I read this book for two reasons: one, I am in the middle of a Bronte project for Owl and Zebra Press, and two, it is on the Best Books list, both in general and in biography. It is considered either the best or one of the best biographies ever written.
So let’s start there. Why is this one of the best biographies ever written? There are several reasons that present themselves. Gaskell started with an interesting life, a life that is still interesting 120 years later. It’s the reason I couldn’t wait to read the book: a small, pastor’s family of mostly girls, in the middle of nowhere but with very high levels of genius, dying off one by one until only the father had made it to age 40. Meanwhile, the three girls who made it to adulthood whipped off novels before their untimely deaths–novels that would be acknowledged as some of the best ever written. Intriguing. Also, it never hurt Gaskell that not only Bronte was famous at the time of her death, but that Gaskell was also famous. (At time time, Gaskell was even more famous.) Now, however, critics like to point more to the sensitivity of Gaskell’s biography, which I think refers to its humanity. Gaskell handles Bronte’s life with kid gloves, yet–for the time, at least–does not shy away from all the facts. (We’ll talk more about this later.) Also, it would take a great writer to write such a great biography, right? I would argue that much of the charm of the book comes from Bronte herself. Gaskell composed most of the book by lifting Bronte’s own letters, letting Bronte speak for herself and effectively shrouding the whole book in Bronte’s literary charms and talents. I would say that the style comes off as more Bronte’s than Gaskell’s. In fact, when we are pulled for long from the Bronte letters, we are lifted from the flow and a little disappointed at the disintegration of the literary spell.
It probably didn’t hurt, either, that Gaskell was threatened with a high profile libel suit as soon as the book hit the shelves. In the book, Gaskell obliquely (read: Victorian style) accuses a Lady of England of an affair (of unknown nature) with the Bronte son. And, ultimately, unwitting murder. The Lady had a fit and managed to have all copies pulled from sale and the book re-issued with omissions. Thankfully, our current copies are the original.
As for the rest of the history, it is this: Charlotte Bronte was born the third-eldest daughter in a family of six. Her father was a pastor and moved his young family to the far-North moors of England, to a small, isolated village, where her mother quickly died. Her aunt came to raise the children (but would die before they became writers), and Mr. Bronte realized his children’s genius–especially his son’s–and sought an education for them. Through a series of boarding schools and then stints as governesses and teachers, two sisters perished and three emerged into adulthood intensely shy and religious and weak in body. As a way to escape governessing, Bronte published a book of the three sisters’ poetry and they took on male nom de plumes and wrote their first novels. In a relatively short span of time, the sister’s became famous, the Bronte son drank himself to death (after a public exposure of his affair/obsession with his employer’s wife), and the two remaining sisters died. After Charlotte’s brief marriage and untimely death, the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell–a newer friend of Bronte’s–rushed to gather letters and interview, writing The Life of Charlotte Bronte rather quickly. These are the bones of the story, the story that would lead to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and five other novels. As for anything more, you can read the book and see.
As for the book as a piece of literature, it is okay. In fact, it’s so okay that you rarely remember that you are reading; you’re just flawlessly lifted from you life and the language is smooth and unobtrusive. As I mentioned above, the bulk of the text comes from letters and most of those letters written by Charlotte Bronte, therefore the tone is largely Bronte’s conversational tone. It’s quite pleasant, and while Gaskell is sort of telling me one thing about Bronte, I am reading something else in the character of her letters. Nearing the end, the book drags on, and I lost interest when Gaskell included all those letters from Bronte discussing the literature and literary news of their times. It was a mistake to veer from Bronte’s more personal revelations, but I am guessing that Gaskell had scant else to go on during this period. It makes me wonder if the tale should have been told in a less chronological way, at least as far as the letters go.
Speaking of dragging on, I know that she claims having left out many letters, but it felt like Gaskell included too much. In other words, the book easily could have been streamlined and still said the same thing. Time after time, we see letters revealing to us the same things about Bronte, over and over. Gaskell herself is guilty of repeating things, driving home her points with the ring of a hammer on a stake.
