Read an Excerpt
From Anne Taranto’s Introduction to The Life of Charlotte Brontë
Gaskell, a friend of Bront?’s and a famous novelist in her own right, undertook the biography project only months after Bront?’s death in 1855 at the urging of Bront?’s father the Reverend Patrick Bront?. Because Bront? was a celebrity, her death generated a lot of attention, most of it unwelcome to those who knew her personally. Bront?’s oldest and closest friend, Ellen Nussey, who was especially troubled by the tabloid stories that were appearing, induced Charlotte’s father to commission a definitive account of his daughter’s life to counter the sensationalistic reports then circulating in the press. Patrick faced opposition from Bront?’s husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who did not like how “the public snatched at every gossiping account” of his wife’s life, and who wanted to keep her memory private. Patrick, who saw the project as a means of controlling Bront?’s literary legacy, prevailed. “No quailing, Mrs. Gaskell!” Patrick directed, “no drawing back!” (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 257; see “For Further Reading”).
Gaskell was herself a member of the hungry public at one time. She wanted desperately to find out who had written the literary sensation Jane Eyre (1847). By the time Shirley (1849) was published, Gaskell believed she had penetrated at least half of the mystery: “Currer Bell [Bront?’s pen name] (aha! what will you give me for a secret?) She’s a she—that I will tell you” (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 57). When Gaskell finally did meet Bront? in August 1850 they shared a natural affinity, but in many ways Gaskell came to know Bront? more completely through her research for the Life than she did through their friendship, which was of relatively brief duration. Gaskell and Bront? had the opportunity to meet on only five occasions, but they furthered their acquaintance through a correspondence that evidences a genuine professional and personal connection, although at heart the two women subscribed to different models of female authorship. In addition, as I discuss below, their friendship may have suffered in intimacy from Bront?’s strategically conforming to social standards when she thought it would please Gaskell.
The Life is recognized as an enduring work of the nineteenth century, and it is ranked among the greatest biographies of all time. That said, it is important to remember that Bront?’s life was written by a woman who was unsure if she liked Jane Eyre. Gaskell’s intent in writing Bront?’s life was to make the reader “honour her as a woman, separate from her character as authoress” (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 242). Most readers know that Bront? was a literary sensation in her day, but modern audiences have lost sight of how polarizing her work was. Although she self-effacingly liked to style herself “a plain country parson’s daughter,” her novels were incendiary. The aesthetic merit of Bront?’s fiction was universally acknowledged, but the political subtexts of her novels provoked consternation. Her heroines registered a generalized discontent and a self-interest that was perceived by some as threatening to the accepted social order, which held that women naturally constituted the silent, self-sacrificing moral nucleus of society, the “angel in the house.” This ideological construction was coming under scrutiny in the mid-nineteenth century, under the rubric of the “woman question.” Advocates of “female emancipation” held that certain civil rights, suffrage among them, should be extended to women on the grounds that they were capable of exercising the same rational faculty as men.
Bront? provoked those on both ends of the political spectrum. Traditionalists deemed her engagement with female desire “coarse,” or immodest, and proponents of women’s rights, who believed political gains could be achieved only by demonstrating women’s rational equality with men, found her passionate heroines unsettling for other reasons. Bront? did not weigh in on the “woman question” in a positive way, but rather protested against current conditions without outlining solutions. Critics have only recently begun to understand Bront?’s feminist agenda as psychological in impulse—an impulse to expose the intangible constraints women face as subjects of a patriarchal system. Bront? was very much aware of the institutional nature of women’s oppression, and the impact it had not simply on material issues, like economic independence, but on more fundamental yet harder to characterize concerns, such as intellectual and imaginative freedom. “Millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth,” Jane Eyre warns her reader (p. 96).
Gaskell was working from a position of ambivalence in her defense of Bront?. She confesses to the reader that she cannot deny “the existence of coarseness here and there in her works,” and “only ask[s] those who read them to consider her life,—which has been openly laid bare before them” (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell letters 25a, 517). Gaskell is often faulted for attempting to exonerate Bront? by favoring the portrait of “the friend, the daughter, the sister” over that of the professional author (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 267). Her reasoning for not including a critical discussion of Bront?’s novels in the Life, as Bront?’s father had desired, was that “public opinion had already pronounced her fiat, set her seal” upon them (The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, letter 294). Nevertheless, in writing the Life Gaskell confronts her own ambivalence about Bront?’s work, and in the process refines her ideas on women’s professional engagement generally. The work is animated by that tension, and consequently it has broader implications that transcend its purported defense of one woman.