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.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.