Thursday 29 December 2016

The Birth of the Brontë Legend: Reading Gaskell reading Charlotte

Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, published in 1857, two years after its subject’s death, is the kind of text that today seems more often to be quoted than read.

At any rate this is certainly true amongst the undergraduate population. As an English Literature student I had some idea of those aspects of Charlotte’s life that Gaskell emphasised (Charlotte’s closeness to her siblings, her sense of duty, and her mental strength compared with her physical weakness) and those aspects that the biographer chose to downplay (Charlotte’s relationships with Belgian schoolteacher M. Heger and her publisher George Smith, for instance, or the identification of Jane Eyre’s Lowood with the Clergy Daughters’ School, where Maria and Elizabeth Brontë died).

But reading The Life now, after years steeped in Brontë-lore (e.g. other biographies all of which took Gaskell as their starting point, exhibitions such as the Morgan’s wonderful bicentenary celebration), is a fascinating experience. Gaskell set out to memorialise her friend and fellow novelist, but what she set in motion was a cult-like fascination with, not just Charlotte’s novels, but the personality behind them, the family that lead to them, and the very land that now bears the name of ‘Brontë country’.

The Brontë Parsonage today
Here are a few aspects of the biography that stood out most to me as having had a profound effect on the afterlife of the Brontë ‘myth’:

1. ‘Explaining’ the Brontës through reference to their environment and isolation
Gaskell begins the biography with a detailed description of Keighley, Haworth and the surrounding countryside, emphasising the neighbourhood’s bleakness and relative isolation.

A representative paragraph:
All round the horizon there is this same line of sinuous wave-like hills; the scoops into which they fall only revealing other hills beyond, of similar colour and shape, crowned with wild, bleak moors—grand, from the ideas of solitude and loneliness which they suggest, or oppressive from the feeling which they give of being pent-up by some monotonous and illimitable barrier, according to the mood of mind in which the spectator may be.

Throughout The Life, she emphasises the uniqueness of the Brontë children’s upbringing in such an environment, painting the moors as the perfect backdrop for literary inspiration – something many later interpreters of the family’s lives have followed her in. She also establishes a connection between Emily in particular and the moorland, another commonplace in the Brontë fable. Here, she quotes from one of Charlotte’s letters:

My sister Emily loved the moors.  Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; —out of a sullen hollow in a livid hillside, her mind could make an Eden.  She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best loved was—liberty.

Cut off from civilisation, set apart from their peers and raised in the wild, the siblings are described as strangely old before their time:

The hieroglyphics of childhood were an unknown language to them, Gaskell writes.

2. The romanticisation of the Brontës’ early deaths
Linked to this is the romanticisation of the siblings’ deaths, so close together and so tragically young. Gaskell ends the first chapter of the biography by quoting the inscription on the Haworth church tablet in full (the tablet that existed then but was later replaced) and we are never allowed to forget the imminent threat of illness, the fragility of the family as a whole:

Now Emily was far away in Haworth—where she or any other loved one, might die, before Charlotte, with her utmost speed, could reach them, as experience, in her aunt’s case, had taught her. 

This depiction of the Brontës as close to death, even from infancy, and crushingly aware of their own mortality is relatively commonplace, but we’d do well, I think, to consider the normality of fatal illnesses in society at this time. The Brontës might have been especially unlucky, but they were not unique in the number of tragedies they underwent. In Gaskell’s rendering Charlotte’s approach to death is most striking in its pragmatism and religious conviction.

3. The emergence of Branwell as a shadowy and intriguing figure
Finally, Gaskell’s excessive praise of Branwell, despite his ‘faults’ and ‘vices’, set the tone for decades of speculation about the Brontë brother.

He was very clever, no doubt; perhaps to begin with, the greatest genius in this rare family. The sisters hardly recognised their own, or each others’ powers, but they knew his.  

The boy who should have been a genius, an artist, or the greatest novelist of all has been a strange addition to the story of three female writers of extraordinary talent. Gaskell was trying to prove Charlotte’s femininity, to praise her sisterly pride in her brother. Instead, she spawned various conspiracy theories.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.


  1. Hello! Wonderful article. You are very right about the unabated influence of Elizabeth Gaskell on how we view the Brontes and their world. I'm glad to have found another lover of both the Victorian era and the Brontes. I think you might like some of the articles on my site Your Dying Charlotte, which focuses on Regency/Victorian/Edwardian lives rediscovered through photography and artifacts.