Read The Life of Charlotte Bronte Online

Authors: Elizabeth Gaskell

The Life of Charlotte Bronte (4 page)

As one contemporary reviewer observed, because the Life was written so soon after Brontë’s death and many of those concerned in it were living, the text is fissured by suppressions and evasions that occasion us “to read between the lines” (Easson, p. 381). The Robinson episode is one. Gaskell had to provide a compelling reason for Brontë’s aggravated depression at the end of her stay in Brussels and after her return to Haworth in January 1844, which resulted from her unrequited attachment to a married man, Constantin Heger. Heger was Brontë’s literature teacher at the school she attended in Brussels, which was run by his wife. Brontë was later employed there as an English teacher. Heger’s growing awareness of the intensity of Brontë’s feelings caused him to withdraw from her, and her relationship with Mme. Heger, her employer, simmered with so much suppressed hostility that it became too uncomfortable for Brontë to remain. Gaskell provides an earlier, inaccurate date for Branwell’s disgrace and freights the episode with excessive narrative energy in order to cover the trace of Brontë’s more innocent but, to Gaskell, equally shocking secret.
When Gaskell traveled to Brussels in May 1856 “to have a look at” the Hegers, as part of her research for the biography, Madame Heger refused to meet with her upon finding that she was Brontë’s friend, but Constantin Heger shared with Gaskell, on the condition of confidentiality, a series of obsessive letters Brontë had sent him after she left the school (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 271a). Although Gaskell was aware of the entire correspondence and may have read it, it was Heger who made the extracts from Brontë’s letters that appear in the Life, giving a sense of their intensity, but notably excising Brontë’s alternately masochistic and angry demands for attention that his silence provoked.
Even before Heger shared his cache of letters with Gaskell, she had her suspicions that he was the model for Paul Emanuel, the love interest in Villette (1853). Brontë’s attachment to Heger has generally been discussed in the language of romantic infatuation (a notable exception is Lyndall Gordon’s treatment in
Charlotte
Brontë: A
Passionate Life
), but her passion is perhaps best understood as a product of the intellectual and imaginative connection she forged with her teacher, who represented a world of letters that Brontë felt exiled from on her return to Haworth. “ ‘I feel as if we were all buried here,’ ” she complained to Nussey after her return, “ ‘I long to travel; to work; to live a life of action’ ” (p. 218).
Gaskell’s treatment of Brontë’s connection to Heger, while evasive on some level, does confront the relationship in aspects important to a critical assessment of Brontë’s development as a writer. Gaskell understood that curiosity seekers would read the
Life
as a key to the novels. As one reviewer put it, “It was natural to wonder whence came this astonishing knowledge of the workings of fiery passion. Did she write from memory—or was she taught by the inspiration of a creative mind?” This reviewer came away with the erroneous impression that “Miss Brontë had, so far as is known to her biographer, never felt anything like love when she wrote Jane Eyre” (Easson, p. 377).
In creating this impression, Gaskell may break her contract with the reader to present the details of the life of the woman, but she provides a professional analysis of the influence Heger had on Brontë’s work. It is for this reason that Gaskell spends so much time discussing Heger’s pedagogical technique. Nor does Gaskell shrink completely from exposing the emotional content of that bond, as she includes the melancholy letter in which Brontë confesses to Nussey: “I think, however long I live, I shall not forget what the parting with M. Héger cost me” (p. 209).
The full force of Brontë’s impassioned letters to Heger is muted, but Gaskell preserves Brontë’s great desire, to write a novel and dedicate it to her teacher:
“I would write a book and dedicate it to my literature master, to the only master I have ever had—to you, Monsieur! I have told you often in French how much I respect you, how indebted I am to your kindness and your instruction. I would like to say it one time in English. But that cannot be; there’s no use thinking about it. A literary career is closed to me” (p. 219; my translation).
Brontë’s despair registers as anxiety about her ability to make her voice heard as a published author. Heger heard that voice and knew its power, reflecting its worth back to Brontë in his comments on her devoirs (composition exercises). Brontë’s increasing desperation at his silence after she leaves Brussels stemmed perhaps not from desire for his affection, but from a need for his encouragement to write.
Another relationship that receives evasive treatment in the Life is Brontë’s friendship with her publisher, George Smith, which had an exuberant quality unlike any other in Brontë’s adult life. Brontë’s letters to Smith dance with a boisterous, good-humored sarcasm not fully displayed in the Life, as Smith withheld the most playful of them from Gaskell, claiming they were too “purely personal” to be “generally interesting”
(The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell,
letter 271a).
