Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Sisters Brontë by Mrs. Oliphant

The Bronte sisters' writing room 
The effect produced upon the general mind by the appearance of Charlotte Brontë in literature, and afterwards by the record of her life when that was over, is one which it is nowadays somewhat difficult to understand. Had the age been deficient in the art of fiction, or had it followed any long level of mediocrity in that art, we could have comprehended this more easily. But Charlotte Brontë appeared in the full flush of a period more richly endowed than any other we know of in that special branch of literature, so richly endowed, indeed, that the novel had taken quite fictitious importance, and the names of Dickens and Thackeray ranked almost higher than those of any living writers except perhaps Tennyson, then young and on his promotion too. Anthony Trollope and Charles Reade who, though in their day extremely popular, have never had justice from a public which now seems almost to have forgotten them, formed a powerful second rank to these two great names. It is a great addition to the value of the distinction gained by the new comer that it was acquired in an age so rich in the qualities of the imagination.
But this only increases the wonder of a triumph which had no artificial means to heighten it, nothing but genius on the part of a writer possessing little experience or knowledge of the world, and no sort of social training or adventitious aid. The genius was indeed unmistakable, and possessed in a very high degree the power of expressing itself in the most vivid and actual pictures of life. But the life of which it had command was seldom attractive, often narrow, local, and of a kind which meant keen personal satire more than any broader view of human existence. A group of commonplace clergymen, intense against their little parochial background as only the most real art of portraiture, intensified by individual scorn and dislike, could have made them: the circle of limited interests, small emulations, keen little spites and rancours, filling the atmosphere of a great boarding school, the Brussels Pensionnat des filles—these were the two spheres chiefly portrayed: but portrayed with an absolute untempered force which knew neither charity, softness, nor even impartiality, but burned upon the paper and made everything round dim in the contrast. I imagine it was this extraordinary naked force which was the great cause of a success, never perhaps like the numerical successes in literature of the present day, when edition follows edition, and thousand thousand, of the books which are the favourites of the public: but one which has lived and lasted through nearly half a century, and is even now potent enough to carry on a little literature of its own, book after book following each other not so much to justify as to reproclaim and echo to all the winds the fame originally won. No one else of the century, I think, has called forth this persevering and lasting homage. Not Dickens, though perhaps more of him than of any one else has been dealt out at intervals to an admiring public; not Thackeray, of whom still we know but little; not George Eliot, though her fame has more solid foundations than that of Miss Brontë. Scarcely Scott has called forth more continual droppings of elucidation, explanation, remark. Yet the books upon which this tremendous reputation is founded though vivid, original, and striking in the highest degree, are not great books. Their philosophy of life is that of a schoolgirl, their knowledge of the world almost nil, their conclusions confused by the haste and passion of a mind self-centred and working in the narrowest orbit. It is rather, as we have said, the most incisive and realistic art of portraiture than any exercise of the nobler arts of fiction—imagination, combination, construction—or humorous survey of life or deep apprehension of its problems—upon which this fame is built.
The curious circumstance that Charlotte Brontë was, if the word may be so used, doubled by her sisters, the elder, Emily, whose genius has been taken for granted, carrying the wilder elements of the common inspiration to extremity in the strange, chaotic and weird romance of "Wuthering Heights," while Anne diluted such powers of social observation as were in the family into two mildly disagreeable novels of a much commoner order, has no doubt also enhanced the central figure of the group to an amazing degree. They placed her strength in relief by displaying its separate elements, and thus commending the higher skill and larger spirit which took in both, understanding the moors and wild country and rude image of man better than the one, and misunderstanding the common course of more subdued life less than the other. The three together are for ever inseparable; they were homely, lowly, somewhat neglected in their lives, had few opportunities and few charms to the careless eye: yet no group of women, undistinguished by rank, unendowed by beauty, and known to but a limited circle of friends as unimportant as themselves have ever, I think, in the course of history—certainly never in this century—come to such universal recognition. The effect is quite unique, unprecedented, and difficult to account for; but there cannot be the least doubt that it is a matter of absolute fact which nobody can deny.

