When Elizabeth Gaskell was announced as the winner of the Classics Circuit, I saw the opportunity to finally read The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre is my favorite book and Charlotte Bronte- actually the whole Bronte clan- is fascinating a person. However, I felt I didn't really know much about her except for bits and pieces.
The Life of Charlotte Bronte is written as much by Charlotte as it is by Gaskell. Much of her life is told in her own words through her letters to friends. It's actually quite heavy on the letters. I had to take frequent breaks from the book since I found it was hard to read letter after letter. Still, reading her own words is a something I appreciate. It gave me a view of her I never had before, both the good and bad.
Gaskell had plenty of source material to work from for the biography. To Ellen Nussey alone, Charlotte wrote over 500 letters. Gaskell could pick and choose what or what not to include. While I found she covered much of her life, I couldn't help but feel that much was left out. Her marriage to Arthur Nicholls mystifies me. She turned down three marriage proposals and says many times that she is content to be single. Yet, in her late 30's she agrees to marry her father's curate. None of her letters about him are glowing with love. She's very quiet about the whole thing. Gaskell herself is the one who says they were happy. I felt there was much missing from this part of her life.
As a biographer, Gaskell has a few disadvantages. First, she was a friend of Charlotte. This may seem like an advantage since she knew the woman and have first hand account of her. But, in fact, Gaskell has a conflict of interest. She has a loyalty to her friend, even though she had died. After reading The Life of Charlotte Bronte, I read the introduction by May Sinclair. It seems that Gaskell left out some embarrassing facts about her, like her crush on her married professor, M Heger.
Gaskell is also a novelist and as May Sinclair says in the introduction of novelists writing factual accounts:
"His imagination, that only knows itself as creative, has to become passive. There are moments when he must repress it entirely in the interests of truth. And yet there is the impossibility of keeping imagination altogether out of it."She does get carried away at a few points and turns to down right editorializing when it comes to the fall of Branwell. He was Charlotte's brother, an opium addict, who nearly ruined the family with his debts before he died. Gaskell lays much of the blame at the feet of his married lover. She demonizes the woman when it's obvious that Branwell was no angel to begin with.
Still, Gaskell provides a vivid picture of Charlotte. She's fiercely loyal to her family and friends. After the deaths of her two elder sisters as children, she takes the place of eldest sister to her motherless siblings. She clucks over them all like a mother hen. She was never separated from them for long until their deaths. The hardest letters to read are the ones during and after the deaths of Emily and Anne. They are heartbreaking letters. Within a year, Charlotte lost all her remaining 3 siblings.
After their deaths, Charlotte felt the responsibility of caring for her father alone. He didn't seem like the easiest person to care for and his failing eyesight didn't help matters. He required a lot of care. Even success as a writer didn't free her from this task, as Gaskell points out:
"a woman's principle work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents ever bestowed."I'm sure many women today have similar feelings. No matter what career she has, there are always matters at home to take care of and it seems to always fall on the woman.
All through Charlotte's life, she suffered from nervous disorders. If she were alive today, she'd be on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications! I think much of this stems from her father's odd child rearing beliefs. The children were so lonely and isolated that by the time they went to school they were painfully awkward and shy. Charlotte was never comfortable in social situations and understandably this became worse after her last sisters' deaths. Her letters are riddled with references to her headaches and declining health. Was this real or imagined sickness?
After her marriage, Charlotte became pregnant and what little good health she had quickly deteriorated. She became violently ill with morning sickness (which for many women is 'all day sickness') and died either from the effects of it or pneumonia.
It's clear that Gaskell admired Charlotte Bronte as a person and a writer. She gives her praise and often there is a defensive tone in her writing. You wouldn't want to cross her. Glimpses of her own personality show through even though this is about her friend. This is my first Elizabeth Gaskell and I'm not sure if it's the right place to start but if you are a Bronte fan, I highly recommend it.
My thanks to the Classics Circuit for the opportunity to review The Life of Charlotte Bronte and my local library for the book.
This is also a great choice for the All About the Brontes Challenge and the Women Unbound Challenge.