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Brontë, Charlotte: General Commentary

CHARLOTTE BRONTË: GENERAL COMMENTARY

MARGARET LAWRENCE (ESSAY DATE 1936)

SOURCE: Lawrence, Margaret. "The Brontë Sisters, Who Wrestled With Romance." In The School of Femininity: A Book For and About Women As They Are Interpreted Through Feminine Writers of Yesterday and Today, pp. 60-88. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1936.

In the following excerpt, Lawrence asserts that Brontë's novels are documents of feminist history, reflecting the unsatisfied passion of women with limited options and without mutual and egalitarian love relationships.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

BRONTË'S FRIEND AND BIOGRAPHER ELIZABETH GASKELL ON BRONTË'S WRITING PRACTICES

The sisters retained the old habit, which was begun in their aunt's life-time, of putting away their work at nine o'clock, and beginning their study, pacing up and down the sitting room. At this time, they talked over the stories they were engaged upon, and described their plots. Once or twice a week, each read to the others what she had written, and heard what they had to say about it. Charlotte told me, that the remarks made had seldom any effect in inducing her to alter her work, so possessed was she with the feeling that she had described reality; but the readings were of great and stirring interest to all, taking them out of the gnawing pressure of daily-recurring cares, and setting them in a free place. It was on one of these occasions, that Charlotte determined to make her heroine plain, small, and unattractive, in defiance of the accepted canon.

The writer of the beautiful obituary article on "the death of Currer Bell" most likely learnt from herself what is there stated, and which I will take the liberty of quoting, about Jane Eyre.

"She once told her sisters that they were wrong—even morally wrong—in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course. They replied that it was impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. Her answer was, 'I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours.' Hence Jane Eyre, said she in telling the anecdote: 'but she is not myself, any further than that.'"

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Excerpt from The Life of Charlotte Brontë, pp. 215-16. First published London, 1857; republished London: Dent, 1971.

When Charlotte read Wuthering Heights she was staggered again. She knew that her own Professor was a silly tame story beside it. She sat down to begin another story; and some of the fire of Wuthering Heights transferred itself to the writing of Jane Eyre.

And Jane Eyre was the book of the year in England. Charlotte Brontë had let loose all the pent-up hatreds of her nature. She was no longer afraid. There had been hatred in her sister's book. But Charlotte's was a very concrete hatred and very personal. She went after the school that had killed her two older sisters. She made horrible images of the teachers and of the system. She took for her heroine a small plain-looking orphan girl who was designed by nature to be the butt of sadistic people. She wrote herself into little defenseless, tortured Jane Eyre. The hatred that forced the book out of her made its writing astoundingly vivid. It knocked its readers cold. The style was as tortured as the heroine. Charlotte liked being literary, and she never missed a chance to be literary; except when she was so angry she forgot. It was when she was raging angry that the book blazed with power; when she cooled off and got literary it was lame and pretentious; but fortunately for her ambitions the anger far outweighed the literature in it; so it went over. She was unquestionably influenced by Emily's Heathcliffe when she came to draw the hero, Mr. Rochester. Only, as she no doubt thought herself, she improved on him by giving her man a very Continental experience. He had had a group of mistresses, and liked nothing better than to brag about them; but when he was due, by reason of approaching middle age, to be touched by tender love, it was gentle, plain Jane to whom he turned. Not for him were the lovely ladies of title that were brought into the story. But he amused himself while he was trying to make up his mind what to do by philandering a bit; just enough to make Jane jealous. Jealousy made her lose her head. She came out flatly with her love of him. It was Charlotte's famous innovation. No woman had ever done such a thing in literature—certainly not in ladylike literature. It was a great triumph for Mr. Rochester. It gave him courage to plan his final sin. For all this time the bad man had been hiding in his attic a maniac wife, guarded by a gin-consuming nurse. Jane had sensed the mystery in the house. But that had added to her love. Mr. Rochester arranges a start into bigamy; but he is stopped at the altar. The facts have come out. Jane is horrified; but not nearly so horrified as when her darling makes her a proposition. Then she flees the country, as all good women fled in those days from sin. And she flees with only what she has on, and has many melodramatic accidents. But they are nothing compared to what happened to Rochester. His insane wife sets the house on fire, and jumps from the roof to her death. Rochester is paid by fate for his ways by having a burning brand hit him in the eyes; he is blinded for life. And little Jane comes radiantly back and marries him. Charlotte Brontë hugged herself; she had made a plain little woman come into her own; she had been most sophisticated and had not quailed before mistresses and sins and cases for the asylum. In fact she had treated them all with gusto. All London talked about the book. People got all mixed up about the identities of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. She thought it was necessary to go to London and straighten things out. But she was afraid to go by herself. So she took Anne. Emily was angry about the whole business. She was still angrier when Charlotte returned and explained that she had told the publisher they were three sisters. It was all a trap, Emily said. Publicity was vulgar. Besides being a nuisance. She must have had a moment of prevision. Publicity was certainly going to be both vulgar and a nuisance for the Brontë future. Not to mention what it was going to do to Brontë historians. That settled it for Emily. She would never write another novel.

