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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855) and Her Sisters
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE LEAST that can be said of Charlotte Brontë is that she is a unique figure in literature. Nowhere else do we find another personality combining such extraordinary qualities of mind and heart,—qualities strangely contrasted, but still more strangely harmonized. At times they are baffling, but always fascinating. Nowhere else do we find so intimate an association of the personality of the author with the work, so thorough an identification with it of the author’s life, even to the smaller details. So true is this in the case of Charlotte Brontë that the four novels ‘Jane Eyre,’ ‘Shirley,’ ‘Villette,’ and ‘The Professor’ might with some justice be termed ‘Charlotte Brontë; her life and her friends.’ Her works were in large part an expression of herself; at times the best expression of herself—of her actual self in experience and of her spiritual self in travail and in aspiration. It is manifestly impossible therefore to consider the works of Charlotte Brontë with justice apart from herself. A correct understanding of her books can be obtained only from a study of her remarkable personality and of the sad circumstances of her life.  1
  Public interest in Charlotte Brontë was first roused in 1847. In October of that year there appeared in London a novel that created a sensation, the like of which had not been known since the publication of ‘Waverley.’ Its stern and paradoxical disregard for the conventional, its masculine energy, and its intense realism, startled the public, and proclaimed to all in accents unmistakable that a new, strange, and splendid power had come into literature, “but yet a woman.”  2
  And with the success of ‘Jane Eyre’ came a lively curiosity to know something of the personality of the author. This was not gratified for some time. There were many conjectures, all of them far amiss. The majority of readers asserted confidently that the work must be that of a man; the touch was unmistakably masculine. In some quarters it met with hearty abuse. The Quarterly Review, in an article still notorious for its brutality, condemned the book as coarse, and stated that if ‘Jane Eyre’ were really written by a woman, she must be an improper woman, who had forfeited the society of her sex. This was said in December, 1848, of one of the noblest and purest of womankind. It is not a matter of surprise that the identity of this audacious speculator was not revealed. The recent examination into the topic by Mr. Clement Shorter seems, however, to fix the authorship of the notice on Lady Eastlake, at that time Miss Driggs.  3
  But hostile criticism of the book and its mysterious author could not injure its popularity. The story swept all before it—press and public. Whatever might be the source, the work stood there and spoke for itself in commanding terms. At length the mystery was cleared. A shrewd Yorkshireman guessed and published the truth, and the curious world knew that the author of ‘Jane Eyre’ was the daughter of a clergyman in the little village of Haworth, and that the literary sensation of the day found its source in a nervous, shrinking, awkward, plain, delicate young creature of thirty-one years of age, whose life, with the exception of two years, had been spent on the bleak and dreary moorlands of Yorkshire, and for the most part in the narrow confines of a grim gray stone parsonage. There she had lived a pinched and meager little life, full of sadness and self-denial, with two sisters more delicate than herself, a dissolute brother, and a father her only parent,—a stern and forbidding father. This was no genial environment for an author, even if helpful to her vivid imagination. Nor was it a temporary condition; it was a permanent one. Nearly all the influences in Charlotte Brontë’s life were such as these, which would seem to cramp if not to stifle sensitive talent. Her brother Branwell (physically weaker than herself, though unquestionably talented, and for a time the idol and hope of the family) became dissipated, irresponsible, untruthful, and a ne’er-do-weel, and finally yielding to circumstances, ended miserably a life of failure.  4
  But Charlotte Brontë’s nature was one of indomitable courage, that circumstances might shadow but could not obscure. Out of the meager elements of her narrow life she evolved works that stand among the imperishable things of English literature. It is a paradox that finds its explanation only in a statement of natural sources, primitive, bardic, the sources of the early epics, the sources of such epics as Cædmon and Beowulf bore. She wrote from a sort of necessity; it was in obedience to the commanding authority of an extraordinary genius,—a creative power that struggled for expression,—and much of her work deserves in the best and fullest sense the term “inspired.”  5
