Charlotte Brontë died on March 31, 1855, and when Elizabeth Gaskell learned of her death, she resolved to write a memoir of her friend and fellow-novelist. On May 31, 1855, she wrote to Bronte's publisher, George Smith of Smith, Elder: ''if I live long enough, and no one is living whom such a publication would hurt, I will publish what I know of her, and make the world (if I am but strong enough in expression,) honour the woman as much as they have admired the writer''. The opportunity came sooner than Gaskell expected. On June 16, 1855, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, Charlotte's father, addressed a letter to Gaskell, with a request for her ''to write a brief account of her life and to make some remarks on her works''; he added: ''You seem to me to be the best qualified for doing what I wish should be done.'' When Gaskell agreed to write a biography of Brontë, the models for a woman author's life were few, and none distinguished. At this time Elizabeth Gaskell had already published ‘Cranford (1853) and North and South (1854) and was a well established authoress in her own right!
The Life of Charlotte Brontë is written as much by Charlotte as it is by Gaskell. Much of her life is told in her own words through her letters to friends. It actually relies quite heavily on letters. I had to take breaks periodically since I found it was difficult to read letter after letter. Still, reading Charlotte Bronte’s own words, descriptions of ‘her’ Yorkshire, and various thoughts is one aspect of the biography that I shall always cherish. For it brought Ms. Bronte to life: the woman and the authoress. As a writer, that feeling is incomprehensible!
Gaskell had plenty of source material to work from for the biography. To Ellen Nussey alone, Charlotte wrote over 500 letters. Gaskell could pick and choose what to or what not to include. While I found she covered much of her life, I couldn't help feeling that much was left out. For example, her marriage to Arthur Nicholls mystifies me. She turned down three marriage proposals and says many times that she is content to be single. Yet, in her late 30's she agrees to marry her father's curate. None of her letters about him are glowing with love. She's very quiet about the whole thing. Gaskell herself is the one who says they were happy. I felt there was much missing from this part of her life.
When it comes to the downfall of Charlotte’s brother, Branwell, Gaskell gets carried away and writes his sections of the biography with too much editorializing for my taste! You see, Branwell, was an opium addict who nearly ruined the family with his debts before he died. Gaskell lays much of the blame at the feet of his married lover. She demonizes the woman when it's obvious that he was no angel to begin with.
Gaskell paints such a vivid picture of Charlotte; highlighting her strong points: she's fiercely loyal to her family and friends. Even after the deaths of her two elder sisters as children, she takes the place of eldest sister to her motherless siblings. Perhaps a bit too overprotective of them, though. Still, she never separates from them for long until their passings. The most difficult letters to read were the ones during and after the deaths of her sisters, Emily and Anne. What heartbreaking letters. Within a year, Charlotte lost all her remaining 3 siblings.
After their deaths, Charlotte took on the responsibility of caring for her father alone. This presented quite a challenge due to his gruff exterior and failing eyesight. Even success as a writer didn't free her from this task, as Gaskell points out, “a woman's principle work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents ever bestowed”.
In June 1854, Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate. Perhaps he was the model for several of her literary characters such as Jane Eyre's Rochester and St. John. She became pregnant soon after the marriage. Her health declined rapidly during this time, and according to Gaskell, she was attacked by "sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness." Charlotte died, along with her unborn child, on 31 March 1855, at the young age of 38.
Although Elizabeth Gaskell has written a loving and realistic portrait of her friend Charlotte Bronte, there are still ever present tinges of sadness echoed throughout the pages for the loss of a true friend one whom she admired as a writer.
The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell, Penguin Books, London, England, 1975
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