Charlotte Brontë is best remembered as the author of Jane Eyre (1847), a literary masterpiece and my favourite novel of all time. In her lifetime she also published two other novels, Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853). Another novel, The Professor, was published posthumously in 1857 after being rejected by publishers a decade earlier. Prior to this in 1846, Poems by Charlotte and her sisters, Emily and Anne Brontë, appeared under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Regular readers of my blog will know of Charlotte’s literary apprenticeship during her youth and early adulthood when she spent over a decade writing about her fantasy world 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 shows no sign of diminishing, many people remain unaware of the fragments Charlotte composed following her abandonment of Angria in 1839. 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. I have already blogged about the unfinished novel Emma and the abandoned fragments of Willie Ellin so now here is a post on Ashworth, a particularly fascinating fragmentary piece due to its connections to Charlotte’s juvenilia.
When Charlotte died in 1855, she left behind many manuscripts in various stages of completion. Most of these were presumably left in the possession of her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, until they were either sold or bequeathed by him (both in life and posthumously). The provenance history of the fragments which make up the text we now know as Ashworth is sketchy, but we do know that the pieces were split up at some point and scattered throughout various private collections. Melodie Monahan, who pieced the fragments back together in the early 1980s in order to reconstruct Charlotte’s unfinished novel as faithfully as possible, suggests the person responsible for splitting the manuscript was Thomas J. Wise, a notorious collector, forger, thief, and villain in the Brontë story. I am inclined to agree with her for pointing the finger of blame at Wise; the less said about him, the better.
Ashworth was pieced together by Monahan from a fragment in the Harry Elkins Widener Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University titled Mr. Ashworth and Son, and four fragments in the Henry H. Bonnell Collection at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York. It is not known who provided the title to the Harvard fragment. This manuscript is undated and consists of six sheets folded in a single squire as a booklet of twenty four pages. Like its title, page numbers were also added at some point after Charlotte’s death. It was given to Harvard in 1915 by Widener’s family. The Morgan fragments were donated by the widow of Bonnell (an American collector and good guy in the Brontë story) in 1969. They had been titled Prose Fragments and consist of six folded sheets (three forming a single squire) without page or leaf numbers. Connections were made between the two booklets (which were not as tiny as Charlotte’s Glass Town books) due to the fact they had been written by the same hand on the same paper. Some tearing to the edges of the manuscripts confirmed they had originally been one. There may even be more extant fragments of the manuscript somewhere in a private collection.
As the fragments are undated, we can only speculate as to when they were written. Monahan believes Ashworth was written sometime between Caroline Vernon in 1839 and The Professor which she states was begun in 1845. Due to the connections between The Professor and some of Charlotte’s Angrian works, I believe it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when she began writing the novel; she may have reused earlier fragments that had been discarded for other narratives, including Ashworth. I believe The Professor was a true labour of love for Charlotte and had been with her in some form or other long before she abandoned Angria. Monahan notes that Charlotte’s handwriting is similar to that she used between 1830 and 1840, so perhaps Ashworth is actually an Angrian text. Despite its English setting, it would certainly not be out of place with her novelettes such as Passing Events (1839), Stancliffe’s Hotel (1837), and Henry Hastings (1839) due to the recycling of characters, relationships, and plot lines.
The narrative of Ashworth is fragmentary in nature and seems to be made up of a series of vignettes. However, unlike the aforementioned Stancliffe’s Hotel,w is a fantastic little flâneur piece, there is a greater sense of focus following the recap of the history of Alexander Ashworth. Monahan split the text into four chapters and although they deal with different characters in different settings, the ending of the final chapter brings the connections between them all to the surface and leaves a tantalising glimpse of what Charlotte may have had in mind.
Chapter one is a history of the early life of Alexander Ashworth, wild son of a cold father, who, upon inheriting the family estate, Ashworth Hall on his father’s death, removes his mother to relatives in Ireland and fills the house with debauchery. His cronies are listed as Thaddeus Daniels, Robert King, George Charles Gordon (a nod to Byron), and Arthur MacShane. These men are as wild and dangerous as Ashworth himself. Ashworth suddenly surprises everyone with his marriage and settling down. However, he disowns his two sons, William and Edward at birth, but rejoices at his daughter, Mary. Ashworth’s wild ways creep in again after the death of his wife and his financial ruin and he disappears from Hampshire only to reappear in Wakefield, Yorkshire many years later. As the unnamed narrator puts it, chapter one deals with, “his birth, his bridal, and his bankruptcy”.