  The facts of her life are few in number, but they have a direct and significant bearing on her work. She was born at Thornton, in the parish of Bradford, in 1816. Four years later her father moved to Haworth, to the parsonage now indissolubly associated with her name, and there Mr. Brontë entered upon a long period of pastorate service, that only ended with his death. Charlotte’s mother was dead. In 1824 Charlotte and two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, went to a school at Cowan’s Bridge. It was an institution for clergymen’s children, a vivid picture of which appears in ‘Jane Eyre.’ It was so badly managed and the food was so poor that many of the children fell sick, among them Maria Brontë, who died in 1825. Elizabeth followed her a few months later, and Charlotte returned to Haworth, where she remained for six years, then went to school at Roe Head for a period of three years. She was offered the position of teacher by Miss Wooler, the principal at Roe Head, but considering herself unfit to teach, she resolved to go to Brussels to study French. She spent two years there, and it was there that her intimate and misconstrued friendship for M. Heger developed. The incidents of that period formed the material of a greater portion of her novel ‘Villette.’  6
  On returning to Haworth, she endeavored, together with her sister Emily, to establish a school at their home. But pupils were not to be had, and the outlook was discouraging. Two periods of service as governess, and the ill health that had followed, had taught Charlotte the danger that threatened her. Her experiences as a governess in the Sedgwick family were pictured by-and-by in ‘Jane Eyre.’ In a letter to Miss Ellen Nussey, written at this time, she gives a dark vignette of her situation.  7
  With her two sisters Emily and Anne she lived a quiet and retired life. The harsh realities about them, the rough natures of the Yorkshire people, impelled the three sisters to construct in their home an ideal world of their own, and in this their pent-up natures found expression. Their home was lonely and gloomy. Mr. Clement K. Shorter, in his recent study of the novelist and her family, says that the house is much the same to-day, though its immediate surroundings are brightened. He writes:  8
  “One day Emily confided to Charlotte that she had written some verses. Charlotte answered with a similar confidence, and then Anne acknowledged that she too had been secretly writing. This mutual confession brought about a complete understanding and sympathy, and from that time on the sisters worked together—reading their literary productions to one another and submitting to each other’s criticism.”  9
  This was however by no means Charlotte’s first literary work. She has left a catalogue of books written by her between 1829 and 1830. The MS. found after her death filled twenty-two volumes of from sixty to one hundred pages of fine writing, and consisted of some forty complete novelettes or other stories and childish “magazines.” But her first printed work however appeared in a volume of ‘Poems’ by Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell, published in 1846 at the expense of the authors. Under these names the little book of the Brontë sisters went forth to the world, was reviewed with mild favor in some few periodicals, and was lost to sight.  10
  Then came a period of novel-writing. As a result, Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights,’ Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey,’ and Charlotte Brontë’s ‘The Professor’ set out together to find a publisher. The last-named was unsuccessful; but on the day it was returned to her, Charlotte Brontë began writing ‘Jane Eyre.’ That first masterpiece was shaped during a period of sorrow and discouragement. Her father was ill and in danger of losing his eyesight. Her brother Branwell was sinking into the slough of disgrace. No wonder ‘Jane Eyre’ is not a story of sunshine and roses. She finished the story in 1847, and it was accepted by the publishers promptly upon examination.  11
  After its publication and the sensation produced, Charlotte Brontë continued her literary work quietly, and unaffected by the furore she had aroused. A few brief visits to London, where attempts were made to lionize her,—very much to her distaste,—a few literary friendships, notably those with Thackeray, George Henry Lewes, Mrs. Gaskell, and Harriet Martineau, were the only features that distinguished her literary life from the simple life she had always led and continued to lead at Haworth. She was ever busy, if not ever at her desk. Success had come; she was sane in the midst of it. She wrote slowly and only as she felt the impulse, and when she knew she had found the proper impression. In 1849 ‘Shirley’ was published. In 1853 appeared ‘Villette,’ her last finished work, and the one considered by herself the best.  12
  In 1854 she married her father’s curate, Mr. A. B. Nicholls. She had lost her brother Branwell and her two sisters Emily and Anne. Sorrow upon sorrow had closed like deepening shadows about her. All happiness in life for her had apparently ended, when this marriage brought a brief ray of sunshine. It was a happy union, and seemed to assure a period of peace and rest for the sorely tried soul. Only a few short months, however, and fate, as if grudging her even the bit of happiness, snapped the slender threads of her life and the whole sad episode of her existence was ended. She died March 31st, 1855, leaving her husband and father to mourn together in the lonely parsonage. She left a literary fragment—the story entitled ‘Emma,’ which was published with an introduction by Thackeray.  13
