When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, she was a famous novelist. Her literary reputation was high after the success of Jane Eyre, Shirley & Villette. However, her personal life was still a subject for gossip & ill-informed rumour. When Charlotte’s friend, Ellen Nussey, read an article that mixed critical acclaim with gossipy innuendo about Charlotte’s life, she encouraged Charlotte’s father, Patrick, & her widower, Arthur Nicholls, to commission a response that would silence the gossip. Although Arthur would have preferred a dignified silence, Patrick was persuaded & he agreed with Ellen that Elizabeth Gaskell was the right person to write such a response. Elizabeth Gaskell was not only a respected novelist herself but had known Charlotte in the last years of her life. The familiar story of the Brontë sisters begins with Gaskell’s biography so, instead of retelling that story, I’m going to focus more on the writing of the biography & its effects on Brontë biography ever since.
The book that resulted is one of the greatest biographies ever written about a writer. Gaskell had admired Charlotte & had a profound sympathy for her struggles as a writer & as a woman. She had been just as avid as everyone else to discover the identity of the author of Jane Eyre, which had been published under the pseudonym Currer Bell in 1847. Through her friendship with philanthropist Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth she met Charlotte & they became friends. Gaskell heard from Charlotte herself the sad tale of death & illness that had haunted her family & observed at first hand the struggle Charlotte made to overcome her shyness & her ill-health to enjoy the fame that her books brought her. They corresponded & visited each other so Gaskell was already predisposed to defend Charlotte from any slights when she was asked to write a memoir of her friend. The charge that Jane Eyre was a “coarse” book, unsuitable for young girls to read, was especially offensive to Gaskell & so she was determined to emphasize the dutiful womanliness of Charlotte Brontë. Her book would show that the unique experiences of Charlotte’s life & her devotion to the truth had fed into the work & charges of coarseness & unwomanliness were completely unjustified.
The publication of the Life caused an immediate storm & scandal. The public’s desire to know more about the author of Jane Eyre was amply satisfied by the book although those who felt slighted or slandered were not long in coming forward. Gaskell’s research had uncovered the truth behind the Lowood scenes in Jane Eyre & she did not scruple to name names when she described Cowan’s Bridge & its head, the Rev Carus Wilson, the original of the odious Mr Brocklehurst. She also retold the story of Branwell Brontë’s employment with the Robinson family & believed his story of his passion for Mrs Robinson & blamed her for Branwell’s decline into alcoholism & death. When Gaskell was writing the book, she jokingly asked her publishers, ” Do you mind the law of libel. I have three people I want to libel …”. Unfortunately it was no joke when she was threatened with lawsuits by Lydia Robinson (she had remarried after her husband’s death & was now Lady Scott) & the family of Carus Wilson. A second edition was already in print but the third, corrected, edition took her months of work & was eventually longer than the first edition. The edition I read was the first edition which has all the libelous bits intact. Gaskell’s righteous anger is clear in these passages & also her reliance on the evidence she gathered from Patrick Brontë & Ellen Nussey as well as Charlotte’s own letters.
Patrick Brontë admired the book & felt that it did justice to his daughter but his reputation suffered as well. The picture of Patrick as a stern misanthrope, cutting up his wife’s silk dress & destroying his children’s coloured boots as too frivolous, made him seem a crank. Gaskell got these stories from a couple of disgruntled former servants but she was too intimidated by Patrick to ask him for his side of the story. He generously refused to reproach her for the portrait she drew of him & it has been said that his reputation has only recently been rehabilitated by the work of biographers like Dudley Green & Juliet Barker. Gaskell also suppressed evidence that didn’t fit with her thesis of a woman made great by suffering. She went to Brussels, where Charlotte & Emily Brontë attended the Pensionnat Heger. Here, Charlotte fell in love with her teacher Constantin Heger, the model for Paul Emanuel in Villette. She wrote him passionate letters which Madame Heger had kept & which she showed to Gaskell. Horrified by this evidence of Charlotte’s love for a married man, Gaskell attributed Charlotte’s misery during her second year in Brussels to worries about Branwell & her family. The secret of the letters was kept until the early 20th century when the Heger’s son donated them to the British Library.
One of the great strengths of the biography is the use that Gaskell made of Charlotte’s letters. Charlotte’s own voice, in her letters to Ellen, to her publishers George Smith & William Smith Williams & to Gaskell herself, is vigorous & alive. Her opinions are pithy &, even though Gaskell edited the letters carefully to remove any details or comments that detracted from the image she wished to present, it was impossible to silence Charlotte’s unique voice. Gaskell was a novelist & the narrative reads like a novel, once the early scene setting chapters are past. The story itself could not be more compelling & although she fudged some unpalatable facts & got things wrong, Gaskell’s version was substantially true. She may have emphasized Charlotte’s domestic virtues over her literary talent, but those domestic virtues were part of Charlotte’s life just as much as her work. It wasn’t until the later twentieth century that the Brontë Myth (as Lucasta Miller calls it in her wonderful book of that name) of the scribbling sisters in their isolated moorland home was overturned. Gaskell’s version of Charlotte’s life isn’t the only one to read if you want a complete view but it’s the only biography written by someone who knew Charlotte & who had a profound sympathy for her life & her work, a fellow novelist who admired the work & was passionately committed to the rehabilitation of her memory.