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.’

Though Gaskell notoriously abetted such concealment by suppressing the evidence of Brontë’s passion for her Belgian schoolmaster, M. Heger, the letters to Heger have long been available, and the general outlines of the relationship are well known. In 1842 Charlotte and Emily undertook to study French and other subjects at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels in the hopes of eventually opening a school of their own. Toward the end of the year the sisters were summoned home to attend their dying aunt, and in 1843 Charlotte returned to Brussels alone, having been jointly invited by Monsieur and Madame Heger to take up the post of English teacher. While Monsieur Heger privately instructed her in French, Brontë undertook to give him lessons in English.

Heger was by all accounts a magnetic and seductive teacher, and while the exact nature of his feelings for Brontë remains a matter for speculation, there is no question of the ardour he inspired in the Englishwoman. Though both husband and wife had initially welcomed her back to the pensionnat, intimacy and warmth soon gave way to reserve and suspicion: Madame Heger evidently grew mistrustful, Heger cool and remote and Brontë miserable. After a series of misunderstandings, Brontë finally left her post and returned home, where for almost two years she engaged in a fervent and increasingly unreciprocated correspondence with her ‘master’. As in Villette, her ‘hour of torment was the post-hour’, and the lengthening silences prompted progressively anguished appeals:

Monsieur, the poor have not need of much to sustain them – they ask only for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. But if they are refused the crumbs they die of hunger. Nor do I, either, need much affection from those I love. I should not know what to do with a friendship entire and complete – I am not used to it. But you showed me of yore a little interest, when I was your pupil in Brussels, and I hold on to the maintenance of that little interest – I hold on to it as I would hold on to life.

Gordon doesn’t dwell on passages like this, presumably because she wants to argue, once again, that ‘the pathos has obscured the consolations’ – the chief of which, she believes, was the expressive development of the writer. Unusual for his time and place in his wish to elicit such expressiveness from his women students, Heger seemed to promise his most famous pupil not an adulterous affair but a union of minds; and ‘her deepest response to him,’ as Gordon puts it, ‘turned on language.’ Gordon suggests that Brontë seized on French as a medium to articulate what she could not say in English. One long devoir for her teacher took the form of a ‘Lettre d’un pauvre Peintre à un grand Seigneur’, in which she managed to announce, ‘Milord, je crois avoir du Génie.’ (As in her first novel, The Professor, itself a reworking of this pedagogic history, the author of the devoir also chose to speak, of course, in the voice of a man.) In a postscript appended to her last letter to Heger, Brontë openly declared the state of her linguistic affections: she had recently fallen into conversation with a Frenchman, she reported, and ‘every word was most precious to me because it reminded me of you – I love French for your sake with all my heart and soul.’ According to his daughter, it was this letter that prompted Heger to break off the correspondence.

Letters, Gordon argues, were almost as critical as fiction for Brontë’s life as a writer, and in those to Heger she was effectively testing the prototype of her future hero. Gordon also speculates in a similar vein about the later and sunnier correspondence with the publisher, George Smith, whose evident pleasure in Brontë’s letters may partly have arisen, she thinks, from the artist’s capacity imaginatively to transform him with her pen, recreating him in a form cleverly designed to soothe his insecurities. Though Brontë’s teasingly affectionate tone differed considerably from the impassioned intensities of the correspondence with Heger, this too was a courtship that was above all epistolary. As with Heger, it ended in the man’s withdrawal (Smith married the attractive daughter of a wine merchant in 1854), while Brontë appears to have followed her own advice to a disappointed ‘lover feminine’ in Shirley and stoically closed her fingers on the ‘scorpion’. Like Heger, who most obviously provided the inspiration for the portrait of Paul Emanuel in Villette, Smith made his way into the fiction, reappearing in the same novel as the handsome and kind, but perceptually limited, Graham Bretton. Though Gordon cannot really solve the mystery of the novelist’s eventual marriage to the enigmatic curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, she plausibly speculates that Brontë would most have warmed to him after her father’s resistance to his suit had forced him into exile from Haworth, and he pursued his courtship through letters. Since Nicholls had already put in a cameo appearance as a ‘decent ... and conscientious’ curate in the last chapter of Shirley (1849), Gordon notes that Brontë’s pen had, in any case, made the first move. After the marriage, of course, the novelist produced no more fiction. Gordon argues that in these brief months of married life, ‘happiness was the achievement ... not work’, but does not remark the bitter irony by which Nicholls’s wife at last fulfilled Southey’s prediction. ‘My own life is more occupied than it used to be,’ she wrote to a friend in a letter not cited here. ‘I have not so much time for thinking.’

