17 January, 2011Issue 15.1FictionLettersLiterature

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Ceri Hunter

foerThe Brontés
Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Writings
OUP, 2010
640 Pages
ISBN 978-0192827630

Charlotte Bronté
Selected Letters
OUP, 2010
304 Pages
ISBN 978-0199576968

She looked a little old woman, so short-sighted that she always appeared to be seeking something, and moving her head from side to side to catch a sight of it. She was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent. When a book was given her, she dropped her head over it till her nose nearly touched it, and when she was told to hold her head up, up went the book after it, still close to her nose, so that it was not possible to help laughing.

This bookish mouse is Charlotte Bronté (1816-1855), as a school friend remembered her. Holding up her book to shield against unwanted intrusion, Bronté cut an enigmatic figure. She has remained elusive for generations of her readers, hidden by the so-called Bronté Myth and a succession of powerful and distorting public personae: the defensive Currer Bell (the male pseudonym Bronté adopted to publish her early novels); the angel in the house incarnate of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 biography; and Jane Eyre, the strong-minded and passionate governess, whom many have taken to be a self-portrait of her creator.

Now, with the publication of Selected Writings and the reissue of Selected Letters, Oxford World’s Classics has given students and general readers greater power to judge Charlotte Bronté by her own words. The editors of both editions are leading authorities on their material and have exercised fine discrimination in their selection of material.

Selected Writings is nothing short of groundbreaking. Edited by Christine Alexander, who changed the field of Bronté studies with her work on the juvenilia, it is the first edition to bring together in one volume early writings by all the Bronté siblings. The anthology opens with Charlotte’s “History of the Year” (1829). In this fragment young Bronté explains how her brother Branwell’s toy soldiers inspired the creation of Glass Town and the other fantasy lands where the siblings were to set their writings for the better part of the next two decades.

The Brontés’ fictional territories were imagined in topographical detail (Alexander includes a map), and hosted power struggles, scrambles for land, and torrid love affairs. As the children grew, so the territories expanded. Charlotte and Branwell developed Angria to explore their maturing literary interests, while Emily and Anne founded Gondal to break free from their elder siblings’ domination. The poems and prose gathered in Selected Writings range across all these imagined realms. The edition also features extracts from the journal Charlotte kept as a teacher at Roe Head School, and Anne’s and Emily’s diary papers.

Selected Writings is the record of the Brontés’ literary apprenticeships. All four siblings developed their writing styles through processes of emulation, parody, and rivalry. But the path of progress is most strongly delineated in the works of Charlotte Bronté, which constitute approximately half the material. Even in her earliest work, Bronté (like her brother and sisters) was thinking reflexively about her role as writer. She appears in “Two Romantic Tales” as a towering figure, who intercedes to rescue her characters from the thunder and lightning dreamed up by her brother. Her “Young Men’s Magazine” is laid out according to the conventions of periodical publishing and shows how much attention the Brontés were paying to the literary marketplace from an early age.

The first murmurings of Bronté’s distinctive narrative voice gradually become more audible as her writing develops, until she proclaims in “Caroline Vernon”: “Reader, these things don’t happen every day.” The direct address to the reader will be instantly recognisable to those familiar with Bronté’s later fiction. “Reader, I married him”, declares Jane Eyre. “If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you were never more mistaken”, warns the narrator of Shirley.

Charlotte Bronté saw her creativity as a wild and elemental force, and sometimes she put up a fight. “I’m just going to write because I cannot help it”, she avowed in her Roe Head Journal but then immediately dismissed her urge as “scriblomania”. Only after this tussle between her imaginative and practical sides did she surrender to the impulse which she figured as “wind, pouring in impetuous current through the air”. Away from Haworth, she comforted herself that “Branwell & Emily hear it, and as it sweeps over our house, down the church-yard & round the old church, they think perhaps of me & Anne.” It is the emotional oxygen in sentences such as these that breathes life into the Bronté Myth. It revives, if only for a moment, the wasting image of the solitary geniuses whose imaginations were incubated on the remote Yorkshire moors and remained uninfluenced by the world beyond.

