On Writing Poems and Darning Socks: Robert Southey’s Advice to Charlotte Brontë

‘…she rather needs keeping down than bringing forward; and then I think, monsieur—it appears to me that ambition, LITERARY ambition especially, is not a feeling to be cherished in the mind of a woman: would not Mdlle. Henri be much safer and happier if taught to believe that in the quiet discharge of social duties consists her real vocation, than if stimulated to aspire after applause and publicity?’ Charlotte Brontë, The Professor

Let me tell you the story of Robert Southey’s notorious letter that is being referred to in this paragraph from The Professor.

Charlotte Brontë

When Anne Brontë and her sisters Charlotte and Emily first started publishing their works, they decided to do so under the male pen names of Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell. Charlotte later said they took this decision as: ‘We did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’ At the time, she already had plenty of evidence to support this choice.

Books by the Brontë sisters

In 1836, ten years before the publication of Jane Eyre, when Charlotte Brontë was working as a teacher at Roe Head School, she wrote a letter to the then greatest literary authority she could think of, the poet laureate Robert Southey. She enclosed several of her poems hoping to receive his feedback and advice. The above quote from The Professor echoes Southey’s response: 

‘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.’ 

Southey is trying to comfort Charlotte by telling her that when she marries, she will not want to write poetry anymore, she will not need such unfruitful excitement, because she will get all the joy life has to offer from doing her domestic duties, darning her husband’s socks, serving his meals, and eagerly awaiting his favorable judgement. 

Charlotte wasn’t dejected by Southey’s letter, quite the opposite, she was more excited about writing than ever! She treasured the letter and kept the original envelope, upon which she wrote: ‘Southey’s advice. To be kept forever.’

© 2020 Erna Grcic 

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