Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë: In the Hill-Country Silence

Gaskell quotes often from Charlotte’s letters. Here is one of my very favorite passages:

For my part, I am free to walk on the moors; but when I go out there alone, everything reminds me of the times when others were with me, and then the moors seem a wilderness, featureless, solitary, saddening. My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry-leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet, but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon. In the hill-county silence, their poetry comes by lines and stanzas into my mind…

I have always had mixed feelings about Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre was one of the first non-kid books that I read, and I’ve reread it often over the years and so can’t help but like the author of a favorite book. And yet, she seems such a mixture of piety and superstition; intellectual curiosity obliterated by self-effacement. She is furious when critics do not treat her as an author but as a woman writer and yet she waxes on about not wanting to write that which isn’t ladylike. She explains her writing and that of her sisters when critics deem it ‘coarse’ as springing from their isolation, and yet she writes at length about how she wanted to write the truth as she saw it. She buried herself at Haworth after her sisters died, clinging to her duty to her father but resenting horribly the quiet, closeness of the life there. Two books were born out of her passion for her married teacher, M. Heger, and yet she seemed willing to settle for Arthur Bell Nicholls, who probably would have prevented her writing another novel.

In this bio and in JE, Charlotte seems devoid of a sense of humor. In fact, I only noticed one instance in the many letters quoted in which she says that she laughed, even when she was young. I think this lack of a sense of humor is at the root of why she never ‘got’ Austen. If you can’t see the humor and irony in Austen—-and I would say that if you can’t see the humor you won’t get the irony—-then she can do nothing more than fall flat. It's hard to like someone without a sense of humor, but then she wrote the passage about the hill-country silence and her sisters...I can't argue with someone who writes that beautifully.

I confess that Emily is the sister that most interests me, and Shirley is the Bronte book I will probably read next so that I can see how Charlotte saw her sister, whom she admitted was her model for Shirley Keeldar.

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