In 1850, Charlotte Brontë's 'Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell' put a stop to all speculation on the sex of the 'Bells'. The wording of the passage where she outlined the adoption of their noms de guerre is remarkable for reasons which still have not been fully appreciated:
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice . . . [quoted from the Norton edition of Wuthering Heights, p. 4]
Scores of Brontë critics have paraphrased the quoted lines in terms such as 'The sisters chose the neutral pen-names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, not wishing to expose themselves to the prejudice or the condescension then often displayed by critics towards women writers, but scrupling to take names positively masculine' (Bentley, p. 37). A recent biographer of Emily Brontë maintains that 'cloaked' would have been a more accurate word than 'veiled', 'for the names, though not blatantly masculine, certainly wouldn't be taken as women's' (Frank, p. 15).
Charlotte's expressions 'veiled', 'ambiguous choice', and 'conscientious scruple' might have invited more curiosity about the 'Christian names' than they have done. With the exception of Winifred Gérin, Brontë scholars have not displayed much interest in the actual fabric of the 'veil'. Why 'Currer', 'Ellis', and 'Acton'? And what considerations could have prompted the choice of 'Bell'? The following passage from Gérin's book on Emily Brontë summarises the substance of previous enquiry concerning the origins of the Brontë pseudonyms:
How they came by their names they never revealed, but there are some strong indications. The name Bell may have been chosen by the arrival that summer of their father's new curate, Arthur Bell Nichols. While a governess at the Sidgwicks, Charlotte had certainly heard much of their neighbour, Miss Frances Mary Richardson Currer, of Eshton Hall, Skipton, whose property touched Stonegappe, and whose library was famous throughout the north. She was one of the founder patrons of the Clergy Daughters' School, so that her name must have been doubly familiar to Charlotte. The poetess Eliza Acton (1777-1859) [the Dictionary of National Biography gives Acton's birth year as 1799], who had considerable success in her day and was patronized [246/247] by royalty, may have suggested Anne's pseudonym to her. There appears to be no clue to the origin of Emily's choice of name, Ellis. 1
Guérin disposes of any doubt in respect of Charlotte: she must have derived her unusual 'first' name from Frances Mary Richardson Currer, the illustrious scholar of Eshton Hall. For reasons stated below (and not addressed by Gérin), I find the connexion between Anne and Eliza Acton plausible, too. But if Charlotte and Anne acquired their 'Christian names' from the surnames2 of two contemporary women who had made their mark in the realm of books and writing, Emily is likely to have done the same. After some additional observations respecting 'Currer' and 'Acton', the greater part of the following discussion deals with a putative source for 'Ellis', ending with a consideration of the 'Bell' issue. (The 'Bell' explanation offered by Gérin has been stated as a certainty by several other Brontë scholars.) The argumentation is based on a conviction that the Brontës, never given to haphazardness and speedily maturing as artists, will have invested a good deal of thought in the selection of their pen-names. Typically, Charlotte speaks of a 'choice . . . dictated by . . . scruple'.
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It is not impossible that Charlotte herself had access to Miss Currer's books at some point. An avid reader from childhood, the latter had inherited a fine library, kept adding to it, and ensured that her books were expertly catalogued. (See Dictionary of National Biography, XIII, 340). The second catalogue, compiled by C.J. Stewart, was privately printed (100 copies) in 1833 and is a treasure-trove for anyone interested in the reading habits of the educated pre- and early-Victorian upper class. While Miss Currer's collection featured many respectable works of natural science, she was sufficiently interested in the pseudo-scientific fashions of her day to acquire a copy of the Physiognomical System of Drs Gall and Spurzheim. The doctors were pioneers of phrenology, a school of thought whose influence on Charlotte [247/248] and Anne is patent in their novels.3 Another of the interests that Miss Currer shared with the Brontës was mental improvement, and she owned educational works by like-minded women such as Mrs Hester Chapone and Maria Edgeworth.
