Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thoughts on "The Life of Charlotte Brontë" by Elizabeth Gaskell

While perusing the stacks at my local library I found The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, author of Cranford and North and South.  I'm quite a fan of all three of the Brontë  sisters (though admittedly I am particularly an admirer of Charlotte and of her novel Jane Eyre). I've already read a few contemporary books about the Brontë family, though I had not yet read Gaskell's biography of her close friend.  It was time to take it home and acquaint myself.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë was first published in 1857, a mere two years after the celebrated author's passing at the age of thirty-nine as the last of the six Brontë children.  It is the first biography of a female author, written by a female author in a time when it was still greatly questioned if it was even possible for a woman to formulate her own ideas and if so, was it acceptable or proper for this woman to make a living on these intellectual capabilities. The book and its conclusions are still being studied and debated by scholars (for instance, the anecdote of Patrick Brontë, the father, shooting a pistol out into the back yard to relieve his heightened emotions; did this really happen? why? was he as odd as he's made out to be?). Not only does the book provide great insight into the individual personalities and inclinations of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, but it also plunges the reader into understanding the social climate and surrounding circumstances in which the sisters and Gaskell wrote and lived.  

Gaskell presents the Brontës as people with minds who shone despite great shadows. For instance, their lives were blighted by illness and the death of loved ones. Their health and spirits withered (especially Emily's) due to homesickness which surged whenever they had to leave their family home.  According to Gaskell, the sisters were also particularly shy or reserved in most social situations, though I suspect that their above-average intelligence had to be stoked by the selective company of equal minds and temperaments. Any substandard company seemingly left them to languish. It was in each other's company that they were strongest. When they were lucky enough to be at home which was the parsonage adjacent to the church where their father was minister, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne discussed their ideas in the evenings after the rest of the household had gone to bed. It was during this time that they supported one another, perfected their notions, and strengthened their resolves.


The sisters are still famous today, though at the time I'm sure they were perceived as a bit odd. They were quite determined to be as self sufficient as possible in an age where intellectual options were limited for women. They dreamed of opening a small school together so they wouldn't have to take on employment which they hated (namely, being governesses) and could continue writing in the hope that someday their works could be published. The sisters also had their own ideas when came to the subject of marriage.  It was not expected for a woman to be yet unmarried by the age of twenty-five. Charlotte was once made an offer of marriage and, after declining the offer, wrote about the experience to a friend.

I had a kindly leaning towards him, because he is an amiable and well-disposed man.  Yet I had not, and could not have, that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him, and if I ever marry, it must be in that light of adoration that I will regard my husband.

This is passage demonstrates how Charlotte couldn't bring herself to settle for someone she didn't adore.  It seems she couldn't let the circumstances or expectations of society drive away the values she held onto strictly throughout her life.  Charlotte felt that life couldn't be lived with only half-baked thoughts and tepid feelings. I love this.

The more one learns about the Brontës, the more one begins to understand just how much each sister's masterpiece is a projection of themselves. Many (though not all, sorry Cathy) of the heroines in their books carry the same values as did their authors. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne wrote books which still manage to captivate and inspire each new generation and it's evident that the authors were just as engaging as the books they wrote. 

I'll leave you with the following excerpt, taken from one of Charlotte's many letters which Gaskell chose to include in the biography. In this letter, Charlotte paints a beautiful image of her beloved sister Emily and how she was linked, heart and soul, to her beloved moors.


My sister Emily loved the moors. Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her;--out of a sullen hollow in a livid hill-side, her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best-loved was--liberty. Liberty was the breath of Emily's nostrils; without it she perished. The change from her own home to a school, and from her own very noiseless, very secluded, but unrestricted and unartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though under the kindest auspices), was what she failed in enduring. Her nature proved here too strong for her fortitude. Every morning, when she woke, the vision of home and the moors rushed on her, and darkened and saddened the day that lay before her. Nobody knew what ailed her but me. I knew only too well. In this struggle her health was quickly broken: her white face, attenuated form, and failing strength, threatened rapid decline. I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall. She had only been three months at school; and it was some years before the experiment of sending her from home was again ventured on.

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