Friday, October 24, 2014

"Hunger, rebellion, and rage": Charlotte Bronte's Villette

Jane Eyre (1847) was Charlotte Brontë's first published novel, and it made her famous. But as I wrote in "I scorn your idea of love": Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, I found its central love story to be troubling (and suspect that I may have waited too long to read it for the first time). Still, despite what I viewed as its flaws, Jane Eyre made me curious to read more of Charlotte's work.

And so I next turned to her final novel, Villette (1853). Based on Charlotte's experiences during her two years spent at a boarding school in Belgium, Villette tells the story of the ill-fated loves of its quiet heroine, Lucy Snowe. Despite her name, Lucy is only outwardly cool; inwardly she is warmly passionate. But the constraints which forbid her to express her feelings openly, as men in her society are allowed to, lead to desperate unhappiness—which must, like her love, remain concealed.

Like Jane Eyre, Villette has readily identifiable autobiographical sources. Dr. John Graham Bretton, the handsome and sympathetic English physician whose precious letters Lucy ultimately buries as she must bury her feelings for him, was based on her publisher George Smith. [1]

George Smith. Image: Brontë Parsonage Museum

When Smith wrote Charlotte of his engagement to Elizabeth Blakeway, Charlotte's breviloquent response was "In great happiness, as in great grief—words of sympathy should be few. Accept my meed of congratulation—and believe me Sincerely yours, C. Brontë." [2] This brief note, with its comparison of happiness to "great grief," and offering a "meed" of congratulation (a meed is something won or earned, not freely bestowed), speaks volumes about Charlotte's dismay at this news. Perhaps it is coincidence, but only a few weeks after learning of Smith's engagement Charlotte accepted the marriage proposal of Arthur Nicholls, a man whom she had once described as "highly uninteresting, narrow, and unattractive." [3]

M. Paul Emmanuel, the schoolmaster with whom Lucy's initially antagonistic relationship slowly develops into mutual affection, was based on Constantin Heger. Heger was a teacher at the boarding school that Charlotte attended; he was also the husband of its owner, Claire Heger (portrayed in the novel as the imperious and suspicious Madame Beck).

Constantin Heger

After two years at the Pensionnat Heger, as Elizabeth Gaskell wrote in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Charlotte found that she had to leave the school because she was "no longer regarded with the former kindliness of feeling by Madame Héger..." [4] Gaskell was not being fully honest about the reasons for Charlotte's abrupt departure from Brussels in January 1844. The true reason became public only in 1913, when four letters written by Charlotte to M. Heger after she left Brussels were donated by Heger's son Paul to the British Library.

Three of the letters had been torn into pieces by M. Heger, but the pieces were retrieved by Mme. Heger and sewn back together with paper strips. On reading the letters, it's clear why M. Heger thought they were incriminating, and why the mistrustful Mme. Heger went to such lengths to discover, reconstruct and preserve them. They must have amply confirmed her suspicions of an emotional attachment between Charlotte and her husband.

From the evidence of the letters, though, that emotional attachment was one-sided. Charlotte's letters, written mainly in French, are painful reading: they are hurt, apologetic, pleading, and ultimately abject confessions of her feelings.

From the letter of 24 July 1844:
Ah Monsieur! I once wrote you a letter which was hardly rational, because sadness was wringing my heart, but I shall do so no more—I will try to stop being egotistical and though I look on your letters as one of the greatest joys I know, I shall wait patiently to receive them until it pleases and suits you to send them.
...I have not asked you to write to me soon because I don’t want to seem importunate—but you are too good to forget that I wish it all the same—yes—I wish for it very much—that is enough—after all, do as you please, Monsieur—if in fact I received a letter and thought that you had written out of pity for me—that would hurt me very much.
...once more goodbye, Monsieur—it hurts to say goodbye even in a letter—Oh it is certain that I shall see you again one day—it really has to be—for as soon as I have earned enough money to go to Brussels I shall go—and I shall see you again if it is only for a moment. [5]
This is clearly not the first letter in the sequence. Charlotte apologizes for an earlier letter which was "peu raisonnable" (translated by editor Margaret Smith as "hardly rational"), suggesting that it was likely written out of anguish at the lack of a reply from Heger to still earlier letters.

