Read The Life of Charlotte Bronte Online

Authors: Elizabeth Gaskell

The Life of Charlotte Bronte (5 page)

Patrick Brontë
The portrait of Brontë’s father that emerges from the Life is one of public benefactor and domestic tyrant. While Gaskell extols Patrick’s “diligent” attention to his parishioners in his role as Haworth’s perpetual curate, his tolerance of nonconformists, and a freedom from dogmatism that enables him “fearlessly” to take “whatever side in local or national politics appeared to him right,” it is hard to view these laudable qualities through the dense fog of anecdote cataloguing his “volcanic wrath.” Most of these details, such as his burning his children’s colored boots and slashing his wife’s silk gown because he thought them too “gay and luxurious,” were provided by an unreliable source and omitted, at Patrick’s request, in the revised third edition of the Life. Gaskell attributes Patrick’s peculiarities, such as his alleged propensity to work off his rage by “firing pistols out of the back-door in rapid succession,” to his “passionate, Irish nature,” and insists that she mentions these instances of “eccentricity in the father” not to “judge them,” but because they are necessary “for a right understanding of the life of his daughter” (pp. 45, 46).
But the Life is internally inconsistent on Patrick’s domestic character. His description in a letter of intervening as “ ‘arbitrator’ ” when the “ ‘little plays’ ” his children invented erupted into impassioned political debate (p. 49), his initiation of a game in which he offered his children masks to encourage them to speak their opinions more “ ‘boldly,’ ” and his own testimony that he discussed “the leading topics of the day” with his young daughter Maria “with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person” work to undermine Gaskell’s claim that Patrick was a “considerably restrained” father who was not “naturally fond of children” (pp. 37, 41).
Gaskell paints Patrick as a misanthropic and unsympathetic father who neglected his growing daughters’ health, education, and social needs. Patrick did see to it that all of his daughters were offered formal education in a period when it was not considered a right or a necessity. Furthermore, his unconventional approach to their education, whether through benign neglect, as Gaskell argues, or from a more active principle, worked to draw out Brontë’s talent. She was allowed unfettered access to Patrick’s library, and she was not barred from reading authors not considered appropriate fare for young women at the time. Among these was Lord Byron, whose version of Romanticism influenced Brontë greatly. The one area in which Patrick did exercise censorship was in burning his wife’s collection of the “Lady’s Magazines,” because they contained “foolish love stories” that he did not like his daughters to read (Charlotte Brontë to Hartley Coleridge, December 10, 1840; in
The Letters of Charlotte
Brontë, vol. 1, p. 240).
Gaskell’s antipathy for Patrick may be explained in part by her first meeting him at a time of crisis in the Brontë household, when father and daughter had reached an uneasy stalemate after Patrick forbade Brontë to accept Nicholls’s offer of marriage. “He was very polite and agreeable to me,” Gaskell commented on Patrick’s demeanor during her visit, adding that she was nevertheless, “sadly afraid of him in my inmost soul; for I caught a glance of his stern eyes over his spectacles at Miss Brontë once or twice which made me know my man” (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 166). Both Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, whose friendship with Brontë dated back to their days together at Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, thought Patrick overly controlling.
Patrick did not seem to sense Gaskell’s unease. He encouraged her friendship with his daughter, writing shortly after Gaskell’s visit: “I think that you and my daughter are congenial spirits, and that a little intercourse between you might under the strange vicissitudes and frequent trials of this mortal life... be productive of pleasure and profit to you both” (Patrick Brontë to Gaskell, September 15, 1853; in
The Letters of Charlotte
Brontë, vol. 3, p. 193).
Sister Authors?
As two of the most famous writers of their day, Brontë and Gaskell shared an exceptional bond. Although Brontë’s fame now eclipses Gaskell’s, in their day Gaskell was perhaps the more generally admired of the two. Modern reversal of Victorian valuation may have more to do with narrative mode than choice of subject matter; Gaskell’s sentimentalism fell out of favor, while Brontë’s psychological realism finds greater and greater resonance with successive generations of readers. But this imbalance is now being redressed, as critics take a new interest in the social significance of Gaskell’s work. Patrick Brontë praised the biography as “every way worthy of what one Great Woman, should have written of Another” (Patrick Brontë to Gaskell, July 30, 1857; quoted in Barker,
The
Brontës, p. 808). Similarly, a reviewer remarked that the
Life
benefited from insights that could only have been provided by “a kindred spirit, a fellow-worker in the same vineyard, a sister genius, and a loving-friend” (Easson, p. 388).
