In January 2013, Vol. 38 of the Brontë Studies Journal included Bob Duckett’s review of Charlotte Brontë’s Thunder. This is a prestigious journal on all things Brontë that has been publishing continuously since 1895.
Bob Duckett has been managing editor of the journal, past president of the Brontë Society, and reference librarian at Bradford University. He would be considered an excellent authority/expert to assess the merits of my claim. Thankfully, his encouraging review suggests that my theory may be worth a look.
Dr. Andrea Westcott received her undergraduate degree from the University of Alberta in Honours English and her MA from Queen’s in Kingston, ON. Andrea’s PhD, granted from the University of Toronto, is entitled “The Art of Anne Brontë.” Prof. Westcott’s review.
These reviews are lengthy, so you might want to grab a cup of coffee or tea.
Editorial by Amber M. Adams BRONTË STUDIES Volume 38, Issue 1, pages iii-iv
Our Reviews Editor, Carolyne Van Der Meer, has coaxed interesting reviews on varied topics from old hands. The longest and most exceptional review is that of Michele Carter’s Charlotte Brontë’s Thunder: the Truth Behind the Brontë Sisters’ Genius by Bob Duckett. In this book the author examines Brontë texts in enormous detail; her results seem unbelievable, but all are supported by meticulous and thorough research. The Brontë boat may well be rocked — and we should welcome such innovative alternative thinking.
Bob Duckett’s Review
Charlotte Brontë’s Thunder starts calmly enough with good background to the local Haworth economy, the occupations of its inhabitants, and their poor working conditions. The Babbage report on public health leads on to Patrick’s fight for clean water and the opposition he received from the wealthy land and mill owners. Patrick had to tread carefully since the land-owning Church Trustees held his living arrangements and paid his salary. People such as the mill-owning Merralls, landowner and inn keeper, William Thomas, and landowners Tobias Chambers and Joseph Halley, all stood to lose money by Patrick’s scheme. They thwarted and circumvented Patrick and his supporters by writing direct to the Board of Health to undermine their arguments.
They also applied successfully to raise the qualification rate at which one could vote, and thus reduced potential legal opposition. ‘Gaskell’s depiction of the men makes it clear that they were shrewd and purposeful in their pursuit of both good and evil and that abuse did occur. She could easily be referring to the men who waged a battle against Reverend Brontë over water rates when she writes that their ‘dislike of authority’, their ‘hereditary spirit of independence’ together with a dogged ‘indifference to human life’ created fear among the weaker men’. And when the inhabitants were successful in getting a sewer dug, it was sabotaged. The propertied classes in Haworth were ‘a different kind of criminal element’ and Carter notes Babbage’s prescient comment that insufficient attention was paid to the causes of death. ‘Apparently the habit of wealthy landowners spending their rental profits on alcohol and gambling was common knowledge across the inhabitants of Haworth. Gambling and the consumption of alcohol occur in the pages of Wuthering Heights, as does the portrayal of violence.’ (p.21) ‘Charlotte would have witnessed her father’s struggle to help his parishioners and would have been equally frustrated at their wealthy citizens’ reluctance to help those less fortunate, but she would have realized that diplomacy ruled in this particular battle: she must never confront or criticize powerful men whose reach of control extended into her home.’ (p. 19)
Early critics were unbelieving over how bad the society was that was portrayed in Wuthering Heights but the Vestry Minutes give graphic evidence that there was a strong criminal element in the area, and neither the lone constable nor the inhibited curate could do much to stem the tide of gambling, drinking and violence. The Reverend Brontë carried pistols. The riotous and self-serving Haworth freemasons were Branwell’s role models and doubtless the descriptions of his fictional Verdopolis echo a violent and barely governable Haworth. ‘The Reverend’s son discovered his mason brothers governed a rough world that was far removed from the dull, feminine universe of the parsonage, and he delighted in writing shocking episodes in the tales he wrote with his sisters.’ (p. 32)
This extended pre-amble sets the scene for Carter’s discoveries. In studying the Brontë writings for common symbolism and imagery, she came to the conclusion that they all come from the same pen. Focusing on the surviving writings of Anne and Emily, Carter, like others before her, notes their lack of sophistication and finds it hard to accept that either had the ability to write the masterpieces now attributed to them. ‘The two sisters are neither exceptionally creative nor inventive, and both lack any significant sign of accomplishments in language that one would expect from genius writers.’ (p. 49) She notes the lack of evidence, apart from Charlotte’s say-so, that they wrote any novels. By comparison, Charlotte’s early writings show great skill. Maybe the lack of surviving manuscripts from Emily and Anne is due to there never having been any!