The fact that F.M.R. Currer supported the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge suggests that she was one of those 'wealthy and benevolent individuals in the county' (Jane Eyre's description of the subscribers to a new and improved Lowood Institute (opening of Chapter 10). Charlotte is not likely to have blamed a founder patron for subsequent misfortunes at the institution.) whose munificence ensured the survival of charitable institutions. Her character (she was 'extremely accomplished and amiable', according to the DNB biographer) seems to have been as irreproachable as her scholarship; in 1836, the Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin placed her 'at THE HEAD of all female Collectors in Europe', calling her 'a sort of modern CHRISTINA of the North' (p. 949).
Despite these exalted attainments, Miss Currer favoured practical usefulness in her selection of books, and a similar streak can be observed in the personality of the woman whose surname is likely to have provided Anne with her first nom de plume. The links between the youngest Brontë and Miss Eliza Acton are much more tenuous than the Charlotte-Currer ones, but there are indications that support the idea of a connexion.
The poems contained in Eliza Acton's one volume of verse often resemble Anne's both with regard to metre and subject matter. Acton obviously suffered a disappointment in love (according to the DNB entry, she was at one time engaged to an officer in the French army), and several poems hint darkly at a loved one who proved unworthy, even criminal. Many of the lyrics express a hope for peace in the grave. Some poems imply a certain amount of romantic idealism in the young poetess (still in her twenties), among them 'A Sketch' where she accuses the English of pettiness to the vanquished Napoleon.
Eliza Acton was certainly well known in her time; but her greatest claim to lasting fame did not reside in this twice-printed collection of poems which she published (by subscription, 1,000 copies in all) in 1826 and 1827. (See Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 1, 66-67). Nor were her fugitive verses on Queens Adelaide and Victoria destined to make her remembered a good hundred years after her death. Her greatest success in the realm of writing came in 1845, towards the end of which the three Brontë sisters conceived the plan of publishing a selection of their poems. Before that year was [248/249] out, Miss Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families had already gone into three editions. Another two were called for in 1846, and new editions kept appearing in subsequent years.
Tradition has it that this immensely and immediately successful work was the result of the no longer youthful poetess's asking her publisher, Mr Longman, to name the subject of a book 'for which the world has a need' (as it was clear that there was no demand for poetry, at least not for hers). Longman allegedly replied that he wanted 'a really good cookery book', and Miss Acton fell to work with characteristic conscientiousness. (The anecdote has been retold several times; see, for instance, Mrs C. S. Peel's essay on 'Homes and Habits' in Young, I, 125-6.) She devoted several years to the completion of a magnificent and beautifully written book, to which no less an authority than Elizabeth David paid the ultimate accolade in calling it 'the greatest cookery book in our language'. (Page xxvii in her Introduction to The Best of Eliza Acton, Recipes from her classic Modern Cookery for Private Families, selected and edited by Elizabeth Ray) One notable feature in Acton's Modern Cookery is its emphasis on bread-making, an art which Emily Brontë apparently commanded to perfection (see, for instance, Chitham, pp. 159 and 170).
The combination of poetry and domesticity in the person and work of Eliza Acton increases the probability of her surname having been chosen as a 'veil' by one of the Brontë sisters. Household chores made up a very considerable portion of their daily lives, especially Emily's — one chapter in Chitham's biography is aptly entitled 'Domestic Chores Lightened by Fancy' — and they took pride in performing them impeccably.
The roles of the Brontës as women novelists, viewed against the background of the situation of women in their time, is the subject of one of the finest Brontë monographs, Inga-Stina Ewbank's Their Proper Sphere. 4 Ewbank proceeded from the demonstrable fact that women were held to occupy a 'sphere "distinct and separate" from man's' (p. vii in her Preface), the words 'distinct and separate' being a direct quotation from Mrs Sarah Ellis's The Daughters of England (1842). Later in the book, Ewbank shows that the Brontës — unlike Mrs Ellis and other women writers of domestic novels — broke the confinement of the woman novelist to 'woman's proper sphere', arguing that they were particularly 'a-typical' in this respect, as Jane Austen had been before them (Their Proper Sphere, p. 41).
