Read The Life of Charlotte Bronte Online

Authors: Elizabeth Gaskell

The Life of Charlotte Bronte (7 page)

As Gaskell explains of Brontë, “She must not hide her gift in a napkin; it was meant for the use and service of others” (p. 273). It is easier, however, to make a case for the moral utility of Gaskell’s social problem novels than it is for Brontë’s less practically interventionist engagement with issues of the day. Brontë had a somewhat uneasy relation to her fiction in this regard. She writes to her publisher, George Smith: “ ‘You will see that “Villette” touches on no matter of public interest. I cannot write books handling the topics of the day; it is of no use trying. Nor can I write a book for its moral’ ” (p. 414). Brontë’s letter to Smith is unapologetic, but she assumes an air of self-chastisement when she writes to Gaskell on the same subject: “ ‘
has no right to push itself before
There is a goodness, a philanthropic purpose, a social use in the latter, to which the former cannot for an instant pretend’ ” (p. 422). The difference in tone of the two letters suggests, as does Brontë’s cautious criticism of Ruth’s tragic ending, that Brontë might have muted the force of some of her opinions in order not to alienate her new friend.
did provoke Harriet Martineau, another new literary acquaintance to whom Brontë looked for approbation. In her review of the novel in the
Daily News,
Martineau faulted Brontë for her “incessant... tendency to describe the need of being loved,” and for allowing her heroine to “entertain a double love,” which was tantamount to an accusation of immodesty. Ironically, this criticism has much in common with the accusations in the Rigby review of Jane Eyre, although Martineau was coming at the issue from a different perspective. Martineau, a feminist, feared that the novel’s unapologetic exhibition of female desire would prove counterproductive to the political and social gains that were taking place based on an emerging sense of women’s rational equality with men. “There are substantial, heartfelt interests for women of all ages, and under ordinary circumstances, quite apart from love,” Martineau insisted, “and to the absence of it may be attributed some of the criticism which the book will meet with from readers who are no prudes, but whose reason and taste will reject the assumption that events and characters are to be regarded through the medium of one passion only” (Allot, p. 173). Brontë’s view, that the personal is political, would not seem a plausible feminist platform for another hundred years.
Significantly, Gaskell follows Brontë’s apology for
lack of moral utility, with the promise that “had she lived,” she would have started to produce more socially responsible work. On her final trip to London, Gaskell explains, Brontë was free to make her own itinerary and she elected to see “ ‘the real in preference to the decorative side of life,’ ” visiting Newgate and Pentonville prisons, Bethlehem Hospital for the insane, and the Foundling Hospital. “All that she saw during this last visit to London impressed her deeply,” Gaskell reports, “so much so as to render her incapable of the immediate expression of her feelings.” “If she had lived,” Gaskell predicts, “her deep heart would sooner or later have spoken out” (p. 423).
Gaskell came to know Brontë more completely through her research for the
than she did through their friendship, which was of relatively brief duration and, as stated above, may have suffered in intimacy from Brontë’s strategically conforming to social standards when she thought it would please Gaskell. What impressed Gaskell most in reading Brontë’s personal correspondence was the degree to which her voice and “spirit” varied “according to the correspondent whom she was addressing”
(The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell,
letter 274). Bronte did not adopt the irreverent, rakish swagger in her letters to Gaskell that she did in those to Branwell, nor did she display the astringent sarcasm (which Gaskell quietly censored without a telltale ellipsis in the Life) that animates her anonymous letter to the critic and minor poet Hartley Coleridge, who had failed to appreciate her work. Gaskell also saw the “wild weird” writing of the juvenile period that she felt bordered on “delirium” (p. 72). Gaskell allows a “fac simile” of a page of one of these miniscule manuscripts to stand in for proper analysis, perhaps deterred by their balder articulation of eroticism and participation in the supernatural than is found in the mature works, and by the irreverent cynicism of Brontë’s male narrators of the Angrian period (p. 73).