The massive critical acclaim of Jane Eyre is noted, as is the early mystery of its authorship. With Wuthering Heights we revisit the well-charted problem of its authorship. Lucasta Miller and others have explored this area of ignorance in depth and Carter notes the extravagant and often nonsensical claims of the ‘Purple Heather’ school of biography and criticism. ‘The Brontë sisters were separate and unique, but their writing is at times indistinguishable. Common sense might suggest one women wrote all the books, the same woman who had control of the family literary legacy, and who herself was a master at crafting.’ (p. 63) It was, after all, Charlotte, who shaped the evidence and there is no doubt that she did a great deal of editing. She muddied the waters and set the agenda.
The authorship of the Poems is also put under scrutiny. Chitham, Hatfield, Gezari, Neufeldt and Barker are some of the critics who have been unhappy with aspects of Emily’s authorship. Carter marshals the evidence to show that it was Charlotte who composed them and notes, again, that she organized everything relating to their publication.
We know from Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor how knowledgeable Charlotte was, and her Roe Head Journal gives us an insight into her precocious imagination. Compare Charlotte’s sophisticated writing with the flat prose of Emily’s and Anne’s surviving manuscripts. In the Young Men’s Magazine, Charlotte’s character, Charles Wellesley, is scathing in his report on his visit to Gondal. Ellen is also unflattering about Emily’s writing. Concludes Carter, ‘Charlotte could see that her sisters lacked the verbal and writing skills necessary to engage in the fierce repartee she enjoyed with Branwell. She would never have involved them in the witty and satirical banter she relished with her brother because she recognized the limitations of their storytelling, limitations that could render them defenceless against the cut and thrust of her rapier wit.’ (p. 111)
Charlotte makes great use of the language and imagery of Freemasonry, indeed, it was this that alerted Carter to the possibility of a single authorship. There were four lodges in Haworth in the early nineteenth century, brother Branwell was a member of one, and Masons were church trustees, as were other friends and acquaintances of the Brontë family. Not only are Charlotte’s novels suffused with the language and knowledge of Masonic ceremonies and symbolism, but the very structure of Masonic thought is used. Thus in Jane Eyre, Jane asserts herself through a series of personal trials starting in the Red Room – redolent in Masonic imagery and vocabulary, the knowledge she acquired at Lowood School, the ‘initiation’ when Rochester, the Master, leaves her alone with the bloodied Richard Mason, and the Biblical imagery used by St. John Rivers – even his name.
Carter also gives a detailed analysis of the Masonic influences in Wuthering Heights. ‘Scholars for years have pondered over the question of how Emily Brontë made the leap from her awkward, freakish, and immature writing about Gondal to compose such an original, masterly constructed novel.’ (p. 114) Carter’s answer is that ‘… the rituals and symbols of Freemasonry provided a useful key when trying to answer one of the abiding questions: did Emily Brontë write this book?’ (p. 113) Several chapters chart the heavy Masonic influences that underpin the book and the first three chapters tell of Lockwood’s progress through the first degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason. Lockwood’s journals are a veritable entry into the secrets of Freemasonry. Carter claims Emily had neither the skill nor the motivation to write Wuthering Heights; but Charlotte did. The Masonic presence also features throughout The Professor, particularly in chapter 23. Charlotte even names four Haworth’s Freemasons: Brown, Smith, Nicholls and Eccles.
Carter suggests that Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and The Professor were written as a trilogy and that Charlotte left clues to that effect. She wrote in an anagram that she left clues in three novels: ‘anagrams, hints, enigmas in three den stories’. (p. 306) The Masons are the wolves and their Lodge a den, so her trilogy would be connected through her allusions to the Freemasons. Wuthering Heights contains the parody of the three degree rituals; The Professor hides a story of Masonic corruption in the opening paragraphs of chapter 5 and in the novel’s poetry; Jane Eyre places the heroine in the red-room for a form of initiation, and again on the third storey of Thornfield (identified with Ponden Hall) for a ritualized mixing of blood and water with Mason, the Brother. Jane experiences the same growth and development that the masons celebrate in their allegorical-laden rituals.
Carter contends that Charlotte wrote both Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It was Charlotte, not Anne, who met the much abused Mrs Collins (a model for Helen Huntingdon) in 1840, and in 1847 (when Anne was ill). Charlotte’s views on bringing up boys, known in letters to Margaret Wooller, William Smith Williams and Ellen Nussey, echo closely those expressed in The Tenant; and it was Charlotte who compares Rochester and Huntingdon in such detail to Smith Williams in 1848. Like Stevie Davies, Carter notes the many parallels between Jane Eyre and the The Tenant; while the male culture of Grassdale manor echoes that of the Haworth masons.
Regarding Agnes Grey, Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey that “I might be tempted to … pour out the long history of a Private Governess’s trials and crosses in her first situation.” (p. 272) And she did. Not only do phrases and sentiments echo closely those of Charlotte, but she had the anger to fire her passion, whereas Anne was calmer and more forgiving.
