May 3, 2016

Charlotte Brontë: a life




... The Haworth bookseller, John Greenwood, had begun to stock stationery in his shop and later told Mrs. Gaskell how the demand for paper from the Brontë daughters at that time made him wonder what they were doing with so much of it. 'I sometimes thought they contributed to the Magazines. When I was out of stock, I was always afraid of their coming; they seemed so distressed about it , if I had none.' Greenwood was so eager to oblige the Misses Brontë, whom he always found 'much different to anybody else, so gentle and kind', that he would rather walk the eight or ten miles to Halifax to fetch a half-ream that have nothing to sell them.
      Unknown to him, the dining room of the Parsonage had been turned something like a book factory, as the sisters paced round the table, reading, listening and discussing each other's work, and sat bent over their portable desks for hours, writing. 'The sisters retained the old habit ... of putting away their work at nine o'clock, and beginning their steady pacing up and down the sitting room,' Mrs. Gaskell heard later from Charlotte. 'At this time, they talked over the stories they were engaged upon, and discussed their plots. Once or twice a week, each read to the others what she had written, and heard what they had to say about it.' Patrick Brontë never thought to inquire what they were doing. He was used to his children spending the greater part of their time together, his self-sufficiency being equal to their own. 'I never interfer'd with them at these times,' he told Mrs. Gaskell. 'I judged it best to throw them upon their own responsibility.'

from Charlotte Brontë:  a life, by Claire Harman

For me, this new book was an introduction to a writer I don't know very well (hardly at all), and everything I want a biography to be:  well-written, engaging, full of interesting details and a few conjectures, and making me want to know more.  Charlotte comes across as a woman who experienced great tragedy (her mother and all her siblings dying, very young, before her) and her invented, unrequited passions {especially for the creepy M. Heger}, and not only turned these experiences into literature, but made her life from and around them.  Very interesting to learn that Charlotte, Anne, Emily and Branwell had written constantly and prodigiously, since they were children, considering how little was published. The literary history here was an unexpected treat, reading about Charlotte's and Branwell's shameless and often ineffective efforts at self-promotion, society's efforts to uncover Currer Bell's identity, after the wild success of Jane Eyre, and her relationship with her publishers {a friendship through letters, but not in person, with one, an imagined romance with another, and her disgust when another proposes}. I also loved the glimpses of George Eliot, who was only beginning to write, and Elizabeth Gaskell again, becoming first Charlotte's friend and confidante and then her first biographer.

Charlotte's fast-growing friendship with Elizabeth Gaskell was the most rewarding of all she made in the years following her sisters' deaths, despite their differences in religion... Charlotte's first visits to the Gaskell's home in the summer of 1851 was brief -- just a couple of days on the way back to Haworth from London -- but assured Charlotte of a warm welcome there in the future, and by 1853 the two women had come to a friendly understanding that whenever Charlotte craved society and Elizabeth quiet, the would know where to turn. The Gaskell's home at 40 Plymouth Grove was a large, airy villa in the Victoria Park area 'quite out of Manchester Smoke', with a large garden and orchard and French windows that were kept open all the long summer days (though it was one of William Gaskell's indulgences also to keep a fire blazing in his study whatever the weather).

For me, still, she's like Dickens, fascinating to read about, difficult to admire, hard to like, a writer I'm more interested in reading about than reading.  I mentioned that I've never been especially drawn to the Brontës, but there was more powerful praise here for Jane Eyre, so I'll turn to it soon, as part of the celebration. :)




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