But Charlotte had got going. This at last was living. The little plans for the school now seemed to be childish and forlorn. Here was literary fame. Emily looked at her and went off by herself to walk on the moors. But Anne was more impressed. She wanted to get in on the fame.

Emily puzzled Charlotte. There was no understanding the girl. What was she? She decided that she would put Emily into a book. That certainly was the way to deal with what bothered you. Anne was thinking too. But not about Emily. She took Emily for granted. She had been impressed by the sins in Charlotte's book. Sin paid. Not that Branwell ever made his pay. She decided to put Branwell into a book. She patted her conscience by saying to herself that maybe it would keep others from falling into a like sin. The father was coming out in Anne. She wanted to preach. So she wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

One day when Emily came in from the moors followed by her dog, Keeper, Anne told her what she was doing. Emily looked at her. She said quietly that she was surprised. It was bad taste to use one's relatives for copy; it was cruelty to use the weakness of another for professional material. It was also lazy. What was the imagination for? Anne was hurt. She had not meant any harm. Charlotte blazed at Emily. She should let Anne alone. It was time that some woman had the courage to write about what drink did to men and to the women tied to them. Emily looked at her with disconcerting directness. To make copy out of poor Branwell was wrong. They would pay for it. She must have had another moment of prevision. Branwell might very profitably have been left alone. But Anne was firm. It was her duty. And Charlotte had encouraged her. Which was to be considered. For of the family Charlotte was the successful author. Surely she should know what would sell. What could Emily say to that? She could not summon enough prevision to know that Wuthering Heights would be read and reread when Charlotte's books were only remembered as the books that somehow had got placed on the school's supplementary-reading list because of some vague historical significance.

So the writing went on in that unhappy house. And so did the germ. Branwell began to sink. Emily nursed him. His father grieved over his only son. Charlotte hardened herself. She knew that they had to stand it. But he had brought it on himself. Anne thought to herself that it would not all be in vain. People would know what drink did to men.

On the day of Branwell's funeral in September, Emily collapsed. She never went out again on the moors. But she would not stay in bed. She went about her usual household work. She talked less than ever. Charlotte was frantic. She said she was going to send for a London doctor. Emily said she would not see him if he did come. What would the use be? One morning in December she went to the cage where she kept a wild hawk she had tamed. Charlotte watched her and was frightened. Emily opened the door of the hawk's cage and told him to go free. He hesitated. She lifted him out and poised him on her hand, and sent him with a push out into the air. Emily was Irish; she was dying with a symbolic gesture. Charlotte was terrified. Emily turned; she put her hand to her throat; she struggled with her breath. She knew it had come, and she fought. She hated the publicity of death. Reserve was no armor against it. She struggled; she would not die. It was a horrible thing that would leave her helpless and open. She kept on her feet; she held on to the door until the germ had taken her last breath. It was a shocking pagan death.

It hurried the progress of the germ in little Anne. She sickened immediately. Charlotte called the doctor, only to learn that nothing could save Anne. She was already too far gone. Charlotte, however, tried to save her. She took her to Scarborough by the sea; but it was in vain. Anne died in May, and was buried in Scarborough. Charlotte returned to her father. She read Emily's last poems, among them that magnificent last psalm.

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere;
I see heaven's glory shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from afar.
O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life—that in me has rest,
As, undying Life—have power in thee!
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men's hearts; unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main.
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.
Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universe ceased to be,
And Thou were left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.
There is not room for death,
Nor atom that his might could render void;
Thou—Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

Charlotte walked backward and forward in her lonely house. She thought of Keeper, the dog, sitting in his sorrow on Emily's grave. She thought about the wild hawk. What was Emily?

