Choosing a favorite among the three universally accepted colossi of the 19th-century female writers is supposed to be an exclusive proposition. You can only like one–Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë or Jane Austen–while being severely critical of the rest.
Of course, that only applies to superfans, the kind of personality who will force perfectly normal people to choose between Star Wars and Star Trek, or between Twilight and Harry Potter.
If forced to dance to this music, I’ll go with Austen, followed by Emily. Charlotte would be close… but third.
Even among the Brontë’s themselves, I have gone on record as preferring Anne to her more famous sisters.
Elizabeth Gaskell, were she alive, would disagree.
A famous novelist herself (North and South), Gaskell was friends with Brontë while Charlotte was still alive. She was therefore perfectly placed to write the authorized biography of the author of Jane Eyre. In fact, she was so perfect that Brontë’s father was the one who asked her to write it.
Being that close to the subject brought very many advantages–the knowledge of the people and places really brings the resulting book, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, to life. Unfortunately, it also means that Gaskell withholds important information and pulls her punches somewhat.
The basics are well covered. Gaskell’s style paints an incredible picture of the six motherless children growing up in an isolated village, and you cry with them as they lose the two eldest sisters, leaving probably the greatest concentration of literary genius every gathered under a single family’s roof in the persons of the three surviving girls (the one boy, Branwell, was never able to get it together and was basically an anchor and a source of anxiety, nothing more).
If you wrote a fictional account this poignant, no one would believe it, and you’d be laughed at.
But it’s real. One by one we watch the women of the generation drop in the clutches of tuberculosis, fortunately after producing immortal masterworks. Emily is the one felt strongest in this particular book. The personality we guess at from Wuthering Heights appears fully present here, walking the moors.
In fact, this book reinforced my thinking that, if I had a time machine, I would probably go back and give Emily a TB vaccination as an infant. I would really want to see what she, the genius of a family full of them, would have done with a little practice under her belt. She’s the one I’d save if I could only save one.
On the debit side of the ledger, the Life completely conceals the episode of Charlotte falling in love with the (married) owner of the school she studied and worked at in Belgium. That is because Gaskell had a hero worshipper’s view of Brontë. She considered Charlotte a model of Christian mores and suffering, and this view was inconsistent with any possibility of that kind of inappropriate behavior.
In fact, had it been any other life, I’d say the suffering angle was way overblown by a natural dramatist… but when your mother and siblings drop like flies out in the moorlands, I’m inclined to give Gaskell the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, some people didn’t, and despite the care to omit names, the publishers were threatened with lawsuits, most notably by the owners of the school that killed the eldest siblings through unsanitary conditions and the woman who was Branwell’s (the brother) lover, and also the wife (later widow) of one of his employers. Fortunately, the first edition went out unexpurged, and we can record her name here for posterity: Lady Lydia Robinson Scott. We do this not because we think she did anything wrong in taking a lover, but because she lawyered up when caught. Yawn.
There have been more factually accurate biographies of the Brontë’s, but I doubt there will ever be any more powerful. Gaskell could write, and the material in her hands was dramatic indeed. Recommended.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. He is fascinated by how the human mind responds in emotionally charged situations. One of his books explores this in great depth, and is, unsurprisingly entitled Love and Death. You can check it out here.