But did not Charlotte say, specifically, that there were three ‘Bell’ authors? Well, not as unequivocally as one would like. She was a great tease, and Carter is by no means the first to worry over the ‘Biographical Notice’, though she must be the first to find Charlotte’s anagrammatic code concealed there. In the anagrams, to which we will come shortly, Charlotte explains her need to conceal her identity as she fears reprisals for libelling the Freemasons and having three authors spreads the potential target. And why have no manuscripts of Emily and Anne’s novels survived when Branwell’s voluminous and second-rate manuscripts were kept? Because Charlotte wished to conceal her authorship. Getting rid of her ‘Ellis’ and ‘Acton’ manuscripts was necessary to preserve the mystery. Publisher Newby saw them all and, seeing they were all in the same handwriting, really did think that they all came from the same pen. Early critics considered there to be one author, and Sidney Dobell for one, remained unconvinced by Charlotte’s disclaimer. Another reason for the bogus ascriptions was to spread the royalties and provide her sisters with an income. Having three ‘authors’ was also a useful device for providing a different ‘tone’.
Charlotte oversaw the publishing arrangements and acted for her sisters, but when Newby promoted Wuthering Heights as authored by Currer Bell, Charlotte panicked. She could not be under contract to two publishers at the same time and she needed to maintain the fiction of three authors. Hence the flying visit to London before George Smith could speak to Newby. But did not Anne go with Charlotte to London to prove the existence of Acton Bell? Easily explained: Emily and Anne were in on the deception.
Charlotte had a propensity for dropping clues into her writing and Carter notes many of these. But there is more: ‘… the key to Brontë’s secrets are not simply formed in word clues and allegorical duplications of Masonic rituals, but in a code well hidden inside the prose.’ (p. 146). To her surprise, Carter discovered that Charlotte conceals much Masonic imagery in her text using anagrams. Charlotte had the ability to perform complex anagrams in her head, a skill comparable to Branwell’s ability to simultaneously write Greek with his left hand and Latin with his right. This surprising ability is amply demonstrated, but it was not merely the ability to construct anagrams of single words, but of whole sentences! This precocious savant-like intelligence Charlotte used to conceal her true feelings (as done with her reply to Southey), or to keep observations secret (as she did in recording the twelve-year old Branwell’s theft of wine at Haworth and his sniffing turpentine when at Cross Stone.
Alongside the poem ‘Stars’ Charlotte wrote: ‘The following are the last lines my sister Emily ever wrote.’ The letters can be re-arranged to read: ‘I write verses, heath story, letters, all mine. New gloomy life’. By ‘wrote’ Carter considers Charlotte meant ‘copied out’. In the famous poem ‘No coward soul is mine’, which Carter claims Charlotte also wrote, one line reads: ‘As I, undying life, have power in thee!’ The letters can be re-arranged to read: [Title] ‘is Wuthering Heaven, if I die lay open’. While the letters in ‘Vain are the thousand creeds’ can be re-arranged as: ‘Dead Catherine roves, haunts’. ‘No coward soul is mine,/No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere!’ can be re-formulated to read: ‘So now ridicule Mason/brothers with blood plot. Relentless men murder’. (All pages 287.)
Carter describes how Charlotte presents the code and how it can be recognized. ‘Brontë’s method remains consistent throughout all her anagrams. Each portion that ends in a comma or period acts as a complete statement, but if two phrases run together without the break of punctuation, the anagram usually occurs at a natural split in the thought …’. (p. 190) The ‘de-coded’ anagrams present a cryptic amalgam of terms which take some imagination to identify and to interpret. This is a weakness in Carter’s thesis, but many tests do reveal that the complete substitution of letters does work and that sense can be made of the hitherto hidden message.
Even if the sceptic falters at this point, Carter’s knowledge of Masonic imagery and vocabulary does add greatly to a greater understanding of the novels. This feature is, itself, interesting, amazing even, but the more serious point, the reason why Charlotte was so secretive, was her wish to expose the corruption and crimes associated with the freemasons of Haworth. Some evidence of this has already been noted by other critics and historians. In particular, the practice of falsifying deeds of ill masons so property reverted to the masons themselves (the masons retained brother lawyers to craft duplicate wills or codicils). Chapter 5 of The Professor focuses on this and the whole of Wuthering Heights is based on this Haworth practice. ‘Brontë’s extraordinary ability with anagrams enables her to hide this tale of corruption. Her habit, developed during her youth, has now grown from reporting on her brother’s transgressions to recording the possible sins of a group of rogue Masons … .’ (p. 195)
Carter notes that the 1840s were a time of great hardship in Haworth and the Masonic lodges experienced poor attendance and lack of dues. Using Charlotte’s anagrammic ability we discover that the Mason’s shortage of funds encouraged them to resort to fraud, which parallels what Heathcliff did to Hindley’s son Hareton Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights.