Chapter two picks up in Yorkshire where after many years in the wilderness, Ashworth and his cronies are causing chaoes and earning a crooked living. It is also revealed that Ashworth’s mistress was once Harriet, wife of Thaddeus and sister to MacShane. It is also noted that Ashworth has become a political Republican and is referred to as a “demagogue”. Ashworth also tries his hand at preaching at one point too. The focus then shifts to the fates of the abandoned Edward and William who were schooled at Harrow until the death of their grandmother. The contrast between the two is clear; Edward is strong and hardy, self-possessed and selfish, warring with and beating his brother, and like his father, surrounding himself with a group of wild cronies. William is no more pleasant, solitary, and strong minded. Mary had a better fate, being sent to a private school in London where her father’s renewed fortunes have played their part in earning her the “‘consideration'” of others there. Mary is more likeable than her brothers though, showing kindness to those who require it, such as the downtrodden half-boarder, Ellen Hall. At the end of term examination and prize-giving, we are introduced to, Harriet and Julia Daniels (daughters of Thaddeus), and Amelia De Capell, a fellow pupil who, like Mary, is leaving to return home. Their is no clear relationship between Mary and Amelia, who do not seem to particularly like one another. The chapter ends with Mary thoughtfully bequeathing some books to a grateful Ellen.
Chapter three sees the narator once again stress that Ashworth’s new wealth has not been fairly gained. Ashworth has repurchased Ashworth Hall but left it in favour of Gillwood in Yorkshire. He has turned his attentions to politics and his ambition sees him wanting a seat in parliament and awaiting a vacancy. Ashworth’s neighbours are General West and Mr De Capell who meet to lament their own wayward sons, Arthur Ripley West and Thornton De Capell. To his relief, his other son, John, and daughter,A are not wild like Thornton. The two discuss their family and a possible match between Arthur and Amelia before De Capell returns home. It is revealed that Arthur has been taken under the wing of Ashworth and taught some of his wild ways.
Chapter four shifts the focus back to Mary and Amelia, and their social calls to one another. During a call on Amelia, her timid cousin, Marian Fairburne, is present. Interrupting this call is the dashing, handsome figure of Arthur, who the narrator informs us is “our hero” in the tale. Despite this, the narrator also makes clear that he is a rascal and a “coxcomb” and is one of those “clever, handsome scamps, of fellows who with smiles and jests can buy themselves the privilege of sinning on a grander scale than their contemporaries”. Arthur takes little notice of Mary but sits and turns his attention to Amelia until Marian’s spaniel diverts his attention to her. Whilst Mary and Amelia talk by the fire, Arthur turns his charms on the shy Marian, and in a Rochester-esque way, asks to see her portfolio of art. He then asks her to draw a snowdrop and thinking he means the one pinned to his clothing, she says it is fading. However, standing in front of the mirror with her, he makes it clear that she is the snowdrop. A flustered Marian is saved when Mary gets up to leave. As she passes, Arthur asks who she was. Upon finding out she is Ashworth’s daughter, he makes a hasty departure.
Connections to Other Works
The warring brothers William and Edward are also products of the juvenilia, abandoned sons of Percy, and Mary is his beloved daughter. William and Edward also feature in The Professor as the Crimsworth brothers. Ashworth’s associates are also familiar to those who read the juvenilia. Brother and sister, Arthur and Harriet, appear in other tales as Arthur and Harriet O’Connor; Arthur is a reckless companion of the young Rogue, whereas Harriet is one of Percy’s mistresses who is seduced and then later abandoned by him. This plot is also used in Ashworth. The minor character of Ellen Hall has shades of Elizabeth Hastings, Helen Burns, and Jane Eyre; additionally, Ellin Hall is a house in another of Charlotte’s unfinished pieces, Willie Ellin.
The scenes in Mary’s school brought to mind not only Charlotte’s Emma, but also William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. First published as a single volume in 1848 but serialised from January 1847, perhaps it influenced this part of Ashworth. We know Charlotte was a fan of Thackeray’s work despite their frosty relationship. The name Amelia (which is not a name favoured by Charlotte in the juvenilia) is given to the school friend of the determined Becky Sharp, and both girls begin the novel by bidding farewell to their school and returning home together. The names Julia and Thornton also crop up in Charlotte’s juvenilia, as they do here.
Arthur Ripley West is none other than Charlotte’s beloved hero, Arthur Wellesley, Marquis of Douo, Duke of Zamorna, and King of Angria, transported to England. Handsome, clever, and scheming, West has stepped straight from Angria, learning his tricks from Ashworth, just as Zamorna learned from Percy. Like Zamorna, West enjoys the company of women, flirting with those like him (Amelia and Zenobia) and those unlike him (Marian Fairburn and Marian Hume). As stated, the portfolio scene is reminiscent of Rochester, but his instructing and correcting brings to mind Frances and William in The Professor. Arthur’s realisation of Mary’s parentage hints at a possible plot and alliance between the two in order to either win further favour with Ashworth, or, like in the juvenilia, make her a pawn in his attempt to out-do and conquer his rival, Percy. Ashworth is such a mix of other texts that it’s difficult to date, but entirely possible to enjoy. It was published in Tom Winnifrith’s anthology of Charlotte’s work (see below), and previously by Monahan in Studies in Philology , Vol. 8, number 4 in 1983. Winnifrith used Monahan’s reconstruction of the narrative.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon.
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.
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).