One scholar will have you know that contrary to received wisdom, Charlotte Brontë almost certainly did NOT underdress for a dinner party thrown by her hero, William Thackeray.
The Guardian reports on this latest development in Brontë scholarship. Brontë greatly admired the author of Vanity Fair and dedicated Jane Eyre to the man. When she came to London 1850, he held a dinner party in her honor in his home, and the Brontë Parsonage Museum has a dress long thought to be what she wore that night.
There’s just one problem: If Charlotte Brontë wore this particular number—a pretty but simple day dress—then she was woefully, embarrassingly underdressed for a formal dinner party with London artistic types held during the evening. It’s that damned Blanche Ingram and her friends all over again!
Well, in a paper newly published in the journal Costume, historian Eleanor Houghton argues that no way would Brontë have made this particular social misstep. Not because the author was, contrary to your mental image, a dedicated fashion plate with a closet full of silks; but rather because she’d committed this particular sartorial sin once already and she wouldn’t have done it a second time.
“We know Charlotte was embarrassed when she wore an inappropriate dress to the opera on her first visit to London, so with this in mind, I think we can be confident it is unlikely she made the same mistake twice by wearing a day dress to an auspicious evening occasion – particularly one of such personal and public significance.”
Instead, Houghton suggests that Brontë wore the dress to a different encounter with Thackery, a morning meeting between the two of them; “The white and blue delaine Thackeray dress would have been the right choice for such a meeting. Its high neck, long sleeves and mid-quality printed fabric point to pretty but unassuming morning attire.”
Unfortunately, even if Brontë was dressed to match the crowd, the party was still a complete disaster.
Conversation faltered, and he later recalled her shocked look as he reached for another potato. One guest recalled it as “one of the dullest evenings she ever spent in her life”, and Thackeray’s daughter Anne remembered: “It was a gloomy and silent evening. Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation, which never began at all.”
One guest, desperate to break the silence, asked Brontë if she was enjoying London. After a long silence, she finally replied: “Yes; and no.”
Stars: They’re just like us!