Selected Letters, reprinted from the 2007 edition and featuring a new introduction by Janet Gezari, is expertly edited by Margaret Smith. It is crammed with the meatiest and juiciest cuts from the three-volume Clarendon Press edition of Bronté’s complete correspondence, of which Smith is also editor. As is inevitable in a single-volume edition, there are some disappointing omissions—notably Bronté’s first extant letter, written to her father—but most letters of obvious literary significance have been included. There is the now classic 1834 letter in which Bronté advised friend Ellen Nussey on her reading choices, as well as the 1849 letter in which she famously declared: “we only suffer Reality to suggest—never to dictate.” There is also a fair sample of her communications with her publishers. Smith’s edition is also extremely functional, with endnotes helpfully printed after the relevant letters.

Bronté’s epistolary style commends the letters to be read for their own sakes. It is an engrossing style, by turns chatty and confiding, passionate and sublime. With force of spirit and equal force of adjectives she spelled out to W.S. Williams the plight of the “baited, trampled, desolate, distracted governess”. She was comically blunt on the subject of Jane Austen: “I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.” Bronté may not have minced her words but she was unafraid to acknowledge their potential inadequacy. The Crystal Palace was “a wonderful place—vast—strange new and impossible to describe”. Yet describe it she did: “It seems as if magic only could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the Earth—as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus—with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect.” It is in such moments of abandon to the inexplicable that Bronté’s writing is at its most magnetic. These sallies beyond the boundaries of realism are more the exception than the rule in Bronté’s letters, but they evoke some of the more famous and occult incidents in the novels, such as Lucy Snowe’s trance and Jane Eyre’s telepathic communication with Rochester.

Bronté’s short life was scarred by personal loss, and the emotional rawness of her letters makes for compelling, sometimes difficult reading. She documented with unflinching courage the grief of outliving her siblings. On the death of her brother, Branwell, in 1848, she wrote: “I do not weep from a sense of bereavement—there is no prop withdrawn, no consolation torn away, no dear companion lost—but for the wreck of talent.” When Emily died only months later, Bronté took comfort that “we have not the conflict of the strangely strong spirit and the fragile frame before us.” The struggle for self-discipline wracked her writing, not least when she realised that she was to lose her last remaining sister Anne: “Too often I feel like one crossing an abyss on a narrow plank—a glance round might quite unnerve.”

Only in her letters to Constantin Heger, the Belgian schoolmaster with whom she fell deeply but unrequitedly in love, did Bronté lose her battle for emotional self-command. In 1844, she wrote letters which went unanswered, worked herself into a frenzy of anticipation when acquaintances travelling to Brussels agreed to act as emissaries, and then was thrown into bitter disappointment when they returned with no word from Heger. Still she persisted, writing her idol yet another letter terrifying in its ardour and embarrassing in its self-abasement. She exteriorized her “unbearable inner struggle” through violent images of physical suffering: “I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pain than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets.” In faltering sentences, she admitted her neediness: “if he gives me a little friendship—a very little—I shall be content—happy, I would have a motive for living—for working.”

But even in this most private of letters she remained mindful of an imagined readership: “Nevertheless I am as it were dimly aware that there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it—‘she is raving’—My sole revenge is to wish these people—a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months—then we should see whether they wouldn’t be raving too.” Extemporizing her feelings in this way did not win Bronté her man. In 1854, rather, she married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was passionately in love with her and with whom she seems to have found genuine contentment. She died less than a year later.

Oxford World’s Classics may have played the market rather cleverly with these latest additions to their list. While they will be valued by those who wish to treat the Brontés with critical seriousness, they also contain more than enough passion, conflict, and torment to satisfy those who wish to be swept up in the Bronté Myth—indeed, they are practically provocation to script “Becoming Charlotte”. As it happens, there have been mutterings of a Bronté biopic since 2006 (rather more starkly titled “Bronté”), but so far they seem to have come to nothing. Proof at last that global economic crisis may have its blessings?

Ceri Hunter graduated in 2011 with a DPhil in English Literature from Brasenose College, Oxford.