Gaskell saw her primary role as that of elegist, celebrating not the work, but the life of her “dear friend, Charlotte Brontë” (p. 18). To that end, Gaskell employs her full arsenal of literary technique. Pathos is the currency of the
because reader empathy is integral to Gaskell’s vindication project. Gaskell’s repetition of key themes and her layering of the voices of eyewitnesses, family, and friends lend the Life an authority and intensity that no other biographical study of Brontë shares. With these “viva voce glimpses into her [Brontë’s] daily life” Gaskell creates a circle of acquaintances around Brontë of which the reader feels a part
(The Letters of Mrs.
Gaskell, letter 154). Gaskell employs one of Brontë’s own favored devices, direct reader address, to create a conspiratorial feeling between author and audience. (Brontë often used it for the opposite effect, to distance the reader or to anticipate reader hostility.) Gaskell does not address her memoir to any general audience, but rather to those who “know how to listen” (p. 267). She turns from “the critical, unsympathetic public,” to appeal to a “larger and more solemn public, who know how to look with tender humility at faults and errors; how to admire generously extraordinary genius.” Gaskell addresses posterity here, a public she envisions as both broader and more broadminded than Victorian society. “To that public,” Gaskell declares in the Life’s concluding line, “I commit the memory of Charlotte Brontë,” entrusting the reader with a heavy charge (p. 454).
While the
seems transparent, it is not. Gaskell is skilled at manipulating point of view. Although she seems to give the reader un-mediated access to Brontë’s voice through personal correspondence, Gaskell carefully culled and edited that correspondence; she staged Brontë’s voice, and in so doing she stripped that voice of some of its power and pique. Despite Gaskell’s self-effacing comment that “the letters speak for themselves, to those who know how to listen, far better than I can interpret their meaning into my poorer and weaker words,” the very act of selection is an act of interpretation (p. 267).
But Brontë’s words do often speak for themselves more loudly than Gaskell’s attempt to shape them. One example is the letter to Nussey in which Brontë denies having published: “ ‘I have given no one a right either to affirm, or to hint, in the most distant manner, that I was ‘publishing’—(humbug!) ... Though twenty books were ascribed to me, I should own none.... The most profound obscurity is infinitely preferable to vulgar notoriety’ ” (p. 281). Gaskell calls this letter “confirmatory” of guilt in the “very vehemence... of intended denial,” but this is one occasion that “those who know how to listen,” as Gaskell describes her ideal reader, hear something other than Gaskell does, a playful tone that indicates mock anger and the spouting of lady-like correctness. Brontë is actually issuing an admission under the coy cover of a denial.
Brontë’s reaction to the proposal of marriage she received from James Taylor has a different meaning for today’s readers than it did for Victorians. Gaskell is eager to correct those who would “imagine, from the extraordinary power with which [Brontë] represented the passion of love in her novels, that she herself was easily susceptible of it” (p. 376). She offers Brontë’s confession to Nussey that she could not accept Taylor because her “veins ran ice” when he approached her as proof of Brontë’s natural modesty, thus distinguishing her from her passionate heroines. To a modern reader, however, the episode suggests, rather, the importance Brontë placed on sexual attraction in marriage.
There is an undulating movement to Gaskell’s narrative in its liberal use of foreshadowing and compression. She uses compression particularly effectively in reproducing the Brontë funerary tablet in the first chapter. The memorial, with its lines “pressed together,” the letters becoming “small and cramped” as “one dead member of the household follows another fast to the grave” mirrors the narrative’s overall movement (p. 16). Brontë’s memorial tablet, which Gaskell also reproduces at the end of chapter one, makes no mention of her professional achievement. On it she is stripped of all cultural referents except the titles of wife and daughter (p. 17).
The Life of Charlotte
Brontë, which does not refer to Brontë by her married name, is a monument that attempts to restore her complexity.
