In her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, Charlotte Brontë wrote hundreds of stories and poems which were set in her childhood fantasy worlds of Glass Town and Angria. Initially shared with all three of her surviving siblings, this creative collaboration fractured in 1831 as her sisters Anne and Emily moved away to create their own world of Gondal, leaving Charlotte and her brother Branwell to focus on Glass Town, and later Angria. Whilst the Brontë juvenilia is slowly attracting more attention from Brontë fans and scholars, and the love for her published adult novels (Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, and the posthumously published The Professor) shows no sign of diminishing, the fragments of unfinished novels that Charlotte left behind after her death on 31st March 1855 are less well known.
These fragments were abandoned at various stages of completion, and for various reasons. However, with the exception of Emma, which was in all probability abandoned as a result of Charlotte’s final illness and death, we can only speculate as to why these fragments were never completed. You can click here to read my post about Emma and find out more information about a wonderful fragment which is full of potential. The focus of this post however is another of Charlotte’s unfinished novels, The Story of Willie Ellin, which predates Emma and was also one of the final pieces attempted by Charlotte before her death. It’s a fascinating and perplexing piece with similarities to everything from the juvenilia, The Professor, and Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Read on to find out more.
Over the years many Brontë scholars and readers have pointed to a lack of literary activity on Charlotte’s part following her courtship and eventual marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls between 1852 and 1854. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Nicholls interfered with Charlotte’s writing, which was her primary source of income, it is evident that Charlotte had begun to slow down by this point in her life. This may seem strange when one considers the enormous volume of Glass Town and Angrian narratives she produced in her youth, however, it is important to bear in mind that the Charlotte of the 1850s was a very different Charlotte to the one of the period leading up to this decade. By the time Willie Ellin was written in the summer of 1853, Charlotte had grown up, tasted the literary success she had always dreamt of, witnessed the deaths of her remaining siblings, watched her father’s health deteriorate with age and grief, and found a husband who was quite different from the dashing heroes of her youthful literature.
Throughout all of this, it is possible that Charlotte simply didn’t have the time, the energy, or the heart to devote herself to more writing. This might sound odd, especially with the above statement that by 1853, writing was her primary source of income, however, it is important to remember that Charlotte’s published writing is dramatically different to her Glass Town and Angrian stories; it is far more restrained, and even restricted. Despite her reputation as being somewhat stuffy and prim and proper, Charlotte had a passionate nature (just read her juvenilia for proof), and I believe she took great pains to disguise this in order to avoid any type of scandal in the oppressive 19th century society she found herself living in. Perhaps she also felt she had to stick to a particular type of literature to ensure its publication and her future finances, and this type certainly wasn’t the kind of funny, raunchy, and outrageous literature from her juvenilia.
Although much of her juvenilia have survived the centuries, I believe that by this point in her life, partially due to the sometimes savage attacks she and her sisters received following the publication of their novels, and partially due to her knowledge of what was deemed suitable by society for a woman to write about, she was cautious of the type of literature she wrote. As a child, she wrote to amuse herself and express her desires, as an adult she wrote to earn a living. It is possible that Charlotte did write more during this period, and that it simply did not survive, however, I’m personally inclined to think she didn’t. In short, I believe Charlotte abandoned her spontaneous scribblemania in which she poured out her heart and soul in favour of planned, prepared, and carefully revised literature. This may have been to avoid anything falling into the wrong hands, although it is curious and telling that she never destroyed her juvenilia which featured what Elizabeth Gaskell referred to as a type of “wild weird writing” that Charlotte feared society would judge her for. Despite Charlotte’s abandonment of Angria in her 1839 fragment, “Farewell to Angria” and the caution she exercised with regards to her literary activity towards the end of her life, The Story of Willie Ellin suggests a desire to cling to her worlds of Glass Town and Angria, and that she had not outgrown her scribblemania after all. Rather than pour out her words, and emotions, spontaneously on the page, she was attempting to mould her ideas into something more polished and respectable.