In Villette Lucy Snowe describes the penchant that Dr. John, who was inspired by Smith, has for making life exciting: “Of every door which shut in an object worth seeing... he seemed to possess the ‘Open! Sesame.’ ” Similarly, Smith brought to life some of Brontë’s fantasies. He arranged a visit to the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons. He took her to the chapel at St. James’s Palace to see her childhood idol, the Duke of Wellington, at Sunday worship. He initiated a trip to Scotland to visit the home of her favorite novelist, Sir Walter Scott. He introduced Brontë to William Makepeace Thackeray, the contemporary author she most admired. As a lasting memory, Smith presented Brontë with portraits of her heroes, Wellington and Thackeray, and to complete the fantasy, he commissioned one of Brontë, by George Richmond, a leading portraitist of the day, thus enshrining her among her worthies.
Gaskell discovered evidence in the Brontë-Nussey correspondence, which she suppresses in the Life, of a romantic attachment between Brontë and her publisher. Nussey, who did not approve of Brontë’s traveling to Scotland with the unmarried Smith and his sister, an event that Gaskell neatly sidesteps in the Life, asked her to qualify their relationship. Brontë breezily reassures Ellen: “My six or eight years of seniority to say nothing of lack of all pretension to beauty &c. are a perfect safeguard—I should not in the least fear to go with him to China” (Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey, June 20, 1850; in
The Letters of Charlotte
Brontë, vol. 2, p. 419).
Six months later, however, Brontë adopts a slightly darker tone when she concedes that were “there no vast barrier of age, fortune, &c. there is perhaps enough personal regard to make things possible which now are impossible. If men and women married because they like each others’ temper, look, conversation, nature and so on ... the chance you allude to might be admitted as a chance—but other reasons regulate matrimony—reasons of convenience, of connection, of money.” Brontë is also now reluctant to travel with Smith, who had proposed a trip to Germany. “That hint about the Rhine disturbs me,” Brontë tells Nussey, “I am not made of stone—and what is excitement to him—is fever to me” (Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey, January 20, 1851; in The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, vol. 2, p. 557).
Commentators make much of the chillingly terse note of congratulation Brontë sent Smith when she received news of his forthcoming marriage: “In great happiness as in great grief, words of sympathy should be few. Accept my mead of congratulation” (Charlotte Brontë to George Smith, December 10, 1853; in The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, vol. 3, p. 213). Brontë’s displeasure with Smith may have been compounded by what she perceived to be a professional, not a personal slight. Significantly, she cools her relationship with William Smith Williams, the firm’s literary adviser, at this time as well. “Do not trouble yourself to select or send any more books. These courtesies must cease one day,” she writes, “and I would rather give them up than wear them out” (Charlotte Brontë to William Smith Williams, December 6, 1853; in
The Letters of Charlotte
Brontë, vol. 3, p. 212). She had expected no less than £700 pounds for
Villette,
and Smith offered only £500, the same sum he had paid for
Jane Eyre
and
Shirley,
respectively. To place this in context, Smith paid Gaskell £1,000 for the
Life.
It was on the basis of Jane
Eyre’s
success that Smith’s reputation grew and that the firm attracted other high-profile clients, Thackeray among them. A growing sense of professional dissatisfaction may have prompted Brontë to withdraw from amicable relations with the men of Smith, Elder and Company. Brontë’s retreat also coincides with her decision to marry, suggesting perhaps that she saw a new vocation becoming evident.
Courtship and Marriage
Gaskell prefaces her discussion of Brontë’s courtship and marriage with a caveat. “As I draw nearer to the years so recently closed, it becomes impossible for me to write with the same fulness of detail as I have hitherto,” Gaskell explains, signaling that she will offer a version of the truth, but not the whole truth (p. 440). Gaskell keeps to the letter of her law in portraying the tortuous history of Brontë’s courtship with Nicholls by citing Patrick’s opposition to the match as its only impediment, and not registering any of Brontë’s own ambivalence. Brontë feared that her future husband’s views on religious and social issues might prove too narrow to suit her, and she worried that he would be unsympathetic to her literary concerns. “My own objections arise from a sense of incongruity and uncongeniality in feelings, tastes—principles,” Brontë confessed to Nussey (Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey, December 18, 1852; in
The Letters of Charlotte
Brontë, vol. 3, p. 95). Gaskell represents Brontë’s initial refusal of Nicholls as a duty to a father who appears at once tyrannical and dependent. Gaskell observes how “quietly and modestly” Brontë, “on whom such hard judgments had been passed by ignorant reviewers,” received Nicholls’s “vehement, passionate declaration of love,” and how “unselfishly” she refused it in deference to her father’s wishes (p. 421).
