Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. A. Raleigh
Charlotte Brontë (18161855)
[Charlotte Brontë, descended from an Irish family that originally bore the name of Prunty, was born on the 21st of April 1816, at Thornton in Yorkshire, where her father held a living. Her experiences of the wild moors around Haworth, whither the family moved when she was three years old, of the school to which she was sent at Cowans Bridge, of the pensionnat of Madam Héger at Brussels, where she passed the better part of two years, and of Yorkshire society, industrial and clerical, have all left their mark upon her novels. With her sisters Emily and Anne she published a joint volume of Poems in 1846. Jane Eyre appeared in 1847, Shirley in 1849, and Villette in 1852. The Professor, her earliest novel, failed to find a publisher. She was married in 1854 to her fathers curate Mr. Nicholls, and died on the 31st of March 1855.]
IT is likely enough that in the three novels which preserve her fame Charlotte Brontë had exhausted her vein. She did her best work at high pressure with material glowing from the fires of memory. Such a method, depending as it does on the intensity of passion and reminiscence for its chief effect, can only be extended by a chill process of analogy to a variety of themes, and Shirley, which attempts a wider range and a more impartial treatment than the other two books, is the least admirable of the three. A nice sense of means to an end, the only merit that she allowed to Miss Austen, was no part of Charlotte Brontës talent; the consuming fervour of her feeling can communicate itself even by involved sentences or conventional expressions. At her best of observation and emotion she strikes out vivid and memorable phrases, but at all times the fire is there, smouldering when it does not blaze. The choice of those much derided little gray ladies, plain and frail, for her heroines, emphasises her own depth of wonder at the strange alliance of the soul with the body,Thy heart rends thee, and thy body endures. The art of which she was most conscious in her writings was the art of repression and restraint.
There is not in literature a more genuine note of passion and longing than the muffled cry that echoes through her novels. The egregious Miss Martineau, in criticising Villette, remarked that there are substantial, heart-felt interests for women of all ages, and under ordinary circumstances, quite apart from love; there is an absence of introspection, an unconsciousness, a repose in womens livesunless under peculiarly unfortunate circumstancesof which we find no admission in this book. The remark is a true one, and has been illustrated by some thousands of bad novels written since the time when it was made. The substantial interests and the unconsciousness of womens lives were, for once, in the works of Charlotte Brontë, lit by the lurid glare and outlined by the dark shadows cast from the eruption of a volcano. No woman among English novelists, before or since, has succeeded in throwing so uniform and so intense a glamour over the domain allotted to her imagination, none has displayed so superb a confidence in the intuitions of her own temperament. Critics and humorists there have been in plenty, of whom the unrivalled chief is Jane Austen; there have been plenty, too, of over-educated women, with George Eliot at their head, who submitted a generous faculty of observation and sympathy to borrowed schemes of thought, never thoroughly appropriated or vivified. But this great gift of apocalyptic romance, free from the tyranny of system, and mastering the vacant importunity of detail, was the dower of the inmates of the Yorkshire parsonage, and has proved as little heritable as the comic genius of the rectors daughter of Steventon herself.
For the creation of a rich variety of character, a more intellectual discursive humour than Charlotte Brontë ever possessed is imperatively necessary. Her laughter is sardonic, concealing pain and passion; the portraits of Mr. Naomi Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre and of the three curates in Shirley are delineated admirably but never playfully, the shadow of the Day of Judgment is projected on the canvas. Of all her creations the most wonderful, the figure of Edward Rochester, owes little to observation, from her own inmost nobility of temper and depth of suffering she moulded a man, reversing the marvels of Gods creation. So he becomes a living spirit, and not all the vagaries of melodrama, nor the crowd of minor characters less perfectly inspired, can bring upon him the suspicion of unreality. The scenes at Thornfield, the agonised parting, and the last ultimate meeting at Ferndean, show Miss Brontë in the full glory of her power, disdaining an appeal to anything that may not be felt the moment it is conceived. The reasons that determine Janes flight, her unalterable sense of the necessity of holding the fortress of her pride, alone and uncommended, against the assault of pity and love, are a good example of sovereign success in an attempt that would have prostrated a less original writer. And yet, through all, the proverb, which whether it be true of life or not is certainly true of most novels, that in affairs of the heart there is one who loves and one who is loved, finds absolute refutation. To paint a mutual passion convincingly is given to few novelists.
The rival figure of M. Paul Emmanuel is more elaborated, more mature in execution, but less tragic, less simple and direct. And observation with Charlotte Brontë is never effectively at work save in the service of love and hate, hence the minor characters of her books are represented only in their quality of attraction or repulsion, or both, as in the cases of St. John Rivers, and Mr. Helstone. There is too much that does not interest her, and that she does not understand, in the world at large, to allow of her dealing happily with the supernumeraries. She is never at home save in the heart and centre of her theme, where, in virtue of her vividness and directness, of her power, in spite of language, as it were, rather than by its aid, to communicate the fire and ether of her nature, she reigns by right of conquest, acknowledged queen and mistress.