The Story of Willie Ellin consists of five rather confusing parts (three separate fragments, two of which are in the Bonnell Collection at the Brontë Parsonage Museum) which may or may not relate to the other parts. Even when the fragments are pieced together in texts such as Tom Winnifrith’s Charlotte Brontë: Unfinished Novels, it’s unclear whether these parts are meant to follow on, whether they were to be used at various points in the finished text, or whether they are simply re-workings and revisions of Charlotte’s ideas that she toyed with as she wrote.
Part one sees an unnamed member of the Ellin family return to his ancestral home and muse on, amongst other things, the old housekeeper, a Mrs. Widdup who doted on the narrator as a child. The narrator reveals that Ellin Hall, which had for generations been the home of the Ellins, passed out of their hands when his older half-brother sold it. After his death, and with no will or heir, the narrator inherited his brother’s fortune and purchased Ellin Hall with the money. The fragment ends with the narrator stating that his older brother was “a stronger man in body and a tyrant at heart”.
Part two sees the unnamed narrator discussing his home, and describing a very specific place of abode named Ellin Balcony, but then, rather confusingly refusing to say whether he is the owner, a member of the family, a tenant, or a servant there”. Refusing to say more, the narrator simply says, “I was there, and it was my house”. He then muses on his first encounter with the house and the history of those who have lived there before him. He once again mentions an old housekeeper, but does not name her, and a dog which lay chained up in the yard.
The third part is more substantial and the reader is able to follow a clear narrative thread. It begins with a housekeeper of Ellin Balcony named Mrs. Hill who sits alone in the kitchen on a quiet night before being unexpectedly disturbed by a knock at the door. Mrs. Hill is shocked, and even more so when she finds a young child, and a gentleman, on the other side of the door. Mrs. Hill recognises him as “an Ellin of Golpit” and the child replies, “I’m Willie, that is William Ellin, and I cam this very day from Golpit – fifteen miles, a long way. I’m tired”. Willie asks for refuge for a day or two whilst he considers what to do next as he has run away from home. He revels that his older stepbrother, Edward Ellin, is cruel to him and that “Edward’s hand and stick are so heavy”. Willie reveals he has run away as he will be financially dependent on Edward, who has informed Willie that he will grow up to be a beggar or a shop’s assistant, but won’t be a gentleman. Mrs. Hill informs a distraught Willie that, “But you’ve no money; you can’t choose. You must learn a trade”. Willie doesn’t like the idea and remarks that there were no traders in the family until Edward, and that was done out of greed. Mrs. Hill implores Willie to see if Edward would employ him in his counting house.
Willie goes to sleep but is woken the next morning by the sound of an angry Edward who has tacked his brother down. Mrs. Hill tries to calm Edward but he searches the bedrooms until he finds Willie and threatens to flog him with his whip. A voice behind Edward convinces him to put the whip down, and the speaker is revealed to be a business associate of Edward’s named Mr. Bosas, described as “a capable protector” whose power would never turn towards cruelty. Under the glare of Bosas, Edward laughs off the situation and remarks that he was only in jest, but Willie is forced to return with his brother to Golpit. Following his return, the reader glimpses his bedroom and his reading habits (Robinson Crusoe is his favourite text), but once Bosas has departed, Willie feels the full force of Edward’s cruelty. Alarmed at Edward entering his room, which he has never done before, Willie is finally flogged by his brother. The abused and neglected child and Charlotte’s focus on the house, which is as much of a character as the people in the tale, cannot help but bring Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to mind, however, there are instances in Charlotte’s juvenilia where she documents the physical abuse of minors.
Part four immediately follows on from Edward entering Willie’s room and the latter desperately attempts to persuade his brother to put down the whip in case he is brought before a magistrate and has to pay a fine or be transported. Seeing this as a threat, Edward thrashes his brother senseless. Following Edward’s departure, Willie manages to undress and crawl into bed to pray.
