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This article is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.

Pictures from a Library, cover
‘Dangerous as Lucifer matches’:
A Note on Charlotte Brontë’s Epistolary Activity
Stella Halkyard
If, as Madeleine Callaghan claims, ‘letters describe human dramas [to] become vitally significant modes of thought and feeling’, few demonstrate these qualities more than the one shown here, sent from Haworth by Charlotte Brontë in 1848 to her friend Polly/Mary Taylor in New Zealand. It is a rare epistolary trace of a friendship that lasted Charlotte’s lifetime. In keeping with the Victorian practice of destroying personal correspondence post mortem, Mary sought to maintain Charlotte’s ‘ostrich longing for concealment’ (Deborah Lutz), in tune (at some level) with Arthur Nicholls’ view that Charlotte’s letters were incendiary, ‘dangerous as Lucifer matches’.

This letter, full of incidental details, ‘something that was not intended for our eyes’ (Carolyn Steedman), seems to give the reader privileged insight into the vibrant inner world of Charlotte’s character, thoughts, views and feelings, and maybe even ‘transmit a part of her soul’ (Deborah Lutz). It also makes us privy to some of her secrets, as putting pen to many pages of paper she seeks to diminish the distance between her and the friend whose absence she felt ‘as if a great planet fell out of the sky’. By conjuring a ‘fantasy of presence’ (Esther Milne) her letter creates a private space where secrets can be shared and intimacies exchanged which we, with twenty-first-century prying eyes, witness too. The specific confidence disclosed here tells of how Currer and Acton Bell ‘packed up a small box, […] set out after tea – walked through a thunderstorm to the station, got to Leeds and whirled up by the night train ...


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