If there’s one skill an English degree equips you with, it’s the ability to devour even the fattest novels in the hours between bed, the student union bar and your next seminar. But despite my ability to read fast, it took me six months to read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography on Charlotte Brontë. I reached a point, around 400 pages in, just as Anne Brontë breathed her last in Scarborough, when I had to take a break from the relentless gloom of this family’s life. Anne was the sixth Brontë to die within these pages and her death left Charlotte with only her morose father for company in their parsonage in the middle of a graveyard.
My spirit broke along with Charlotte’s. But while Charlotte valiantly rallied herself to write her final masterpiece, Villette, I put Gaskell’s biography down until I felt ready to face the grieving Charlotte and the Yorkshire moors again.
What a terrible life those girls led, constantly sick with a succession of Victorian diseases, cooped up in a pokey vicarage with the dead rotting away under the flagstone floors, embroidering themselves blind (the Brontës, not the dead). No wonder the moors held such an allure for them, what freedom it must have been to stride out across the open countryside and to feel the power of nature. Hooray for the NHS, a good diet and feminism.
There were chinks of light in the darkness; the success of her novels (under the pseudonym Currer Bell) meant Charlotte was the toast of London literary society for a time; she even got to travel to the capital and hang out with her hero Thackeray. She also got to chum up with Elizabeth Gaskell who may not have been a big bag of fun, but was certainly a loyal and generous friend to Charlotte.
Although, there is some debate about Mrs Gaskell’s motives in her account of Charlotte and her family. It’s widely believed that she tweaked Charlotte’s story and character to suit her own view; the figure in Gaskell’s account is often a mousy, fearful sprite, whereas it’s thought that the Jane Eyre author was feistier, more passionate, less pious than the one portrayed in the pages of this book. Noticeable by its absence is Charlotte’s unrequited love for a Belgium professor during her time as a governess in Brussels, an episode that was the inspiration for Villette. But this was the Victorian era, when ladies worried about the propriety of any kind of fun. As a woman with one-eye on God, Charlotte would no doubt rather her prof-crush wasn’t the subject of posthumous tittle-tattle.
But I thought I caught enough of a glimpse of Charlotte’s voice and her formidably strong and intelligent mind to make this account well worth reading if you’re a fan of Charlotte’s novels. This woman had a lot of shit thrown at her, but she never whined, you could feel her loneliness in the letters she wrote, but she never allowed herself to wallow.
When I finally went back to the last few hundred pages of Charlotte Brontë: A Life I polished it off in no time, my intrigue newly fire-up by the now lonesome figure of Charlotte and the progress of what would be her last novel, Villette. I enjoyed Charlotte’s bemusement at the excitement the figure of Monsieur Paul Emanuel created in her the book. He quite got those Victorian ladies’ bloomers in a twist. One of Charlotte’s friends told the author that her ideal man was no longer Jane Austen’s Mr Knightley, but Monsieur Emanuel. I love this 19th century fan-girling; Colin Firth and his wet shirt didn’t invent literary lust. Although, I’m reading Villette now and struggling to see the attraction, he takes brooding to corners Darcy would never dare go.
Like a walk on a muddy moor Gaskell’s account of the Charlotte is slow and sometimes difficult, but it’s invigorating and illuminating in its portrayal of a woman who produced some of literature’s most enduring characters.
by Suzanne Elliott