Part five sees a character named William (who may or may not be the Willie from the previous section) alone after being flogged. A sympathetic and unnamed girl of seventeen then approaches Willie in order to comfort him. She reveals that she heard Edward’s attack from her bedroom and vows that Edward will not hurt his brother again.
Connections to Other Works
Although Lyndall Gordon suggests in Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life that the first part of The Story of Willie Ellin reveals the plot line and sets the scene, critics such as Winnifrith in his introduction to Unfinished Novels and Christine Alexander in The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë express their opinion that Willie Ellin was actually Charlotte’s attempt to re-work the early parts of her novel The Professor following its many rejections by different publishers. I’m inclined to agree with this belief and I don’t think that the parts of Willie Ellin (with the exception of three and four) have any connection to one another; they’re just re-workings and revisions of ideas, plots, and characters Charlotte was desperate to see in print and make work for a wider audience.
As stated above, it remains unclear whether these fragments were all meant to be included in the finished version of Willie Ellin, or whether they were drafts and re-workings as Charlotte tried to get her story to come to fruition. It never did, and the story, for reasons unknown, was abandoned. However, this may be because the story had in fact already come to fruition in various other narratives, many years earlier. The names Edward and William will be familiar to those who have read Charlotte’s novel, The Professor, which also featured warring brothers named Edward and William Crimsworth, one rich and one poor and needing to learn a trade. The counting house also crops up in Willie Ellin, like it does in the early stages of The Professor when William is forced to work for his tyrannical older brother. It is also interesting to note that Mr. Bosas is a powerful and no-nonsense figure who seems somewhat benevolent, looking out for Willie despite being a business associate of Edward, much like the character of Mr. Hunsden in The Professor, who is an associate of Edward but a friend to William.
Although it seems Charlotte was attempting to re-work parts of The Professor, one has to go back further than the writing of this novel in order to see that the reason for her desperation lies in her juvenilia. The theme of warring brothers is a prominent feature of both her Glass Town and Angrian stories, with Lord Charles Wellesley and Arthur, Marquis of Douro fighting out in the early narratives before continuing their rivalry in Angria in the forms of Charles Townshend and the Duke of Zamorna. Like Willie and Edward Ellin, these two are fierce rivals, and remarkably different characters in both of their incarnations. However, their rivalry exists alongside that of another pair of warring brothers, named, you guessed it, William and Edward. In Charlotte’s juvenilia, Edward and Sir William Percy are deadly enemies in a way Charles and Zamorna are not, with Edward more blunt and brutal, and focused on trade and business, and Sir William more of a gentleman who nevertheless is seeking a place in the world for himself. Abandoned by their father, Branwell Brontë’s favourite character, Alexander Percy, in their infancy, the two spend their lives hating and avoiding one another. It is interesting to note that a character named Mr. Ellin later appears in Charlotte’s unfinished Emma but is a very different figure from the various incarnations of Willie Ellin that we meet in The Story of Willie Ellin.
It is telling that The Professor, Charlotte’s first completed adult novel following the juvenilia and some of her abandoned fragments such as Ashworth continues with themes and characters that had fascinated and absorbed her for many years. The rejection of The Professor must have wounded Charlotte deeply as she was offering a piece of Angria, albeit in a somewhat disguised form, and a piece of her heart and soul, to the world. And the world rejected it. Even after the success of Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Villette (which all cannot truly escape the juvenilia but are much more successful at maturing and transforming it), Charlotte was desperate not only to cling to her familiar world and characters, but for the real world to embrace it too.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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The Story of Willie Ellin quotes are from Charlotte Brontë: Unfinished Novels by Charlotte Brontë and edited by Tom Winnifrith (Dover: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1993).
Elizabeth Gaskell quote is from The Life of Charlotte Brontë (Middlesex: Penguin, 1997).