Aside from the anagrams found in the prose, several are hidden in the poetry incorporated into The Professor. Chapter 22 contains anagrams that refer to such fraud. Thus the line: ‘When sickness stayed awhile my course’ can be re-formatted into ‘Witness hushed; like secrecy, Mason way.’ (p. 200) Again the poem’s anagrams refer to the tenants’ rents being paid in lieu of Masonic dues. Thus Brontë uses her poetry as a screen to expose a tale of thievery
Alerted by Charlotte’s coded pointers to sharp Masonic practice, especially the practice of situating themselves as executors, witnesses, lawyers and doctors (who certified death), Carter researched the evidence of local wills and found that before 1833, there were no records of executors retaining the land of the deceased, but from 1833 to 1853 there were 35 cases where the property of deceased men was owned by their respective executors. A detailed examination of these documents showed that the local Freemason’s were heavily involved, many of whom were well known to the Brontës. The period coincides with when the Freemasons moved their meetings from the public Black Bull inn to private rooms on Newall Hill, and when membership, and hence dues, had declined. In most cases death followed suspiciously quickly from the making of the will or codicils. It was also the period when Charlotte was active as an author. A possible forged signature is illustrated in the case of John Greenwood’s will, while the case of James Beaver, in which the Reverend Brontë was involved, is revisited. Chapter 5 of The Professor contains the sentence: ‘There is a climax to everything/to every state of feeling/as well to every position in life’, which transposes into ‘Thieving charity role taxes me/I often forge estate levy/visit a fool, write lease, openly sin’. (pp. 190-1) ‘The anagrams … consistently return to the same story of corruption and fraud, and emphasize her desire to tell her readers that she hid the whole sordid business in her novel.’ (p. 291)
Brontës as Victims
In some cases, the anagrams fit in with the biographical and historical facts, but in others, new information is given providing new insights, and plausible answers, to puzzles in Brontë biography. After some three hundred pages, I felt somewhat sated with Carter’s triple whammy of Charlotte’s secret authorship, her amazing anagrams, and her accusations of Masonic wrong doings. I needed time to reflect, but more revelations kept coming to light which kept me going to the end of this fascinating detective story. Many of the revelations are quite shocking. Let me not steal too much as Carter’s own thunder, but I can’t resist a few bolts of lightning!
The last two lines of ‘No Coward Soul’: ‘Since thou art Being and Breath/And what thou art may never be destroyed’, can be reformatted as ‘Behind barn teach signature to/that redhead boy. Wanted very true mason.’ Branwell surely! (pp. 287-8) Further revelations about Branwell include the real reason for his dismissal from Thorp Green (the forging of credit notes) and the truth concerning his death, with the Masonic cover-up aided and abetted by the Brontë family. (Doctors Crosby and Wheelhouse were Masons.) On Aunt Branwell, the first sentence of Wuthering Heights begins: ‘I have just returned from a visit to my landlord’ and contains the anagram ‘Am livid over aunt’s murder. Jot land thief story.’ Aunt Branwell had been in good health, but died suddenly – murdered if the anagram is to be believed. The letters to Professor Heger contain anagrams, at least in the final English paragraph, where there is a surprising sexual reference. At the beginning of Shirley, the sentence ‘Malone’s name was Peter – the Rev. Peter Augustus Malone’ can be re-formed as: ‘New tale: Mason rapes me. Rash guest at our temple venue’. The rape scenario is repeated in Charlotte’s letter to Ellen of January 1850 where the phrase: ‘he triumphed in his own character’ can be transformed into ‘the Christian urchin who raped me’.
The revelations continue: we have the possible identities of Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights; in Villette we get a clue that Charlotte wrote Wuthering Heights in the 1843 summer vacation in Brussels; and we also learn that the novel was initially titled Wuthering Heaven. Shirley was to be Ellis Bell’s second book (Shirley Keeldar is lethargic and indolent, like Emily).Why did Charlotte reject Arthur Nicholl’s proposal of marriage, but later accept it? If Carter’s deciphering of Charlotte’s code is correct, when his proposal of marriage was rejected, Nicholls rallied his Mason friends to force Charlotte marry him and so get his hands on her royalties. He succeeded. Charlotte’s anagrams tells us how: “Father’s bottle waste buys an economic union”. By threatening to expose her father’s alcoholism, Nicholls, aided and abetted by his Mason brothers, forced Charlotte into marriage, a marriage conducted by the Rev. Sutcliffe Sowden, another Mason. And her death? Charlotte’s final letters and Will also contain anagrams which give us clues for that too. There was no pregnancy, but there was poison.
Carter writes well and, despite the complex story, the account is well structured,. Perhaps a clearer demarcation of quoted and unquoted prose is needed, and the references are a touch careless in places. On page 49 for example, page numbers are given to the ‘Chitham’ and ‘Drabble’ references, but not which of the three possible ‘Chithams’ noted in the Bibliography, and there is no entry there under ‘Drabble’; the reference is probably to an edition of Wuthering Heights. But overall, the layout and presentation are good.
