Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon - review by Rebecca Fraser

Rebecca Fraser

She Did it Her Way

Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life


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For a brief but intense period after the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë was ‘the rage’ in the world of Victorian letters. Only such a phrase can describe the fascination she had for contemporaries, who were overwhelmed by the force of the writing and the passionate quality of the emotions. Amongst many other scholarly titbits and the tying up of interminable Brontë loose ends which will be manna to Brontë enthusiasts, Lyndall Gordon has uncovered a delightful reference to ‘ugly men’ giving themselves ‘Rochester airs’. But although everyone devoured Jane Eyre (including Queen Victoria who read it several times), when it was found out that the author was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that, it got the reputation of being an improper book. Even the liberal Mrs Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë’s devoted friend and biographer, would not let her daughters read it.

A year after publication the book was held to embody the sort of revolutionary ideas destroying the Continent that had to be kept offshore. So powerful were the prevailing orthodoxies about what was suitable for women – the passionless, self-abnegating Christ-like existence, preferably ending in early death, that reached its zenith in the work of Charlotte M Yonge – that the ungrateful Victorians rounded on Jane Eyre’s tiny, lonely creator to condemn her for such unwomanly writing. All kinds of rumours circulated about the modest daughter of a clergyman, that she was a social outcast, or worse. Fortunately, though, Charlotte’s own early death and Mrs Gaskell’s transfiguring biography quickly revised her standing in the nineteenth century. Charles Kingsley, who could not read her, he said, because she was so coarse, relievedly exclaimed that here was a woman made perfect by suffering. Though much at odds with the rebellious spirit of the novels, Mrs Gaskell’s version of a passionless, dutiful daughter was nevertheless the prevailing view of Charlotte Brontë until the late 1960s.

Then, when feminist scholars like Elaine Showalter started exploring the bizarre, quasi-scientific prejudices and taboos against women writers in the nineteenth century, it became clear that Charlotte Brontë had not only offended against these canons, but had done so deliberately. The qualities of mind we admire today – her courage and self-sufficiency – led to her being denounced as a ‘dangerous writer’ on the grounds that her heroines had ‘self-dependent intellects’, an insult not exactly in current usage. But far from lying down under what became a stream of abuse, Charlotte often gave as good as she got, whether in writing a new preface to Jane Eyre to take on her critics or sending notes to reviewers.

Correspondingly, Mrs Gaskell’s portrait of a shrinking creature was revealed as deliberately misleading (albeit with the worthy motive of making her friend’s genius respectable and thus acceptable). Since Gordon’s book builds on this new perceptual framework, it is a little surprising to read that Mrs Gaskell’s portrait of ‘loss and grief has ‘remained the usual perspective’. What is new and interesting in this book, which is frequently brilliant and insightful and always perceptive in its discussion of the texts themselves, is Gordon’s view of Charlotte as a secret subversive who paid lip service to everything male, but who carried on a covert existence of her own. Taking the image from the adjective most constantly used to describe Lucy Snowe in Villette, Gordon calls this the ‘shadowlife’, the invisible space Charlotte retreated to and was strengthened by in a society which refused to recognise most female emotion. It is the truth of that interior life which most interests her. Gordon thinks it was best revealed in the letters to Charlotte’s radical feminist friend Mary Taylor, which the latter burnt. Thus Gordon believes that Charlotte’s well-known submissive reply to the poet Southey, who told her that ‘literature could not be the business of a woman’s life’, was actually an exercise in controlled sarcasm. Far from it being Mrs Gaskell who disguised her, Charlotte never really allowed herself to be known. Most interestingly, Gordon postulates that one of the reasons Charlotte’s poetry is so famously poor is that she is rather cursorily trying on male forms, ‘dripping the obligatory poetic tear’, while it was in her journals and letters that the defiant, authentic voice of the astonishing novels grew.

Gordon emphasises the crucial role of her French professor. She believes that without his encouragement Charlotte would never have pursued the psychologically complex early heroines who are the prototypes of Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe. I think it is probably true that the gifted teaching of a man who was middle-class, religious and clever wrought a decisive shift away from the Byronic material which had previously excited her.

It reinforced her sense of self, so that she dared to shift the focus from the drawing room to the ‘lone consciousness’ of the governess, whose existence was unseen, and, as Gordon emphasises, until Charlotte Brontë, unheard. Nonetheless there is no evidence that Monsieur Heger encouraged Charlotte Brontë to be a writer; in fact the documentary evidence is rather the reverse.

Moreover, too many of Charlotte’s letters when young hark to the theme of becoming a writer – the professional qualities necessary, her views on writers, how to get published, the soliciting of the views of the great (in which she was so keenly supported by Branwell) – for it to be believable that without Heger and the sense of him as an invisible audience she really would have, as Gordon puts it,’ [collapsed] into that silent womanhood that existed only to serve Papa’. Gordon is convincing when she shows that the dependence of early nineteenth-century women on men was a simple fact, because of their lack of education, and not to be despised as self-abasement by the standards of our liberated age. But she seems to me to grant Charlotte Brontë less than her due when she insists on Heger’s Pygmalion qualities as the teacher who would rescue Charlotte ‘from “unknowability” by sharing some of the fruits of his advantage’.

It is Gordon’s intention to open up the gaps in the life ‘where the facts vanish’ with the help of Charlotte Brontë’s autobiographical fictions which speak to specific men in a direct manner denied to Victorian women. But fictions, however autobiographical, are well known to be a treacherous area for biography. Surely M Paul Emanuel is a version of Heger, created ten years after Charlotte knew him. It is only through the transforming power of Charlotte’s imagination that Heger becomes the perceptive man who can penetrate Lucy’s disguise to see her audacious character. In reality Heger seems to have been rather a small-time flirt who slightly abused his position of authority over his female pupils.

While Lucy Snowe is a paradigm of the sort of nightmarish suppression the intelligent nineteenth-century woman had to live with, Charlotte herself was not Lucy Snowe. Her dealings with her male publisher make it clear that her own dependency on men could quite easily be shucked off. When they begged her to make her expressions more genteel and to be less controversial in the mocking description of the clergy which opens Shirley, their views were almost entirely ignored. Whatever else happened to her, she said, ‘I must have my own way in the matter of writing,’ and that remained her position.

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