Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë: The Professor and "Mode of Composition"

I’ve never read The Professor, though I am considering doing a Brontë run after I’m through with Gaskell, so it struck me that Gaskell was really looking for something to praise with her description of it:

The plot itself is of no great interest; but it is a poor kind of interest that depends upon startling incidents rather than upon dramatic development of character; and Charlotte Brontë never excelled one or two sketches of portraits which she has given in ‘The Professor,’ nor, in grace of womanhood, ever surpassed one of the female characters there described.

While I am enjoying reading this bio very much, as much to understand Gaskell as a writer as to learn about Charlotte’s life, it is maddening in its ambiguity and occasional inattention to detail. I wish Gaskell had explicitly told her readers which “one or two sketches of portraits” she so admired as to say that Charlotte never surpassed them in any other writing, and which female character is described as the pinnacle of womanhood.

I’m actually wondering whether the female character Gaskell thinks is the best sketch was a self-portrait and that’s why Gaskell admires it so. If The Life of Charlotte Bronte is a tribute to her friend, then in searching for something to admire in The Professor, it seems natural that Gaskell would pick the character that is Charlotte. Again, I haven’t read The Professor, but I take it to be a somewhat autobiographical, if not idealized, account of her time with the Hegers in Brussels. Maybe I’m totally off-base here.

While the bio has its frustrating moments, it is marvelous in that this biographer personally knew Charlotte and was able to speak with her friends, neighbors, husband, and father while preparing the bio. I found particularly gratifying to read the account of how Charlotte wrote:

I remember, however, many little particulars which Miss Brontë gave me, in answer to my inquiries respecting her mode of composition…she said, that it was not every day that she could write. Sometimes weeks or even months elapsed before she felt that she had anything to add to that portion of her story which was already written. Then, some morning, she would waken up, and the progress of her tale lay clear and bright before her, in distinct vision. When this was the case, all her care was to discharge her household and filial duties, so as to obtain leisure to sit down and write out incidents and consequent thoughts, which were, in fact, more present to her mind at such times than her actual life itself.

This is such a different approach to so many writers who feel the need to accomplish xx number of pages each day rather than writing when inspiration hits. I’m sure that Gaskell compared this approach to her own, which was necessarily so different from Charlotte’s because she often wrote for serial publication and whilst juggling her duties as wife and mother and with Charles Dickens breathing down her neck. However, Gaskell is a good biographer in that she doesn’t insert a comment about her own “mode of composition” into the narrative but sticks to chronicling Charlotte’s.

I found this part also fascinating:
Any one who has studied her writings,--whether in print or in her letters,; any one who has enjoyed the rare privilege of listening to her talk, must have noticed her singular felicity in the choice of words. She herself, in writing her books, was solicitous on this point…She would wait patiently searching for the right term, until it presented itself to her. It might be provincial, it might be derived from the Latin; so that it accurately represented her idea, she did not mind whence it came; but this care makes her style present the finish of a piece of mosaic. Each component part, however small, has been dropped into the right place. She never wrote down a sentence until she clearly understood what she wanted to say, had deliberately chosen the words, and arranged them in their right order. Hence it comes that, in the scraps of paper covered with her pencil writing which I have seen, there will occasionally be a sentence scored out, but seldom, if ever, a word or an expression. She wrote on these bits of paper in a minute hand…Her finished manuscripts were copied from these pencil scraps, in clear, legible, delicate traced writing, almost as easy to read as print.

I also loved the description of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne pacing the room, reading their works to each other, discussing their plots. I wonder how much of what they wrote down they spoke aloud first, while waiting for that right word to drop into place.

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