Clearly this book will raise a myriad of questions, but the depth of the author’s research; the breadth of her resources; her impressive grasp of Haworth’s social and economic history; her unrivalled knowledge of freemasonry; her enviable grasp of English jurisprudence (notably the pre-1858 English Probate Laws used to explain the complexities of Heathcliff’s manipulations of marriage law in Wuthering Heights); and her deep immersion in the Brontë corpus, makes it a book worthy of serious study. Michele Carter has made us a bold challenge.
(Note: The barbarism ‘anagrammatic code’ is mine, not the author’s! BD)
Dr. Andrea Westcott’s Review
I would like to thank Prof. Westcott for taking the time and making the effort to write this thorough and thoughtful review. She was under no obligation from any publication or institution: she did it because she wanted to. I truly appreciate her willingness to even read the book, but to write a review as well was both considerate and helpful. She admitted to me that, having studied Anne Brontë, she found it difficult to accept that Charlotte may have been the sole author. She was gracious enough to admit that it was “possible,” but preferred to stay loyal to the traditional view of authorship. She did, however, admit that the case in favour of Charlotte writing Wuthering Heights was strong. This is all good because whatever view one has about the Brontës, it gets the conversation started about the likelihood that, regarding authorship, we may have got it wrong.
Another point: Prof. Westcott refers to the little diary papers that Emily and Anne wrote over the years. I share most views that the writing is not very good. Prof. Westcott argues that Emily and Anne are writing in their own private code, which explains the pedestrian character of their observations. I found no evidence of their reports having a ‘cryptic nature.’
A final point: In one case, Prof. Westcott inadvertently misquotes me, so I have included, inside square brackets, what I actually wrote.
“Charlotte’s Stunned Brother”: Review of Michele Carter’s Charlotte Bronte’s Thunder
By Andrea Westcott
Michele Carter’s book Charlotte Bronte’s Thunder: The Truth Behind the Bronte Sisters’ Genius is an extensively researched and meticulously detailed account of Charlotte Bronte’s life that aims to redefine Bronte’s achievements. The book has been favourably reviewed by former editor Bob Duckett in the January 2013 issue of Bronte Studies. In her introduction Carter admits that she “never set out to challenge the status quo,” but originally intended to study the sisters’ corpus “for a shared symbolic design” (iv). In the process, Carter discovers that Jane Eyre evokes the “rituals and symbols of Freemasonry” (iv) because “Charlotte knew her Freemasonry as well as she knew her Shakespeare and her Bible” (78). Furthermore, Carter learns that Charlotte’s ability with certain types of memory was so elevated that she, like a savant, could create long and involved anagrams in her head. From this form of genius, Charlotte wove a story behind the words of her novels and other writing, such as the “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” about the authorship of the Bronte novels, that revealed surprising and little known events taking place in the Haworth community, which profoundly shaped the lives of the Bronte family members. Not only does Carter claim that the Masons were corrupt, but also that it was Charlotte who wrote all of the novels credited to herself, to Emily (Ellis) and to Anne (Acton). Feeling threatened by the wicked machinations of local Freemasons, Charlotte Bronte ascribes her work to her sisters, while revealing her deception in coded messages, anagrams scattered throughout her writings.
To begin developing her argument, Carter includes a history of Freemasonry and its links to Haworth because she believes Charlotte learned much of what she knew from her brother Branwell, who became a Master Mason in 1836 (xxi) and may well have left his copies of Masonic material available for his sisters to see (78). Carter suggests that “Charlotte and Emily secretly joined creative forces” [I said the opposite. This is what I wrote: “All these examples . . . do not provide any indication that Charlotte and Emily secretly joined creative forces to satirize the local Freemasons”] to satirize the activities of the local Freemasons (111). It is quite plausible (from the detailed research Carter outlines) that the Masons in the community had developed a method of securing property that went beyond their legal means. For example, Carter’s sleuthing reveals that
[i]n Haworth Township over a twenty-year period, wealthy landowners died and executors began appearing on wills….[to the extent that] executor ownership of property on wills rose from zero to thirty-five between 1833 and 1853. Of the fifteen extant wills, a Mason appeared on each one as testator, executor, or witness. (235)
It also makes sense that if the Bronte sisters became aware of this and tried to let others know of potential fraudulent activity they would be nervous about repercussions to themselves and about some form of retaliation. Why this extends to Charlotte Bronte feeling it “necessary to orchestrate a hoax of three writing sisters” (xxi) Carter explains in her Prologue. It has to do with the nature of Charlotte’s community. Therefore, Carter includes numerous early chapters on historical background to the region around Haworth in order to elucidate the types of people who lived there, particularly the Masons, and to unearth what their influence on the Bronte family might have been. She explains some of the problems, such as the lawless nature of this isolated community, the water contamination from the cemetery, and the fallout from industrialization.
