Monday, 27 August 2012

Aspects of Charlotte Brontë's life from her books: The Duality of Nature

Even in her lifetime, Charlotte Brontë was noted to incorporate her life into her books. Thackeray referred to her as Jane Eyre, and acute critics observed the similarities between Jane and Lucy Snowe, who are also Charlotte Brontë. That would explain why so many fail to understand Lucy, and condemn her as badly-written. On the contrary it is exceedingly well-written. Lucy is complex because she is based on a real person, who is Charlotte. Had Lucy been entirely fictional she would have been less complex, her reasons for doing strange things clearer - but her reasons are never clear. It's Charlotte imagining herself in a different situation back in the past, in Belgium.

In the Fraser's Magazine review of Jane Eyre, the reviewer writes:
Reality—deep, significant reality, is the characteristic of this book. It is an autobiography—not, perhaps, in the naked facts and circumstances, but in the actual suffering and experience. This gives the book its charm: it is soul speaking to soul: it is an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much enduring spirit: suspiria de profundis.
Jane Eyre is overly melodramatic and Gothic but even the feelings were real. And yet, how? The passion for Rochester might be paralleled to the passion for Heger but even I would dispute that. Rochester's origins lie in the Byronic hero rather than Heger, who would feature as Paul Emmanuel in Villette.  Cowan Bridge School is re-echoed as Lowood, Helen Burns is Charlotte's elder sister Maria. But these are the early parts of the book, and Lowood is not actually the major part of the story, though it undoubtedly influences Jane. What then is the pervading reality in Jane Eyre that tells us about Charlotte? Firstly, the heroine is small and plain, like Charlotte. She is also an impoverished governess without many accomplishments (Charlotte's accomplishments weren't actually very much compared to many educated young ladies, but her reading and originality were outstanding. These qualities however weren't prized in governesses). But unlike Lucy Snowe who seems more akin to Charlotte, Jane Eyre speaks frankly in a way that would make Charlotte blush. Charlotte would not speak in that way to her employer. This is explained away by the fact Jane is comfortable with Mr Rochester. It also explains some inconsistencies in the text: despite her garrulousness with Rochester, she is ill at ease with everyone else. Mrs Reed hates her not so much for her poverty but because she is strange and aloof. Miss Rigby of the Quarterly Review too heaped sarcasm upon Jane Eyre, claiming Jane is too proud, because she has no friends before meeting Rochester, and condemns Jane for being a problem-child: no one can like her, says Miss Rigby. Though hurtful, Miss Rigby holds the key to the mystery. Jane is unlikeable, but to Rochester she is free and an exception. She is lively in mind, but because she is unlikeable she has to appear subdued - only when she is comfortable with certain people does she shine. This explains St John's remark that she is not timid. Miss Rigby offers the perspective that other people would see in Jane Eyre had they really met that person. We love Jane because we see her perspective, but if we met her in person we wouldn't like her.

And how does this tally with Charlotte's childhood? For Jane's childhood is the part which is one of the most vivid and convincing, rather than her romance with Rochester (at least I thought so when I was 14, and still think so now). It offers some of the deepest analysis in the book. Jane's friend in school, Mary Ann Wilson, is based on Mellany Hane, who apparently protected Charlotte in Cowan Bridge for a short while. Mellany was some years older, which is why she appeared as an older sister figure, just as Mary Ann was for Jane. And yet Mary Ann is merely a superficial friend to have fun with, not the transcendence Jane has with Helen Burns. This shows Jane's inability to form meaningful relationships with those who are not particularly enlightened or sympathetic - somewhat like Charlotte, but Charlotte was far better at maintaining relationships than Jane. We also see in Juliet Barker's biography of the Brontës that Charlotte was awkward with her godmother and the children in that house. They were supposed to be her companions on her visits but she never really got along with them, just as Jane doesn't really play with her schoolfellows (except the two older girls).

In Shirley, we get a superior picture of how Charlotte might be. Catherine Winkworth, who became friends with Charlotte through Mrs Gaskell, wrote to a friend that it is "infinitely more original and full of character than the ordinary run of novels - it belongs to quite a higher class." When it came out finally people began to guess Currer Bell's identity, especially residents of Haworth and the neighbouring parishes. Rev WM Heald, Ellen Nussey's vicar, managed to identify several characters' originals in a letter to Ellen (he was apparently Mr Hall, so Mr Heald must have been some nice guy). Malone, Donne and Sweeting are based on real curates Charlotte knew and despised. She wrote to Ellen once that the curates are ordinary boring things who probably laugh at her spinster ways, so the contemptible behaviour of the curates are immortalised in Shirley. Mr Helstone is a good picture for a novelist not known to draw good men. He is based on Rev Mr Roberson, an honourable man who defended against the rioters. Basically Shirley is the lives of people in a few Yorkshire parishes. I've neglected to mention Caroline, the actual heroine of the novel, though not as heroic as Shirley. We hear Caroline's thoughts, hopes, dreams and perceptions. Better still, we see her as she lives, day to day. It is not the fantastic fiery outbursts of Jane Eyre we read: Jane Eyre doesn't really describe her day-to-day life quite as well as Caroline's is described. Jane appears to be a radical, less an ordinary person - and radicals do have ordinary lives most of the time. This makes Caroline a convincing triumph. True, much of it is melancholy, but we know she sews, reads, cries, or goes to Hollow Cottage for French lessons. As Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey she does little to pass the time, which reminds you of Caroline.  She is less obviously intellectual, less lively than Charlotte at first glance, but this is not so much the case. True, she did not write stories from a young age as her creator did. But she offers Charlotte's opinions on poetry: they should be true rather than refined. She is quiet and subdued, but apparently Charlotte was the same in public, with almost everyone except those she was comfortable with.

