Charlotte Brontë

Portret van Charlotte Brönte

Hieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over Charlotte Brontë.


Letter In the real as distinguished from the ideal school of fiction, CHARLOTTE BRONTË (afterwards Nicholls), by her tale of Jane Eyre, attained immediate and remarkeble popularity. Its Yorkshire scenes and characters were new to readers, and the whole had the stamp of truth and close observation. The life of Charlotte Brontë was one of deep and painfull interest.

Her father, the Rev. Patrick Brontë – who survived to a great age, outliving all his gifted children – was a native of the county Down in Ireland. One of the family of ten, the children of a small farmer, Patrick Brontë saw the becessity for early exertion. At the age of sixteen he opened a school, then became a tutor in a gentlemen’s family, and afterwards, at the age of twenty-five, entered himself of St.John’s College, Cambridge. Having taken his degree, he onbtained a curacy in Essex, whence he removed to Yorkshire, – first to Hartshead, near Leeds. At Heartshead he married a gentle, serious young Cornish woman, Maria Branwell, by whom in little more than six years he had six children.

In 1820 the family moved to another Yorkshire home, Mr. Brontë having obtained the living of Haworth, four miles from Keighley. The income of the minister, £170 per annum, might have sufficed for humble comfort, but the parsonage was bleak and uncomfortable – a low oblong stone building, standing at the top of the straggling village on a steep hill, without the shelter of a tree, with the churchyard pressing down on it on both sides, and behind a long tract of wild moors. Charlotte Brontë thus describes the scene

Description of Yorkshire Moors.

A village parsonage amongst the hills bordering Yorkshire and Lancashire.
The scenery of these hills is not grand – it is not romantic; it is scarcely striking.
Long low moors, dark with heath, shut in little valleys, where a stream waters, here and there, a fringe of stunted copse.
Mills and scattered cottages chase romance from these valleys: it is only higher up, deep in amongst the ridges of the moors, that Imagination can find rest for the sole of her foot; and even if she finds it there, she must be a solitude-loving raven – no gentle dove.
If she demand beauty to inspire her, she must bring it inborn: these moors are too stern to yield any product so delicate.
The eye of the gazer must itself brim with a „purple light”, intense enough to perpetuate the brief flower-flush of August on the heather, or the rare sunset-smile of June; out of his heart must well the freshness that in later spring and early summer brightens the bracken, nurtures the moss, and cherishes the starry flowers that spangle for a few weeks the pasture of the moor-sheep.
Unless that light and freshness are innate and self-sustained, the drear prospect of a Yorkshire moor will be found as barren of poetic as of agricultural interest: where the love of wild nature is strong, the locality will perhaps be clung to with the more passionate constancy, because from the hill-lover’s self comes half its charm.

The population of Haworth and its neighbourhood was chiefly engaged in the worsted manufacture. They were noted for a wild lawless energy, and were divided by sectarian differences. The Brontë family kept aloof unless when direct service was required, and the minister always carried a pistol with him on his walks.
He was an eccentric, half-misanthropical man, with absurd notions on the subject of education. He kept his children on a vegetable diet, and clothed them in the humblest garments, that they might grow up hardy and indifferent to dress. He took his meals in his own room. His wife died the year after the arrival of the family at Haworth, and the poor children were mostly left to themselves, occupying a room called the „children’s study” – though the eldest student was only about seven years of age – or they wandered hand in hand over the moors. They were all small and feeble, stunted in their growth, but with remarkable precocity of intellect.
The eccentric minister one day made an experiment to test their powers of refelction or understanding. He had a mask in the house, and thinking they might speak with less timidity if thus concealed, he told them all to stand and speak boldly from uinder the cover of the mask.
The youngest, about four years of age, was asked what a child like her most wanted; she answered: „age and experience.”
The next was asked what had best be done with her brother, who was sometimes a naughty boy: „Reason with him,” she said; „and when he won’t listen to reason, whip him.”
The boy was then questioned as to the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of man and woman, and he replied: „By considering the difference between them as to their bodies.”
Charlotte was asked what was the best book in the world: „The bible,” she said; „and next to that, the Book of Nature.” Another was asked what was the best education for a woman, and she replied: „That which would make her rule her house well.”
Lastly the oldest – about ten years of age – was asked what was the best mode of spending time, and she answered: „By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity.”

These extraordinary little reasoners took a great interest in politics and public events; they read and discussed the newspapers, and set up among themselves „little magazines” in imitation of Blackwood’s Magazine. Tales, dramas, poems, and romances were all attempted vy the girls; and in one period of fifteen months, before she was fifteen years of age, Charlotte had filled twenty-two volumes with original compositions, written in a hand so painfully small and close as scarcely to be decipherable without the aid of a magnifying-glass.