Carter goes on to provide a biography of the family, an analysis of some of the sisters’ early writing and their poetry, a critical analysis of Jane Eyre suggesting that Charlotte integrates “references to Freemasonry that fit her overall design” (88), and an analysis of Wuthering Heights, especially the first three chapters, to show how the Masonic symbols are incorporated in this text. Carter reserves a chapter for each to explain how Lockwood goes through the process of initiation: “the first three chapters provide a parody of the Masonic three-degree ceremonies” (117), as Lockwood becomes initiated into the Brotherhood and undergoes stages of his Apprenticeship. Carter’s larger argument here is that, because this is consistent with what she finds in Jane Eyre, it is evidence that Charlotte is responsible for writing Wuthering Heights, as she incorporates her knowledge of Freemasonry into both novels.
Carter’s main impetus for her book is her desire for Charlotte Bronte to be given rightful credit for all her writing. However, Carter’s evidence comes largely from her claim about the anagrams. “The newly discovered secret I found in my investigation of her wordplay is that Charlotte Bronte was an avid anagrammatist” (v). Thus these two aspects of Carter’s work become inextricably linked. Carter claims that Charlotte could, and quite possibly did, disguise her revelations behind the words of her other writing. In each case, the anagrams reveal truths even more disturbing than that of the surface level of what they describe. Carter’s initial clue for her research came in the Thornfield Hall scene of Jane Eyre with Bertha, Jane and Richard Mason when she noticed the “ritualized mixing of blood and water with Mason, the brother” (306). The anagram revealing this states, “Witness hushed; like secrecy, Mason way” (200), which she takes from a line of poetry in Charlotte’s first novel The Professor (Ch. 23): “When sickness stayed awhile my course” (199). For Carter, what it exposes is the fraud being perpetrated by the Freemasons. When deciphering the anagrams Carter says she worked toward finding an anchor word, which would give her a feeling of something clicking into place when she found it, and she knew she had figured the meaning.
An instance where Carter discovers an anagram consistent with what we know about Charlotte historically happens when Charlotte uses one to disguise her real reaction to Robert Southey’s advice after exchanging letters with him. When he famously tells her that “’Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be’” (172), she writes, “Southey’s advice to be kept forever” (173). Carter translates this to say “Refute poet. Shocked by evasive rot” (173). Given Charlotte’s passionate nature, this seems a more realistic reaction than what she submissively writes in her original observation about keeping the advice forever, since she clearly didn’t take the advice to heart, except to refute it! On the other hand, despite this internal logic, Anagram Server lists over 50,000 interpretations of those same 29 letters:
“A beseeched free skivvy uproot tot,” for example, or “A beseeched furtive rev took typos.” This latter example is anachronistic in Rev. Bronte’s case, but both make the point about the innumerable translations and their potentially nonsensical nature. It raises a problem about evidence and its interpretation, to which Carter admits her method “is certainly open to cynicism and criticism” (v). My own effort at translating the 32 letters of “When sickness stayed awhile my course” which Carter has as “Witness hushed; like secrecy, Mason way” is “Yes, stars weaken how my child sees in CU (Capilano University).” Context matters!
To return to Carter’s main concern with Charlotte’s authorship, while it might appear that she has read too much of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, she is not the first to claim that Charlotte wrote the other novels, but she has gone to greater efforts than most to support her thesis. One of the early exponents of the idea that Charlotte wrote Wuthering Heights was 19th century writer and critic Sidney Dobell. Carter relies on his belief, in the “Biographical Notice,” that Charlotte is disingenuous in her denial of authorship (240-42). However, in the same notice, she states unequivocally that
it was said that this [Wuthering Heights] was an earlier and ruder attempt of the same pen which had produced Jane Eyre. Unjust and grievous error! We laughed at it at first, but I deeply lament it now. Hence, I fear, arose a prejudice against the book. That writer who could attempt to palm off an inferior and immature production under cover of one successful effort, must indeed be unduly eager after the secondary and sordid result of authorship, and pitiably indifferent to its true and honourable meed. If reviewers and the public truly believed this, no wonder that they looked darkly on the cheat. (CB qtd. in Peterson ed. 18)
Repudiating Charlotte Bronte here calls into question her entire character and reputation as an honest author, does it not? In Chapter 12 on Roe Head, Carter does a credible analysis of Charlotte’s early desire to break out of the humdrum of her existence and fulfil what she felt to be her destiny, to become a writer, but Carter bases this on the heartfelt outpourings of Charlotte’s emotion and longing in her journal and in her letters (101- 105). Given this, it is then inconsistent of Carter to turn around and argue that in the “Biographical Notice” Charlotte would be other than truthful in her revelations about her own authorship, that instead, Charlotte was just being cheeky with her readers.
