Right now, I’m currently working my way through Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Elizabeth was a contemporary of Charlotte’s and an author herself (she wrote North and South, Wives and Daughters, and Cranford, all of which have been adapted for TV screens).
Reading the book feels a bit strange, because Elizabeth writes of Charlotte in the present tense rather than the past tense. But that’s natural, because they lived about the same time and got to know one another.
I’m only about halfway through, but Charlotte’s family turns out to be interesting and not at all like I imagined they would be. All I knew of Charlotte, prior to reading this book, is that her sisters were also writers, her brother was a talented but alcoholic artist, and she eventually got married.
Charlotte’s mother died young (cancer) and so did Charlotte’s two eldest sisters Elizabeth and Maria. One sister, Maria, was the model for Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. Maria and Elizabeth died from tuberculosis, contracted at Cowan Bridge, the school they attended in Lancashire and the model for Lowood School in Jane Eyre.
So Charlotte was basically left to act as a mother to her younger sisters, Anne and Emily, and to her younger brother Patrick Branwell (the family called him Branwell). Charlotte had some help from relatives and servants, but she acted as a surrogate mum to the younger ones.
Her father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, liked to keep the family on a tight leash. He believed in plain dress and a plain lifestyle, and once destroyed a silk dress and a set of the family’s leather shoes because he thought they were too colorful and vain. The Reverend regularly carried a gun because some of his p0litical and personal beliefs were not popular with other residents of the area. Whoa.
But all of the kids were intelligent and imaginative from a very young age. Charlotte’s schoolmates, according to Elizabeth Gaskell, remember Charlotte as being plain, shy, short-sighted, oddly dressed and studious. I think that if Charlotte were around today, she would have been considered a geek. (And more power to her!)
Charlotte and her sisters loved to write and I suspect that it was a form of escapism for them. Sister Emily wrote Wuthering Heights and Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Branwell wasn’t half bad as a writer, either; he did some poems and stories.
There’s also a funny account of how the local residents got rid of Reverend Brontë’s predecessor, Mr. Redhead. Mr. Redhead was a curate to the Reverend Charnock and was made perpetual curate by the Vicar of Bradford after Charnock became ill and passed away. The parishioners were not happy about this appointment and made Mr. Redhead aware of it by disrupting his services. During one service, they wore clogs and clomped out of the church as noisily as possible. At a second service, one man wearing as many hats as could fit onto his head rode in on a donkey and wandered around the church aisles. The donkey’s rider was facing backward as he rode, so this took some skill.
Redhead wasn’t easily cowed and brought in some helpers, but he and the others were eventually forced to leave town before they got hurt. Later in life, Redhead came back for a visit and there was no grudge held on either side.
Of course, I had to skip ahead to find out how she got married to Arthur Nicholls. Nicholls was an Irish curate and a family friend who had loved her for years. When he finally proposed marriage, she consulted her father. (Bad move.) Papa disapproved of the match, Arthur took off for a while and there was no engagement. Eventually, Papa came around, Charlotte and Arthur got married (You go, girl!), and they had a good life together. I guess she had a thing for guys with Irish accents.
And I love the description that Charlotte gives of Arthur on a trip to Ireland: “My dear husband, too, appears in a new light in his own country. More than once I have had deep pleasure in hearing his praises on all sides. Some of the old servants and followers of the family tell me I am a most fortunate person; for that I have got one of the best gentlemen in the country…I trust I feel thankful to God for having enabled me to make what seems a right choice; and I pray to be enabled to repay as I ought the affectionate devotion of a truthful, honorable man.”
I look forward to seeing what other surprises the book has in store for me. With such a great beginning, this should be fun.