Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life
The Letters of Charlotte Brontë
On Sundays and holidays buses and cars back up along the steeply inclined main street with its cobbles set long ago to catch the slipping hooves of horses, for Haworth is England’s most visited tourist shrine after Stratford. The Black Bull, where Branwell drank himself sodden, now has a Brontë Room, and nearby shops sell Brontë T-shirts. In the church where they are all—except Anne—buried in the family vault, there is a Brontë chapel and an American window donated by American Brontë worshipers. In the parsonage museum are Charlotte’s tiny shoes, the brass collar of Emily’s dog, Keeper. But the pilgrim who wanders off to locate the waterfall to which Charlotte went for her last rustic walk arrives too quickly by a paved road. The moors are hardly so grandly empty, so given over to sky and heath, as one expects from Wuthering Heights.
In fact, they never were. As Charlotte herself observed in her introduction to Emily’s poems, “the scenery of these hills is not grand—it is not romantic; it is scarcely striking. Long, low moors—with dark heath, shut in little valleys, where a stream waters, here and there, a fringe of stunted copse. Mills and scattered cottages chase romance from these valleys.” Even in the mid-nineteenth century the smokestacks of nearby factories could be seen. Haworth was less than four miles from bustling Keighley on the railroad line. It lay on a main road between Yorkshire and Lancashire and experienced all the disturbances of a region, the West Riding, bound up with the new industrial economy.
When the continental embargo hit the woolen trades and new machinery was introduced, precipitating the Luddite riots, the Reverend Patrick Brontë acquired a habit of carrying a loaded pistol. In his children’s time, the Chartists gathered thousands of angry unemployed on the moors. Yet the Haworth visitor seeking romance imagines the famous siblings—Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell—to have sprung out of the ground of nature like the purple heather, persons who had no connection with the rest of English society in a turbulent period. The first book about them, Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte, promoted this view.
Gaskell’s portrait of Charlotte was also at variance with the subversive spirit Matthew Arnold discerned, with distaste, in the depths of her fiction—full of “hunger, rebellion and rage.” The biographer had been determined to depict an irreproachably proper woman incapable of unladylike feelings or dangerous views. She had been aided in this effort by her chief source of information and interpretation, Ellen Nussey, a lifelong friend to whom Charlotte wrote a vast number of letters which reflected the conventional character of the person addressed and showed only a part of the writer. Charlotte probably opened other sides of herself to some whose letters were not available—like Mary Taylor, far away in New Zealand, who had become an active feminist, had started her own business, and would write a feminist novel. But even where Gaskell glimpsed another Charlotte she felt compelled to suppress her knowledge. She saw letters written to Constantin Heger, the teacher in Brussels with whom Charlotte had been in love, but hardly used them significantly; they remained unknown until the Heger family gave four to the British Museum in 1913.
Gaskell’s biography, the work of a writer who was herself a skilled novelist, was included as a volume in the standard edition of Brontë writings repeatedly reprinted between 1873 and 1930—as though it was another novel by another Brontë sister. Its influence has been persistent. Correcting many errors and omissions at last, even Winifred Gérin’s able and detailed Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius (1967) did not discard its viewpoint. New interpretations have arrived mostly as the result of the effort by feminist critics to place the three sisters in a tradition of female writing. Margot Peters, Helene Moglen, and Rebecca Fraser have discovered Charlotte to be a martyr of patriarchy. Lyndall Gordon now insists that Charlotte was not a martyr but a female warrior who rejected the model of submission, hiding her real self beneath an appearance of conformity—a view she supports by drawing intelligently on Charlotte’s novels. Unfortunately, she also resorts, like Gaskell, to the weak notion that the spacious moors had much to do with her subject’s free nature. Juliet Barker brings in, more than others have, the larger world that impinged on the Brontës’ lives—the changing England when old divisions of class and gender were under pressure.
We can now see, I believe, that the seven Brontë novels—one by Emily, two by Anne, four by Charlotte—all try to suggest new conceptions of women, their inner life, and their relation to society. Jane Eyre challenges Rochester: “I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart!…I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit”—a demand for freedom from old categories that may sound merely romantic but is social and political. Romantic, it is true, the Brontës were. A dream world haunted their imaginations, born of their readings of Romantic poetry, especially Byron. Their earliest literary efforts were adventure tales of heroism and perfidy and love, not unlike the comic book or film make-believes that entertain children today except that these children wrote them for themselves. But their mature fiction, even the metaphysical Wuthering Heights, subjects myth to the test of social reality.