On the other hand, she left important things out, thanks to her Victorian sensibilities. Those Victorians were strange people. What could and couldn’t be said created a web of deception and revelation that is difficult to comprehend at this distance. For example, Gaskell can not say, “Bronte was pregnant when she died.” She can also not mention what happened with the baby or how far along Bronte was. Actually, she probably didn’t know, because Bronte herself never could have said. The history of the Brontes includes many incidences where we are required to read between the lines or, in the worst cases, wonder longingly at a pale space between facts.
But beyond her very Victorian omissions, one can’t help feel that Gaskell had but one lens through which she saw Charlotte, and it is applied completely and thickly. I have no doubt that Bronte struggled with homesickness, sickliness, and possible depression, but Gaskell lays it on so thick that we don’t get the part of Bronte that shines through her letters: the wit, sarcasm, humor, and even happiness. Personally, it really seems that Bronte herself perpetuated the impression others would have of her physical weakness, her helplessness, her depression (through classic negativity)… yet she was clearly also strong, capable, smart, and at times deeply satisfied. Just like all of us, Bronte and Gaskell saw herself/her one way, while the reality was much more complex and subtle. And, as is always the case, Bronte becomes to us a sort of collage of a dozen memorable and iconic moments: the Bronte children receiving their box of wooden soldiers; little Charlotte lost in absorption of the political news; Emily on the moors with her faithful dog; Anne toiling as a governess with her head bent is submission; the three girls walking the parlour in the dark of night, discussing their writing; the near-empty house in the middle of the graveyard.
At any rate, I loved reading this biography for its revelation of the writing life. I would say “writing life in Victorian times,” but I find that not much is different between Bronte’s being a writer and my being a writer. For more on reading The Life as a writer, see my blog HERE.
So, yeah, I recommend it, but it can get long and dry at times. And I strongly suggest that you take anything Gaskell says with a grain of salt: she was, after all, a famous woman rushing to write the definitive biography on another famous person, one whom she had known only for a limited time. I’m not saying Gaskell’s motives or knowledge were bad, just that they were–like all of ours–mixed and not crystal clear.
I’m sure there are more modern biographies that are more entertaining, but this one is surely worth reading, especially if you enjoy biographies, love the Brontes, or are writing biographies of your own.
There must have been biographical snippets on TV here and there, about Charlotte Bronte, but I don’t know how to find them. The BBC announced their intention of making a drama about the lives of the Brontes, last May. They have not said much more than who will write, direct, and generally where the filming will take place. Also, casting was happening way back in May. Waiting for more information. There’s also a highly fictionalized film, Devotion, from 1946.
“My heart is a very hot-bed for sinful thoughts, and when I decide on an action I scarcely remember to look to my Redeemer for direction. I know not how to pray; I cannot bend my life to the grand end of doing good; I go on constantly seeking my own pleasure” (p127).
“I recollected the fable of the willow and the oak; I bent quietly, and now, I trust, the storm is blowing over me” (p138).
“I think, if you can respect a person before marriage, moderate love at least will come after; and as to intense passion, I am convinced that that is no desirable feeling” (p151).
“This made it possible for her to go through long and deep histories of feeling and imagination, for which others, odd as it sounds, have rarely time” (p157).
“I am a fool. Heaven knows I cannot help it!” (p159).
“…but, God knows, I have enough to do to keep a good heart in the matter” (p159).
“I find it is not in my nature to get along in this weary world without sympathy and attachment in some quarter; and seldom indeed do we find it” (p160).
“As to getting into debt, that is a thing we could none of us reconcile our minds to for a moment” (p162).
“…but when you have thrown the reins on the neck of your imagination, do not pull her up to reason” (p183).
“All this, looked upon as a well-invented fiction in Shirley, was written down by Charlotte with streaming eyes; it was the literal true account of what Emily had done” (p211).
“Do not condemn yourself to live only be halves” (p220).
“You thought I refused you coldly, did you? It was a queer sort of coldness, when I would have given my ears to say Yes, and I was obliged to say No” (221).
“I must remember perfection is not the lot of humanity; and as long as we can regard those we love, and to whom we are closely allied, with profound and never-shaken esteem, it is a small thing that they should vex us occasionally by what appear to us unreasonable and headstrong notions” (p231).
