Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Life of Charlotte Bronte Remembered: Was She Jane Eyre?



Who would have ever thought a novel published in 1847 by a woman would be a most treasured novel and still be made into movies! I'm guessing not the authoress herself! The latest 2011 version of Jane Eyre to grace screens worldwide. I have seen it, it is fantastic, much more Gothic but don't worry the romance is still there!


Charlotte Bronte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire in 1816, the third of six children, to Maria (née Branwell) and her husband Patrick Brontë (formerly surnamed Brunty or Prunty), an Irish Anglican clergyman. In 1820, the family moved a few miles to Haworth, where Patrick had been appointed Perpetual Curate. Mrs. Brontë died of cancer on 15 September 1821, leaving five daughters and a son to be taken care of by her aunt Elizabeth Branwell. In August 1824, Charlotte was sent with three of her sisters, Emily, Maria, and Elizabeth, to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire (which she would describe as Lowood School in Jane Eyre). Its poor conditions, Charlotte maintained, permanently affected her health and physical development and hastened the deaths of her two elder sisters, Maria (born 1814) and Elizabeth (born 1815), who died of tuberculosis in June 1825. Soon after their father removed them from the school.

At home in Haworth Parsonage, a small rectory close to the graveyard of a bleak, windswept village on the Yorkshire moors, Charlotte acted as 'the motherly friend and guardian of her younger sisters'. She and the other surviving children: Branwell, Emily, and Anne began chronicling the lives and struggles of the inhabitants of their imaginary kingdoms. Charlotte and Branwell wrote Byronesque stories about their country Angria, and Emily and Anne wrote articles and poems about theirs Gondal. The sagas were elaborate and convoluted (and still exist in partial manuscripts) and provided them with an obsessive interest during childhood and early adolescence, which prepared them for their literary vocations into adulthood.

Charlotte continued her education at Roe Head, Mirfield, from 1831 to 32, where she met her lifelong friends and correspondents, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. During this period, she wrote her novella The Green Dwarf (1833) under the name of Wellesley. Charlotte returned as a teacher from 1835 to 1838. In 1839, she took up the first of many positions as governess to various families in Yorkshire, a career she pursued until 1841. Politically a Tory, she preached tolerance rather than revolution. She held high moral principles, and, despite her shyness in company, she was always prepared to argue her beliefs.

In 1842 she and Emily travelled to Brussels to enroll in a boarding school run by Constantin Heger (1809–96) and his wife Claire Zoé Parent Heger (1814–91). In return for board and tuition, Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music. Their time at the boarding school was cut short when Elizabeth Branwell, their aunt who joined the family after the death of their mother to look after the children, died of internal obstruction in October 1842. Charlotte returned alone to Brussels in January 1843 to take up a teaching post at the boarding school. Her second stay at the boarding school was not a happy one; she became lonely, homesick and deeply attached to Constantin Heger. She finally returned to Haworth in January 1844 and later used her time at the boarding school as the inspiration for some of The Professor and Villette.

In May 1846, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne published a joint collection of poetry under the assumed names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Although only two copies were sold, the sisters continued writing for publication and began their first novels. Charlotte used "Currer Bell" when she published her first two novels. Of this, Brontë later wrote:

Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.
Indeed, her novels were deemed coarse by the critics. There was speculation about the identity of Currer Bell, and whether Bell was a man or a woman.


Charlotte's brother, Branwell, the only son of the family, died of chronic bronchitis and marasmus exacerbated by heavy drinking in September 1848, although Charlotte believed his death was due to tuberculosis. Branwell was also a suspected "opium eater", (i.e. a laudanum addict). Emily and Anne both died of pulmonary tuberculosis in December 1848 and May 1849, respectively.
Charlotte and her father were now left alone together. In view of the enormous success of Jane Eyre, she was persuaded by her publisher to visit London occasionally, where she revealed her true identity and began to move in a more exalted social circle, becoming friends with Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Makepeace Thackeray and G. H. Lewes. Her book had sparked a movement in regards to feminism in literature. The main character, Jane Eyre, in her novel Jane Eyre, was a parallel to herself, a woman who was strong. However, she never left Haworth for more than a few weeks at a time as she did not want to leave her aging father's side.

Thackeray’s daughter, the writer Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie recalled a visit to her father by Charlotte Brontë:
two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair, and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This then is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books… The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, genius though she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, specially to forward little girls who wish to chatter… Every one waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess… the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all… after Miss Brontë had left, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him… long afterwards… Mrs. Procter asked me if I knew what had happened… It was one of the dullest evenings [Mrs Procter] had ever spent in her life… the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club.

In June 1854, Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate, and became pregnant soon thereafter. Her health declined rapidly during this time, and according to Gaskell, her earliest biographer, she was attacked by "sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness." Charlotte died, along with her unborn child, on 31 March 1855, at the young age of 38. Her death certificate gives the cause of death as phthisis (tuberculosis), but many biographers suggest she may have died from dehydration and malnourishment, caused by excessive vomiting from severe morning sickness or hyperemesis gravidarum. There is also evidence to suggest that Charlotte died from typhus she may have caught from Tabitha Ackroyd, the Brontë household's oldest servant, who died shortly before her. Charlotte was interred in the family vault in The Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Haworth, West Yorkshire, England.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë, the posthumous biography of Charlotte Brontë by Gaskell, was the first of many biographies about Charlotte to be published. Though frank in places, Gaskell suppressed details of Charlotte's love for Heger, a married man, as being too much of an affront to contemporary morals and as a possible source of distress to Charlotte's still-living friends, father and husband. Gaskell also provided doubtful and inaccurate information about Patrick Brontë, claiming, for example, that he did not allow his children to eat meat. This is refuted by one of Emily Brontë's diary papers, in which she describes the preparation of meat and potatoes for dinner at the parsonage, as Juliet Barker points out in her recent biography, The Brontës.