Their own lives were certainly not so romantic—or pathetic—as many of their admirers have supposed. If none of Patrick’s six children reached the age of forty, his bereavements were no worse than those of his parishioners, whose lives ended, on the average, at twenty-five. The brutal regime at the Evangelical boarding school, at Cowan Bridge, from which Charlotte’s two older sisters came home to die at eleven and ten, seems monstrous as described in Jane Eyre. But such conditions were common. After Cowan Bridge, the surviving sisters and their brother were well educated at home for five happy years by their father and aunt, and by themselves, and wrote their stories and poems for one another. When the sisters went back to school it was to Roe Head, a better place.
Soon, they were old enough to face the fact that if Patrick died, or if he was forced to retire since his sight was failing, they would be without support or their parsonage home. Their insecurity was much like that of thousands of middle-class families dependent on businesses that foundered in the Thirties and “hungry Forties.” What would Branwell do? It was a time when many young men felt there was not future that could be counted on—even if one were more prepared to come to the family’s rescue than Patrick Brontë’s only son.
Branwell’s absolute failure contrasts with his father’s ambitious rise. Born Prunty, in a two-room cabin, Patrick had shed his peasant Irishness to rename himself after his English hero, Nelson, the “Duke of Bronti.” He was a schoolmaster at sixteen, worked as a tutor in the family of a leading Evangelical, entered Cambridge on a scholarship to serve in the Anglican Church. He published three volumes of religious poetry, two pietistic tales, and a novella dealing with contemporary religious and political issues, though they failed to bring him fame. Mrs. Gaskell—influenced by Ellen Nussey’s rivalrous hostility—underestimated him, believing gossip that he was given to mad antics like tearing up his wife’s silk dresses, sawing off the backs of chairs, and firing his pistol in the air for amusement. Lyndall Gordon tends to give credence to Gaskell’s portrait of a political conservative as well as a domestic tyrant, but Barker reminds us that he was Evangelical within the established church, a campaigner for liberal causes though a Tory. He advocated Catholic emancipation, electoral reform, and the limiting of child labor, and opposed the changes in the Poor Law forcing Yorkshire workers to choose, as Dickens said, between starving slowly in the Poor House or more quickly outside.
His son might have have gone to a university; Patrick coached him in Greek and Latin. But Branwell had no desire to be a clergyman. He vainly sent his poems to Blackwood’s, and to Wordsworth, who did not reply—though a few appeared in Yorkshire newspapers. He studied with a pupil of Thomas Lawrence and set up without success as a portrait painter. He tried politics, campaigning for the Tories, and was carried in effigy down Haworth’s main street. Commerce held no promise; he worked as a railroad clerk until dismissed with bad marks for efficiency, and when he applied for the secretaryship of a railway company was refused. A last resort was tutor in a well-to-do household. He was fired from the first such post—for drunkenness, it has been thought, or, as new evidence suggests, for getting either one of his employer’s daughters or a maidservant pregnant with his child. His love affair with his next employer’s wife was discovered and he was sent packing. He spent the next two years, his last, moping at home, nursing his broken heart, except for visits to the tavern or to the chemist for opium.
Branwell’s family felt, Charlotte said, what it meant to watch “the sickness of hope deferred, the dismay of prayer baffled, to experience despair at last; and now to behold the sudden early obscure close of what might have been a noble career.” Practically, male achievement was necessary because women could not easily support themselves. In the nineteenth century drunkenness was a disaster visited by men upon women—which is why the temperance movement was to be so often linked to the campaign for the right of women to earn their own living. Drunkenness robbed a family of the workingman’s wages, but the alcoholism of male members could ruin a middle-class family, too. The profligate Brontë brother had failed to act as the prop of his helpless sisters. Perhaps fearing for her nieces, their maiden aunt left her money to them—rather than to Branwell, her favorite.
Each of the Brontë novels, but especially Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, deals in some way with Branwell’s sad fate; Anne had witnessed his last disgrace while working as a governess in the very same household where he was a tutor. His wild nature and obsessiveness in love are in Heathcliff, and his alcoholism is Hindley Earnshaw’s in Wuthering Heights. In Jane Eyre, Rochester’s loose past forecasts his attempt to commit bigamy by marrying Jane. Charlotte saw that men could be victimized by a culture which encouraged them to pursue an ideal of manly willfulness, freedom, and sensuous self-indulgence:
Men are strange beings…I have often thought so—and I think too that the mode of bringing them up is strange, they are not half sufficiently guarded from temptation—Girls are protected as if they were something very frail and silly indeed while boys are turned loose on the world as if they—of all beings in existence, were the wisest and the least liable to be led astray.