There is a photographic realism to the opening passages of Elizabeth Gaskell’s
The Life of Charlotte
Brontë, with its view of the Leeds and Bradford railway running along the deep valley of the Aire, and its double-exposure image capturing Keighley’s transformation from an old-fashioned village into a busy manufacturing town. With the gritty aspect of a daguerreotype, the Life pictures “the great worsted factories” and worker cottages poised between Keighley and Brontë’s village of Haworth, and describes the air as “dim and lightless with the smoke from all these habitations and places of business” (p. 12). Focusing her lens not on the picturesque details of Brontë’s Yorkshire but rather on its industrial aspect, Gaskell situates her subject in a time of technological revolution that is ushering in social and political change. In pointing out that “modes of thinking, the standards of reference on all points of morality, manners, and even politics and religion” (p. 11) occur at a more rapid pace in newly industrialized areas than they do elsewhere in England, Gaskell neatly anticipates the Life’s broader agenda concerning changing attitudes toward women’s place in the social order.
As we begin the ascent from Keighley to Haworth, “the vegetation becomes poorer; it does not flourish, it merely exists,” and by the time we reach the flower beds under the parsonage windows “only the most hardy plants could be made to grow.” The garden is encroached upon by the churchyard, “terribly full of upright tombstones,” which surrounds the parsonage on all sides but one (pp. 12-14). Suddenly, in the midst of realism we are in metaphor, those tenacious flowers representing Brontë herself, who will lose her struggle to survive in an uncongenial world. The Brontë home is described as a haven of domesticity amid the desolation of the “wild, bleak moors” (p. 13). “Everything about the place tells of the most dainty order, the most exquisite cleanliness”; the very doorsteps are “spotless,” Gaskell assures the reader. “Inside and outside of that house cleanliness goes up into its essence, purity,” Gaskell testifies (p. 14), signaling that we are not, after all, in the province of the documentarian, but rather that of the novelist, the hagiographer, and perhaps even the apologist.
Gaskell, a friend of Brontë’s and a famous novelist in her own right, undertook the biography project only months after Brontë’s death in 1855 at the urging of Brontë’s father the Reverend Patrick Brontë. Because Brontë was a celebrity, her death generated a lot of attention, most of it unwelcome to those who knew her personally. Brontë’s oldest and closest friend, Ellen Nussey, who was especially troubled by the tabloid stories that were appearing, induced Charlotte’s father to commission a definitive account of his daughter’s life to counter the sensationalistic reports then circulating in the press. Patrick faced opposition from Brontë’s husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who did not like how “the public snatched at every gossiping account” of his wife’s life, and who wanted to keep her memory private. Patrick, who saw the project as a means of controlling Brontë’s literary legacy, prevailed. “No quailing, Mrs. Gaskell!” Patrick directed, “no drawing back!” (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 257; see “For Further Reading”).
Gaskell was herself a member of the hungry public at one time. She wanted desperately to find out who had written the literary sensation Jane Eyre (1847). By the time Shirley (1849) was published, Gaskell believed she had penetrated at least half of the mystery: “Currer Bell [Brontë’s pen name] (aha! what will you give me for a secret?) She’s a she—that I will tell you” (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 57). When Gaskell finally did meet Brontë in August 1850 they shared a natural affinity, but in many ways Gaskell came to know Brontë more completely through her research for the Life than she did through their friendship, which was of relatively brief duration. Gaskell and Brontë had the opportunity to meet on only five occasions, but they furthered their acquaintance through a correspondence that evidences a genuine professional and personal connection, although at heart the two women subscribed to different models of female authorship. In addition, as I discuss below, their friendship may have suffered in intimacy from Brontë’s strategically conforming to social standards when she thought it would please Gaskell.