Although it is a quaint notion to picture Brontë and Gaskell as toilers in the same “vineyard,” the true extent of their literary sisterhood is debatable. Gaskell was a noted “condition of England” novelist, whose fiction was a vehicle for education and reform, although her work is more nuanced than this rubric suggests, and she moved away from this model in later novels, as in the posthumously published Wives and Daughters (1866). She gives voice to the concerns of disenfranchised workers in her industrial novel,
Mary Barton
(1848), and, in her most controversial novel, Ruth (1853), she depicts the confluence of social and economic forces that lead to the seduction of a young woman. Gaskell allows Ruth to survive her shame and lead a useful life for a time, only to impose a penitential ending in which Ruth dies in an act of self-sacrifice. While aspects of Gaskell’s work may seem overly sentimental to today’s readers, she leverages emotion to build the reader sympathy necessary to open up settled moral questions to a new angle of vision. How do we define criminality? Is stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child more immoral than legalized institutional thefts such as the exploitation of labor and the derogation of personal dignity? Gaskell asserts in the preface to Mary Barton that she is interested in exploring “the state of feeling” on topical issues, not in debating economic facts and figures. She does so, in part, to stay within the proscribed sphere of her sex, but also because she wants her reader to learn to sympathize, not to theorize.
Gaskell viewed fiction writing as a natural extension of the missionary or “rescue work” that she performed as the wife of a Unitarian minister in the great manufacturing hub of Manchester. (For details on Gaskell’s missionary work, see Uglow,
Elizabeth Gaskell:A Habit
of Stories.) This is not to say that her books were traditionalist; Ruth was burned (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 154). But she does at times undercut the full radical potential of the sympathy she awakens by imposing a recuperative ending. Brontë objected to Ruth’s death, for example, on the grounds that it diminishes the novel’s efficacy as an agent of change: “ ‘Such a book may restore hope and energy to many who thought they had forfeited their right to both.... Yet hear my protest! Why should she die? Why are we to shut up the book weeping?’ ” (p. 406). Significantly, Brontë encases her political critique in an affective one, perhaps aware that she was treading on sensitive ground.
There is a similar hesitancy, unlike Brontë’s forthright and assured voice when addressing critical questions in letters to Williams, for example, in the rhetorical question she puts to Gaskell about the pressure she might encounter to conform to proscribed standards and beliefs in her work: “Do you, who have so many friends,—so large a circle of acquaintance,—find it easy, when you sit down to write, to isolate yourself from all those ties, and their sweet associations, so as to be your
own woman,
uninfluenced or swayed by the consciousness of how your work might affect other minds.... Does no luminous cloud ever come between you and the severe Truth, as you know it in your own secret and clear-seeing soul? Don’t answer this question; it is not intended to be answered” (pp. 433-434). Although Brontë is careful to bestow the ladylike designation “sweet associations,” upon them, she is prodding Gaskell to reassess the ties that may bind her to a conventionalism she might not adhere to in her “secret and clear-seeing soul.” Brontë pushes Gaskell to confront her own limitations as a writer here, and urges her toward a greater degree of verisimilitude.
Brontë’s social impulse is harder to characterize than is Gaskell’s, which is what may account for Gaskell’s ambivalence about her work. (Critics have begun to consider the feminist implications of Brontë’s novels relatively recently.) “I often wish to say something about the ‘condition of women’ question,” she told Williams, “but it is one respecting which so much ‘cant’ has been talked, that one feels a sort of repugnance to approach it. It is true enough that the present market for female labour is quite overstocked—but where or how could another be opened?” (Charlotte Brontë to William Smith Williams, May 12, 1848; in
The Letters of Charlotte
Brontë, vol. 2, p. 66).
Jane Eyre
registers the restlessness and dissatisfaction a governess feels with her lot in life: “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do” (p. 96). Responding to the charge that the heroine of Villette “ ‘may be thought morbid and weak,’ ” Brontë retorts, “ ‘anybody living her life would necessarily become morbid’ ” (p. 416). Brontë does not isolate Lucy Snowe as a case study of neurosis; rather, she puts her “morbidity” in perspective, pointing to its cultural causes, above all the limited range for the exercise of her intellect in dignified employment.
