A Comparison of Charlotte Bronte Biographies
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Over the years, there have been many biographies written about Charlotte Bronte. Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte has been regarded as the standard work. Winifred Gerin's biography, Charlotte Bronte: The Evolution of Genius (published in 1967) was the first to include new information on Bronte. Gerin says, "It is paradoxical that the standard work is still Mrs. Gaskell's Life. This remains a great biography, but published two years after its subject's death it suffered from the inevitable limitations thus imposed . . . and was not bettered by immediate followers" (xiv). Gerin felt that "the main contributions to Bronte studies in this century have been on the editorial plane" and sought to write a factual, unbiased biography (xiv). Lyndall Gordon's biography, Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, took a feminist view, which was a different view from that of all previous biographies. Each biographer was affected by the cultural views of women of the time. Since Jane Eyre is seen as a reflection of Bronte’s life, the view of Jane Eyre has also changed with the times. In her biography, Gaskell sought to hide Bronte's excess passion and blamed it on the tragedies she suffered, whereas Gerin recognized Bronte 's passion as a part of her personality that contributed to her writing, and Gordon embraced it as the most important aspect of Bronte 's life.
In June of 1855, Mrs. Gaskell received a letter from Reverend Patrick Bronte, on behalf of himself and Bronte's husband, Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, asking if she would write a biography of Charlotte Bronte. Ellen Nussey, Bronte's friend, had written to Patrick Bronte and Nicholls concerned with her friend's reputation and some speculations made by the press. Ellen Nussey demanded that these speculations be challenged. Had the Bell brothers (Charlotte, Emily and Anne's pseudonyms) been three separate people? Were they male or female? According to Gaskell, people began wondering if the "author [of Jane Eyre] forfeited the right to keep the company of respectable women" (vii) because of her coarseness ("by which Victorians meant vehemence and passion") (Gordon 347)? Ellen suggested that Gaskell, a friend of Bronte’s and an established author, write Charlotte's biography.
In writing the biography, Gaskell used her own notes and letters describing her meetings with Charlotte Bronte. Patrick Bronte provided a skeleton biographical outline (not always accurate in detail) of himself and his family (Gaskell xiii).
Gaskell traveled to Hayworth and Cowan Bridge, to Casterton (where the clergy daughter's school located) to Thorton (where Bronte was born), to London to see George Smith and to Brussels to meet Constantin Heger. She spoke to those who had known Bronte and relied heavily on letters Bronte had written to Ellen Nussey, which Ellen had saved (Gaskell xv).
Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte was published in 1857. Gaskell then spent some time in Italy and upon her return "found a heap of correspondence waiting for her" most of which were "attacks on grounds of misrepresentation" (Gaskell x). She then wrote a revised edition, which was later revised again and expanded (x).
Through the biography Gaskell sought to repudiate charges of "coarseness" (brought on by Bronte's bold, passionate writing) by showing that "It was not Bronte's nature but her environment that made her wild" (ix). Gaskell felt that Charlotte's life "was but labour and pain" (457). She attempted to protect her friend by removing all reference to Bronte's love for M. Heger from the biography. Due to the fact that the biography was published only two years after Bronte's death, Gaskell had to omit information that could have damaged the reputations of people who were still living.
Gaskell's perspective of Bronte's life is one of loss and grief. To this, she attributes the aspects of Bronte's writing and personality that were unacceptable at the time. She writes:
Miss Bronte never dared to allow herself to look forward with hope; she had no confidence in the future; and I thought, when I heard of the sorrowful years she had passed through, that it had been this pressure of grief which had crushed all buoyancy of expectation out of her. (94)
This perspective of Bronte also applies to Jane Eyre. After reading Gaskell's biography, one can see how autobiographical aspects of Bronte's life emerge in Jane Eyre. For example, Charlotte Bronte attended Cowan Bridge as a child, a school for the clergy’s daughters, which is represented as "Lowood" and her sister Maria is represented as the character "Helen Burns" (Gaskell 51). It is important to remember that Gaskell was writing for a different time, when women were to be seen and not heard. Bronte's bold behavior was not normal and could only be explained by the misery Bronte endured. Taking this into consideration, one can see Gaskell's view of Bronte's life reflected in Jane: her passion a result of her suffering.