The Life is recognized as an enduring work of the nineteenth century, and it is ranked among the greatest biographies of all time. That said, it is important to remember that Brontë’s life was written by a woman who was unsure if she liked Jane Eyre. Gaskell’s intent in writing Brontë’s life was to make the reader “honour her as a woman, separate from her character as authoress”
(The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell,
letter 242). Most readers know that Brontë was a literary sensation in her day, but modern audiences have lost sight of how polarizing her work was. Although she self-effacingly liked to style herself “a plain country parson’s daughter” (p. 370), her novels were incendiary. The aesthetic merit of Brontë’s fiction was universally acknowledged, but the political subtexts of her novels provoked consternation. Her heroines registered a generalized discontent and a self-interest that was perceived by some as threatening to the accepted social order, which held that women naturally constituted the silent, self-sacrificing moral nucleus of society, the “angel in the house.” This ideological construction was coming under scrutiny in the mid-nineteenth century, under the rubric of the “woman question.” Advocates of “female emancipation” held that certain civil rights, suffrage among them, should be extended to women on the grounds that they were capable of exercising the same rational faculty as men.
Brontë provoked those on both ends of the political spectrum. Traditionalists deemed her engagement with female desire “coarse,” or immodest, and proponents of women’s rights, who believed political gains could be achieved only by demonstrating women’s rational equality with men, found her passionate heroines unsettling for other reasons. Brontë did not weigh in on the “woman question” in a positive way, but rather protested against current conditions without outlining solutions. Critics have only recently begun to understand Brontë’s feminist agenda as psychological in impulse—an impulse to expose the intangible constraints women face as subjects of a patriarchal system. Brontë was very much aware of the institutional nature of women’s oppression, and the impact it had not simply on material issues, like economic independence, but on more fundamental yet harder to characterize concerns, such as intellectual and imaginative freedom. “Millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth,” Jane Eyre warns her reader (p. 96).
Gaskell was working from a position of ambivalence in her defense of Brontë. She confesses to the reader that she cannot deny “the existence of coarseness here and there in her works,” and “only ask[s] those who read them to consider her life,—which has been openly laid bare before them”Gaskell and
(The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell,
letters 25a, 517). Gaskell is often faulted for attempting to exonerate Brontë by favoring the portrait of “the
friend, the daughter,
over that of the professional author
(The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell,
letter 267). Her reasoning for not including a critical discussion of Brontë’s novels in the
as Brontë’s father had desired, was that “public opinion had already pronounced her fiat, set her seal” upon them
(The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell,
letter 294). Nevertheless, in writing the Life Gaskell confronts her own ambivalence about Brontë’s work, and in the process refines her ideas on women’s professional engagement generally. The work is animated by that tension, and consequently it has broader implications that transcend its purported defense of one woman.
Long before she was commissioned to write Brontë’s biography, Gaskell began a process of creating “a drama of her life in my own mind” (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 266). Gaskell pursued information about her subject with the avidity of a paparazzo. On her first visit to the parsonage, for example, she asked a servant to show her the family graves without Brontë’s knowledge
(The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell,
letter 166). And yet Gaskell believed she was motivated by the sympathy of a friend. She pitied Brontë from the first, and romanticized her “wild sad life” (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 242). She jotted down particulars after hearing them directly from Brontë, and recorded the manner in which she revealed the authorship of
Eyre to her father, the privations she faced at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, and other more ephemeral and sentimental details that might have otherwise been lost, such as the “shiver” that passed over Brontë when she told Gaskell about bringing the dying Emily a sprig of heather from her beloved moors, and the pathetic spectacle of Emily’s dog, Keeper, following her funeral procession. These notes became the basis for the Life, and, accordingly, much of what is now regarded as the stuff of Brontë myth came directly from Brontë.
Brontë on occasion enjoyed playing the “wild little maiden from Haworth” for her new friend, perhaps sensing an eager audience (p. 82). In her first letter to Gaskell, Brontë offers a glimpse of life at Haworth replete with the romantic touches of “ ‘storms of rain’ ... sweeping over the garden and churchyard” and “the moors... hidden in deep fog” (p. 356). Brontë playfully warns Gaskell before her first visit to the parsonage that she will “come out to barbarism, isolation, and liberty,” and she urges her to come when the heather is in bloom, telling her, “I have waited and watched for its purple signal as the forerunner of your coming” (Charlotte Brontë to Gaskell, June 1, 1853; September 1853; in Barker, ed.,
Life in Letters,
pp. 374, 376).