"But she doesn't do anything lively!" I hear the reader protest. Actually, if you look carefully, she does. You may not see her to advantage with that pagan goddess Shirley, but it is stated that when Louis Moore first comes to Briarfield, Caroline feels lively, and talks to him at ease.
Robert - perhaps aware that Caroline's glance had wandered towards and dwelt upon him, though he had neither met nor answered it - put down the book of engravings, and approaching, took a seat at her side. She resumed her conversation with Louis, but, while she talked to him, her thoughts were elsewhere: her heart beat on the side from which her face was half-averted. She acknowledged a steady, manly, kindly air in Louis; but she bent before the secret power of Robert. To be so near him - though he was silent - though he did not touch so much as her scarf-fringe, or the white hem of her dress - affected her like a spell. Had she been obliged to speak to him only, it would have quelled - but, at liberty to address another, it excited her. Her discourse flowed freely: it was gay, playful, eloquent. The indulgent look and placid manner of her auditor encouraged her to ease; the sober pleasure expressed by his smile drew out all that was brilliant in her nature. She felt that this evening she appeared to advantage, and, as Robert was a spectator, the consciousness contented her: had he been called away, collapse would at once have succeeded stimulus.
Robert gives her confidence to speak, and because Louis is reserved, like her, she appears to advantage. To a more open, talkative person Caroline knows she can never entertain that person.

Louis does not seem to seek Caroline's friendship:
 It even appeared that he would accept nothing more: in that abode at least; for when his cousin Caroline made gentle overtures of friendship, he did not encourage them; he rather avoided than sought her.
Caroline's overtures of friendship are inconsistent for a girl who needed Shirley to make the first move of friendship, but not so really. In Jane Eyre, Jane offers to help Rochester because he is not charming - a charming person would not have made her sympathise. Caroline feels at home with Louis, because like her, he is an outcast, and of a reserved nature. In real life Charlotte was witty with George Smith, William Smith Williams and her best friend Ellen Nussey. Not so with the society she was forced to face in London houses.  Duality of nature, not inconsistency of character, is what Charlotte has immortalised within the pages of Shirley. There's some of it in Pride and Prejudice, but surprisingly few seem to have seen it in Elizabeth Bennet.  Probably because we are all blinded for our love for Lizzie. I give you Charlotte's answer to Henry Nussey, refusing his proposal of marriage:
As for me, you do not know me, I am not this serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose -- You would think me romantic and eccentric -- you would say I was satirical and severe. 
Villette is arguably about Charlotte's character. It is not marked by circumstances, as some reviewers said, but by the presence (or absence) of Lucy Snowe. Which reminds you of Mansfield Park, though Mansfield Park's characters are more closely-knit in the plot than Villette's are. Lucy is a frustrating heroine, because she conceals so much. And yet the incidents in the novel don't mirror Charlotte's life so much as the feelings do.

Lucy says she didn't reveal her identity to her godbrother Dr John because it was not her nature to do so. "Why not?" generations of readers have screamed. It is as if she is trying to torture herself. Not so. Go back to the first 3 chapters of Villette, and you will see Polly's unhappiness because Graham prefers his schoolfriends to her company. She feels unwanted. In many ways Polly reflects Lucy's own sentiments, so Lucy's unwillingness to be so friendly to Graham is she did not think it would make a difference in his own feelings towards her. They get along well enough but true genuine friendship she thinks is beyond her - as her own relations with George Smith were tempered with bouts of uncertainty (like his relatives' fear of Charlotte Brontë). She was not at all like Smith, as Lucy is not like Dr John. She knows she will be nothing to him compared to his other friends and feels she can't measure up to them. Which is one reason why despite fancying Smith Charlotte never really wanted to marry him. To expect friendship from such a dissimilar quarter, Lucy feels, would be to fool herself and to conceal her true nature. Charlotte hated it when critics in London were tearing apart her identity. Also, we may see some aspects of Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth, her most persistent fan, who kept on inviting her to his house. Charlotte was not fond of him, because she felt he was insincere and she was not comfortable in his company. He was a practical realist; she a romantic dreamer. Anyway one day she went to London knowing very well Sir James was there, and she refused to call on him (not very polite thing to do). Which reminds you of Lucy Snowe deliberately not telling Dr John who she is.

