Things Are A Little Different Now
By Catherine Lancaster
When in 1837 Charlotte Brontë sent some of her writings to Robert Southey, England’s Poet Laureate, his answer was: “Madam, literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”
Charlotte had the chance to answer Southey ten years later with Jane Eyre, the first voice in English fiction of an angry, passionate woman struggling to maintain independence of spirit and intellect. Jane Eyre was a revolutionary work and a scandalous bestseller.
Charlotte Brontë has always been seen as the waif of literary history, but Lyndall Gordon, in her biography (recently published in England), turns the tables. We see a Charlotte who is a fierce survivor, who in life and in art, turned loss to gain and found unexpected happiness. Outwardly she shrank and cringed, but the clues to the fire and rage of Jane Eyre and Villette lie in that unseen space in which gifted women of Charlotte’s time were forced to live. Sensitive, open-minded, vivid, full of psychological insight, her book is a brilliant reappraisal of Charlotte Bronte’s life, work and the .flow between the two.
Born in 1816, Charlotte was motherless by the age of five and packed off to a grim charity boarding school at eight. One of her early memories was watching her sister Maria die of starvation and physical abuse at the hands of a sadistic teacher. Charlotte recreated that woman as the terrifying “Miss Scatchard” in Jane Eyre. The experience was seminal for all the Brontës, pushing Emily toward submission, Charlotte to rebellion.
The isolation of the Victorian era, during which women were very much kept in the shadows, produced lives of ill treated under-stimulated young persons. Liberation came for many of them, as it did for Charlotte when a school friend invited her to learn French in Brussels. This city is romantically depicted in Villette. At age 26, Charlotte fell in love with Monsieur Heger, her flamboyant rhetoric professor. “His mind was my library, and whenever it was opened to me, I entered bliss,” she said later. When Heger’s wife realized Charlotte’s attachment to her husband, she personally took her to Ostende, put her on the boat to England and restricted correspondence between them.
By the time this book was published, all Charlotte’s siblings had died of consumption and she was alone. At the height of her creative powers, she married her father’s curate, whom she had always despised as her intellectual inferior. He was loyal and kind, but disapproved of her writing. Submissive, she abandoned it.
Perhaps the unhappiness of having seen her whole family disappear, and to be forced to abandon her creativity to please a man she did not love, was what shortened her life. She died in pregnancy aged 38. Her only true love, literature, was wrenched from her. Possibly her life would have been much longer, and her work more abundant, if times had not been so difficult for Victorian women.