In a privately published book in 1954, entitled The Confessions of Charlotte Bronte, John Malham-Dembleby clearly thought credit should go to Charlotte for all the novels and poetry, including all Branwell’s writing. Part of the claim that Charlotte was entirely responsible begins with the idea that Emily was not capable of writing Wuthering Heights. Since the original manuscript has not survived, and there are few extant pieces of writing on which to base Emily’s genius, and Carter builds on the argument of critics who have hitherto been on the margins and places excessive weight on Emily’s diary papers, part of a personal correspondence between Emily and Anne. Yet it is hard to judge the quality of Emily’s writing ability based on so little. As private code, the cryptic nature of the messages between Emily and Anne is entirely appropriate. Why elaborate when they each knew to what their brief notes referred? They had no need to be anything other than cryptic. Thus it seems strained for Carter to argue that “the diary papers show their limitations with language” (111) or to make much of Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey’s observation that on a particular excursion Emily and Anne hardly spoke, except to each other (108). Absence of evidence upon which to base a case cannot become the final indictment against the younger sisters’ abilities. Nevertheless, Carter makes this very case when she dismisses Emily’s knowledge of the law to the point that she doesn’t believe Emily capable of creating the interrelated steps that Heathcliff uses to gain control of the property of both the Heights and the Grange because she claims there’s too much of a gap between her “undistinguished, childish musings and the novel’s masterful style and virtuoso structure” (262). Charlotte did, however, have this knowledge, through her observations of the Masons in Haworth. While she had no preconceived notions of what her research would reveal, for Carter, this is another puzzle piece explained, and it has led her to become absolutely convinced that Charlotte was the only novelist of the family and that the buried manuscript of Wuthering Heights, when it is unearthed, will be proof of this claim.
As to this manuscript, anagrams in Charlotte’s letter to William Smith Williams in 1848 “describe the exact location where she says she buried her literary drafts. Rumours circulated for years that she had buried manuscripts and letters, and the anagrams appear to support that view, but the directions will not be revealed at this time” (385), says Carter. Her cryptic use of the passive voice here makes it unclear exactly who is not revealing the directions, but if there’s a manuscript to be found, it is this that must happen as the next stage of this baffling enigma because the mystery is still twice removed from being solved. Readers must first believe in the anagrams and then in the directions hidden within them, in order to get to the manuscript(s).
Someone who saw the original manuscripts was Ellis and Acton Bell’s publisher Thomas Newby. Thus, Carter makes much in Chapter 28 of the confusion that arises among reviewers in the fall of 1847 when the three first novels, each by a different brother, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, were published by two different publishers in London and another shortly after in New York. However, London publisher Thomas Newby’s claim that there was only one author suits his self- interest. He was not the conscientious publisher that Charlotte found in George Smith. Newby could generate sales of his authors Ellis and Acton Bell by riding on the coattails of Currer Bell’s success with Jane Eyre.
Attributing the authorship of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to Charlotte fits within Carter’s structure. It opens up the question of identity again, but there are other possible interpretations to Carter’s findings. When Anne writes in her 1845 diary paper that she is working on the third volume of “passages in the life of an Individual” (273), it could just as easily be a separate three volume set as it could be part of the Gondal saga. Why would Anne make the effort to travel to London and reveal herself as an author, if it were not true? Are we to suppose that Charlotte talked her into such a strategy? What does Anne have to gain from this? Carter does not address this issue of Anne’s motivation, other than to say that “the three sisters shared this secret” (387). Perhaps Anne, whose writing style is often cited as being more restrained and less passionate than her sisters’ styles, went to London because she was the second author in the family. Would this then leave the third sister, the copyist, at home? Carter has a specific argument to bolster her view that Emily was not a writer. In looking at Emily’s poetry, Carter claims that Emily only wrote out the lines for “No Coward Soul is Mine,” while it was Charlotte who actually created the poem (286). Is Carter’s speculation here another question of semantics that would amount to a form of quibbling or even dissembling on Charlotte’s part if she were to allow her readers to believe something other than what she is really saying, or is Carter on to a major finding that will redress what we have long understood about the Bronte mythology? Emily was acknowledged to be working on her second novel when she died, but no notes have survived. While “[s]cholars and biographers assume Charlotte burned the remains” (279), Carter wonders why she would destroy Emily’s working papers but save “Branwell’s inferior work” (279). Carter’s solution to explain “the lost second novel is that Charlotte was writing Ellis Bell’s book herself, but under the name of Currer Bell” (279). The merit to this conjecture is its logic.
This same logic forces Carter to disclose information from the anagrams about the family even when she finds it shocking. Thus, in another area of her life, Charlotte Bronte has much to say about Branwell, but she developed her habit of revealing unhappy events through cryptic means as a way of “reporting on her brother’s transgressions” (195). Carter claims that, in order to benefit from his aunt’s will, Branwell used arsenic to hasten her death, which in itself backfired and took “four more agonizing days” (349). This is a serious accusation, but if true, it makes sense from Charlotte’s perspective that she would not have wanted Branwell’s behaviour to become public and thereby bring shame on the rest of the family, particularly her father, the Reverend Bronte.