The jacket boasts that Gordon’s study ‘explores for the first time the gaps in Charlotte’s story’, and there are many allusions throughout the text to ‘shadow’ selves and hidden lives. Occasionally the gaps are quite literal: when Brontë sent the manuscript of Villette to Smith, Gordon reports, she tantalisingly pasted over some cuts with sheets of blank paper, as if to call deliberate attention to what she had excised from the narrative. Yet Gordon perhaps assumes too readily that all such blanks gesture toward ‘that unseen space in which gifted women of Charlotte’s time were forced to live’. In practice, she tends to fill the gaps with portentous questions (‘What is passion for a woman? How might she emerge from silence, raise her voice, pick up her pen?’), and with speculative inferences from the fiction, some more persuasive than others. Though she bracingly dismisses much of the juvenilia as ‘boring’, she devotes considerable attention to unpublished fragments both early and late. In the last of these, ‘Emma’, Gordon thinks she detects a new probing of the mystery of woman’s identity: ‘What is she in the depths of her nature?’

For Gordon, this is the fundamental question raised by Brontë’s work, though much recent theorising would suggest that a question of this form has no possible answer. Gordon herself is more interesting, in fact, when instead of asking breathlessly about woman’s ‘nature’ she is speculating in specific terms about Brontë’s intimate relations with the other women in her life. One of these, the outspoken feminist Mary Taylor, emigrated to New Zealand, never married, and eventually published a polemical novel, Miss Miles, or A Tale of Yorkshire Life Sixty Years Ago (1890), whose evident kinship with Brontë’s Shirley prompts Gordon to wonder what Charlotte said in the many letters to Mary that the latter destroyed. Gordon quotes a telling bit of dialogue from Miss Miles:

   ‘Maria,’ said the girl [Dora], ‘if people knew that the women in the churchyards were alive – those in the coffins I mean – and were waiting for us to dig them up, do you think anyone would do it?’

   ‘Dora do be quiet!’

   ‘Answer!’

   ‘Well, of course they would.’

   ‘No, they would not! They would say ladies did not want to get up – that they had all they wanted, and that men did not like them to get out of their graves.’

Brontë’s other intimate friend, Ellen Nussey, had nothing like this lively impatience, but Gordon is nonetheless intent on rescuing her from the faint contempt of previous biographers. Ellen may have lacked any feeling for art, but Gordon argues that she could read human character, and that the very ease with which she entered the Brontës’ private world ‘was no mean achievement’. Emily Brontë, we are assured, would never have tolerated mediocrity.

Gordon’s Shared Lives, now published in paperback, offers ample precedent for the biographer’s evident tenderness toward these less celebrated friends. A collective biography of a group of women, the author included, who came of age together in South Africa, the book focuses on three friends in particular, and above all on the charismatic presence of a woman who styled herself Romy, among other names. Apart from the author, who inevitably makes a fourth in the story, none of the women is distinguished for any conventional achievement. A deliberate experiment in writing what Virginia Woolf called the lives of the obscure, Gordon’s memoir also serves as a collective elegy: all three of its principals died, prematurely, in their thirties and forties. The ‘shared lives’ of the title refer not only to the interconnections among the book’s histories, but to the method of their telling: cutting back and forth between the past of her ostensible subject and the more recent past, in which she talks and corresponds with surviving friends and shares their memories of the dead, Gordon makes clear how much the words of others have contributed to her story.

Like her biography of Brontë, Gordon’s memoir pauses frequently to contemplate the unrealised possibilities of women’s lives – possibilities difficult even to imagine, by her account, amid the anxious conformities of the Cape Town Jewish community into which she and other others were born. Their clannishness only intensified by apartheid, the elders of the tribe devoted themselves to perpetuating the group through marriage and child-rearing, ritualistically affirming their collective identity with lavish bar mitzvahs and weddings. ‘You can’t do that to Krafchik,’ Romy was scolded by Gordon’s aunt when, in a moment of panic, she had threatened to call off her wedding: Krafchik was not the groom, but the community’s semi-official caterer. As it happened, the bride did succeed in postponing the ceremony by serendipitously contracting jaundice. Though part of her charm, as Gordon saw it, was Romy’s prolonged refusal to commit herself, even this most impulsive member of the group more or less conformed in the end, marrying the man to whom she had surrendered her virginity in a defiant protest at the failure of another romance.

