Reader, I Am that Woman
The Life of Charlotte Brontė, Volumes I and II
By Mary Anthropokalos
This is the biography of Charlotte Brontė written by the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. It's relentlessly positive in the portrayal of its subjecta personal friend as well as a celebrated novelistwithout being obsequious. This was before the days of psychoanalytic biography, though Gaskell provides enough material for anyone who chooses to read between the lines, indeed to read the lines themselves. She portrays her subject as consistently self-effacing, hard-working, austere to the point of asceticism. But, so much of these two volumes are given over to quotations from Ms. Brontė's letters that the reader will find ample opportunity to round out Gaskell's selective portrait.The dissonance between Mrs. Gaskell's narrative and a somewhat different one suggested by the facts begins with the subject's parentage. Charlotte's mother died when Charlotte was just twelve years old. Then her two elder sisters died, leaving her in effect mother to three younger siblings all of whom also died before Charlotte herself died at the age of thirty-eight. But the father lived into ripe old age, indeed outlived all his children. The son of an immigrant from the south of Ireland who settled in the north, he went by the name of Brontė, (though the original was "Brunty, a fact the biographer neglects to mention). Mrs. Gaskell makes a good deal of the old man's good looks, comparing them with what she calls his "Greek surname,""Thunder" in classical Greek, as I make itand, according to her, in no way the result of any Celtic blood. "Mr. Brontė has no trace of his Irish origin remaining in his speech [presumably she means northern Irish, though this was well before the north and south were politically separated]; he never could have shown his Celtic descent in the straight lines and long oval of his face; but at five-and-twenty, fresh from the only life he had ever known, to present himself at the gates of St. John's [Cambridge University] proved no little determination of will, and scorn of ridicule."
This complete loss of Rev. Patrick Brontė's original accent becomes remarkable in view of a comment made in these pages by an early friend of Charlotte: "She was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent." If both statements are true, it sounds to me as if the old man spoke at home in the inflections of his youth, but when he was in society or the pulpit he put on the airs of an English gentleman. Surely Charlotte didn't pick up an Irish accent out on the Yorkshire moors.
There is other contradictory data given about Rev. Brontė. Mrs. Gaskell is as consistently full of praise for him as she is for his daughter, but without meaning to she creates the sketch of a man very much flawed who imposed those flaws on his children in the guise of virtues. "Mr. Brontė wished to make his children hardy, and indifferent to the pleasures of eating and dress. In the latter he succeeded, as far as regarded his daughters." Brontė took all his meals alone in his room, leaving the organization of the house and the care of the children to his eldest surviving daughter. "He was not naturally fond of children, and felt their frequent appearance on the scene as a drag both on his wife's strength [when his wife was still alive], and as an interruption to the comfort of the household," Mrs. Gaskell writes, apparently seeing no contradiction between the self-indulgence that produced all those children and the reverend's apparent lack of any normal sense of responsibility for them afterward. Are we to believe it was Brontė's wife who insisted on such a large family, weak as she was? Or did he see the production of children without limit as his duty, the responsibility for their care having nothing to do with him beyond providing shelter and food?
Charlotte, like her biographer, also seems to have accepted her father's stern, puritanical values as solid virtues and tried to live by them, indeed did so with a great deal less hypocrisy than he did. But even at an early age she showed the ill effects of that harsh code and the weight of so much responsibility laid on such young shoulders. That same friend who noted her Irish accent described her thus: "I first saw her coming out of a covered cart, in very old-fashioned clothes, and looking very cold and miserable. She was coming to school at Ms. W___'s. When she appeared in the school room, her dress was changed, but just as old. She looked a little old woman, so short-sighted that she always appeared to be seeking something, and moving her head from side to side to catch a sight of it. When the book was given her, she dropped her head over it till her nose nearly touched it, and when she was told to hold her head up, up went the book after it, still close to her nose, so that it was not possible to help laughing."
Mrs. Gaskell doesn't devote much of these volumes to the plots and characters of her subject, as would be mandatory in a contemporary biography. You won't learn much about the story of Jane Eyre here or of Villette or of any of Charlotte Brontė's other novels. Indeed, Gaskell tells us more about the plots of Ms. Brontė's juvenelia than she does of her published work. What we do learn in some detail, largely through Charlotte's quoted correspondence, is how the author of those works developed as a person and as a self-respecting artist who could summon up the nerve to write the great Thackery, deal with London publishers in the guise of the pseudonym Currer Bell and, indeed, upset the expectations of contemporary readers by creating not just an ugly heroine but an extremely intelligent and articulate onea character still in her teens!
Charlotte's writing habits, or lack thereof, and attitude toward them contradict the tightly disciplined, moralistic individual Mrs. Gaskell is constantly holding up for us to admire. Charlotte didn't worry about writer's bloc, or even apparently recognize it as such. "Sometimes weeks or even months elapsed before she felt that she had anything to add to that portion of the story which was already written." When she couldn't write, she couldn't write. She didn't make excuses or feel any remorse. She just waited until inspiration returned. As Charlotte put it in yet another letter: "When authors write best, or, at least, when they write most fluently, an influence seems to awaken in them, which becomes their master which will have its own way putting out of you all behest but its own, dictating certain words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature; new-molding characters, giving unthought of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully-elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones." And, "When the mood leaves me (it has left me now, without vouchsafing so much as a word or a message when it will return) I put by the MS. and wait till it comes back again."