“[Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell] stole into life; some weeks passed over, without the mighty murmuring public discovering that three more voices were uttering their speech” (p236).
“…nor will you be praised and admired for remaining at home to comfort your mother; yet, probably, your own conscience will approve, and if it does, stay with her” (p237).
“If you see any honey, gather it” (p250).
“…yet she must not shrink from the extra responsibility implied by the very fact of her possessing such talents” (p273).
“‘The pomp and circumstance of war’ have quite lost in my eyes their fictitious glitter” (p279).
“I have now outlived youth; and, though I dare not say that I have outlived all its illusions…” (p279).
“When people belong to a clique, they must, I suppose, in some measure, write, talk, think, and live for that clique; a harassing and narrowing necessity” (p278).
“Till the last hour comes, we never know how much we can forgive, pity, regret” (p290).
“Fortitude is good; but fortitude itself must be shaken under us to teach us how weak we are” (p301).
“…before ‘the desk was closed, and the pen laid aside forever'” (p304).
“But, Lord, whatever be my fate, / Oh let me serve Thee now!” (p305).
“I do not now how life will pass, but I certainly do feel confidence in Him who has upheld me hitherto” (p313).
“Solitude, Remembrance, and Longing are to be almost my sole companions all the day through–that at night I shall go to bed with them” (p313).
“But crushed I am not, yet; nor robbed of elasticity, nor of hope, nor quite of endeavor” (p313).
“The strength, if strength we have, is certainly never in our own selves; it is given us” (p319).
“The two human beings who understood me, and whom I understood, are gone” (p320).
“…it is for me a part of my religion to defend this gift, and to profit by its possessions” (p320).
“That matters little. My own conscience I satisfy first” (p326).
“…it is so bad for the mind to be quite alone, and to have none with whom to talk over little crosses and disappointments” (p336).
“Thackeray still proves himself greater when he is weary than other writers are when they are fresh” (p340).
“Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste” (p341).
“…if I knew all that was coming, it would be comparatively flat. I would much rather not know” (p341).
“…she only grieves that a mind of which this is the emanation, should be kept crushed by the leaded hand of poverty” (p342).
“Some people’s natures are veritable enigmas: I quite expected to have had one good scene at least with him; but as yet nothing of the sort has occurred” (p342).
“…but he who shuns suffering will never win victory” (p343).
“Youth has its romance, and maturity its wisdom, as morning and spring have their freshness, noon and summer their power, night and winter their repose. Each attribute is goof in its own season” (p346),
“…that is to say, the excuses were often worse than the crime itself” (p347).
“…but I think grief is a two-edged sword, it cuts both ways; the memory of one loss is the anticipation of another” (p352).
“…’enough,’ the proverb says, ‘is as good as a feast'” (p358).
“Sunday–yesterday–was a day to be marked with a white stone” (p381).
“Who has the words at the right moment?” (p382).
“…we must love our friends for their sakes rather than for our own” (p387).
“…it is better to be worn our with work in a thronged community, than to perish f inaction in a stagnant solitude” (p388).
“…it is good to be attracted outside of ourselves–to be forced to take a near view of the sufferings, the privations, the efforts, the difficulties of others” (p393).
“If, on the other hand, we be contending with the special grief,–the intimate trial,–the peculiar bitterness with which God has seen fit to mingle our own cup of existence,–it is very good to know that our overcast lot is not singular …. there are countless afflictions in the world, each perhaps rivaling–some surpassing–the private pain …. a thorn in the flesh for each; some burden, some conflict for all” (p393).
“‘…marriage might be defined as the state of two-fold selfishness'” (p407).
“Submission, courage, exertion, when practicable,–these seem to be the weapons with which we must fight life’s long battle” (p410).
“…my palette affords no brighter tints; were I to attempt to deepen the reds, or burnish the yellows, I should by botch” (p416).
“I might explain away a few other points, but it would be too much like drawing a picture and then writing underneath the name of the object intended to be represented” (p416).
“The longer I live, the more plainly I see that gentle must be the strain on fragile human nature; it will not bear much” (p424).