It’s a long way from Jewish Cape Town to Haworth Parsonage, but Shared Lives makes abundantly clear how its author grew up to write of the Brontës. At home, Gordon’s invalid mother recited Emily’s poetry and dreamily recalled the veld of her childhood; at school, a teacher dictated a character sketch of Heathcliff and mischievously inquired how many of the girls would like to marry him. (The entire class raised their hands.) In late adolescence, the friends automatically invoked Wuthering Heights to promise each other that theirs was a relation ‘enduring, like the rocks beneath’. Just as the boys on the beach had once ‘paled to insignificance beside Mr Rochester’, so Gordon thought her future husband’s offer of marriage not ‘recognisably a proposal ... like the declarations of Jane and Rochester’. The self-described plain one who thereby escaped ‘the distorting temptations of conformity’, Gordon writes of other women’s beauty rituals with something resembling Charlotte Brontë’s characteristic posture as outsider. She also appears to have resembled the novelist in her passionate attachment to correspondence. ‘That year I existed entirely through letters,’she writes of a period of exile in which she vainly attempted to prove herself an Israeli pioneer. Like Lucy Snowe in her loneliness, she even savoured her pleasure in letters by putting off the moment of reading them. In another beach scene, Gordon warns Romy against compromising her individuality through marriage, as she shakes grains of sand from a much-thumbed copy of Villette.

Sadly, of course, the author of Shared Lives also resembles Brontë as a witness to the untimely deaths of others. Like Branwell, Emily and Anne, each of the principals apart from the author drops off in turn. One contracts leukemia in 1974; another dies a decade later of breast cancer. After Romy swiftly succumbs to viral pneumonia and dies in the midst of her first pregnancy, the author speculates about her friend’s ‘unreadiness for motherhood’ and finds herself recalling the convenient attack of jaundice that had previously delayed Romy’s wedding. The connection of body and mind at such moments remains mysterious, but the diagnosis seems curiously at odds with Gordon’s determined resistance to similar speculations about Charlotte Brontë. It has been customary to assume that she died of the complications of pregnancy, but Gordon impatiently dismisses as ‘absurd’ the notion that Brontë’s severe attacks of morning sickness were prompted by a neurotic rejection of the foetus. Instead, she suggests that the novelist’s symptoms resembled those of the old family servant, Tabby, who had died a month earlier, and plausibly speculates that both women succumbed to the typhoid that seems to have killed so many local inhabitants. (The drinking water in Haworth was notoriously polluted.) Winifred Gérin wrote of the novelist that ‘the effort of bringing another life into the world derived from her own was beyond her.’ Even in death Gordon’s Brontë is more robust.

For novelists themselves, Miriam Bailin reminds us, the very uncertainty of 19th-century diagnoses left illness all the more available for imaginative uses. Though ‘there is scarcely a Victorian fictional narrative without its ailing protagonist,’ her shrewd and economical book concentrates on selected works by Charlotte Brontë, Dickens and George Eliot. Arguing that 19th-century novels typically resort to the sickroom at moments of narrative crisis, The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction shows how the art of being ill provides an uneasy resolution to the tensions, both formal and social, that trouble them. In Brontë’s case, Bailin suggests, realism leads to a stalemate. So little does reality, in the novelist’s view, accord with desire that she can only grant her heroines a fulfilment that perversely takes the form of illness. Falling sick, Jane Eyre, Caroline Helstone and Lucy Snowe find the loving families that have previously eluded them. The sickroom permits a kind of intimacy elsewhere strictly proscribed, even as its exigencies may temporarily relax otherwise rigid boundaries between the sexes. For Caroline and Lucy, as for other Victorian protagonists, illness also offers a momentary reprieve from the oppressive claims of duty: self-indulgence is permitted when safely circumscribed by bodily debility. Like Gordon, Bailin emphasises Brontë’s strenuous effort to convert loss to gain. Not surprisingly, however, confinement to the sickroom provides a considerably grimmer view of the transaction.