It takes some nerve to suggest that Sarah Ellis, author of 'manuals on womanhood' and didactic fiction, might have supplied the first name of the 'Bell' whose 'sphere' was farther removed from the question of the moral worth of women than that of any of her sisters (or, for that matter, of any other English woman novelist). On the face of it, the idea seems not only absurd but downright [249/250] insulting to the lone-Titan, law-unto-herself Emily Brontë. Even the recent critics and biographers, such as Lyn Pykett, who have modified that traditional conception of Emily, considering her work in relation to contemporary domestic fiction by women and generally 'humanising' her for us, would probably find it at least incongruous. Insofar as Brontë scholars have mentioned Mrs Sarah Ellis, née Stickney, at all, they have referred to her in terms such as 'that indefatigable writer of conduct books for Victorian girls' without pausing to consider the implications of her surname; see Sandra M. Gilbert in Gates, p. 161.The only rationale of 'Ellis' that I have seen relates Emily's scruple-dictated choice to her Irish grandmother's first name. 5 However, most sources give the latter's Christian name as 'Alice' or 'Elinor' (the latter with variant spellings); see, for instance, Hopkins, p. 134n10, and also Withycombe, p. 45. Although the suggestion remains a possibility, it does not seem very likely to me — certainly not if one accepts the idea that Charlotte and Anne chose the surnames of remarkable contemporary women intellectuals. The Brontë children never knew their father's mother, Mrs Brunty/O'Prunty, née McClory, and none of the sisters is on record as having shown much interest, let alone pride, in their Irish ancestry. 6
None of this, however, can strengthen the case for Mrs Ellis in the eyes of those to whom she was an apostle of 'namby-pambyism' (Knickerbocker is one of them; see his essay on Victorian education in Levine, pp. 146-47). But is this conception a fair one, and — more to the point — is that the way she would have appeared to the Brontë sisters?
Most of those writers on the Brontës who refer to Mrs Ellis's works do so in 'quoted-in' references, which suggests that they have not in fact studied her writings. A couple of days in a well-assorted research library yield rather a different picture of them, and her, from the now-conventional one.
The Daughters of England, for instance, extols ingenuity and regrets that imitation rather than invention is predominant in the teaching of needlework etc. (p. 80); it also urges women as well as men to acquire 'a general knowledge of the political and social state of the country in which we live, and indeed of all countries' (p. 110). Not to possess any knowledge of, and sentiments regarding, [250/251] various social issues such as slavery, temperance, and cruelty to animals is 'disgraceful' in a woman, however 'accomplished and amiable' (those standard nineteenth-century virtues) she might be (p. 112). A love of truth is urged on young women as being the capacity that will enable them 'to see every object as it really is, and to see it clearly' (p. 115). The study of music and drawing is highly recommended, and 'a woman without poetry, is like a landscape without sunshine' (p. 162). Mrs Ellis freely alludes to Byron and Scott in this work of instruction for young Victorian womanhood; these references to Brontë favourites — especially to the former — will have raised quite a few eyebrows among the more strait-laced mammas.
It is certainly true that Mrs Ellis speaks of women's inferiority to men in several respects, and that her acceptance of women's lot 'to suffer, and be still' will grate on a modern reader (The Daughters of England, p. 161). For great literary attainments she believed women disqualified: 'It is only in her proper and natural sphere that a woman is poetical' (The Poetry of Life, published while she was still Sarah Stickney (1835), II, 79, 83). She is known to have found Currer Bell's work improper for a woman; but she made no secret of finding it fascinating, telling a friend in a letter, 'It is strange the hold this writer has upon me' (Home Life, p. 147; her review in The Morning Call is, as Margot Peters points out in Unquiet Soul, pp. 205 and 428, reprinted in the Bronte Society Transactions 72 , 20-22; cf. Winnifrith, pp. 125-26). To her contemporaries, her advice on the education of girls could seem shockingly 'advanced', as when she recommended mothers to let their young daughters roam freely outdoors: 'they should climb with [their brothers] the craggy rock, penetrate the forest, and ramble over hill and dale' (Mothers of England, p. 329). Advice of this sort was natural from a woman who, like Emily Brontë, loved the outdoors from childhood; again like Emily, she was devoted to animals, dogs and horses especially — see Home Life, pp. 5-6; her nieces tell us that she was a fearless rider — a devotion often reflected in her tremendously influential writings.