Let's get on to the unfinished Emma, a fragment of only 20 pages. How might Emma have turned out? In Jane Eyre, we have Charlotte's childhood, in Shirley her teenage and twenties' years at home in the Parsonage, in Villette her experiences in Brussels. What about Emma? Unfortunately there is too little to tell, and I doubt Charlotte could have finished it had she survived. She had no raging passion now with so many things to do and a husband to occupy her time, and despite the same number of years after Villette as between the publication of Shirley and Villette, no new novel was written. Her flame was extinguished.  But assuming Emma had been written and completed, the fragment shows us how it might have turned out. The themes used are similar to Charlotte's juvenilia: life at a girls' boarding-school. Villette doesn't mention the inhabitants of the Pensionnate deeply, Emma might have. Surprisingly, for a Brontë novel one of the protagonists (who speaks in first person, the other chapter is written in third person, which makes it a mixed narrative) is a married woman (Anne did it, but that's another story). Charlotte's heroines are invariably young single girls. But here we have Mrs Chalfont, a widow past her first youth. Significantly, it was written after Charlotte's marriage, which means in the interval between Villette and her marriage she hadn't come up with a satisfactory story. But why a widow? A widow has more independence and maturity than a young girl, and since one of the main players appears to be a young schoolgirl, Matilda Gitzgibbons, it is possibly Mrs Chalfont was meant to be a benefactor to Matilda, who turns out not to be an heiress after all. Also, being a married woman, Charlotte thought she could write an older, more mature character better. The burning passion for love and fulfilment had somewhat in quenched in her, a more maternal temperament fostered (she refers to her husband as her "dear boy." Ugh! He didn't deserve our Charlotte.) Would it not make sense if the heroine is a woman trying to fulfil others' lives (as Charlotte tried to matchmake Ellen after she married Nicholls)? But why not make Mrs Chalfont an ordinary married woman? I suppose either Charlotte couldn't think of a suitable husband for Mrs Chalfont, or she wanted Mrs C to have more independence and originality and time away from a husband. Also, it is possibly she may have wanted Mrs C to marry someone in the book and you can't have this with a married woman can you?  After all there's a Mr Ellin, an observer who appears to be helpful to Matilda.  It is possible he and Mrs C are old acquaintances.

Since Charlotte wasn't good at making mature people her protagonists it is possibly she may have given up the idea. But let's speculate on Mr Ellin? Who is he? A gentleman, I presume, of independent means, since a professional man wouldn't be spending his time with the mystery of Matilda as he wouldn't have the time and means. And who is Matilda? That is the question. If we know who she is we might solve the mystery.

I don't know if you've noticed that Matilda's surroundings correspond to one phase of Charlotte's life not covered: Roehead. If Lowood is Cowan Bridge than Matilda's school is Roehead, Charlotte's second school. Matilda walks apart from her schoolfellows and doesn't play with them. Mr Ellin puts it down to pride: I think it is uneasiness. Recall how unhappy the girl looks. This may reflect Charlotte's experience at Roe Head, though she did do well there, making two lifelong friends and becoming top student. With her other schoolfriends I doubt she made much of a hit. Charlotte's juvenilia also has a lonely teacher in a school who has sympathy in one of the pupils. Could this be the source of Emma? (Lyndall Gordon discusses some of it I think).

Mr Fitzgibbons' abandonment of his daughter may strike a chord with us: James Helstone in Shirley was cruel to his daughter Caroline and forgot to feed her at times. If Emma had materialised we might have got a better picture of rural society, possibly akin to Shirley, but with mystery, something you don't expect in Charlotte Brontë.   If this was meant to be a detective story that means she was advanced, ahead of Wilkie Collins, the best-known Victorian classic detective novelist, not counting Conan Doyle.

In another fragment discarded, Willie Ellin is the weak brother of an industrialist (like the Crimsworths) who is bullied by his brother and runs away. Could Mr Ellin be like Willie? The story is too far-fetched (where does Mr Ellin get his money?) but some ideas may have been taken from it. Another far-fetched idea I am going to suggest is, Matilda is Mr Ellin's niece. She is the daughter of his brother from whom he ran away. The brother lost his money and ran away abandoning his child. But it still doesn't explain why Mr Fitzgibbon gave a false name and address. Maybe he is a crook (definitely is). Or he could be hiding a secret from the neighbourhood. We will never know. The best thing would be to imagine you are Charlotte Brontë. And yet this story is so un-Charlottelike it might even be a detective story. You can guess Charlotte's work if it was a bildungsroman but not if it's genre fiction.

"Who are you, Lucy Snowe?" asks Ginevra in Villette. We might well ask the same in Emma: "Who are you, Matilda Fitzgibbon?" A strange personality? I think it's significant that Miss Wilcox doesn't like Matilda - Charlotte took pains to stress them - the way Jane Eyre is disliked. It hints at a girl's development in a hostile world. Another good approach would be to look at her juvenilia, which has more suspense and thriller-like elements which could be the clue to the mystery.

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