From the letter of 24 October 1844; Charlotte still has not received a reply to her two previous letters:
I am not going to write a long letter...I am afraid of boring you. I would just like to ask you whether you heard from me at the beginning of May and then in the month of August? For all those six months I have been expecting a letter from you, Monsieur—six months of waiting—That is a very long time indeed! Nevertheless I am not complaining and I shall be richly recompensed for a little sadness—if you are now willing to write a letter...
However short the letter may be I shall be satisfied with it— [6]
From the letter of 8 January 1845; Heger has still not replied to Charlotte's previous letters:
Day and night I find neither rest nor peace—if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me—
Forgive me then Monsieur if I take the step of writing to you again—How can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its sufferings?
I know that you will lose patience with me when you read this letter—You will say that I am over-excited—that I have black thoughts etc. So be it Monsieur—I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches—all I know—is that I cannot—that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship—I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely, I shall be absolutely without hope—if he gives me a little friendship—a very little—I shall be content—happy, I would have a motive for living—for working.
...I don't want to re-read this letter—I am sending it as I have written it—Nevertheless I am as it were dimly aware that there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it—"she is raving"—My sole revenge is to wish these people—a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months—then we should see whether they wouldn't be raving too. [7]
Tellingly, "my master" is how Jane Eyre refers to Rochester. [8]

Charlotte wrote to Heger again in May 1845, a letter in which she evidently promised to write him not more than once every six months (this letter does not survive). Heger seems to have written back, at last ("your last letter has sustained me—has nourished me for six months"), but it was not enough for Charlotte.

From the letter dated 18 November 1845:
I will tell you candidly that during this time of waiting I have tried to forget you, for the memory of a person one believes one is never to see again, and whom one nevertheless greatly respects, torments the mind exceedingly and when one has suffered this kind of anxiety for one or two years, one is ready to do anything to regain peace of mind. I have done everything, I have sought occupations, I have absolutely forbidden myself the pleasure of speaking about you—even to Emily, but I have not been able to overcome either my regrets or my impatience—and that is truly humiliating—not to know how to get the mastery over one’s own thoughts, to be the slave of a regret, a memory, the slave of a dominant and fixed idea which has become a tyrant over one’s mind. Why cannot I have for you exactly as much friendship as you have for me—neither more nor less? Then I would be so tranquil, so free—I could keep silence for ten years without effort.
...Writing to an old pupil cannot be a very interesting occupation for you—I know that—but for me it is life itself. Your last letter has sustained me—has nourished me for six months—now I need another and you will give it me—not because you have any friendship for me—you cannot have much—but because you have a compassionate soul and because you would not condemn anyone to undergo long suffering in order to spare yourself a few moments of tedium. To forbid me to write to you, to refuse to reply to me—that will be to tear from me the only joy I have on earth—to deprive me of my last remaining privilege—a privilege which I will never consent to renounce voluntarily. Believe me, my master, in writing to me you do a good deed—so long as I think you are fairly pleased with me, so long as I still have the hope of hearing from you, I can be tranquil and not too sad, but when a dreary and prolonged silence seems to warn me that my master is becoming estranged from me—when day after day I await a letter and day after day disappointment flings me down again into overwhelming misery, when the sweet delight of seeing your writing and reading your counsel flees from me like an empty vision—then I am in a fever—I lose my appetite and my sleep—I pine away. May I write to you again next May? I would have liked to wait a full year—but it is impossible—it is too long— [9]
This was apparently the last letter she wrote to Heger. In all likelihood Charlotte had already begun writing The Professor, her first attempt at rendering her love for her teacher into fictional form.

Separation from the beloved is a trope that recurs again and again in Charlotte's novels. In The Professor (published posthumously in 1857) a young teacher at a girls' boarding school in Belgium, Frances Henri, is dismissed by its jealous owner, Mlle Reuter, because of the developing affection between Frances and another teacher, William Crimsworth, with whom Mlle Reuter is also in love. In Jane Eyre, Jane and Rochester fall in love, but she flees his house when she discovers that he is already married. In Shirley (1849), mill owner Robert Moore deliberately distances himself from Caroline Helstone to prevent himself from falling in love with her; she sits by her window every day hoping to catch a glimpse of him going by (shades of Charlotte hoping daily for a letter from M. Heger). And in Villette, M. Paul is sent by his family to oversee their West Indian plantations for three years; the possessive Madame Beck attempts to prevent M. Paul and Lucy from even having a chance to say goodbye to one another.

