Book Review: The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Elizabeth Gaskell

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

 

Book Review: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I’ve never embraced the Brontës in the way I have Jane Austen (and, yes, I agree they shouldn’t always be played off against each other – although surely Charlotte B started it?).

I had three stuttering starts with Jane Eyre before I could move on past St Helen of TB’s death, although once I broke free of Lowood School along with Jane I grew to love it. And Withering, sorry, Wuthering Heights? Two self-indulgent people squabble for years until one of them dies and then it’s all “it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home” and the whole time I’m thinking “but that man is a bully and a dog killer. I’d stop banging on that window if I were you, love”.

But despite my less than enthusiastic embracing of the Brontë canon, I’m still seduced by the romanticism of the family’s legend. In particular, I’ve long been intrigued by the “forgotten” Brontë sister Anne, the youngest, who is perhaps more critically acclaimed for her poetry than her two novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been on my to-read pile for ages; I couldn’t resist the idea of a book about a lady living alone in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere whose presence causes much tongue-wagging amongst her bored neighbours.

Often held up as the first feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen Huntington, a young bride forced to flee her drunk, adulterous, bullying husband for the sake of her son and her sanity. She attempts to do the unthinkable at the time, to leave him and live a new life where she would support herself (in this case, selling her paintings).

At the time it wasn’t just Helen Huntington’s fictional neighbours that were scandalised. Anne Brontë’s tale of one woman’s fight to break free from martial brutality caused such a stir on its publication in 1848 – under the pseudonym Acton Bell – that Anne was compelled to write a prelude to the second edition defending the author’s right to write about subjects of interest to both men and *gasp* women. She also made no secret of the novel being a lesson to young women, writing: “…if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.”

No one had ever confronted the very real issues of abusive marriages in print before. Back in the 19th century women just didn’t leave their husbands and certainly didn’t take any children with them – they remained the property of the men even if they were wine-sloshed tyrants. Women’s lives were simply not their own to do as they wished with, they were playthings for men, their feelings as inconsequential as that of an animal (less so in some cases – Victorian men seem inordinately fond of their horses and dogs).

Women stayed at home embroidering and gossiping until they were married off, where they continued to embroider and gossip although they now had to keep house and have children. If they were lucky, marriage would bring them security, if not happiness, but too often the unequal partnership between men and women would lead to a life of strife and misery as Helen Huntington finds to her cost after falling for the charms of the Bryonic, and at times, Bertie Wooster-ish, Arthur Huntington.

The novel, while not in the same league as her sister Charlotte’s (and okay, then, Emily’s) genius, is a gripping and fascinating tale badly let down by the clumsy narrative device Anne – against the wishes of her publisher – chose to tell the tale. We come to know of Helen’s plight firstly through the laboriously detailed letters that the novel’s ‘hero’ Gilbert Markham writes to his brother-in-law (who I couldn’t help imaging rolling his eyes as another great wad drops through the letterbox). Gilbert’s first person letters bookend the novel, but the chunk of the tale is told through Helen’s journal that she, in a desperate but odd act, throws out of the window to the love-sick Gilbert who then transcribes (yes, really) the whole thing to his long-suffering BIL in another series of letters.

The novel also suffers from Helen being a hard-to-love heroine. She’s feisty and determined – think Jane Eyre crossed with North and South’s Margaret Hale, complete with all the piousness that that pairing invokes – but, unlike these two, she’s chippy and charmless. And Gilbert? What a pompous oaf. I found Mr Hargrave a far more endearing proposition. Anne’s writing, if anything, is more reminiscent of Jane Austen than the starker, bleaker writings of her sisters, although she has none of the Pride and Prejudice writer’s wit or her satirical eye. Anne is more straightforward, she doesn’t hide behind the reality of life for some married women in a Mr-Collins-and-Charlotte kind of way and has no time for literary frills.

Despite the bad plot structure and the unlovable leads, I found the Tenant of Wildfell Hall a fascinating and moving novel. I always find it tempting to look back at the past and believe that women just accepted their lot, that they assumed society was nicely arranged as God wanted it to be. But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall opened by eyes to the fact that there were women who wanted – needed – change – and Anne and her Helen – in their own way – went some way to help put that change in motion.

by Suzanne Elliott