Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë

I’ve been reading Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. I’m used to reading Victorian novels, but a bio written by a Victorian author is quite a different kind of animal, and Gaskell as a biographer is on less sure ground than Gaskell as a novelist. It’s written in the first person, and Gaskell reports facts and rumors from people she interviewed for the book, quotes letters at length and occasionally in French, which I don’t read at all, and speculates, muses, and conjectures to an alarming degree. It’s clear that she liked and admired Charlotte, but there is quite an elder sister tone to the book, not quite patronizing but an odd mixture of pity and awe.

I’m pretty sure that much of the Brontë myth started with this bio (e.g., Gaskell’s portrait of Patrick Brontë as the stern, repressive father and the absolute isolation and almost primitive life of those in Haworth), but at the same time I believe it also catapulted Charlotte into the literary canon, a place where only recently it seems that Gaskell has been able to hold her own. The notes are fascinating to read—apparently Gaskell edited the first several editions that were published, mostly softening references to people still living when the book came out.

Here’s a couple of items that I marked that I thought worth sharing.

In the section on Charlotte’s mother, Maria Branwell, Gaskell is able to these conclusions about her from simply reading her letters: “The writing of these letters is elegant and neat; while there are allusions to household occupations—such as making the wedding-cake—there are also allusions to the books she has read, or is reading, showing a well-cultivated mind. Without having anything of her daughter’s rare talents, Mrs Brontë must have been, I imagine, that unusual character, a well-balanced and consistent woman.” [italics mine]

In discussing the Rev. William Carus Wilson, the man who started the Cowan Bridge school that Charlotte, Emily and their older sisters attended, and which is believed to be the model for Lowood in Jane Eyre, “He was an energetic man, sparing no labour for accomplishment of his ends, and willing to sacrifice everything but power.” This is a wonderfully damning portrait and a testament to Gaskell’s own skill as a writer in her treatment of this individual.

I found this passage from a letter Charlotte wrote when she was twenty-four particularly interesting in light of her famous dismissal of Jane Austen as being passionless:

Do not be over-persuaded to marry a man you can never respect—I do not say love; because, I think, if you can respect a person before marriage, moderate love at least will come after; and as to intense passion, I am convinced that that is no desirable feeling. In the first place, it seldom or never meets with requital; and, in the second place, if it did, the feeling would be only temporary: it would last the honeymoon, and then, perhaps, give place to disgust, or indifference worse, perhaps, than disgust. Certainly this would be the case on the man’s part; and on the woman’s—God help her, if she is left to love passionately and alone.

I'm at the part where Charlotte is in Brussels or the second time, this time on her own.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your review of Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte because you were fair. Most review of EG's biography are very damning, something I was unsure about, because, although never having read it myself, I would think that EG must have been a sympathetic person since she was Charlotte's friend. I will go to your website to read your stories.

  2. Thanks for dropping by--I think EG was between that proverbial rock and hard place. She loved CB as a friend, was moved enough by her life story and unexpected death to want to write her story, but many of the principals in the story (Patrick Bronte, the man who ran the school where her sisters fell ill, the woman with whom Branwell had an affair) were still alive. I didn't sense that she feared legal action, but I think she wanted to be fair to them also...well, maybe not the woman! Further research has proven the EG got many of her facts wrong, but the bio was ground-breaking and, I believe, instrumental in establishing CB's reputation.

  3. AnonymousJuly 17, 2008

    I don't know much about the Brontes. I've read Jane Eyre and found it unreadable. That quotation is very telling. I tend to believe that Charlotte was probably a little jealous of Jane Austen's skill. People always covet what they lack.