Monday, May 31, 2010

WFJ Book Club #4 - Charlotte Brontë: A Writer's Life

While wandering the rows of my local Borders store a few months ago, I felt the urge to read a new biography.  This isn't unusual, as biography is typically my favorite genre of book.  A good biography is a delight to read because it puts individual human lives in the context of history, and enhances the experience of both in the process.  They also tend to be quite long, which means that they can be counted on to last for at least a week or two (or more, if you do not read as quickly as I do).  The really good ones give the reader a kind of personal connection with the subject of the book, a sense of having known them as well as a friend (or at least a close acquaintance), the kind of connection that can lead to an inspirational look at one's own life.

So I found it a little disappointing to find the biography section so uninspiring.  Everywhere I looked, I saw Churchills and Roosevelts and Eisenhowers; an assembly of Great Men whose claim to greatness lies in having fought wars and governed countries and other great, manly things.  "What I'm looking for today," I said to myself, "is a book about an artist, a creative person.  The kind of person whose 'greatness' came from the private accomplishments of artistry and invention rather than the tedious affairs of politics and public life."  Better yet, I added, "how about the accomplishments of a woman?"

Sadly, it's particularly in that category that the biography section is most lacking.  I had never really noticed it before, but of all the books worth reading in that row, a nearly total majority primarily concern males (unless you're interested in reading the inebriated musings of Chelsea Handler).  At first glance, it almost seems like it's Churchills all the way down.

So thank goodness I found Rebecca Fraser's 500 page life of Charlotte Brontë, one of those canonical British authors whose works I was supposed to have read in high school, but somehow never quite got around to.  So much the better, I figured.  I'd read books about people whose work I knew quite well, and though I enjoyed them, the amount I actually learned from the experience was arguably small.  Why not take a chance, and learn about someone whose life's work was still unknown to me?

And what a sobering array of lessons it proved to be.  Charlotte was the daughter of an austere Anglican cleric in the windswept moors of Yorkshire, and the eldest of four surviving siblings; her younger brother and sisters would all die within two years of one another, before any of them could pass the age of thirty.  Charlotte herself would survive six more years before succumbing to a sudden illness in 1855, six years spent mostly tending to her elderly father in relative solitude.  If there is any happiness to be found in her last years, apart from the dubious kind brought by the success of her novels, it is that she spent her final months married to a man who loved her, and who she seems to have loved as well.  But as with most artists, it was her unhappiness that proved to be her greatest inspiration.

The real unhappiness of Charlotte Brontë was not the result of any tragedy, but rather the general circumstances of her life, and the unsuitability of her nature to living it.  She was brought up reading Gothic romances, and aspired to write them herself.  Above all else she admired "truth" in writing, which she defined as an emotional, passionate truth.  For women of her time, however, acknowledgment of the truth of women's inner lives and desires represented an affront to the more comfortable "truths" on which society rested. 

Charlotte's thoughts were defined by opposition to that way of thinking, and yet it's difficult to say that it did her any good.  Apart from her incidental, almost accidental career as a literary celebrity, she lived a painfully conventional life of self-denial, sacrificing much of her potential for the care of her father, and restraining her fitful passions for the sake of appearances and her religious faith.  She disdained the notion that her work might be considered inappropriate for a woman, but just as much she distanced herself from the idea that it represented anything radical or "feminist" (however scandalously it was received).

How could anyone who aspired to success and accomplishment, yet felt painfully averse to public attention and fame, ever be content with her life?  That is a question with which troubled artists have struggled for all time, and there are no better symbols of it than Charlotte Brontë and her sisters.  Indeed, one of the best attributes of the book is the way it deals with the Brontës as a group.  Alongside Charlotte we meet Emily, the author of Wuthering Heights and the most original (and eccentric) writer of the family, whose work today is the most highly regarded, yet received the most uncomprehending reviews in its time.  There is also Anne, whose stories were less passionately charged yet more self-consciously radical.  Only Anne would put so clearly in writing the proto-feminist sentiments Charlotte would only imply; and yet, she was perhaps the most deeply religious.

The three together became a literary sensation (all the more so for their initial anonymity), and yet the younger two would have no time to enjoy it, for they died soon after.  The style of Fraser's book shifts deliberately after the death of the sisters from tuberculosis, and it's no surprise, because their successes were mutually dependent: without the support of one another, it's unlikely that any of them would have published a thing.  The rest of the story is a slow countdown through Charlotte's final years, as she finds her solitude a crippling barrier to her ability to write more.

