Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived
Since their own day, which misprized Emily, the Brontës have been installed in the literary constellation in fixed relation: Emily with her colossal masterpiece, and with the moral advantages of a solitary nature and an early death, has been set far above not only the sad Anne and Branwell but also the more heroic Charlotte, whose unlucky combination of passion and candor exposed her to the strictures of her contemporaries—for being coarse and preoccupied with sex—and whose confessions of timidity and more prosaic needs for company and usefulness have qualified the regard of posterity.
A Victorian woman whose cheeks were said to owe more to art than to nature was not approved of, and the same seems to apply to the books of women, then and, it sometimes seems, now too. Part of the respect in which Emily is held depends on an impression of her “natural” genius; but art, too easily associated with policy and craft, has not been held to be an entirely attractive accomplishment for a female, and so the undoubted artfulness of Charlotte Brontë’s last two novels has been overlooked, or perhaps even held against her.
Jane Eyre is still acknowledged to be a good read, especially for adolescent girls—exactly the class of person it was kept from in its own day—but Shirley and Villette are seldom read by anybody but literary critics, the tradition being that they were a falling off, devoid of the naïve power, the thrilling excesses, the blood and artless self-revelation of her first published book, and disappointingly lacking in the rather stunning symbols suggesting female sexuality—madwomen and raging fires, bolts of lightning blasting phallic trees—whose meaning was sensed, delightedly if disapprovingly, by the Victorians and described at length by modern criticism.
But biographical and critical rescue has been coming Charlotte’s way in platoons lately, with Helene Moglen’s book the most recent, and a quite helpful, contribution, first as a kind of new broom to sweep away some encrusted biographical clichés, second because of its ambitious and for the most part plausible analysis of the development of Charlotte’s personality in relation to her work, and finally by giving convincing readings of the widely neglected Shirley and Villette. Restored to respectability together with Jane Eyre, these and The Professor make the sum of four good books—about as many as most major Victorian novelists wrote.
Literary biography usually concerns itself with how an artist’s life and personality influence his work, and usually fails to engage the problem of how the writer’s work affects the growth of his personality. A new work may change an artist’s life in some apparent way—may make him rich, or bitter, or exhausted—but by the time it comes into existence it has already altered his consciousness. This is a mysterious process, and to account for it convincingly has conspicuously defeated scholarship much of the time, with the circular relation of books and life, books …