Villette does not contain the same sort of highly dramatic action as Jane Eyre: there is no demonic laughter echoing through the halls at night, no flights across the storm-swept moor, no return to the charred ruin of a once-magnificent estate. The landscape of the novel is an interior one, as we slowly come to know Lucy's perceptions, thoughts and feelings. Charlotte reported that her publisher was "a little disheartened by the tranquillity" of the novel. [10] The poet and critic Matthew Arnold, though hostile to Villette and its author, was more perceptive when he wrote that under its muted and melancholy surface it "contained nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage." [11]

Villette's complex characters and richness of (seemingly minor, but tellingly detailed) incident made it feel more emotionally true than its famous predecessor. And I discovered that I'm not the only one who thinks so; so did Brontë's contemporary George Eliot ("Villette! Villette! It is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre.") So also do some modern critics such as Lucy Hughes-Hallett, who writes that Villette is "at once an intensely erotic love story, a fierce attack on the conventions that doomed so many 19th-century women to submission and frustration, and a beautiful and inventive piece of poetic fiction" (in "Why Villette is better than Jane Eyre"). Joining their company is Claire Fallon, who praises its heroine's "perceptiveness and ability to embrace ambiguity" (in "This Charlotte Brontë Novel Is Way Better Than 'Jane Eyre'). As Hughes-Hallett asserts, "Charlotte Brontë wrote not one but two masterpieces," and the greater of them is Villette.


1. Sidney Lee, "Memoir of George Smith," preface to the Dictionary of National Biography (Suppl. 1), Oxford University Press, 1901, p. xxii.
2. Margaret Smith, ed. Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte, Oxford University Press, 2007. Letter 152. To George Smith, 10 December 1853, p. 227 (see
3. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 44. To Ellen Nussey, 10 July 1846, p. 77 (see
4. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Smith, Elder & Co., 1857, Chapter XII
5. Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte. Letter 28. To Constantin Heger, 24 July [1844], pp. 51-52 (see
6. Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte. Letter 30. To Constantin Heger, 24 October 1844, p. 55 (see
7. Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte. Letter 31. To Constantin Heger, 8 January 1845, p. 58 (see
8. Reinforcing the Heger-Rochester connection is a poem Charlotte wrote about her love for Heger in 1845. Quoting it in part:
His coming was my hope each day
His parting was my pain!
The chance that did his steps delay
Was ice in every vein

I gave entire affection now
I gave devotion sure
And strong took root and fast did grow
One mighty feeling more

The truest love that ever heart
Felt at its kindled core
Through my veins with quickened start
A tide of life did pour

[A] halo played about the brows
Of life as seen by me
bliss within me rose
And anxious ecstacy

I dreamed it would be nameless bliss
As I loved—loved to be
And to this object did I press
As blind as eagerly.
Most of the verses from this poem, with diction slightly revised and gender reversed ("Her coming was my hope each day") became the song that Rochester sings to Jane in Chapter 24 of Jane Eyre.
9. Selected Letters of Charlotte Bronte. Letter 36. To Constantin Heger, 18 November 1845, pp. 67-68 (see
10. Margaret Smith, ed. The Letters of Charlotte Bronte, vol. 3: 1852-1855. To George Smith, 20 November 1852, p. 83 (see
11. Quoted in Miriam Allott, ed. The Brontes: The Critical Heritage. Routledge, 1974, p. 201 (see

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"I scorn your idea of love": Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

A portrait of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, 1850

A couple of weeks ago Filmi Girl wrote a post on the recent Bollywood release Bang Bang in which she describes Hrithik Roshan's character as "the perfect fantasy of the invulnerable hero who’s actually vulnerable, needing to be saved by the heroine." Perhaps this "perfect fantasy" also explains the timeless appeal of Edward Fairfax Rochester in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847).

Rochester is a troubled and troubling character. There's no way to talk about why without discussing key plot points, so if you are one of the few people who has never read Jane Eyre (as I was until last month), be forewarned that spoilers follow.