Four of the girls were at length sent out to be educated. An active, wealthy clergyman, the Rev.W.Carus Wilson, established a school for the education of the daughters of poor clergymen at a place called Cowan’s Bridge, between Leeds and Kendal. Each pupil paid £14 a year, with £1 of entrance-money. The institution, however, was badly managed. The food was insufficient and badly cooked, and one of the teachers – satirised in Jane Eyre as „Miss Scatcherd” – tyrannised over one of the Brontës with inhuman severity. A fever afterwards broke out in the school, and the little band of sisters returned to the old stone parsonage and the „children’s study” at Haworth.

Death, however, soon thinned the affectionate group. maria died in 1825 in het twelfth year, and in the same year Elizabeth, aged eleven. Branwell, the only boy of the family, was educated at home; he had the family talent and precocity, wrote verses and had a turn for drawing, but ultimately became idle and dissipated, and occassioned the most poignant distress to his sisters. The latter made many efforts to place themselves in an independent position. They went out as governesses, but disliked the occupation. Charlotte wrote to Southey, sending some of het poetry, and the laureate replied in a kindly but discouraging tone. The project of keeping a school was then suggested. The aunt – who had come from Cornwall and assisted at Haworth since the death of her sister – advanced a little money, and Charlotte and Emily proceeded to Brussels in order to acquire a knowledge of foreign languages. They entered a pensionnat, and remained from February to September 1842, when they were recalled by the death of their aunt.

Charlotte again returned to Brussels, and officiated about a twelvemonth as a teacher, her salary being just £16 per annum, out of which she had to pay ten francs a month for German lessons. In January 1844 she was again at Haworth. The sisters advertised that they would receive pupils in the parsonage; but no pupils came. They then ventured on the publication of a volume of their poems. The death of their aunt had somewhat improved their circumstances, and a sum of £131.1OS. was spent in printing the Poems, by Currer, Ellis, and Action Bell. This ambiguous choice of names was dictated, as Charlotte relates, by „a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while they did not like to declare themselves women.” The volume had little succes. The best of the pieces, are those by Emily, who had more vivacity and force of character than her sisters. Mrs.Gaskell, in her interesting Life of Charlotte Brontë, has the following remarkable statement relative to Emily and the passage also illustrates Charlotte’s novel of Shirley:

Emily Brontë and her Dog „Keeper”

From her, many traits in Shirley’s character were taken: her way of sitting on the rug’s reading, with her arm round her rough bull-dog’s neck; her calling to a strange dog running past with hanging head and lolling tongue, to give it a merciful draught of water, its maddened snap at her, her nobly stern presence of mind, going right into the kitchen, and taking up one of Tabby’s (the old servant in the parsonage) red-hot Italian irons to sear the bitten place, and telling no one, till the danger was well-nigh over, for fear of the terrors that might beset their weaker minds.
All this looked upon as a well-invented fiction in Shirley, was written down by Charlotte with streaming eyes; it was the literal account of what Emily had done.
The same tawny bull-dog (with his „strangled whistle” called „Tartar” in Shirley, was „Keeper” in Haworth parsonage – a gift to Emily. With the gift came a warning. Keeper was faithful to the depths of his nature as long as he was with friends; but he who struck him with a stick or whip roused the relentless nature of the brute, who flew at his throat forthwith, and held him there till one or the other was at the point of death.
Now Keeper’s household fault with this: he loved to steal up-stairs, and stretch his square, tawny limbs on the comfortable beds, covered over with white delicate counterpanes. But the cleanliness of the parsonage arrangements was perfect, and Emily declared that if he was found again transgressing, she herself, in defance of warning and his well-known ferocity of nature, would beat him so severely, that he would never offend again.
In the gathering dusk of the evening, Tabby came to tell Emily that Keeper was lying on the best bed in drowsy voluptuousness. Charlotte saw Emily’s whitening face and set mouth, but dared not interfere; no one dared when Emily’s eyes glowed in that manner out of the paleness of her face, and when her lips were so compressed into stone. She went up-stairs, and Tabby and Charlotte stood in the gloomy passage below.
Down-stairs came Emily, dragging after her the unwilling Keeper, his hind-legs set in a heavy attitude of resistance, held by the „scult of his neck,” but growling low and savagely all the time. The watchers would fain have spoken, but durst not, for fear of taking off Emily’ attention, and causing her to avert her head for a moment from the enraged brute.
She let him go, planted in a dark corner at the bottom of the stairs; no time was there to fetch stick or rod. for fear of the strangling clutch at her throat – her bare clenched fist struck against his red fierce eyes, before he had time to make his spring, and, in the language of the turf, she „punished” him till his eyes were swelled up, and the half-blind stupefied beast was led to his accustomed lair to have his swollen head fomented and cared for by the very Emily herself.
The generous dog owed her no grudge; he loved her dearly ever after; he walked first among the mourners at her funeral; he slept moaning for nights at the door of her empty room; and never, so to speak, rejoiced, dogfashion, after her death.

