Charlotte Bronte

Gaskell’s Brontë, a Controversial Piece of Hero Worship

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.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë - Elizabeth Gaskell.jpg

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.

A Brontë Reader at a Great Price

Charlotte and Emily Brontë - The Complete Novels

I’m a sucker for pretty editions of books I love.  We’ve talked abut that before.  But perhaps what hasn’t been that clear is that the editions don’t necessarily have to break the bank.

For example, Barnes & Noble has a whole raft of beautiful editions of classics available for excellent prices and which are often displayed at the very front of the store.  So there’s no real reason other than the sentimental to hang onto your battered paperback copies of the Foundation trilogy, for example.

The book pictured above, the complete novels of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, is another good bet.  Not only is it very pretty but it also saves valuable shelf space compared to having the individual tomes.  It holds the usual suspects: Jayne Eyre, Wuthering Heights and the less-known Charlotte works, Shirley, Villette and The Professor.

As I am already quite familiar with the first two, my focus was on the less famous novels.  I’ve seen many people cite one or another of the three as the best of Charlotte’s output but…

Shirley is all right, I suppose.  An interesting novel in the Middlemarch vein (and here’s what I said about Middlemarch) but with none of the interesting gothic elements that make Jayne Eyre such an enduring work.  It almost makes me think that those who prefer Shirley are like those hipsters who listen to obscure music just to prove that they are different and, in consequence, somehow better than you.

The Villette / The Professor twins are minor work in comparison.  I’m glad to have read them, but they will never join the conversation.

Having revisited the Charlotte and Emily work, I will fall prey to my own argument above about obscurity.  I truly believe that Anne should be celebrated at the same level.

But I suppose that particular battle is long lost.  And perhaps its fair.  While Anne’s writing may be better, the crazy lady locked in the tower and Heathcliff are both more memorable than anything Anne ever did… and perhaps that’s what swings the balance.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a comic fantasy set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.  

Acton Bell was the Best of them

It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Acton Bell.  After all, this was a writer overshadowed by better-known siblings Currer Bell and Ellis Bell.

What?  You haven’t heard of them either?

Ah, you must not be a collector of first editions or a student of literary history.  You see Currer Bell published a novel entitled Jane Eyre, while Ellis was responsible for a tome entitled Wuthering Heights.

first edition tenant of wildfell hall

Yes, they were.  Google the first editions if you don’t believe me.

All right.  In their era, it was difficult to get published, so the Brontë sisters sold their work under male pseudonyms, Ellis, Acton and Currer being the sobriquets chosen by Emily, Anne and Charlotte.  But while even the most casual readers are familiar with the work of Emily and Charlotte–either via the written word or the countless TV and film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (or, for absolute bizarreness, the music video of the latter)–very few have been exposed to Anne’s work.

There is a reason for that.  Charlotte, who was the only one who didn’t die terribly young, kept Anne’s novels from being reprinted after her death (she is also rumored to have burned a manuscript of a second novel by Emily).  So while Charlotte’s work was becoming ever more well known, Annes languished, only beginning to get critical recognition much later, with the early feminist movement.

Political use of her work aside, it’s a true pity that Anne seems to be the forgotten sister (brother Branwell, by all accounts, squandered any talent he might have had due to a dissipated lifestyle).  Judging simply by her writing, she seems to have been, by far, the best of the three.

Yes, I know. That’s supposed to be Emily, the firebrand whose prose scars you as you read.

Yes, it’s true that Emily’s writing, and her characters are both more memorable than Charlotte’s.  They are tortured, egoistic souls stymied by their preferences and circumstances and as melodramatic as it is possible to be.  Definitely better than Charlotte’s stultifying boredom (yes, I know there was a madwoman in a tower.  Still boring)…

Anne Brontë by Branwell Brontë

But Anne, as a novelist, took more risks than Charlotte, and wrote a clearer, better-paced story than Emily.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the best of the Brontë novels.  If you don’t believe me, that’s because you haven’t read it.  It contains sympathetic protagonists who defy the conventions of their time enough that they feel almost modern, and the story is about the way they struggle against those conventions and the consequences of rebellion.  Also, it has an antagonist who deserves to be despised.

Though the novel’s re-acceptance into 19th century canon is cause for rejoicing, it’s a bit unfair that it’s been tarred with the “early feminist novel” brush.  That alone will keep many people from approaching this book–anyone familiar with the writing of Kate Chopin will have learned their lesson: writing that only survives because of a political push is always terrible, even if the politics are sound.  It’s a pity that this should be so because Anne’s novel is actually good literature, despite the anger that might or might not have informed some of its more memorable scenes.

Yes, the very act of writing and publishing this book was a feminist act (as was that of Wuthering Heights, which is just about the most un-feminist book I can think of), and yes, when Anne’s protagonist leaves her husband, it was the first time something like that had happened in a major English novel.

But there are more important things going on in this book, and the political significance, whether contemporary or post-mortem, was given to it by others.  It’s really just a book about characters dealing with their world as best they can.  And it excels in that light.

So go to your library and ask them for something by Acton Bell.  Hopefully, a librarian should know what you mean… if not, send them here!