Charlotte tried to make Emily live in Shirley. But Charlotte could only portray what she loved or what she hated. Emily was beyond both love and hate. She had been spiritually elusive, and humanly a most puzzling person. The pagan fierce death; the religious faith of the last song. Which was Emily? Animals and birds had known her instinctively, and were drawn as by a magnet. Keeper never recovered from her death. His dog heart was broken. Charlotte tried very hard with Shirley. It was an interesting characterization she managed; but it was not Emily.

The book rolls up in the end into feminist propaganda. Charlotte saw her sister as one of the new women. She sets her as she would have liked to have seen Emily, with wealth and friends. She did not realize that wealth would have meant nothing more to Emily than poverty. She creates conversations between Shirley and her intimate woman friend, Caroline Helstone, such as she imagined Emily would have conducted, had she ever cared to get into conversation. The conversations read like very learned essays on the freedom of women. Emily would have thought they were funny. Charlotte really had nothing to put into Shirley. The subject was beyond her emotional grip. Emily's temperamental aloofness had always tortured her sister. Her occasional sweetness had never been given to Charlotte. It had gone out to the weakness of Branwell and the pathos of Anne. Charlotte had utterly no comprehension of the mysticism of Emily; she had had no idea that the strangeness of her eyes had come out of a frustration which was a greater frustration than any of the frustrations in that house. Emily Brontë was a tragedy. She handled her tragedy well. She achieved calm. But she could only maintain it when she was alone on the moors. When she went into the world it was broken. So she took care not to go into the world. Emily had pushed herself so far down into the depths of her nature that she only existed in a dream. She needed a Teacher. She got quite far by herself, but she had missed the wisdom that would have made her able to preserve her poise in the world. That could only have come to her from a teacher whose training was far beyond any of the training of western religions. Emily would have understood the East. She could have sat at the feet of Lao-tse.

But all this was out of Charlotte's understanding. All she knew was that she missed the presence of Emily. It bothered her that she had not loved her enough. She took to lying about it. She assured everybody that Emily and she had been devoted to each other. In private she paced up and down with remorse. She had spent years of her life loving a man who had refused even to write to her. She had closed herself up in that love. And Emily had been dying all the time. Perhaps in great need of love. Charlotte hated the Hegers because they had taken her emotion for so long.

So she went for them in Villette. Emily had never liked them.

Sitting alone with an old father in that dismal house Charlotte got the Hegers out of her system. This time there was very little disguise. She herself lived in the small plain-looking shy English governess, Lucy Snow. The Heger ménage came to life in Madame Beck's school for young ladies. She dealt meticulously with Madame Beck's jealousies. Technically the story flags badly in places. Charlotte obviously got frightened at times and tried to cover herself up. She has to divide her love into two men, and little Lucy has to veer from one to the other without much reason for doing so. It makes it rather unconvincing. But the genuine emotion of the writer does get into scenes. With heart-breaking poignancy little Lucy struggled with her hopeless passion. That is very real. And the actual Monsieur Heger is very real and so is the pussyfooting Madame Beck. It is easy to understand why Charlotte should have been attracted to the man. He is fiery and uncertain with all the temperamental virility that the Brontë girls liked in men. It was easy to understand why she hated Madame. It was not only that she possessed Monsieur. She also possessed the bland and irritating self-containment which Charlotte always had lacked. She had the silent superiority that Emily had had, and in addition a completely worldly estimate of the motivation of other people.

The portrait of Madame Beck was so bitter that it floored Mrs. Gaskell when she came to do the biography. She went over to Brussels to look the woman up. Madame Heger felt it was her duty in the interest of history to show her Charlotte's letters. Mrs. Gaskell interpreted it as her duty to the feminine cause to ignore the letters. It would never do. She thought hers would remain the one absolute authoritative biography. She could be as wary as Madame Heger. She put so much outside controversial matter into her biography that it took all the attention. The school to which the Brontës had gone took action; Branwell's mistress sued her; Mr. Brontë considered having the book banned; she had made him out to be a very eccentric person indeed, and hinted that the girls had all contracted the germ because they were starved in their childhood. Mrs. Gaskell was more astute than Victorian ladies were usually given credit for being. She really did outwit Madame Heger by making so much fuss about other matters that Brussels was left alone by the critics. If Charlotte had been wise she would have taken Mrs. Gaskell completely into her confidence; for then Mrs. Gaskell could have made even a neater job of it. Although it is just possible that she would never have undertaken to write the story of a woman who had loved a man in those circumstances. It was not nice. Brussels must have given her quite a jolt. For she had thought Charlotte was a nice woman. She had become acquainted with her two years before her death. Charlotte had visited her, and she had visited Hawarth. The tragedy of the family had caught her imagination. She knew it would make a gorgeous biography. Besides in her mind Charlotte was a literary pioneer and part of the feminist movement. She made a great heroine of her.