Gaskell attempts to gloss over Patrick’s actual objections to the match, that Nicholls was socially beneath his daughter and his income too modest, by saying that he “disapproved of marriages” generally. Brontë’s letters say otherwise, however. Patrick did encourage James Taylor’s suit. Taylor, who was a manager of Smith, Elder and Company, is not named as a correspondent throughout the Life, although Gaskell quotes liberally from letters Brontë wrote to him both before and after rejecting him. Gaskell doubtless intended to protect Brontë from the charge that she encouraged a proposal that she did not accept. By including mention of Taylor’s proposal as well as those from two other suitors that Brontë received before Nicholls presented himself, Gaskell makes clear that she remained single by choice, not fate, scorning to marry simply to escape “the stigma of an old maid,” as she told her first suitor, Henry Nussey, Ellen’s brother (Charlotte Brontë to Henry Nussey, March 5, 1839; in The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, vol. 1, pp. 185-186). Brontë’s three previous rejections also give a consequent weight to her decision to accept Nicholls.
Nicholls’s persistence assured Brontë of the intensity of his passion, something she feared he lacked, and his promise not to seek an independent living but to remain at Haworth as Patrick’s curate relieved her father’s fear of separation. “By degrees Mr. Brontë became reconciled to the idea of his daughter’s marriage,” Gaskell reports, suppressing the fact that she may have directly contributed to this change of heart by secretly arranging for Nicholls to receive a pension that increased his income, something that Brontë never discovered (p. 440; The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letters 168, 195).
Brontë’s fears about compatibility proved to be no more than customary premarital jitters. “My husband is not a poet or a poetical man—and one of my grand doubts before marriage was about ‘congenial tastes’ and so on,” Brontë wrote during her honeymoon, having realized that Nicholls offered a connection that was “a thousand times better than any half sort of psuedo sympathy” (Charlotte Brontë to Catherine Winkworth, July 27, 1854; in The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, vol. 3, pp. 279-280). If Brontë was personally happy in her choice, she was equally happy to have provided assistance and companionship for her father through her marriage: “ ‘Papa has taken no duty since we returned; and each time I see Mr. Nicholls put on gown or surplice, I feel comforted to think that this marriage secured papa good aid in his old age’ ” (p. 448). Nicholls kept his promise “to comfort and sustain [Patrick’s] declining years,” (p. 444) living with him until his death in 1861.
Gaskell loads Brontë’s marriage with recuperative possibility and expresses the hope that “the slight astringencies of her character... would turn to full ripe sweetness in that calm sunshine of domestic peace” (p. 447). Brontë saw things similarly, if more pragmatically and with less certainty. “If true domestic happiness replace Fame—the exchange will indeed be for the better,” she told her former teacher, Margaret Wooler, shortly after marriage. Significantly, Brontë struck through the more certain, present-tense verb, “is,” and replaced it with the conditional “will be” (Charlotte Brontë to M. Wooler, September 19, 1854; in
The Letters of Charlotte
Brontë, vol. 3, p. 290). Gaskell edited out that sentence, although she included the rest of the letter in the Life. Brontë goes on to explain that her curate husband “ ‘often finds a little work for his wife to do, and I hope she is not sorry to help him.’ ” Brontë’s coy, but jarring, use of the third person to distinguish the role she plays as “wife” from her true self, casts doubt on the sincerity of her complacency when she adds, “ ‘I believe it is not bad for me that his bent should be so wholly towards matters of real life and active usefulness; so little inclined to the literary and contemplative’ ” (p. 449). Nicholls and Brontë did seem on the path to a truly companionate marriage. Significantly, Brontë read aloud to him an unfinished novel she was working on, a practice she shared with no one but her sisters. “As to my husband,” she wrote to a friend just before her death, “my heart is knit to him” (Charlotte Brontë to Amelia Taylor, February 1855; in
The Letters of Charlotte
Brontë, vol. 3, p. 327).

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