Books

Charlotte Brontë: Cinderella or ugly sister?

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

Preparations for next year’s bicentennial celebrations of the birth of Charlotte Brontë haven’t exactly got off to a flying start. At Haworth Parsonage the Brontë Society is in disarray after Bonnie Greer, its resigning president, used one of her Jimmy Choo shoes as a gavel to try to bring the membership to order, and subsequently castigated some members as ‘malevolent lamebrains’.

Three rounds of applause then for Claire Harman’s superb retelling of Charlotte’s story, which focuses anniversary attention where it should be: on the extraordinary creativity of the three sisters who spent most of their short lives in Haworth, that strange, windswept moorland village, and whose tragic destinies possessed all the drama of the plotlines of one of their famous gothic novels. ‘Fiction,’ as G.H. Lewes wrote of the first life of Charlotte, by her friend Mrs Gaskell, ‘has nothing more wild, touching and heart-strengthening to place above it.’

The time is ripe for reassessment. It is 20 years and more since Charlotte’s last major biographers, Rebecca Fraser and Lyndall Gordon, reclaimed the eldest surviving Brontë sister as a feminist heroine, fierce in her defence not only of her art, but also of the right of women to choose independent lives of their own. In the intervening period, the publication of all Charlotte’s extant letters by Margaret Smith — truly one of the glories among modern editions of Victorian writers — has enabled Brontë scholars to dispose of the final accretions of myth, a residue of the purple-heather school of Brontë biography, and Harman has taken full advantage of this.


Her book, which is admirably concise, takes as one of its major themes the contrast between the restricted lives of the Brontës and the wide-ranging scope of their imaginations. From an early age, Charlotte, like her siblings (and their father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, before them) determined on being professional writers. Charlotte’s early tales and romances, composed, sometimes in conjunction with brother Branwell, in tiny script indecipherable to the naked eye, give an impression, as Mrs Gaskell said, of creative power carried to the verge of insanity.

Increasingly, as she grew to adulthood, Charlotte retreated into this imaginative world, or superior reality, as an escape from the harshness of life outside the parsonage — whether as a moody governess to an unsympathetic family (Harman has traced the recollections from the 1920s of one of Charlotte’s former charges, who admitted having thrown a stone at her) or as the author of the sensational Jane Eyre, quailing at any thought of literary celebrity even in the company of her hero, Thackeray.

Harman opens her account in the confessional box at Ste-Gudule, the cathedral in Brussels where Charlotte, a vehement anti-Catholic, had gone to confess her unrequited love for Constantin Heger, her ‘Master’ at the pensionnat in the rue d’Isabelle, who recognised and encouraged her genius. Harman doubts that in the end Charlotte did admit to feelings of illicit love, but she leaves us in no doubt that Charlotte’s time in Brussels was the single most important experience of her life. It is evident of course in Charlotte’s still underappreciated masterpiece Villette, in Lucy Snowe’s relationship with Paul Emanuel, and in The Professor, that novel’s prototype. Memories of Heger haunt Charlotte’s depiction of Rochester in Jane Eyre and her portrayal of the weirdly unconvincing Belgian Moore brothers in Shirley. But more arresting is Harman’s reference to an arbitrary digression in Shirley in which Charlotte viciously attacks Heger’s wife as the ‘deepest, subtlest schemer in Europe’.

If the first part of Charlotte’s life reads like the ultimate tale of a literary Cinderella, who are the villains in the story? Patrick Brontë certainly, seen here as the family’s ‘solitary egotist’, putting self-preservation above much else. Perhaps George Smith, Charlotte’s publisher, who seems never to have missed an opportunity to tell posterity about how plain and lacking in feminine charm Charlotte was (Harman has uncovered a self-portrait of Charlotte, doodled on the back of a map, in which she appears the very image of Jane Eyre staring at her reflection in the mirror). And what of Constantin Heger? Was he ever overly demonstrative towards the hypersensitive youngEnglishwoman? He undoubtedly earned her rebuke when she wrote, in Shirley, that ‘a lover feminine’ cannot seek an explanation when a man goes cold on a woman whose love he has carelessly engaged.