Charlotte Brontë did not exactly enjoy her fame.

It was compensation for the erotic wound. There is an historical rumor that the fame brought Monsieur Heger finally to her; that they met secretly in London. The Hegers admitted that Monsieur took a trip to London, and Charlotte during the years of her literary popularity was there several times every year. She was fêted. She met everybody of literary importance. But she was never able to be at ease among people. The cramped childhood told on her, and no amount of admiration could ever give her absolute self-confidence. She knew she was a small, badly-formed, plain-looking woman. Fame never alleviates that in a woman. She knew that she did not take with folk; she felt them looking at her interestedly, but still with appraisal. The least unfriendly criticism of her work brought her instantly back to her sensitive youth, and crushed her spirit. She never gained Emily's poise.

She got to need admiration; and her need of it led her to get married. Her father's curate, Mr. Nicholls, had admired her for a long time. He was a gentle Irishman, and had the racial taste for sad people. Charlotte Brontë was a tragic figure to him in spite of all her fame. Charlotte had never liked curates. They were mild men. She had made them ridiculous in the Shirley story, and Mr. Nicholls had recognized himself. But that had not stopped him admiring her. He liked her literary nerve, as much as he loved her personal lack of it. She accepted Mr. Nicholls.

Her father made just enough trouble about it to give it the attraction of a cause to her. Mr. Brontë had enjoyed Charlotte's fame. It had given him confidence again in the plan of existence. It justified his life. An operation had been performed upon his eyes, and he was able again to take the pulpit and to read all his daughter's books, and also to cherish her press notices. He thought that Nicholls was decidedly forgetting his place to aspire to the hand of Miss Brontë. In his opinion Charlotte could have any man she wanted. So why fall back upon a curate? Her health was much better. He no longer had to worry when she got her feet wet or sat in a draft. The family germ seemed to have been conquered by the fame.

Charlotte had decided to marry. She did not explain to her father how ill at ease she still felt with the great men she met, or that they only saw her as a queer little woman with an emotional talent for writing. After she was married she assured everybody that she was very happy.

She seems to have been happy. Mr. Nicholls was devoted and gentle. He was not the great fierce man of her temperamental yearning. But maybe she knew by then that such men were hard upon women, and demanded a lot of study. She would have had no time for the study; her career was too important. She would have had no energy either. She was too old, and in addition she was tubercular. So she was well off with her gentle curate, and probably she knew it. Maybe the historical rumor explains why she knew it. She was no longer yearning for Monsieur Heger.

She had only a few months of happiness. The germ crept up quietly all the time, and when she was pregnant in her thirty-ninth year it suddenly started to speed. The doctor who was called said it was hopeless. She died thinking she could not die she was so happy.

It was a mercy that she did die. If she had lived to hold a baby to her breast she would have been frightened about the hatreds she had put into publication. There was no taking them back.

She would have understood the need Madame Heger had felt to protect her family by whatever method would work. She would have understood the maternal emotion Emily had packed into her kindness to Branwell. She might even have felt some glimmering of the twisted psychology which leads people to be cruel to children. She would have known that literary cruelty and literary revenge did not correct it. She would have been ashamed of her books, and being Irish, she might have done something drastic.

It was better that she did not. For her three good books, Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette, for all their awkward technique and their high-driven emotionalism, were valuable records. They were documents in the feminist movement. Mrs. Gaskell was right in her belief. Charlotte Brontë was a type. There were many middle-class women like her, unable to find the man who would have satisfied them, and with no real outlet for their energies.

She drove it home that women had feeling and passionality. She glorified feeling in women. Her characters were all subsidiary to that one main idea. She hated the romantic nonsense that men wrote about women. She also hated the picture Miss Austen drew of them. It was too matter-of-fact.

What she was really saying, though it is not clear that she knew it consciously, was that women needed a wider intellectual arena in order to find a more satisfying erotic life. They had to have a chance to explore. Love was far more important to them than to men; and yet they were hemmed in by the assumption men had that women were ordained by nature simply to respond to them.