Teaching was virtually the only respectable profession open to women of Brontë’s social standing, and teachers’ salaries were generally not sufficient to render them truly independent. Gaskell does not shy from registering Brontë’s disdain for that kind of work: “ ‘I am no teacher; to look on me in that light is to mistake me. To teach is not my vocation. What I am, it is useless to say. Those whom it concerns feel and find it out,’ ” Brontë told Nussey (p. 326). As a teacher at Miss Wooler’s school, Brontë chafed against the uniformity of her employment: “ ‘Nothing but teach, teach, teach, from morning to night’ ” (p. 115). Gaskell qualifies Brontë’s time there as “tedious and monotonous,” but in the journal Brontë kept at this time she describes it more pejoratively, as a term of imprisonment: “ ‘Must I from day to day sit chained to this chair prisoned within these four bare-walls, while these glorious summer suns are burning in heaven & the year is revolving in its richest glow & declaring at the close of every summer day the time I am losing will never come again?’ ” (Barker,
The
Brontës: A
Life in Letters,
p. 39). While the Life does register the depth of Brontë’s anguish during this period, it casts her professional identity crisis of 1835-1837 as a religious crisis, relying as it does on Brontë’s letters to Nussey in which she uses the cryptic language of transgression and of longing for “ ‘reconciliation to God’ ” to describe her angst (p. 113). But the journal entries from the same period tell a different story—one of frustrated genius—of longing to “write gloriously” but being condemned to teach “Dolts” and “asses”
(The
Brontës, pp. 39-40).
The Brontë-Nussey Correspondence
Some argue that the Life suffers from Gaskell’s heavy reliance on Brontë’s letters to Nussey, who is often characterized as a provincial and conventional person with whom Brontë did not discuss her literary concerns. This view of Nussey is based in part on a letter in which Brontë seems to slight her when she describes her as “no more than a conscientious, observant, calm, well-bred Yorkshire girl” who is “without romance,” and whose clumsy attempts to read poetry aloud make Brontë want to stop her ears. The letter contains the passionate avowal, however, that “no new friend, however lofty and profound in intellect—not Miss Martineau herself—could be to me what Ellen is” (Charlotte Brontë to William Smith Williams, January 3, 1850; in
The Letters of Charlotte
Brontë, vol. 2, p. 323).
In the early days of their friendship, Brontë trusted a mutual friend, the independent and unconventional Mary Taylor, to understand her better than Nussey did. This correspondence, sadly, is lost. Taylor burned all of Brontë’s letters but the one in which she describes her first visit to her publishers, Smith, Elder and Company. In an 1836 letter to Nussey, Brontë told her, “I sat down and wrote to you such a note as I ought to have written to none but M. Taylor who is nearly as mad as myself, when I glanced it over it occurred to me that Ellen’s calm eye would look at this with scorn, so I determined to concoct some production more fit for the inspection of common-sense” (Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey, September 26, 1836; in
The Letters of Charlotte
Brontë, vol. 1, p. 151). If Brontë’s personification of Nussey as “common-sense,” seems dismissive, her revelation that she has written two letters entails an appeal, an embedded question: Would Ellen scorn such a production? Brontë indirectly seeks Nussey’s permission for greater freedom of expression in their correspondence.
The desired intimacy was achieved during Brontë’s tenure at Miss Wooler’s school. “ ‘Don’t deceive yourself by imagining I have a bit of real goodness about me,’ ” a self-loathing Brontë enigmatically warned Nussey. “ ‘If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up ... you would pity and I dare say despise me’ ” (p. 112). The source of Brontë’s anxiety is the fear, which she veils, that her compulsive engagement with the imaginary world of the juvenile Glasstown and Angria Saga that she and Branwell coauthored was socially unacceptable for a young woman. Brontë’s depression stems not only from the fact that she feels forced to teach at the expense of writing, but also from a corollary effort to abandon the lurid fantasy writing of her youth in favor of realist fiction. Brontë expresses herself in letters from this period with a vehemence that might have repelled a truly conventional person, and emerges from this dark spell calling Nussey “ ‘her comforter’ ” (p. 127).

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