  Such are the main facts of this reserved life of Charlotte Brontë. Are they dull and commonplace? Some of them are indeed inexpressibly sad. Tragedy is beneath all the bitter chronicle. The sadness of her days can be appreciated by all who read her books. Through all her stories there is an intense note, especially in treating the pathos of existence, that is unmistakably subjective. There is a keen perception of the darker depths of human nature that could have been revealed to a human heart only by suffering and sorrow.  14
  She did not allow sadness, however, to crush her spirit. She was neither morbid nor melancholy, but on the contrary Charlotte was cheerful and pleasant in disposition and manner. She was a loving sister and devoted daughter, patient and obedient to a parent who afterwards made obedience a severe hardship. There were other sides to her character. She was not always calm. She was not ever tender and a maker of allowances. But who is such? And she had good reason to be impatient with the world as she found it.  15
  Her character and disposition are partially reflected in ‘Jane Eyre.’ The calm, clear mind, the brave, independent spirit are there. But a fuller and more accurate picture of her character may be found in Lucy Snowe, the heroine of ‘Villette.’ Here we find especially that note of hopelessness that predominated in Charlotte’s character. Mrs. Gaskell, in her admirable biography of Charlotte Brontë, has called attention to this absence of hope in her nature. Charlotte indeed never allowed herself to look forward to happy issues. She had no confidence in the future. The pressure of grief apparently crushed all buoyancy of expectation. It was in this attitude that when literary success greeted her, she made little of it, scarcely allowing herself to believe that the world really set a high value on her work. Throughout all the excitement that her books produced, she was almost indifferent. Brought up as she had been to regard literary work as something beyond the proper limits of her sex, she never could quite rid herself of the belief that in writing successfully, she had made of herself not so much a literary figure as a sort of social curiosity. Nor was that idea wholly foreign to her time.  16
  Personally Charlotte Brontë was not unattractive. Though somewhat too slender and pale, and plain of feature, she had a pleasant expression, and her homelier features were redeemed by a strong massive forehead, luxuriant glossy hair, and handsome eyes. Though she had little faith in her powers of inspiring affection, she attracted people strongly and was well beloved by her friends. That she could stir romantic sentiment too was attested by the fact that she received and rejected three proposals of marriage from as many suitors, before her acceptance of Mr. Nicholls.  17
  Allusion has been made to the work of Charlotte’s two sisters, Emily and Anne. Of the two Emily is by far the more remarkable, revealing in the single novel we have from her pen a genius as distinct and individual as that of her more celebrated sister. Had she lived, it is more than likely that her literary achievements would have rivaled Charlotte’s.  18
  Emily Brontë has always been something of a puzzle to biographers. She was eccentric, an odd mixture of bashful reserve and unexpected spells of frankness, sweet, gentle, and retiring in disposition, but possessed of great courage. She was two years younger than Charlotte, but taller. She was slender, though well formed, and was pale in complexion, with great gray eyes of remarkable beauty. Emily’s literary work is to be found in the volume of ‘Poems’ of her sisters, her share in that work being considered superior in imaginative quality and in finish to that of the others; and in the novel ‘Wuthering Heights,’ a weird, horrid story of astonishing power, written when she was twenty-eight years of age. Considered purely as an imaginative work, ‘Wuthering Heights’ is one of the most remarkable stories in English literature, and is worthy to be ranked with the works of Edgar A. Poe. Many will say that it might better not have been written, so utterly repulsive is it, but others will value it as a striking, though distorted, expression of unmistakable genius. It is a ghastly and gruesome creation. Not one bright ray redeems it. It deals with the most evil characters and the most evil phases of human experience. But it fascinates. Heathcliff, the chief figure in the book, is one of the greatest villains in fiction,—an abhorrent creature,—strange, monstrous, Frankensteinesque.  19
  Anne Brontë is known by her share in the book of ‘Poems’ and by two novels, ‘Agnes Gray’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,’ both of which are disappointing. The former is based on the author’s experiences as a governess, and is written in the usual placid style of romances of the time. ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ found its suggestion in the wretched career of Branwell Brontë, and presents a sad and depressing picture of a life of degradation. The book was not a success, and would no doubt have sunk long ago into oblivion but for its association with the novels of Emily and Charlotte.  20
