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


  1. I actually have this book sitting in a box from my last move. Maybe it's time to actually find it and read it. I like everything I've read of Gaskell and the Brontes, so it seems like the perfect storm of biographer and biography. I like that quote from Charlotte at the end--such a relatable person she was, I think.

    1. Miranda, I now very much want to read Elizabeth Gaskell. In the biography she gives full and nuanced accounts of those (like Patrick, and the head of the Cowan Bridge School) who would not seem to deserve our sympathies. After I finished the biography they still didn't have mine, but I did have a greater sense of the range of their characters and motivations. If she treats the fictional characters in her novels similarly, her portraits of them will be very rich.

      But I think the chief reason that The Life of Charlotte Bronte is considered "one of the greatest of all English biographies" (as the back cover blurb has it) is that the voice of Charlotte comes through so clearly in the generous excerpts from her letters. It's what inspired me to (finally!) read Jane Eyre and Villette. I think if you're already familiar with the novels of the Bronte sisters you'll be fascinated by Gaskell's book.