There is evidence that the Life served the corrective function Gaskell intended it to serve, rescuing Brontë’s works for those who had dismissed the writer as “coarse.” Gaskell received testimonials such as this one, from Charles Kingsley: “I gave up the writer and her books with a notion that she was a person who liked coarseness. How I misjudged her! ... Well have you done your work, and given us the picture of a valiant woman made perfect by sufferings. I shall now read carefully and lovingly every word she has written” (to Gaskell, May 14, 1857; in Wise and Symington, eds.,
Their Lives, Friendships, and
vol. 4, pp. 222—223). Those who come in search of this kind of vindication will find it, but for others the
tells a different story, that of Brontë’s active struggle against constraints at the same time psychological and material, domestic and institutional. If Brontë does emerge from the pages of the Life as someone who studied “the path of duty well,” as Gaskell would have it, it is not as a victim, but rather as one who consciously “spent herself lavishly for others—lavishly and even wastefully,” as one reviewer observed (Easson, p. 380). It is the story of someone who is challenged by life, but not subdued by it: “ ‘Crushed I am not,’ ” Brontë told Nussey in the dark summer of 1849, “ ‘I have some strength to fight the battle of life’ ” (p. 313). The overall “effect of the book is melancholy,” one contemporary reviewer of the Life offered in summation, adding that although Gaskell’s Brontë was led by a “stern sense of duty... within that imprisonment of constraint was a really free spirit” (Easson, p. 383).
Anne Taranto
was educated at Columbia and Oxford Universities and at Yale University, where she earned a Ph.D. She has taught courses on the novel and on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature at Georgetown University and is currently at work on a study of Charlotte Brontë’s relationship to the literary marketplace.
“Oh my God,
Thou hast knowledge, only Thou,
How dreary ’tis for women to sit still
On winter nights by solitary fires
And hear the nations praising them far off.”
The Leeds and Bradford railway runs along a deep valley of the Aire; a slow and sluggish stream, compared to the neighbouring river of Wharfe. Keighley station is on this line of railway, about a quarter of a mile from the town of the same name. The number of inhabitants and the importance of Keighley have been very greatly increased during the last twenty years, owing to the rapidly extended market for worsted manufactures, a branch of industry that mainly employs the factory population of this part of Yorkshire, which has Bradford for its centre and metropolis.
Keighley is in process of transformation from a populous, old-fashioned village, into a still more populous and flourishing town. It is evident to the stranger, that as the gable-ended houses, which obtrude themselves corner-wise on the widening street, fall vacant, they are pulled down to allow of greater space for traffic, and a more modern style of architecture. The quaint and narrow shop-windows of fifty years ago, are giving way to large panes and plate-glass. Nearly every dwelling seems devoted to some branch of commerce. In passing hastily through the town, one hardly perceives where the necessary lawyer and doctor can live, so little appearance is there of any dwellings of the professional middle-class, such as abound in our old cathedral towns. In fact, nothing can be more opposed than the state of society, the modes of thinking, the standards of reference on all points of morality, manners, and even politics and religion, in such a new manufacturing place as Keighley in the north, and any stately, sleepy, picturesque cathedral town in the south. Yet the aspect of Keighley promises well for future stateliness, if not picturesqueness. Grey stone abounds; and the rows of houses built of it have a kind of solid grandeur connected with their uniform and enduring lines. The frame-work of the doors, and the lintels of the windows, even in the smallest dwellings, are made of blocks of stone. There is no painted wood to require continual beautifying, or else present a shabby aspect; and the stone is kept scrupulously clean by the notable Yorkshire housewifes. Such glimpses into the interior as a passer-by obtains, reveal a rough abundance of the means of living, and diligent and active habits in the women. But the voices of the people are hard, and their tones discordant, promising little of the musical taste that distinguishes the district, and which has already furnished a Carrodus
to the musical world. The names over the shops (of which the one just given is a sample) seem strange even to an inhabitant of the neighbouring county, and have a peculiar smack and flavour of the place.
The town of Keighley never quite melts into country on the road to Haworth, although the houses become more sparse as the traveller journeys upwards to the grey round hills that seem to bound his journey in a westerly direction. First come some villas; just sufficiently retired from the road to show that they can scarcely belong to any one liable to be summoned in a hurry, at the call of suffering or danger, from his comfortable fire-side; the lawyer, the doctor, and the clergyman, live at hand, and hardly in the suburbs, with a screen of shrubs for concealment.

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