‘A year ago,’ Charlotte wrote after the deaths in quick succession of Branwell, Emily and Anne, ‘had a prophet warned me how I should stand… how stripped and bereaved… I should have thought — this can never be endured.’ No wonder she opted in the end for marriage to Arthur Nicholls, her father’s curate, a good, if limited, man, devoid of romance. Claire Harman misses nothing of the unbearable poignancy of Charlotte’s premature death during pregnancy. As Charlotte had written in her epitaph for Lucy Snowe: ‘The orb of your life is not to be so rounded; for you the crescent-phase must suffice.’

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033.
Mark Bostridge’s books include Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend and Vera Brittain and the First World War.

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Show comments
  • Fail Burton

    I love Jane Eyre.

    • blandings

      Austen man myself.
      Well she was real of course so I guess she can’t count, except that I have fantasy version of her in my head – she’s been there for years

      • Austen was more romantic as a writer than as a woman, I gather. Sickly in repulsive ways. Explains a lot.

        • blandings

          “Explains a lot.”
          About Austen or about me?

          • Not about you, darling. Of course you would be an Austen appreciator — all the best people are; no, I meant that Jane lacked physical charm and had limited sex appeal.

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            Hello. I think her writings were like opening a curtain to her soul.
            I understand Jane Austen modelled Elizabeth Bennett on her self.
            The sex appeal and physical charm remained in her characters
            from Lizzie to Emma and Darcy. Although never a Darcy person
            myself, preferring the darkly brooding military man Captain Wentworth– its that man in uniform thing again 🙂

            PS there was a darkness surrounding Bronte sisters, it was awfully
            strange, burning each others personal letters and fighting over their
            other writings. I’ve visited their house in Yorkshire and found it unsettling.

      • ViolinSonaten b minor.

        Austen blossomed through her writing, her wit and imagination has meant that
        the writings of a quiet rather ordinary looking girl have made her continue to flourish for generations. And I am sure she had sparkling eyes and a shy smile.

        • blandings

          Those regency dresses made even ordinary looking girls seem rather fetching and anyway, a quick wit can carry a girl a long way.

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            A redcoat and polished boots made the men look fine too. About those
            dresses, I’d hate to spoil things for you chaps, but the reasons why the
            bosom’s heaved so much wasn’t because of some handsome buck
            but because the corsets were too tight, another reason for the swooning
            unfortunately.
            Although I am sure the occasional handsome man about
            the metropolis had that affect on the ladies and a fine pair of greys, carriage and country estate, I am sure helped as well.
            And yes a quick wit can carry a girl, pity the Bronte sisters never got
            the hang of that.

          • blandings

            I carefully steered clear of bosom heaving, but seeing as you raise the subject, I can say that it definitely has an attraction all of its own.

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            No you don’t ,” rather fetching” you meant the bosoms I am sure and not the
            opulence of the dresses. Its rather odd really, it was quite normal to have
            so much cleavage on display and yet to show too much ankle or for hair to
            be dishevelled was seen to be outrageously scandalous.

          • blandings

            OK.
            You caught me bang to rights there.

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            Maybe, but for all I know you might be an ankle chap, and cleverly avoided that being noticed by sticking with the other assumption
            instead,that’d be very devious indeed.

          • blandings

            I’m far to conceited to be devious.
            PS: I’m a leg man actually – if a gal has good legs and a quick wit she can do little wrong in my eyes.

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            Or a quick pair of legs and a good wit about her when escaping some
            charming lothario, so have bare feet if possible easier to run.

          • blandings

            Why would she want to run?

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            The thrill of the chase and nothing worthwhile in life is easily
            obtainable besides he’d release some endorphins, that’s good. And
            realistically how far is she going to get with those bare feet of hers.
            A contradictory answer I know, but that’s women for you ;-D

          • blandings

            I’ve reached the stage in life when it might be more sensible for her to chase me – at least she would catch me (even in bare feet).