As Eliza Acton's emphasis on bread-baking will have appealed more directly to Emily than to Anne, so Emily's 'twin spirit' will have taken a greater interest in Sarah Ellis's moral fiction than her sister. Mrs Ellis devoted three volumes of stories (of approx. 100 pages each) to the theme of intemperance, approached in a variety of ways. Under the cover of fiction, she warned readers against the dangers of taking brandy as a remedy for ill-health, of convivial drinking for those who have inherited a predisposition for alcoholism, and of attempting to drink 'moderately' rather than abstaining completely if one is a sufferer — all highly controversial notions in her day (and accepted wisdom in ours). Her Family Secrets, or Hints to Those Who Would Make Home Happy were published in 1841, seven years before The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which has been called 'the first temperance novel' (by Chadwick, p. 355; on drink in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, see my article 'The Villain of Wildfell Hall). When still Sarah Stickney, Mrs Ellis had [251/252] published an account of 'Marriage As It May Be' whose protagonists resemble the Huntingdon ménage; the husband has 'a mere animal propensity — over which a variable and volatile spirit has little power. It was not to drown the anguish of a tortured mind that he swallowed the fatal draught, but solely for the sake of the excitement and the love of what he called "good company"' (Pictures, pp. 342-43).
Mrs Sarah Ellis advocated giving space to imagination and poetry in education, qualities often crowded out of 'our busy modern lives'; 'what we most want in education . . . is to invest material things with the attributes of mind'. 7 Opinions like these align her with other women scholars and writers, such as Mary Howitt, and they knew each other well.8 Another sentiment which would endear her to the Brontë sisters is expressed in The Mothers of England (p. 353):
And here I must beg to call the attention of the mothers of England to one particular class of women, whose rights and whose sufferings ought to occupy, more than they do, the attention of benevolent Christians. I allude to governesses, and I believe that in this class, taken as a whole, is to be found more refinement of mind, and consequently more susceptibility of feeling, than in any other.
Like Agnes Grey, Mrs Ellis maintained that it is admirable for young women to be 'industrious rather than dependent' and spoke warmly of the distress of governesses who must leave home for 'the cold reception of strangers, the doubtful position when placed in an unknown household . . .' (Mothers of England, pp. 353, 358).
Many of Mrs Ellis's qualities as manifested in her writings suggest that Anne would regard her with particular favour, and in view of the special closeness of the sisters' bond, the idea of calling Emily 'Ellis' might have originated with her. Be that as it may, the preceding pages should have done something to reduce the seeming improbability of the original proposal as regards Emily's pseudonym.
If it is accepted, the three Brontës can be seen to have 'veiled' their identities and their sex in an intriguing manner: their 'conscientious scruples' should have been peculiarly mitigated by their 'ambiguous choice' of first names that were [252/253] not only surnames, but the surnames of three women — all belonging to their mother's generation — who had distinguished themselves in that world of letters into which they were about to venture.
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If the 'Christian names' were chosen according to a certain common principle, what about 'Bell'? The contention that the sisters simply plumped for the recently-arrived assistant clergyman's middle name, as 'a sort of private joke' (Frank, p. 15) does not fit in with the idea that they chose their pseudonyms after careful deliberation. Still, the surname was not of course required to serve such a delicate purpose (that of 'veiling' the authors' sex) as the first names. Hence the Arthur Bell Nicholls explanation is at least a possibility — but so are other options.