These three daughters of a poor country clergyman came into the world early in the century, the dates of their births being 1816, 1818, 1820, in the barest of little parsonages in the midst of the moors—a wild but beautiful country, and a rough but highly characteristic and keen-witted people. Yorkshire is the very heart of England; its native force, its keen practical sense, its rough wit, and the unfailing importance in the nation of the largest of the shires has given it a strong individual character and position almost like that of an independent province. But the Brontës, whose name is a softened and decorated edition of a common Irish name, were not of that forcible race: and perhaps the strong strain after emotion, and revolt against the monotonies of life, which were so conspicuous in them were more easily traceable to their Celtic origin than many other developments attributed to that cause. They were motherless from an early age, children of a father who, after having been depicted as a capricious tyrant, seems now to have found a fairer representation as a man with a high spirit and peculiar temper, yet neither unkind to his family nor uninterested in their welfare. There was one son, once supposed to be the hero and victim of a disagreeable romance, but apparent now as only a specimen, not alas, uncommon, of the ordinary ne'er-do-well of a family, without force of character or self-control to keep his place with decency in the world.
These children all scribbled from their infancy as soon as the power of inscribing words upon paper was acquired by them, inventing imaginary countries and compiling visionary records of them as so many imaginative children do. The elder girl and boy made one pair, the younger girls another, connected by the closest links of companionship. It was thought or hoped that the son was the genius of the family, and at the earliest possible age he began to send his effusions to editors, and to seek admission to magazines with the mingled arrogance and humility of a half-fledged creature. But the world knows now that it was not poor Branwell who was the genius of the family; and this injury done him in his cradle, and the evil report of him that everybody gives throughout his life, awakens a certain pity in the mind for the unfortunate youth so unable to keep any supremacy among the girls whom he must have considered his natural inferiors and vassals. We are told by Charlotte Brontë herself that he never knew of the successes of his sisters, the fact of their successive publications being concealed from him out of tenderness for his feelings; but it is scarcely to be credited that when the parish knew the unfortunate brother did not find out. The unhappy attempt of Mrs. Gaskell in writing the lives of the sisters to make this melancholy young man accountable for the almost brutal element in Emily Brontë's conception of life, and the strange views of Charlotte as to what men were capable of, has made him far too important in their history; where, indeed, he had no need to have appeared at all, had the family pride consisted, as the pride of so many families does, in veiling rather than exhibiting the faults of its members. So far as can be made out now, he had as little as possible to do with their development in any way.
There was nothing unnatural or out of the common in the youthful life of the family except that strange gift of genius, which though consistent with every genial quality of being, in such a nature as that of Scott, seems in other developments of character to turn all the elements into chaos. Its effect upon the parson's three daughters was, indeed, not of a very wholesome kind. It awakened in them an uneasy sense of superiority which gave double force to every one of the little hardships which a girl in a great school of a charitable kind, and a governess in a middle-class house, has to support: and made life harder instead of sweeter to them in many ways, since it was full of the biting experience of conditions less favourable than those of many persons round them whom they could not but feel inferior to themselves.
The great school, which it was Charlotte Brontë's first act when she began her literary career to invest with an almost tragic character of misery, privation, and wrong, was her first step from home. Yorkshire schools did not at that period enjoy a very good reputation in the world, and Nicholas Nickleby was forming his acquaintance with the squalid cruelty of Dotheboys Hall just about the same time when Charlotte Brontë's mind was being filled with the privations and discontents of Lowood. In such a case there is generally some fire where there is so much smoke, and probably Lowood was under no very heavenly régime: but at the same time its drawbacks were sharply accentuated by that keen criticism which is suggested by the constant sense of injured worth and consciousness of a superiority not acknowledged. The same feeling pursued her into the situations as governess which she occupied one after another, and in which her indignation at being expected to feel affection for the children put under her charge, forms a curious addition to the other grievances with which fate pursues her life. No doubt there are many temptations in the life of a governess; the position of a silent observer in a household, looking on at all its mistakes, and seeing the imperfection of its management with double force because of the effect they have on herself—especially if she feels herself competent, had she but the power, to set things right—must always be a difficult one. It was not continued long enough, however, to involve very much suffering; though no doubt it helped to mature the habit of sharp personal criticism and war with the world.