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            Maybe you could massage her feet and legs with warm oils after her exertion.
            And read to her as well. She’ll give you a kiss on the cheek for being a nice
            old thing and quite safe 🙂

          • Yes, but coughing retchingly and otherwise oozing from one’s orifices will not make up for any length of choice muslin and lace…. %^{

    • ViolinSonaten b minor.

      To be quite honest I never took to the darkness and misery of the Bronte books and
      I feel the same about Elizabeth Gaskell. Preferring Eliot and Austen.
      But saying that I did enjoy Jane Eyre.

  • surely one ‘admits TO’? Call me prissy, but the Spec’s writing standard seems to be MIA.

    • blandings

      One in an occasional series:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9QuppHXisE
      I’ll fix the martinis

      • Hey hey! I’ll listen tonight before I go in — EARLY, as I should.

      • I’m a Queen fan, what do you think? — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDhTumGxB2w

        • blandings

          Forgive my tardiness!
          They were very good at what they did and I understand the attraction even if I don’t really share it.
          I have a secret passion for Roxy Music. Does that count?
          I used to lie in bed of an afternoon with a damned fine woman, a few martinis and Roxy Music on the record player. Though I suspect that any music would have served just as well and been remembered as fondly.

          • Roxy Music: I like Avalon and More Than This and otherwise the Bryan Ferry jazz covers of his own songs. Fabulous!

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            ‘ I used to lie in bed of an afternoon with a damned fine woman’
            John Lennon I believe used to be photographed on beds in the afternoon
            with Yoko Ono. Clearly that was the thing then and no one had sofa’s 😉

          • blandings

            Sofas are over-rated – you spill the martini.
            I can demonstrate.

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            I’m sure you can demonstrate. Needing that second martini that you’ll
            ‘ accidently’ spill on the sofa, telling the lady you’ll find somewhere more
            comfortable like the bed ( in the afternoon). I am sure you both weren’t
            watching the Avengers on TV. Now that’d been a conundrum for you
            that ‘ damned fine woman’ and Emma Peel, best not to give men too
            much choice 3 😉

          • blandings

            Have we met?

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            No I don’t believe so, besides my sofa is leather, it can be easily wiped
            down. Just to let you know.

  • Elliott Zuckerman

    What about the incoherent sentence that begins “From an early age…”? Was this piece proof-read?

  • Dogsnob

    Sod Haworth; good Thornton-born Irish girls, all.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Not sure they ever even visited the land of their father’s birth – and their mother was Cornish.

      • Dogsnob

        Irish Celt Father, Cornish Celt Mother. It’s all good.

  • qwertykook

    The devil bucks feces in whatever induced circumstance. Feces bashes the pleasure. The devil fudges an introductory smile. The idiom moans about feces. Feces tiles the war below the dust. How does feces move the devil?

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Surprised to see no mention of Juliet Barker’s incomparable “The Brontës”, one of the few biographies I’ve read to deserve the adjective “magisterial”. And any biography of just one Brontë seems on the face of it odd, unsatisfactory: the whole point of them is their collective creativity and the way they grew up together.
    One of the saddest things in literary history, I think, is that their father lived to a ripe age, pre-deceased by all his children.

    • Helen Barrell

      Yes! I love that biography. It’s not a light read and the book does look remarkably like a doorstop, but it’s fab. I believe the most recent edition contains an update after Juliet found evidence from a local paper that one of Charlotte’s paintings was exhibited – I think in Leeds.

      I rather liked Jude Morgan’s “The Taste of Sorrow” and Sheila Kohler’s “Becoming Jane Eyre” as quite interesting semi-fictional versions of their lives.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Yes, I heard about the update, might catch it sometime. Apart from her being a superb writer, the key to Barker’s brilliant depiction is her strong personal connection with the area, and the archive at Haworth. When I met her (at a lit festival where she signed my copy) she confirmed that – and very interestingly told me she actually preferred writing about the Medieval period, e.g. her equally excellent book on Agincourt. For someone who prefers another period entirely, her work on the Brontës is especially commendable.
        I shall look for those other works you mention.

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