Her pen made the first move

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon
    Chatto, 418 pp, £17.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6137 X
  • Shared Lives by Lyndall Gordon
    Vintage, 285 pp, £6.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 09 942461 4
  • The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of Being Ill by Miriam Bailin
    Cambridge, 169 pp, £30.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 521 44526 4

When Charlotte Brontë was not yet 21, she submitted a sample of her work to the reigning poet laureate, Robert Southey, together with a letter in which she apparently confided her ambition ‘to be for ever known’ as a poet. Three months later, Southey replied. Though he acknowledged her gift and encouraged her to continue writing ‘for its own sake’, he also made clear that her habit of day-dreaming threatened to unfit her for the ‘ordinary uses’ of the world. ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be,’ he wrote. ‘The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity.’ Modern feminists have understandably cited Southey’s advice as a representative instance of the oppressive assumptions that inhibited women’s writing. The recipient, however, responded more equivocally. While Brontë would later tell Elizabeth Gaskell that Southey’s letter had been ‘kind and admirable’, if ‘a little stringent’, to the writer himself she returned an answer in which genuine humility and self-abasement can barely be distinguished from an edgy and corrosive irony:

  In the evenings, I confess, I do think, but I never trouble any one else with my thoughts. I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation and eccentricity, which might lead those I live amongst to suspect the nature of my pursuits ... I have endeavoured not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfil, but to feel deeply interested in them. I don’t always succeed, for sometimes when I’m teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing; but I try to deny myself ... Once more allow me to thank you with sincere gratitude. I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should rise I’ll look at Southey’s letter, and suppress it.

Whereas Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë noted simply that this ‘admirable’ letter ‘tends to bring out her character’, and Winifred Gérin’s 1967 biography remarked the writer’s ‘good sense – and good manners’, Lyndall Gordon reports that ‘present-day audiences hear the sarcasm undetected by Southey, and never fail to laugh.’ Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life is very much directed at those audiences. Indeed, if Gordon offers any justification for yet another retelling of the Brontë story, it is her explicit desire to recuperate the novelist as a contemporary heroine. Unlike Gaskell’s first portrait of the artist, which emphasised the womanly decorum of its subject and the pathos of her history, Gordon proposes to uncover ‘the subversive side’ of both woman and novelist. ‘The time has come,’ she dramatically announces at the outset, ‘to bring out the strength that turned loss to gain.’ In the case of the letter to Southey, this means reading the apparent abjection of Brontë’s reply not as testimony to self-doubt but as her deliberate performance of a role: ‘hiding undaunted creative fire under the public mask of perfect docility’. Even the shrinking and trembling which observers were to notice on those rare occasions when Brontë later ventured into London society become by this account not so much a register of the novelist’s feelings as a cover for them. ‘The self-effacement was designed to obliterate, for public purposes, the woman of passion and the volume of her utterance.’

It is unfortunate that Gordon has used the subtitle ‘A Passionate Life’; ‘A Writer’s Life’, the subtitle of her earlier biography of Virginia Woolf (1984), would have been better, since the argument for Brontë’s professional selfconsciousness and fulfilment through writing proves more rewarding than the repeated allusions to hidden fires. Though Gordon duly acknowledges 20th-century biographies by Gérin and Rebecca Fraser, among others, she nonetheless contends that the protective design of Gaskell’s Life still obscures our vision of the novelist. Of course, Gaskell did set out to vindicate her friend as well as to commemorate her, and she evidently constructed the Life to evoke pity for Brontë’s suffering rather than attacks on her ‘coarseness’. Yet it seems rather late in the day to argue with The Life of Charlotte Brontë, and the enduring effect of what Gordon calls the ‘figure of pathos in the shadow of tombstones’ is greatly exaggerated. Surely the ‘passion and vehemence’ in Gordon’s account will not come as a surprise to most recent critics of the novelist. Nor, for that matter, would this intensity of feeling have surprised many readers of Gaskell. ‘It must be evident to every one who reads this most entertaining biography,’ wrote an anonymous reviewer in 1857, ‘that under an extraordinarily cold and unsympathising exterior, Charlotte Brontë concealed a fiery soul and violent passions.’

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