The Search After Happiness is a short story written by Charlotte Brontë in 1829 when she was thirteen years old. The manuscript is one of the Brontë children’s tiny books, written in mock magazine style, and is now housed in the British Library’s archives. The manuscript contains many errors and revisions, one of the most prominent being on the title page where the young Charlotte had initially dated the text 1828 before crossing this out and replacing it with 1829.
The narrative is a curious tale of one man’s search for happiness in remote and strange places. Although the main text does not mention Glass Town – the name of the Brontë siblings’ initial shared fantasy world – Charlotte’s preface states confirms the narrative is set there. Characters include the Chief of the City and his sons (the Duke of Wellington, the Marquis of Douro, and Lord Wellesley), and the protagonist named Henry O’Donell, a character never used again in the juvenilia.
The narrative begins with O’Donell’s self-imposed exile after striking another nobleman during an argument. After making his apologies and meeting with the King he decides to quit the city, and bids farewell to the young princes, who caution him about searching for happiness in an unfamiliar place. O’Donell resolves to go anyway and the princes gift him a lock of their hair to remember them by. The following day O’Donell meets Alexander Delancy, a native of France who is also in pursuit of happiness. The two men decide to travel onward together and find a mysterious passage that finally reveals a new world at the end of it. The two men emerge on top of a high rock with a storm raging around them.
They continue their journey for days, arriving at a forest and eating the fruit from the trees before entering a vast glen surrounded by mountains, the tops of which Charlotte states are lost in the clouds. At the foot of the mountain, O’Donell and Delancy find a cave where they remain for many years. One night they are seated at the fire in the cave and O’Donell thinks of his former life in Glass Town. They hear a voice outside the cave and then find an old, unnamed man lying on the ground. After O’Donell makes the old man sit by the fire, he shares the story of his own travels, and how as a young boy he was hurried out of his home city of Moussoul by an old man.
He describes a journey very similar to that of O’Donell and Delancy and tells of how after drinking from a fountain of clear water he found himself in a luxurious palace. Inside the palace was a lamp as radiant as the sun and thousands of singing fairies and genii. After the song had ended, the palace faded away and the old man looked very stern and bade him follow him up mountains and through valleys. Ascending the mountain took two months and after this, they arrived at a large temple where the old man seized him, dragged him to the altar and made him promise to be his servant forever. He kept his promise, however, one day he was eventually dismissed and spent many years wandering the world. One day he lay down by a bank by the roadside and suddenly felt himself lifted into the air by invisible hands. He continued his course through the clouds for some time after losing sight of the earth. Then he fell into a swoon and woke up outside of O’Donell’s cave.
The next morning, O’Donell notices the bed of leaves that the old man slept in is empty. Going out of the cave he notices the red fiery sky, black clouds, and two large rocks in the distance. Between these rocks, he sees a chariot of light and in it sits the old man. A startled O’Donell communicates this to Delancy.
Some years later, Delancy is collecting fruit from the forest but does not return. Alarmed, O’Donell searches all over for him but cannot find him and months later, Delancy still has not returned. O’Donell thinks of the Duke and the princes and finds the parcel given to him by the boys containing locks of their hair. He remembers the princes’ words not to forget them and wishes he could see them and their father again.
Suddenly O’Donell hears a clap of thunder and a mysterious figure appears who commands him to return home. O’Donell promises this and instantly finds himself at the door of the castle in the land of his birth.
Continuing his journey he arrives at Glass Town and enters the palace through a secret entrance. He recognises the two handsome young men inside as the princes and throws himself at the feet of the Duke.
O’Donell tells his story and afterwards, a loud voice tells him that he is free from his promise and can spend the rest of his life in the city. Sometime later he sees a gentleman in the street whom he thinks he has seen somewhere before. After a short conversation, he discovers that his name is Alexander Delancy, a rich merchant from Paris who is in favour with Napoleon. The characters are granted the happy ending they have been searching for and live happily ever after in their separate cities.
Although it lacks the sophistication of some of Charlotte’s other early works such as her short play The Poetaster – written the following year – it is an enjoyable little tale with plenty to puzzle the twenty-first-century reader. However, its literary significance for many critics lies in the fact that the manuscript features Charlotte’s earliest known poem, “In this fairy land of light.” Overall The Search After Happiness is an enjoyable and short read which hints at some of the supernatural elements found in her later work. In one particular scene, O’Donell calls for Delancy and thinks he almost hears a reply which cannot fail to strike a chord with lovers of Jane and Rochester.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019).
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.