Two conditions had to be fulfilled by the surname jointly adopted by the Brontës: it had to begin with a B; and it must be common enough not to afford any clue to their true identities. It is worth observing that if any frequent surname beginning with a B would have done, the sisters could have chosen the alias that Charlotte and Anne were to adopt during their visit to London and called themselves 'Brown'. The second consideration, on which Emily may be assumed to have been especially insistent, made the obvious choice impossible.
Unlike Helen Graham/Huntingdon and hosts of other personages, real and imaginary and past and present, the sisters could not use their mother's maiden name. Not only was it far too distinctive in itself; it was also the first name of the excluded brother who had cherished such high-flying literary ambitions of his own and who must at all costs be kept in ignorance of their project. Nevertheless, the name 'Branwell' could have been made to serve by lending its first and last letters to the enterprise.
There is a third 'Bell' possibility, though. If the explanations of the 'Christian names' can be found in the Brontës' intellectual milieu, there is a chance that that milieu could have furnished the surname, too.
The entire Brontë family, the men included, had earned their living in the field of education. All the girls taught professionally at one time or another, and their scheme for starting their own school is universally known. The Rev. Patrick had been a pupil-teacher at sixteen before going on to tutoring, a career also pursued by his son. The father of the Brontës took a life-long, and sometimes highly practical, interest in schooling, especially as a means to improve the minds, morals, and living conditions of his more impecunious parishioners. His daughters and son taught the scions of wealthy families; but the account of the Morton village school in Jane Eyre testifies to Charlotte's commitment to education for the children of the poor.
Throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century, one name dominated the debate on education, particularly that of the lower classes: Dr. Andrew Bell, [253/254] founder of the so-called Madras system of mutual instruction.10 Reduced to its barest outlines, the system amounted to advanced pupils teaching younger ones. It was cheap, and it promised a rapid extension of literacy, reading and writing being the main skills that the older pupils could impart. Bell wrote a number of works on such topics as national education and the elements of tuition, and thousands of schools operated according to his system. His controversy with the Quaker Joseph Lancaster as to which of them was the true pioneer of the monitorial system was a widely-publicised quarrel. Bell's emphasis on the organisational connexion between national-education schemes and the Anglican Church made him unpopular among Dissenters but appealed to zealous supporters of the Established Church.
The Rev. Patrick Brontë was such a supporter, and it is inconceivable that the name Andrew Bell should not have been a familiar one to the Brontë family. There were a number of Madras-system schools in Yorkshire (for instance in Leeds, York, and Sheffield), and Bell was idolised by several leading English intellectuals, among them Robert Southey, who had a special standing in Haworth Parsonage.10 In 1844, one year after Southey's death and little more than a year before the Brontës chose their pseudonyms, his biography of Bell was published. Only the first volume is actually by Southey; his son finished the work. Southey had backed Bell in print against Lancaster as early as 1812, so his almost hysterical admiration for the famous educationist may well have been known to the Brontës long before that. Another educational reformer and theorist (and woman novelist) with whose works the Brontës must have been acquainted was Maria Edgeworth, whose fictional tale 'Lame Jervas' praised Bell and his school in India as early as 1799. The eponymous hero goes out as an assistant to Bell in India; see pp. 29 ff. in the second volume of Edgeworth's Tales and Novels in Ten Volumes.[254/255]
Biographical speculation is virtually inescapable in Brontë studies, and these suggestions are as speculative as numerous other proposals that have been put forward in this field (though rather less so than others). Even so, they tend in a direction which seems to me to hold out the possibility of an as-yet-largely-untapped reservoir of evidential material: the study of the Brontës as early-Victorian intellectuals. The pathos and glory of the unique Brontë story always tended to 'veil' the three heroines in mists of myth and legend. Recent work on the Brontës has done much to lift those mists, at least in places; but this area of their life and work is still insufficiently explored.
Last modified 20 July 1992