Posthumously, her first-written novel was published in 1857, the fragment she worked on in her last years in 1860 (twice completed by recent authors, the more famous version being Emma Brown: A Novel from the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Brontë by Clare Boylan, 2003.

Jane Eyre & Gender relations
A particularly important theme in the novel is the depiction of a patriarchal society. Jane attempts to assert her own identity within male-dominated society. Three of the main male characters, Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester and St. John, try to keep Jane in a subordinate position and prevent her from expressing her own thoughts and feelings. Jane escapes Mr. Brocklehurst and rejects St. John, and she only marries Mr. Rochester once she is sure that their marriage is one between equals. Through Jane, Brontë opposes Victorian stereotypes about women, articulating her own feminist philosophy:
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (Chapter XII)

Love and Passion
Jane Eyre touches on a number of important themes while telling a compelling story, and critics have argued about what comprises the main theme of Jane Eyre; there can be little doubt that love and passion together form a major thematic element of the novel.
At its simplest, Jane Eyre is a love story. The love between the orphaned and initially impoverished Jane and the wealthy but tormented Mr. Rochester is at its heart. The obstacles to the fulfilment of this love provide the main dramatic conflict in the work. However, the novel explores other types of love as well. Helen Burns, for example, exemplifies the selfless love of a friend. We also see some of the consequences of the absence of love, as in the relationship between Jane and Mrs. Reed, in the selfish relations among the Reed children, and in the mocking marriage of Mr. Rochester and Bertha. Jane realizes that the absence of love between herself and St. John Rivers would make their marriage a living death, too.

Throughout the work, Brontë suggests that a life that is not lived passionately is not lived fully. Jane undoubtedly is the central passionate character; her nature is shot through with passion. Early on, she refuses to live by Mrs. Reed's rules, which would restrict all passion. Her defiance of Mrs. Reed is her first, but by no means her last, passionate act. Her passion for Mr. Rochester is all consuming. Significantly, however, it is not the only force that governs her life. She leaves Mr. Rochester because her moral reason tells her that it would be wrong to live with him as his mistress: "Laws and principles are not for the time when there is no temptation," she tells Mr. Rochester; "they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise against their rigour."

Independence
Jane Eyre is not only a love story; it is also a plea for the recognition of the individual's worth. Throughout the book, Jane demands to be treated as an independent human being, a person with her own needs and talents. Early on, she is unjustly punished, precisely for being herself — first by Mrs. Reed and John Reed, and subsequently by Mr. Brocklehurst. Her defiance of Mrs. Reed is her first active declaration of independence in the novel, but not her last. Helen Burns and Miss Temple are the first characters to acknowledge her as an individual; they love her for herself, in spite of her obscurity. Mr. Rochester too loves her for herself; the fact that she is a governess and therefore his servant does not negatively affect his perception of her. Mr. Rochester confesses that his ideal woman is intellectual, faithful, and loving — qualities that Jane embodies. Her marriage to Mr. Rochester, by contrast, is the marriage of two independent beings. It is because of their independence, Brontë suggests, that they acknowledge their dependence on each other and are able to live happily ever after.

THANK YOU CHARLOTTE BRONTE...SIMPLY, THANK YOU!

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments!

6 comments:

Rita Gerlach said...

You've posed an interesting question. I think most writers will agree that there is an element of ourselves in our characters.

Thank you for a great post.

Kimberly Eve said...

Thanks Rita. I agree with you which is why I love researching so much during and after the writing process. You just never know what parallels you will find!

Anonymous said...

She was a woman ahead of her time. Hope to see Jane Eyre as soon as time permits. gigigirl

Sandra Danby said...

Agree that there is always probably a little of the writer in a character, but it is trap too easily fallen into: the danger is that all your characters become too much like you! SD

WoofWoof said...

What a wonderful account! I thought I knew all there is to know about Charlotte Bronte but you have really brought her to life in a new way! I particularly enjoyed the account of Bronte's visit to Thackeray. It sounds like such an anti-climax - everyone looking forward to meeting the sensational new novelist, and then nothing! The bit about Thackeray himself slipping off to his club afterwards is funny. I wonder if Bronte was a bit overwhelmed by the thought of meeting so many people after living for so many years in relative isolation. Also, I think there was some criticism of the book particularly by churchmen because of Jane's decision to return to Rochester and the negative portrayal of Rivers. She refers to the critics in her forward to the novel (where she contrasts their small mindedness with the sensitivity of Thackeray to whom she dedicates the book). Did Thackeray not have a mad wife who was kept shut away? I wonder what he made of the similarity to the novel. Finally, it's very interesting the way that you have highlighted the feminist aspects - Jane Eyre's struggle to assert herself against those who would try to suppress and dominate her.

WoofWoof said...

I just had a quick look in wikipedia - Thackeray's wife sadly did suffer from depression and "mental health issues" after the birth of her last child and was kept shut away (but not in the attic). I wonder if Bronte knew about Thackeray's wife. It must just be a coincidence but you do wonder what Thackeray thought about that detail in the novel. Thackeray's family background looks very interesting as well. There's a fascinating story about how his grandmother contrived to stop his mother marrying the man she was in love with.