She had been disillusioned personally, but that did not alter the truth of her work. Emily and Charlotte Brontë knew something more than Miss Austen knew, though they lacked her technical mastery. And at the same time Miss Austen knew something more than they knew—which was that after all the exploring, and all the illusion, it was best to take simply what was to be had, and never mind the longing for something else.

It was all an unending confusing circle.

It would have needed the wise fine mind of George Eliot to have explained the circle. Not that Charlotte Brontë would ever have listened to George Eliot. She would not have approved of her. George Eliot had done what Miss Brontë had not managed to do—to live openly with the man she loved, even though he did happen technically to be married to another woman. Her own bitterness had made Charlotte a puritan. It was the puritan in her that caused her to make such a to-do about passion. It was her puritanism that had led her to make a feminist cause out of little Jane Eyre telling Rochester she loved him. Miss Austen would have read that incident with distaste and some amusement. It was a gaucherie, and it was unnecessary. Mary Wollstonecraft would have cheered. It was her idea of equality. And why not? Miss Austen would have shrugged her beautifully molded shoulders. And Mary would have reminded her perhaps that if she had had the nerve to do it she might have got for herself the dark sardonic man she had obviously wanted. A shadow would have flitted over Miss Austen's bright eyes. And Emily Brontë would look at her strangely. She would be thinking it was all fate. Whether one was a fighting puritan like Charlotte, or a polite skeptic like Miss Austen, or an emotional rebel like Mary Wollstonecraft, it all came to the same thing in the end. There was between men and women a bond that was peculiar to individuals, and a fixation of emotional need. Sometimes you looked through life and did not find it. Sometimes you found it and could not have it. Sometimes when you did have it you also had great sorrow. What did it matter? If only you recognized it and were true to it. Maybe that was all that counted. She would look towards George Eliot coming with pity in her deep-set philosopher's eyes.

FROM THE AUTHOR

BRONTË WRITES TO ELIZABETH GASKELL ABOUT THE POSITION OF WOMEN IN SOCIETY AND THE POTENTIAL FOR CHANGE

I do not know the Life of Sydney Taylor; whenever I have the opportunity I will get it. The little French book you mention shall also take its place on the list of books to be procured as soon as possible. It treats a subject interesting to all women—perhaps, more especially to single women; though, indeed, mothers, like you, study it for the sake of their daughters. The Westminster Review is not a periodical I see regularly, but some time since I got hold of a number—for last January, I think—in which there was an article entitled 'Woman's Mission' (the phrase is hackneyed), containing a great deal that seemed to me just and sensible. Men begin to regard the position of woman in another light than they used to do; and a few men, whose sympathies are fine and whose sense of justice is strong, think and speak of it with a candour that commands my admiration. They say, however—and, to an extent, truly—that the amelioration of our condition depends on ourselves. Certainly there are evils which our own efforts will best reach; but as certainly there are other evils—deep-rooted in the foundation of the social system—which no efforts of ours can touch: of which we cannot complain; of which it is advisable not too often to think.

Brontë, Charlotte. Excerpt from a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell. Reprinted in Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë, pp. 313. First published London, 1857; republished London: Dent, 1971.

George Eliot was the only one among them who knew love in its fulness. Having known it, she could set it to one side in her writing. It was only a part of the need of the experiencing spirit; life was a hard long way. It was not a business of getting this, or holding onto that; nor was it a matter of saying one's say. To understand; and not to judge. But she would never be able to convince Charlotte Brontë of that. Not to judge? What was the intellect for if not to judge? Women had intellects and the right to use them in judgment. What sense was there in suffering for its own sake? "Plenty," Emily would at last answer her. "It is the law of the spirit finding its way to God. Maybe in anguish like yours over Monsieur Heger, or in remorse like Branwell's over himself. It may be in disappointment like Mary's because of Gilbert Imlay, or in temperamental restlessness like Miss Austen's; or in terrible loneliness like mine. It is a law, and the wise submit to it." George Eliot would agree, and add in her husky low voice, "We cannot do anything else but submit, though there are various ways of submitting." It would be just here that Miss Austen would laugh lightly. "Variety." That is what had always taken her fancy; the variety of ways in which women would arrive at the same destiny. She would cock her arched eyebrow at George Eliot and say to her, "Now you be careful not to get too inward in your stories. It is a very tricky concern—the soul—especially the soul in women."

TERRY EAGLETON (ESSAY DATE AUTUMN 1972)

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