At the same time Charlotte Brontë made some very warm personal friendships, and wrote a great many letters to the school friends who pleased her, in which a somewhat stilted tone and demure seriousness is occasionally invaded by the usual chatter of girlhood, to the great improvement of the atmosphere if not of the mind. Ellen Nussey, Mary Taylor, women not manifestly intellectual but sensible and independent without either exaggeration of sentiment or hint of tragic story, remained her close friends as long as she lived, and her letters to them, though always a little demure, give us a gentler idea of her than anything else she has written. Not that there is much charm either of style or subject in them: but there is no sort of bitterness or sense of insufficient appreciation. Nothing can be more usual and commonplace, indeed, than this portion of her life. As in so many cases, the artificial lights thrown upon it by theories formed afterwards, clear away when we examine its actual records, and it is apparent that there was neither exceptional harshness of circumstance nor internal struggle in the existence of the girl who, though more or less in arms against everybody outside—especially when holding a position superior to her own, more especially still when exercising authority over her in any way—was yet quite an easy-minded, not unhappy, young woman at home, with friends to whom she could pour out long pages of what is, on the whole, quite moderate and temperate criticism of life, not without cheerful allusion to now and then a chance curate or other young person of the opposite sex, suspected of "paying attention" to one or other of the little coterie. These allusions are not more lofty or dignified than are similar notes of girls of less exalted pretensions, but there is not a touch in them of the keen pointed pen which afterwards put up the Haworth curates in all their imperfections before the world.
The other sisters at this time in the background, two figures always clinging together, looking almost like one, have no great share in this softer part of Charlotte's life. They were, though so different in character, completely devoted to each other, apparently forming no other friendships, each content with the one other partaker of her every thought. A little literature seems to have been created between them, little chapters of recollection and commentary upon their life, sealed up and put away for three years in each case, to be opened on Emily's or on Anne's birthday alternately, as a pathetic sign of their close unity, though the little papers were in themselves simple in the extreme. Anne too became a governess with something of the same experience as Charlotte, and uttering very hard judgments of unconscious people who were not the least unkind to her. But Emily had no such trials. She remained at home perhaps because she was too uncompromising to be allowed to make the experiment of putting up with other people, perhaps because one daughter at home was indispensable. The family seems to have had kind and trusted old servants, so that the cares of housekeeping did not weigh heavily upon the daughter in charge, and there is no evidence of exceptional hardness or roughness in their circumstances in any way.
In 1842, Charlotte and Emily, aged respectively twenty-six and twenty-four, went to Brussels. Their design was "to acquire a thorough familiarity with French," also some insight into other languages, with the view of setting up a school on their own account. The means were supplied by the aunt, who had lived in their house and taken more or less care of them since their mother's death. The two sisters were nearly a year in the Pensionnat Héger, now so perfectly known in every detail of its existence to all who have read "Villette." They were recalled by the death of the kind aunt who had procured them this advantage, and afterwards Charlotte, no one quite knows why, went back to Brussels for a second year, in which all her impressions were probably strengthened and intensified. Certainly a more clear and lifelike picture, scathing in its cold yet fierce light, was never made than that of the white tall Brussels house, its class rooms, its gardens, its hum of unamiable girls, its sharp display of rancorous and shrill teachers, its one inimitable professor. It startles the reader to find—a fact which we had forgotten—that M. Paul Emmanuel was M. Héger, the husband of Madame Héger and legitimate head of the house: and that this daring and extraordinary girl did not hesitate to encounter gossip or slander by making him so completely the hero of her romance. Slander in its commonplace form had nothing to do with such a fiery spirit as that of Charlotte Brontë: but it shows her perfect independence of mind and scorn of comment that she should have done this. In the end of '43 she returned home, and the episode was over. It was really the only episode of possible practical significance in her life until we come to the records of her brief literary career and her marriage, both towards its end. ...

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