The Brontë myth is exemplified by the supernatural animation of the natural world. Gaskell reports hearing Brontë defend the uncanny moment at the end of Jane Eyre, for example, when Jane hears Rochester’s call, borne on the wind from miles away, by insisting that “ ‘it is a true thing; it really happened’ ” (p. 338). Similarly, Brontë explains that she experiences her sisters’ presence in the moors after their deaths: “ ‘There is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry-leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet, but reminds me of [Emily]. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizons’ ” (p. 345).
Although Gaskell does not provide critical commentary on the novels, she does provide firsthand accounts of their composition, the most vivid of these being the ritual the sisters adopted of pacing up and down the dining room at night when they were developing their plots and conferring on drafts of their novels, a practice that Gaskell witnessed Brontë continue alone after her sisters had died: “Three sisters had done this,—then two... and now one was left desolate, to listen for echoing steps that never came,—and to hear the wind sobbing at the windows, with an almost articulate sound” (pp. 317-318). The Gothic coloring of this passage is a prime example of Gaskell allowing the imaginative liberty of the novelist to take precedence over the literalism of the biographer. And yet there is an underlying psychological truth that Gaskell captures through pathetic fallacy. “ ‘The great trial,’ ” Brontë explained of her sisters’ loss, to Ellen Nussey, her lifelong friend, “ ‘is when evening closes and night approaches. At that hour we used to assemble in the dining-room—we used to talk.’ ” In her sisters’ absence, Brontë found herself consumed by their dying moments, remembering “ ‘how they looked in mortal affliction,’ ” and thinking of the “ ‘narrow dark dwellings’ ” in which they were laid, “ ‘never more to reappear on earth.’ ” “ ‘This nervousness is a horrid phantom,’ ” Brontë acknowledges (pp. 312-313).
As a novelist, Gaskell understood that there is an emotional truth that is more compelling than bare factual accounting. The Life exists on the border between documentary accuracy and a novelistic verisimilitude that Gaskell believed to be more authentic. To borrow the dichotomy between what is “real” and what is “true” that Brontë develops to express what she does not like about Jane Austen’s novels, there is a greater emotional truth to the Life that diminishes, if not excuses, its representational lapses (p. 276). Brontë feels that Austen’s unsentimental choice to represent life “without
maybe is sensible, real,” but she finds it “more real than true” (p. 276). As Gaskell characterizes it, she always tells the truth in the Life, although she might not tell the whole truth: “I came to the resolution of writing truly, if I wrote at all; of withholding nothing, though some things, from their very nature, could not be spoken of so fully as others” (p. 420). Gaskell is less interested in strict reportage than she is in creating a sensibility of heightened romantic coloring that she believes is faithful to Brontë’s own mode of self-presentation.
The Life partakes of Brontë’s own strategies of self-representation in nuanced ways. In her diary paper for 1829, for example, the teenaged Brontë records a typical evening at home with her sisters, including a memory of her dead sister Maria. “ ‘Once Papa lent my sister Maria a book. It was an old geography-book; she wrote on its blank leaf, “Papa lent me this book.” This book is a hundred and twenty years old; it is at this moment lying before me. While I write this I am in the kitchen of the Parsonage, Haworth; Tabby, the servant, is washing up the breakfast-things, and Anne, my youngest sister (Maria was my eldest), is kneeling on a chair, looking at some cakes which Tabby has been baking for us. Emily is in the parlor, brushing the carpet’ ” (p. 70). This passage is significant for its “graphic vividness” as Gaskell notes. Maria, the departed sister, is as present as Emily and Anne. She has inscribed herself in the geography book and in Brontë’s consciousness, and she plays an ongoing role in family activities. Gaskell captures this collapse of past into present, this presence in absence in the Life and animates her narrative with a psychological rhythm that she found in Brontë’s own personal writing. G. H. Lewes praised the “psychological drama” of the
asserting that “fiction has nothing more wild, touching, and heart-strengthening to place above it” (Easson,
Heritage, p. 386).