And then there is the brother, Branwell Brontë.  As teenagers he and Charlotte collaborated and inspired one another in writing endless fantastic manuscripts.  But despite the equal nature of their enterprise, it was he who was considered the prodigious talent, and groomed for an education in writing and painting.  That he should be so singled out in a family of aspiring authors by default speaks to the profound bias of their time; whatever the pleasures of Charlotte's literary ability, it was not appropriate for her to make a career of it.  In the end Branwell  turned out to be more prodigal than prodigy: his ambitions came to naught, and he burned his life and talents away in a delirium of alcohol and opiates, without producing a single major work in any medium.  The decline and self-destruction of Branwell Brontë would by pitiful, but historically insignificant, were it not for the contrast it bore against the success of his sisters, and the sad fact that his death was the immediate harbinger of Emily's and Anne's.  In the book, it is the slow burning fuse that reminds the reader that temporary successes may well be built on crumbled foundations.

It's the existence of a positive creative impulse, surviving amidst all that pain and limitation, that is most endearing about Charlotte's work.  Her books make use of her loss, her frustration, and her unrequited love, and she sacrificed all of these things for her art.  In a time when novels were expected to be morally didactic, she wrote her characters to act as they truly felt; astonishing as it may seem to us now, for a mild-mannered female writer this was a real breakthrough.  She was offended to be identified as Jane Eyre herself by the literary establishment, but she had poured her heart and soul into that book, and would fiercely defend it (and her right to have written it) against her critics for the rest of her days.

She fought that battle until a pregnancy-related illness cut her life short, leaving behind a scattering of literary landmarks for the edification and enjoyment of sympathetic readers.  But despite her artistic success, amid all the controversy it's hard not to notice that our times are not so different from hers.  The attitudes which conspired to keep Charlotte Brontë's spirit in a quiet domestic sphere no longer suffocate our atmosphere, but they are far from extinct.  Even today a man can choose just about any path or job he likes, and rarely have his masculinity questioned for it (nurses and fashion designers notwithstanding).  The crux of femininity, meanwhile, remains the choice between two sets of duties: those of family, and those of career.  That a father should rise to success and power is entirely expected, but for a mother to accomplish the same is considered remarkable at best, unseemly at worst.

If continuity is an indication, then feminists may not have a future of ultimate victory to look forward to.  Women may one day even overtake men in success, but will that stop the sideways-whispers and judgments?  Perhaps resentment is a small price to pay for cultural liberation, but that there should be resentment at all smacks of injustice.  People of both sexes may have the best of intentions for doing so (and more often than not, they do), but what a world we live in where society tells a woman that she must be less than she is to be more of a woman!

Charlotte Brontë is long gone now, un-liberated yet mostly vindicated in her life-long quest to be taken seriously as an artist.  Thanks to her numerous correspondences and manuscripts her life is incredibly well documented, allowing clever historians like Fraser to present us with an image of Charlotte as she was: a creative, intellectual, and deeply emotional woman, whose trials and sorrows echo backwards and forwards across time in the lives of men and women.  In spite of the evolution of society (to say nothing of the advance of medicine and technology), life is no less tragic, the life of an artist especially so. Charlotte's life is a testimony to the true worth and power of art: to take the fragile, marginalized people of the world, and give them a voice.

Of course, I still have yet to read any of Charlotte's books, or her sisters'.  Ironically, as well as I feel I've come to know her, I've yet to read her own words without mediation; I've come to know the artist without knowing her art.  Even so, Fraser's book is one of the most fascinating biographies I've ever read.  It serves its purpose well as a guide to the world of the Brontës, a melancholy world of lost potential, yet beautiful with its genuine, heroic achievement.


  1. Do you think knowing a writer's background in great detail changes how one would read said writer's work? ....'But as with most artists, it was her unhappiness that proved to be her greatest inspiration.' ...Is this alarming or interesting - as one embarking down the artistic path?

  2. Well, it really could be alarming. Many artists have been profoundly unhappy, and I wouldn't want to end up like a van Gogh, for example. But on the other hand, unhappiness is just part of the human condition, so everybody's got some to work with.

    Anyway, I think the artist's background is profoundly fascinating when considered against their work. It gives you a glimpse at why they did it, with "it" being the sum of their whole career.