"Happiness is irrevocably denied me." Rochester is physically powerful and emotionally mercurial, a dangerous combination made still more so by his rejection of conventional morality. (He can get away with rejecting it, of course, because he is a wealthy lord.) Jane Eyre describes him as "severe," "moody," "sullen," "grim," "fractious," "morose," "stern," "sardonic," "gloomy," and compares him to a "wild beast." But he also behaves at times with "gentlemanlike affability" and "contentment"; after dinner, and a few glasses of wine, he can even be "genial" and "more cheering than the brightest fire."

Jane is a diminutive and introspective young woman who, at 19, is half Rochester's age. He calls her "little girl" or "Little Jane"; she calls him, only half in jest and even after they have declared their love for one another, "my master," and tells him "I like to serve you, sir, and obey you." [1] (Early in the book she calls herself "habitually obedient." [2])

After they are engaged, they partake in a strange, almost sadomasochistic ritual:
He continued to send for me punctually the moment the clock struck seven; though when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed terms as "love" and "darling" on his lips: the best words at my service were "provoking puppet," "malicious elf," "sprite," "changeling," &c. For caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. It was all right: at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to anything more tender. [3]
Charlotte Brontë drew on figures in her own life to people her fiction. The Professor (1857) and Villette (1853) transmuted her unrequited love for a married schoolmaster; Shirley (1849) featured characters so recognizable that the real-life models themselves bragged about their appearance in the book (even though the portraits were unflattering). After having read Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), it's hard to escape the suspicion that Rochester is at least in part a combination of her stern, fierce, forbidding, emotionally volatile father Patrick, and her playful, teasing, if at times annoying, brother Branwell. Also like Branwell, Rochester drinks, at times to excess, is irreligious, and has had affairs (and perhaps an illegitimate child); also like Patrick, Rochester is fiercely jealous, loses his sight, and then has it partially restored by the treatments of "an eminent oculist." [4] It's not for nothing, I suspect, that Jane Eyre is subtitled "An Autobiography," which makes this reader feel queasy about the dynamic of dominance and submission between Rochester and Jane.

The rescue fantasy. Rochester is not only mad, bad, and dangerous to know, he needs rescuing: from a deranged wife, from his emotional and physical wounds, and from himself. Jane, of course, is all too aware of his faults, but believes that he can change:
He was proud, sardonic, harsh to inferiority of every description. In my secret soul I knew that his great kindness to me was balanced by unjust severity to many others. He was moody, too unaccountably so....But I believed that his moodiness, his harshness, and his former faults of morality (I say former, for now he seemed corrected of them) had their source in some cruel cross of fate. I believed he was naturally a man of better tendencies, higher principles, and purer tastes than such as circumstances had developed, education instilled, or destiny encouraged. I thought there were excellent materials in him; though for the present they hung together somewhat spoiled and tangled. [5]
The idea that Jane can save Rochester from himself recurs throughout the novel. The very first time Jane and Rochester meet, he is riding recklessly. He takes a bad spill, sprains his ankle, and to recapture and remount his horse must lean on Jane. Later, it is Jane who rouses a sleeping Rochester from a burning bed; still later, after he has been blinded and maimed, she becomes his "prop and guide." [6]

It is Rochester's vulnerability, as well as his strength, that appeals to Jane. And it is only when he acknowledges that vulnerability that he is finally worthy of becoming her husband. But Rochester's helplessness and dependence come to feel strangely like wish-fulfillment on Jane's part: see, reader, he does need me!

"Such a martyrdom would be monstrous": After Jane discovers the truth about Rochester's wife and flees across the storm-swept moor, she finds refuge with a clergyman, St John Rivers, and his sisters. St John (pronounced "sinjun") decides that it is his mission is to convert Hindus to Christianity, and after he has known Jane for some time he asks her to accompany him to India—as his wife.

Jane is prepared to go with him, but refuses his offer of marriage; instead, she wants them to continue to live together as sister and brother. But St John is afraid of scandal. Or so he claims; but Jane will not agree to a marriage where there is no love or attraction, at least on her side:
'It is what I want,' he said, speaking to himself; 'it is just what I want....we must be married. I repeat it: there is no other way; and undoubtedly enough of love would follow upon marriage to render the union right even in your eyes.'

