—as patient as Emily was unflinching. I recall one sister and look at the other with a sort of reverence as well as affection—under the test of suffering neither have faltered.

After the days of this winter have gone by darkly and heavily like a funeral train; since September sickness has not quitted the house—it is strange—it did not use to be so—but I suspect now all this has been coming on for years: unused any of us to the possession of robust health, we have not noticed the gradual approaches of decay; we did not know its symptoms; the little cough, the small appetite, the tendency to take cold at every variation of atmosphere have been regarded as things of course—I see them in another light now.

Notes: Currer Bell served as Charlotte Brönte’s pen name for the 1847 publication of Jane EyreCharlotte eventually started writing again, publishing Shirley in 1849, a critical flop, followed by Villette in 1853. 

“Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof,” a line from Matthew 6:34.


Notes on the influence Williams exerted over Charlotte’s literary career.

The Brönte’s literary dynasty.

Charlotte’s death by bicycle.