Yet, it’s a large step to say, as Carter does, that she feared so much for her life she concealed the extent of her writing and “distance[d] herself further from the work by becoming three males” (253) and that she actually stayed in Brussels to write Wuthering Heights during the summer of 1843 (260), as the beginning of her trilogy: Wuthering Heights, The Professor and Jane Eyre, “anagrams, hints, enigmas in three den stories” (306). Part of Carter’s argument is that it gave Charlotte a chance to write using different voices (386). Another rationale is “to ensure her sisters’ financial security unencumbered by any interference from the Masons who would have assessed Emily and Anne’s worth like wolves evaluating lambs” (388-9). Charlotte felt the need, according to Carter, to protect her family and so give Emily and Anne “a legal share of the wealth if anything were to happen to her” (469).
Thus, Carter insists that Charlotte follows a consistent pattern with her anagrams, with “two intersecting themes of fear of discovery and desire for obscurity” (389). By the time she has created her own biography of Charlotte Bronte’s life, Michele Carter marshals enough evidence to demonstrate that unscrupulous individuals, all Freemasons, end up controlling Charlotte’s destiny, essentially forcing her to conceal the truth of what happens surrounding three major events in her life, the first being the authorship of her work, already extensively discussed.
The next most important event and the second concealment, revolved around Branwell’s death, of which Carter includes these details: “[a] slashed wrist, bloody sheets, stained bedclothes, and a corpse with a bloody knife besides its body” (383). Charlotte protects her family from the abuse they would have suffered if it were known that he had chosen his day to die, committing suicide, rather than succumbing to alcohol and drug abuse (470).
The third major event was Charlotte Bronte’s marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls, the final event where she becomes a victim to the machinations of the very group she had feared in her youth, the local Freemasons. Relying on Charlotte’s letters to Ellen Nussey, Carter establishes the nature of the initial relationship that Charlotte has with her father’s curate. Charlotte clearly was not favourably impressed, and she is candid in saying that their tastes did not coincide. Carter intimates that Nicholls had connections with the Masons and that his motive for asking for Charlotte’s hand in marriage may have had more to do with her pocket book than her personality. Thus the third major concealment “arrived like an electric shock when Charlotte was to marry Nicholls. No wonder Ellen was confused. What long-standing friend would easily comprehend such a swift reversal of another friend’s mind?” (470). Again to protect her family, creating another secret that Charlotte would take to her grave, she suffered “[a] forced marriage under humiliating circumstances” (471). Just one of the consequences was that her husband was requesting/forcing Charlotte to give up her writing career; a second was that her friend Ellen was expected to destroy her letters from Charlotte, luckily a request (perhaps a demand) she ignored! A third consequence, according to Carter, was that Nicholls gradually poisoned Charlotte using arsenic and that Charlotte herself was aware of it happening. However, because she was also rumoured to be pregnant, her illness would naturally have been attributed to that cause, and Charlotte knew she had been caught in a deceptive but deadly net (which wouldn’t be given a name until Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel: Catch 22).
In her epilogue, Carter discusses a fragment Charlotte left behind entitled Willie Ellin. The narrator of the piece sets up a riddle and asks the reader: “Who am I” (476). Carter answers by saying that the fragment is another clue to the authorship puzzle. All of the clues together “point to the inspiration and origins of Wuthering Heights: Bronte directs the reader to the landscape with its stunning rock formations, to the fraud, to the Masons and their allegories and, finally, to the child ballads” (498). All of this, together with the anagrams in her stories and letters, lead Carter to the conclusion that Wuthering Heights “is a complex, extraordinary masterpiece from the pen of Charlotte Bronte” (498). About her own research Carter herself asserts that her strongest evidence relates “to the land theft [by the Masons] and to [Charlotte’s] identity as author of Wuthering Heights” (494).
Carter’s arguments are persuasive, but not entirely convincing, due to the necessarily high level of speculation involved. It is clear Charlotte wanted to protect her family from the innuendo and malicious gossip that swirled like the contaminated water, around Haworth, just as she wanted to preserve her family’s reputation, in the cases of the events surrounding her brother, her father, and her husband. On the question of authorship, I think Carter’s case for Emily is more convincing than for Anne because of the material outlining the Masonic design embedded in the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights, as well as Emily’s own reticence to reveal herself as an author in person. Therefore, while I can believe two of the cover-ups that Charlotte creates, according to Carter, about her brother and husband, I have some reservations about the third. As an alternative view, it’s possible that given the anagrams are there they could still be interpreted differently.
To distill the question: is the evidence of the anagrams, the foundation of Carter’s theory, strong enough to support her findings that Charlotte was the only published Bell? After all, since Carter’s own title Charlotte Bronte’s Thunder could be written “Charlotte’s Stunned Brother,” it could just as easily become “Charlotte Burns the Rodent” (Anagram Server). If the meaning can be so easily channeled in either a serious or silly direction, how does one view Carter’s theory about Charlotte’s anagrams and her achievements? Finally outweighing the interpretative problems, with respect to the anagrams, is an impressive body of research, investigation, and analysis on an enduring literary/authorial mystery that Michele Carter offers for her readers to ponder and decide for themselves.