'I scorn your idea of love,' I could not help saying, as I rose up and stood before him, leaning my back against the rock. 'I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer: yes, St. John, and I scorn you when you offer it.' [7]
This scene may tie in with another incident from Charlotte's life. In July 1846 she wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey to deny a rumour that she was engaged to the Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, who had been her father's curate for the past year:
A cold faraway sort of civility are the only terms on which I have ever been with Mr. Nicholls.  I could by no means think of mentioning such a rumour to him even as a joke. It would make me the laughing-stock of himself and his fellow curates for half a year to come.  They regard me as an old maid, and I regard them, one and all, as highly uninteresting, narrow, and unattractive specimens of the coarser sex. [8]
Jane describes St John as both "cold" and "scrupulously polite." Could St John, often thought to have been based on the missionary Henry Martyn and on Ellen's brother Henry Nussey (who proposed to Charlotte in 1839), have also been modelled in part on Nicholls? And if so, could Nicholls have made an overture to Charlotte in 1846 that she rebuffed, and concealed from her family and acquaintances?

St John is relentless in his pursuit of marriage to Jane, and she almost yields to him. Nicholls, too, was evidently not a man easily discouraged. Whether or not he had developed a romantic interest in Charlotte as early as 1846, it seems that she never treated him with any partiality. Nonetheless, in December 1852 he formally proposed:
He stopped in the passage: he tapped: like lightning it flashed on me what was coming. He entered—he stood before me. What his words were—you can guess; his manner—you can hardly realize—nor can I forget it—Shaking from head to foot, looking deadly pale, speaking low, vehemently yet with difficulty—he made me for the first time feel what it costs a man to declare affection where he doubts response. The spectacle of one ordinarily so statue-like—thus trembling, stirred, and overcome gave me a kind of strange shock. He spoke of sufferings he had borne for months—of sufferings he could endure no longer—and craved leave for some hope. I could only entreat him to leave me then and promise a reply on the morrow.

...When he was gone I immediately went to Papa—and told him what had taken place. Agitation and anger disproportionate to the occasion ensued—...Papa worked himself into a state not to be trifled with—the veins on his temples started up like whip-cord—and his eyes became suddenly blood-shot—I made haste to promise that Mr. Nicholls should on the morrow have a distinct refusal. [9]
Nicholls immediately resigned his curacy. Charlotte wrote to Ellen a few days later that while she was dismayed by her father's furious response and the monetary grounds for his objections to the match, that did not mean that she was looking with any more kindness on Nicholls' offer:
Mr. N. must never expect me to reciprocate the feeling he had expressed...My own objections arise from sense of incongruity and uncongeniality in feelings, tastes—principles. [10]
But something radically changed Charlotte's view of marriage to Nicholls over the next year or so. He continued to write to her, visited the neighborhood of Haworth Parsonage in January 1854, and by April he and Charlotte were engaged. Her announcement of this event to Ellen is tinged with trepidation and sadness:
...all I learnt [about Mr. Nicholls] inclined me to esteem and, if not love—at least affection—Still Papa was very—very hostile—bitterly unjust. I told Mr. Nicholls the great obstacles that lay in his way. He has persevered—The result of this his last visit is—that Papa’s consent is gained—that his respect, I believe is won—for Mr. Nicholls has in all things proved himself disinterested and forbearing. He has shewn too that while his feelings are exquisitely keen—he can freely forgive. Certainly I must respect him—nor can I withold from him more than mere cool respect. In fact, dear Ellen, I am engaged.

...What seemed at one time—impossible—is now arranged—and Papa begins really to take a pleasure in the prospect. For myself—dear Ellen—while thankful to One who seems to have guided me through much difficulty, much and deep distress and perplexity of mind—I am still very calm—very—inexpectant. What I taste of happiness is of the soberest order. I trust to love my husband—I am grateful for his tender love to me—I believe him to be an affectionate—a conscientious—a high-principled man—and if with all this, I should yield to regrets—that fine talents, congenial tastes and thoughts are not added—it seems to me I should be most presumptuous and thankless. Providence offers me this destiny. Doubtless then it is the best for me.