Winifred Gerin's biography, Charlotte Bronte: Evolution of a Genius, was published in 1967. She used a variety of sources in writing the biography including Bronte's juvenile writings (preserved in manuscript only), and Bronte's letters. Gerin researched the personalities and backgrounds of Bronte's known acquaintances and visited sights from Bronte's life (from Thorton, to Cowan Bridge, to the home in Ireland where she stayed on her honeymoon) (Gerin xv). Gerin received information on Charlotte Bronte's experience in Belgium first hand from the Heger family. All of this was published for the first time in her biography.
Gerin focused on Bronte's "evolution towards fulfillment" (xv). Gerin viewed Bronte’s grief as an essential part of her character. Gerin revealed the passion that Bronte had felt for M. Heger, which was something Gaskell had not done. Gerin also saw the importance of Bronte's childhood writings and felt that they traced Bronte's development as a writer. She felt that they were the "key to her mature productions" and spent a great deal of time analyzing them (xv).
Gerin's biography recognized how the events in Bronte's life shaped her character. She recognized that Bronte's love for M. Heger was an important factor in her life and included it in her book. She was as concerned as Gaskell with defending Bronte, rather with presenting facts, and thus she did not omit things or modify them as Gaskell did. One hundred years later, women are viewed differently. What was once considered coarse, is no longer so. Gerin was able to present Bronte's life as it was.
In Jane Eyre one is able to recognize the passion that Jane felt as a reflection of Bronte. To Gaskell, Bronte’s bold and passionate behavior was to be hidden or explained away as an effect of the grief she suffered. To Gerin, it was to be recognized as part of Bronte's character and part of her writing. Jane reveals her passion on many occasions in the novel. Jane delivers a powerful speech to Mrs. Reed, in which she says, "the very thought of you makes me sick" (30; ch. 4). Mrs. Reed is quick to recognize Jane's spirit as "passionate" (30; ch. 4). Jane expresses the passion she feels for Rochester after he asks her to marry him: "I thought only of the bliss given me to drink in so abundant a flow" (242). Jane's passion is a part of her just as was a part of Bronte.
The most recent biography of Charlotte Bronte is Lyndall Gordon's Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, published in 1994. The book received much praise upon its publication. According to The New Yorker, "Gordon's insights into the correspondence and the fiction uncover a more complex Bronte than we have ever met." Gordan, like Gerin, relied on Bronte's letters, unpublished manuscripts, last unfinished novel, as well as her "Roe Head Journal." She took, however, a different view than previous biographers. Gordon looked at Bronte from a feminist standpoint. According to N. John Hall, writing in the New York Times Book Review, her "feminism gracefully and convincingly informs her readings." Gordon saw Bronte not as a victim of loss and grief, but as a woman before her time: "A determinedly professional writer who was impatient, sarcastic, strong in spirit, with an unquenchable fire" (4). Bronte was forced to hide her true self under the shadow of her public image. However, what emerged in her writings was unacceptable for a Victorian woman. Gaskell, in her attempt to protect her friend's reputation, tried to portray her as if she were like other women of the time by saying that she "Sorrowed, trembled, shrank" (Gordon 4). But according to Gordon, she was not like other women of the time. She was "articulate, daring and full of purpose" (4).
Gaskell was aware of the Victorian ideal for women and herself and "deplored an occasional coarseness in the novels" (Gordon 23). Gaskell therefore presented "a life of desolation" and "the pathos of overwhelming grief" as an excuse for Bronte's excess passion (Gordon 23). Gordon, however, embraced Charlotte's passion and saw her as a "fiery survivor" (23). Her biography shows in Bronte "the strength that turned loss to gain" a quality that was certainly unbecoming of a Victorian woman, but regarded highly by today's standards (4). The strength that Gordon found in Bronte can also be found in Jane, because Jane endured many of the same hardships as Bronte: the loss of Helen Burns, and suffering at Lowood.
Bronte wanted to be taken seriously and respected as an author. This was difficult for a woman of her times to achieve. Gordon writes, "Nowhere in the juvenilia did Charlotte adopt the voice of a woman: she identified with the power of men, and their privilege of public expression" (30). Since she was not equal to men in Victorian society, "She assumed equality through the male voice" (Gordon 30). Jane, too, seeks equality. She will not marry St. John Rivers because she knows he will not treat her as an equal
But as his wife--at his side always, and always restrained, and always checked--forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry, through the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital--this would be unendurable. (89; ch. 34)
With Rochester, however, Jane is equal: "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh" (431; ch. 38). Since Charlotte could not find equality in her life, she found it in her characters.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London, Penguin Books Ltd.: 1996. (Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Mason).
Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
Gerin, Winifred. Charlotte Bronte: Evolution of Genius. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.