  In studying the work of Charlotte Brontë, the gifted older sister of the group, one of the first of the qualities that impress the reader is her actual creative power. To one of her imaginative power, the simplest life was sufficient, the smallest details a fund of material. Mr. Swinburne has called attention to the fact that Charlotte Brontë’s characters are individual creations, not types constructed out of elements gathered from a wide observation of human nature, and that they are real creations; that they compel our interest and command our assent because they are true, inevitably true. Perhaps no better example of this individualism could be cited than Rochester. The character is unique. It is not a type, nor has it even a prototype, like so many of Charlotte Brontë’s characters. Gossip insisted at one time that the author intended to picture Thackeray in Rochester, but this is groundless. Rochester is an original creation. The character of Jane Eyre, too, while reflecting something of the author’s nature, was distinctly individual; and it is interesting to note here that with Jane Eyre came a new heroine into fiction, a woman of calm, clear reason, of firm positive character, and what was most novel, a plain woman, a homely heroine.  21
  “Why is it,” Charlotte had once said, “that heroines must always be beautiful?” The hero of romance was always noble and handsome, the heroine lovely and often insipid, and the scenes set in an atmosphere of exaggerated idealism. Against this idealism Charlotte Brontë revolted. Her effort was always toward realism.  22
  In her realism she reveals a second characteristic scarcely less marked than her creative powers,—an extraordinary faculty of observation. She saw the essence, the spirit of things, and the simplest details of life revealed to her the secrets of human nature. What she had herself seen and felt—the plain rugged types of Yorkshire character, the wild scenery of the moorlands—she reflected with living truth. She got the real fact out of every bit of material in humanity and nature that her simple life afforded her. And where her experience could not afford her the necessary material, she drew upon some mysterious resources in her nature, which were apparently not less reliable than actual experience. On being asked once how she could describe so accurately the effects of opium as she does in ‘Villette,’ she replied that she knew nothing of opium, but that she had followed the process she always adopted in cases of this kind. She had thought intently on the matter for many a night before falling asleep; till at length, after some time, she waked in the morning with all clear before her, just as if she had actually gone through the experience, and then could describe it word for word as it happened.  23
  Her sensitiveness to impressions of nature was exceedingly keen. She had what Swinburne calls “an instinct for the tragic use of landscape.” By constant and close observation during her walks she had established a fellowship with nature in all her phases; learning her secrets from the voices of the night, from the whisper of the trees, and from the eerie moaning of the moorland blasts. She studied the cold sky, and had watched the “coming night-clouds trailing low like banners drooping.”  24
  Other qualities that distinguish her work are purity, depth and ardor of passion, and spiritual force and fervor. Her genius was lofty and noble, and an exalted moral quality predominates in her stories. She was ethical as sincerely as she was emotional.  25
  We have only to consider her technique, in which she is characteristically original. This originality is noticeable especially in her use of words. There is a sense of fitness that often surprises the reader. Words at times in her hands reveal a new power and significance. In the choice of words Charlotte Brontë was scrupulous. She believed that there was just one word fit to express the idea or shade of meaning she wished to convey, and she never admitted a substitute, sometimes waiting days until the right word came. Her expressions are therefore well fitted and forcible. Though the predominant key is a serious one, there is nevertheless considerable humor in Charlotte Brontë’s work. In ‘Shirley’ especially we find many happy scenes, and much wit in repartee. And yet, with all these merits, one will find at times her style to be lame, stiff, and crude, and even when strongest, occasionally coarse. Not infrequently she is melodramatic and sensational. But through it all there is that pervading sense of reality and it redeems these defects.  26
  Of the unusual, the improbable, the highly colored in Charlotte Brontë’s books we shall say little. In criticizing works so true to life and nature as these, one should not be hasty. We feel the presence of a seer. Some one once made an objection in Charlotte Brontë’s presence to that part of ‘Jane Eyre’ in which she hears Rochester’s voice calling to her at a great crisis in her life, he being many miles distant from her at the time. Charlotte caught her breath and replied in a low voice:—“But it is a true thing; it really happened.” And so it might be said of Charlotte Brontë’s work as a whole:—“It is a true thing; it really happened.”  27
 
 
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