...Good-bye—There is a strange—half-sad feeling in making these announcements—The whole thing is something other than imagination paints it beforehand: cares—fears—come mixed inextricably with hopes. [11]
What could have caused Charlotte to accept Nicholls' offer after she had so strongly emphasized in Jane Eyre the need for husbands and wives to share a passionate attachment? The answer is contained in another letter to Ellen that Charlotte wrote shortly after her engagement:
My hope is that in the end this arrangement will turn out more truly to Papa’s advantage—than any other it was in my power to achieve. Mr. N. only in his last letter—refers touchingly to his earnest desire to prove his gratitude to Papa by offering support and consolation to his declining age. [12]
And she wrote to her publisher George Smith regarding her marriage, "thus Papa secures by the step—a devoted and reliable assistant in his old age." [13]

By this time, Charlotte's siblings were all dead, and she must have been aware of her own uncertain health (in a letter written on her honeymoon she reports that her "cough was become very bad" [14]). "This arrangement"—after their marriage, she and Nicholls would live in the Parsonage—was Charlotte's way of insuring that her father would continue to be supported and cared for by a family member, even in the event of her own death.

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte wrote bitterly of marriage without love as a "sacrifice" and "martyrdom":
Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent? Can I bear the consciousness that every endearment he bestows is a sacrifice made on principle? No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous. [15]
While in this passage Jane is referring to St John's plan to marry her without love, reverse the genders and we can see what agreeing to "endure" marriage with Nicholls must have cost Charlotte.

Encountered too late? As I read Jane Eyre, I began to wonder whether I had waited too long to read it for the first time. The opening scenes at the home of the Reeds, where the orphaned Jane is relentlessly bullied by her cousin John and treated cruelly by her aunt, are emotionally wrenching. The chapters set at Lowood School (based on Charlotte's experience at the Cowan Bridge School), where Jane and her schoolfellows are humiliated and starved, and spend their time shivering with cold and sickened by the brutal conditions, are horrifying. And Jane's flight on foot across the moors, in which she is exposed to the storms and cold and nearly dies from lack of food or shelter, is harrowing.

But the core of the novel is the relationship between Jane and Rochester, and the book ends, apparently happily, with their marriage. I found the ending to be problematic, though, and I'm not sure that the author intended it to be so. Over the course of the novel, Rochester has proven that he is domineering, violent, moody, deceptive, and selfish; he views other people as either obstacles to or instruments of his pleasure. Can his cruelty toward his first wife be rationalized so easily (and isn't her self-inflicted death just a bit too convenient)? Has he really been chastened and reformed by his brush with mortality and by Jane's love? And is the greatest fulfillment of the intelligent, capable, and deeply-feeling heroine to be Rochester's nurse for the rest of his life? Reader, "all sorts of doubts and fears are troubling my thoughts." [16]

Charlotte Brontë's greatest novel is not Jane Eyre. The novel that in my view deserves that honor will be the subject of the next post.

Next time: "Hunger, rebellion, and rage"
Last time: "I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë


1. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Chapter 20
2. Jane Eyre, Chapter 4
3. Jane Eyre, Chapter 24
4. Jane Eyre, Chapter 38
5. Jane Eyre, Chapter 15
6. Jane Eyre, Chapter 37
7. Jane Eyre, Chapter 34
8. Margaret Smith, ed. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Oxford University Press, 2007, Letter 44. To Ellen Nussey, 10 July 1846, pp. 76-77 (see
9. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 141. To Ellen Nussey, 15 December 1852, p. 212 (see
10. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 142. To Ellen Nussey, 18 December 1852, p. 213 (see
11. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 153. To Ellen Nussey, 11 April 1854, p. 227-228 (see
12. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 154. To Ellen Nussey, 15 April 1854, p. 230 (see
13. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 155. To George Smith, 25 April 1854, p. 231 (see
14. Selected letters of Charlotte Bronte, Letter 158. To Margaret Wooler, 10 July 1854, p. 234 (see
15. Jane Eyre, Chapter 34
16. Jane Eyre, Chapter 11

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë

Elizabeth Gaskell: The Life of Charlotte Bronte

I'm not a systematic reader. Who is, apart from Ph.D. students in English Literature? My reading is instead guided by serendipity: recommendations, reviews, fortuitous finds in bookstores.