Each of the three sisters commenced a novel; Charlotte’s was called The professor, Emily’s Wuthering heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey. When completed, the tales were sent to London. Charlotte’s was rejected by several publishers; and her sisters’, after various refusals, were only accepted on terms „impoverishing to their authors.” Charlotte, however, was encouraged to try a longer work in a more saleable form, and the very day that The professor was returned, Jane Eyre was commenced. It was finished, accepted by Smith, Elder, & Co., and published in October 1847. Its succes was instant and remarkable. Three editions were called for within a twelvemonth. A new genius had arisen, „capable of depicting the strong, self-reliant, racy, and individual characters which lingered still in the north.” This individuality of character and description, eulogised by Mrs.Gaskell, constitutes the attraction and the value of the novel, for the plot is in many parts improbable, and some of the scenes are drawn with coarseness, though with piquancy and power. A masculine vigour and originality pervade the work.
There was truth in the observation, that Jane Eyre was too like Richardson’s Pamela in het intercourse with her Master, though the inherent indelicacy of such passages – of which the authoress was unconscious – was soon forgotten in the strong interest excited by Jane’s misfortunes and moral heroism.
Much of Charlotte’s own history, down even to her petite figure and plain face, is embodied in the story of the heroine. The authorship had been kept a secret. But when succes was assured, Charlotte carried a copy of the novel to her father; he read it in his study, and at tea-time said: „Girls, do you know Charlotte has been writing a book, and it is much better than likely.” He had tried book-making himself, but with very different powers, and different results. in December 1847, Wuthering heights and Agnes Grey, by Emily and Anne Brontë, were published. The former had some strong delineation – a finished picture of a villain – but the effect was unpleasing. A second tale by Anne, The tenand of Wildfell Hall, is an improvement on the former work, and was more succesfull. Both of these novelists, however, were now fast sinking into the grave. Emily first declined, and Charlotte has tole the melancholy sequel in a few brief but impressive words.

Death of Emily and Anne Brontë

Never in all her life had she (Emily) lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us. Yet, while physically she perished, mentally she grew stronger than we had yet known her. Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on het with an anguish of wonder and love. I have seen nothing like it; but, indeed, I have never seen her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone. The awfull point was, that while full of ruth for others, on herself she had no pity; the spirit was inexorable to the flesh; from the trembling hand, the unnerved limbs, the faded eyes, the same service was exacted as they had rendered in health. To stand by and witness this, and not dare to remnonstrate, was a pain no words can render. Ywo cruel months of hope and fear passed painfully by, and the day came at last when the terrors and pains of death were to be undergone by this treasure, which had grown dearer and dearer to our hearts as it wasted before our eyes.
Towards the decline of that day, we had nothing of Emily but her mortal remains as consumption left them. She died December 19, 1848 (in het thirtieth year). We thought this enough; but we were utterly and presumptuously wrong. She was not buried ere Anne fell ill. She had not been committed to the grave a fortnight, before we received distinct intimation that it was necessaru to prepare our minds to see the younger sister go after the elder. Accordingly, she followed in the same path with a slower step, and with a patience that equalled the other’s fortitude. She was religious, and it was by leaning on those Christian doctrines in which she firmly believed that she found support through her most painful journey. I witnessed their efficacy in her latest hour and greatest trial, and must bear my testimony to the calm triumph with which they brought het through. She died May 28, 1849 (aged twenty-nine).

Charlotte alone was now left with the aged father, for Branwell, after sinking from vice to vice, had died the year before. Literary labour was indispensable; and Charlotte completed her tale of Shirley, another series of Yorkshire delineations, fresh and vigorous as the former, and as well received by the public. It was published in 1849. With the publication of Shirley ended the mystery of the authorship. A Haworth man, residing in Liverpool, read the novel, and recognised the localities and dialect; he guessed it to be Miss Brontë’s, and communicated his discovery to a Liverpool paper, after which Miss Brontë paid a visit to London, and the fact was made distinctly known.
It was three years after this ere she appeared again as a novelist. Her experiences at the pensionnat in Brussels, and the insight she had obtained into French character, suggested the subject of her next work, Villette, which was published in 1853. In mere literary merit and skill of construction, it is superior to Shirley, but it had not the same strong interest or air of reality. This was to be the last of Charlotte Brontë’s triumphs. Her father’s curate, Mr.Nicholls, had entertained a deep and enduring attachment for her. The old minister was at first opposed to the match; but he at length yielded, and Charlotte was married in June 1854. A few months of happy wedded life brightened the close of her strange and sad career, in which she had displayed the virtues of a noble self-sacrificing nature, and she died March 31, 1855, in the thirty-ninth year of her age. Her first novel, The professor, has since been published, but it will not bear comparison with her other works.