Charlotte's chronically poor health was neither here nor there in this regard. She typically wrote when feeling wretched physically, anyway, which was much of the time. She simply recognized instinctively that her writing depended on a source over which she had no conscious control. In the meantime she got on with other mattershousework, her sisters' own poor health, the latest scandalous escapades of their dissolute brother Patrick Branwell Brontė.
Patrick, known as Branwell, was the only son and had been the hope of the family. But he deteriorated into the familiar 19th-century type we are used to coming across in its novels, whether British, French or Russian. He was so bad that neither Gaskell nor Brontė dare speak the names of all his vices, though drunkenness was always the most obvious. He ate up the family income, poisoned any happiness the girls might chance upon and then died, mercifully for them, at a young age. "Mercifully" in more than one sense, because one wonders whether any of them would have stepped forward as boldly as they eventually did to assert their own talents if Branwell had succeeded as he was supposed to.
Here too one wonders how the same man, Branwell's father, could have produced three daughters virtuous to the point of self-immolation and a son self-indulgent to such an extreme. I don't see why the old man shouldn't be held to account for the dissolute son for the same reasons he is given credit for the austere daughters. Of course, Mrs. Gaskell makes no such indictment. To her Branwell is just a no-good boyo, nobody's fault unless perhaps his own. His sisters suffered his dissipations like good women must, and when he was gone mourned him as much for what he might have been as for the wretched, self-centered monster he was. But whose monster?
Thanks to Gaskell's liberal quotation from her subject's letters (she knew Charlotte personally during the last years of her life and had full access to Reverend Brontė as well as to many of Charlotte's childhood and adult friends and classmates), we also get to hear from the subject herself her opinions on other authors as well as on topics outside the purview of the usual literary study.
Commenting on the model man of business/capitalism: "Yet, when the evil of competition passes a certain limit from, must it not in time work its own cure? I suppose it will, but then through some convulsed crisis, shattering all around it like an earthquake. Meantime, for how many is life made a struggle; enjoyment and rest curtailed; labor terribly enhanced beyond almost what nature can bear "
"Yet she [George Sand] has a grasp of mind, which, if I cannot fully comprehend, I can very deeply respect; she is sagacious and profound; Ms. Austen is only shrewd unobservant." (!)
"Balzac was for me quite a new author; and [having made his] acquaintance, through the medium of Modeste Mignon,' and 'Illusions perdues,[sic]'.... Truly, I like George Sand better. George Sand has a better nature than M. De Balzac; her brain is larger, her heart warmer than his. Some of Balzac's novels: they leave such a bad taste in my mouth."
"All you say of Mr. Thackeray is most graphic and characteristic. He stirs in me both sorrow and anger. Why should he lead so harassing a life? Why should his mocking tongue so perversely deny the better feelings of his better moods?"
"In short, J. S. Mill's head is, I daresay very good, but I feel disposed to scorn his heart."
And this, after being much impressed by the performance of a popular actress: "The tremendous force with which she expresses the very worst passions in their strongest essence forms an exhibition as exciting as the bullfights of Spain, and the gladiatorial combats of old Rome and (it seemed to me) not one whit more moral than these poison stimulants to popular ferocity." This suggests more to me about Charlotte's own highly circumscribed emotional life than it does about the actress she had just been scandalized by. What a mix of awe for ungoverned passion combined with quick moral censure for the same!
And, revealing the hard-headed realist who would nevertheless herself find genuine if all-too-brief happiness in matrimony: "I read in a French book lately, the sentence to this effect, that 'marriage might be defined as the state of two-fold selfishness.' Let the single therefore take comfort."
I doubt Charlotte Bronte was capable of involving herself in a "state of two-fold selfishness," though she was quite capable of sacrificing herself to a husband the same as she had done for her father. Her own marriage only lasted a few months. Again, Mrs. Gaskell has nothing but good things to say about Mr. Nicolls, like Reverend Brontė's father an Irishman from the south. But Nicolls, like his father-in-law who had opposed the marriage for many years for largely selfish reasons, was much like the man to whom he had served as curate. He assumed that he had near-absolute authority over his wife, though he was shrewed enough to realize she was no ordinary woman, not to mention being at that point a famous author. Even so, Charlotte's letters indicate that whatever leeway she enjoyed was entirely due to his indulgence. He didn't, for instance, seem to think it a bad idea to get his bride pregnant immediately after their marriage, despite her poor health. And he insisted on a long and tiring walk when Charlotte was not up for it which resulted in their being caught in a downpour and she coming down ill with what turned out to be the immediate cause of her death.
(You can download a copy of both volumes of Elizabeth Gaskell's biography at The Gutenberg Project.)
Mary Anthropokalos is a freelance writer and avid consumer of 18th and 19th century literature.