One such fortuitous find was Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, discovered by chance in a used bookshop as I was looking for another book entirely. In fact, until I saw it on the shelf I was unaware of its existence. I had long meant to read Mrs. Gaskell: the BBC adaptations of her novels Cranford and Wives and Daughters were among my year-end favorites of 2011, and Cranford is #26 on the Telegraph's list of "100 novels everyone should read." And, shamefully, I had never read any of the Brontës, although Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights make perennial appearances near the top of lists of the best novels (for example, ranking #2 and #3, respectively, on this 2003 list of the 50 Best Books by Women).

On pulling The Life of Charlotte Brontë off the shelf, I noticed a small medallion in the lower right-hand corner of the cover which made this cheap paperback an irresistible purchase:

As I was to learn from Gaskell's biography, the Haworth Parsonage (now the Brontë Parsonage Museum) is the house in Yorkshire where Charlotte Brontë and her younger sisters Emily and Anne spent most of their short lives with their clergyman father Patrick. This book had once been purchased there, and so had an intimate connection with Charlotte's life, although at a distance of 150 years.

Elizabeth Gaskell by George Richmond, 1851 (detail)

The Life of Charlotte Brontë is compelling but grim reading. Death devastated the Brontë family: a year after they moved to Haworth in 1820 Charlotte's mother Maria died (Charlotte was only 5). A few years later Charlotte, together with her younger sister Anne and her two older sisters Maria and Elizabeth, was sent to the Cowan Bridge boarding school. The Cowan Bridge School was the model for the harrowing Lowood School scenes in Jane Eyre. The regimen was cruel: the students were beaten and ridiculed, given inedible and inadequate food, and spent most of the long, damp winter shivering with cold in unheated rooms. The damp, the cold, and the poor food gave rise to a typhoid outbreak, and exacerbated Maria and Elizabeth's consumption; both died in June 1825 after spending less than a year at Cowan Bridge.

The fragile health of Maria and Elizabeth was shared by all of the Brontë siblings. In one terrible eight-month period between September 1848 and May 1849 Charlotte's alcoholic brother Branwell and her sisters Emily and Anne all died of consumption. Consumption was also the cause of death of Charlotte, who died in March 1855 at age 38. She was six months pregnant, and had been married to her father's curate Arthur Nicholls for just nine months.

Patrick Brontë thus outlived all of his children. In Gaskell's account he is a caring but also stern, commanding, remote, and mercurial father. He strongly discouraged all of his daughters' suitors; Gaskell writes, "He always disapproved of marriages, and constantly talked against them." [1] We can only speculate as to why he was so fiercely opposed to the possible marriages of any of his daughters, but likely reasons include his need for emotional support and for increasing assistance as he grew more infirm with the passing years. That he viewed his daughters as instrumental to his happiness, rather than seeing himself as instrumental to theirs, suggests that Patrick—who was born in the 18th century—was a man firmly of his time, rather than ours.

Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte, date unknown

Patrick's eyesight began to fail in the 1840s, and by the summer of 1846 (he was in his late 60s) cataracts had rendered him virtually blind. With Charlotte at his side he underwent what in the absence of anesthesia must have been an excruciatingly painful eye operation, and gradually recovered his sight. There is a suggestive parallel between the infirm, blinded Patrick and the maimed, blinded Rochester in the final chapters of Jane Eyre (published in 1847, the year after Patrick's cataract surgery). Rochester, with Jane's aid, also eventually recovers his ability to see.

But while it's fascinating to learn of the biographical events that were transmuted into Charlotte's fiction, the chief interest of Gaskell's biography, at least for me, is its liberal quotation from Charlotte's letters. In particular, Gaskell was given access to Charlotte's extensive correspondence with her former school friend Ellen Nussey. Charlotte's letters are frank, open, and sometimes painfully revealing. Here is an example from a letter dated May 10, 1836; Charlotte, just turned 20, was a teacher at Roe Head School, where she had been a student a few years before. Writing to Ellen, she says, 
"I won't play the hypocrite; I won't answer your kind, gentle, friendly questions in the way you wish me to. Don't deceive yourself by imagining I have a bit of real goodness about me....I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up, and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I daresay despise me." [2]
The letters are poignant documents of Charlotte's life and thoughts. And it was in the hope of encountering that same deeply appealing voice that as soon as I finished Gaskell's biography I turned to Charlotte's first published novel, Jane Eyre.

Next time: "I scorn your idea of love": Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre


1. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Vol. II, Ch. VII
2. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Vol. I, Ch. VIII