To Be for Ever Known
If the twenty-year-old Charlotte Brontë had been told that she would one day be a household name, that her picture would hang in a future National Portrait Gallery, and that pilgrims would travel to Haworth on her account from as far away as Japan, she would have been delighted but not altogether surprised. The image of the Brontës presented in Charlotte’s own “Biographical Notice” of her sisters casts them as “unobtrusive women” shunning fame. Yet Charlotte’s early ambition was not merely to write but “to be for ever known.”
By the time she died, at the age of nearly thirty-nine, in 1855, she had indeed become a celebrity. Two years later, with the publication of Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, she became a legend. Yet her journey from private individual to public persona was less straightforward than her naive twenty-year-old self might have hoped. Instead of a triumphant progress out of obscurity into the “light & glory” of literary renown, she would have to travel a tortuous route, characterized as much by evasion and self-effacement as by self-exposure.
She soon realized that, as a woman writing in an age in which “authoresses” were “liable to be looked upon with prejudice,” it was expedient to disguise herself under a male-sounding pseudonym if she was to make her work public. In her novels, that pseudonym would give her the freedom to use her own emotional life as the basis of her art, allowing her to revolutionize the imaginative presentation of women’s inner lives. She was so uninhibited in her portrayal of the female psyche that her heroines shocked many of her contemporaries and were accused of unwomanly assertion, morbid passion, and anti-Christian individualism.
So when her pseudonym began to slip and her real identity became known in literary circles, Charlotte had to seek out a new sort of protective “veil” to distract attention from the unacceptable elements of her fiction and deflect attacks on her personal morality. She found this shield in her social persona as the modest spinster daughter of a country parson, disingenuously insisting to those she met on the literary circuit that she bore no more than a fleeting external resemblance to the rebellious Jane Eyre. Unlike the French novelist George Sand (1804–76), who wore men’s clothes and took a stream of high-profile lovers, Charlotte never sought a bohemian lifestyle. Sand’s novels, with their frank portrayal of female desire, may have influenced her writing. But Charlotte the clergyman’s daughter was not prepared to sacrifice her respectability. She was well aware that she lived in a society where “publicity . . . for a woman . . . is degrading if it is not glorious” and where the line between celebrity and notoriety was perilously thin.
If Charlotte Brontë was her own mythologizer, she invented two distinct and conflicting myths, the second designed to deflect attention from the first. One was the positive myth of female self-creation embodied by her autobiographical heroines, Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, who forge their own sense of selfhood in conflict with their social environment. The other, which eventually inspired the saintly heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë, was a quiet and trembling creature, reared in total seclusion, a martyr to duty, and a model of Victorian femininity, whose sins against convention, if she had unwittingly committed any, could be explained away by her isolated upbringing and the sufferings she had endured. Both had their elements of truth in aspects of Charlotte Brontë’s private character, but both were imaginative constructs, consciously developed.
Charlotte’s perception of the writer’s self as material for mythology derived from her Romantic inheritance, as did the lifelong belief in her own genius which enabled her to achieve what she did in literature against the odds. Her youthful faith in writing as a route to immortal fame had been established early on in childhood. Because of the way her public image was molded after her death, her family has, over the past century and a half, been primarily remembered for its tragedies. But what made her able to transform herself into one of the major novelists of the nineteenth century was the fact that she grew up steeped in literature, defining herself as a writer from a very young age. Charlotte was five when her mother died and eight when she was sent with her sisters to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, where the eldest two, Maria and Elizabeth, contracted the tuberculosis that killed them. Yet within a year or so of these damaging experiences, Charlotte had recovered sufficiently to form an intense bond with her three surviving siblings, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, in boisterous imaginative games fueled by the literary tastes their father encouraged. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who talked metaphysics with his infant son Hartley, the Reverend Patrick Brontë took a Romantic interest in his children’s development and encouraged their precocity.
Charlotte and Branwell later recorded how their “plays” began in 1826 with the present of a box of toy soldiers. In real life, death had intruded as an arbitrary force. In play, they could take control when, as four gigantic Genii, they held the power of life and death over the diminutive wooden men. Soon, they began to make tiny magazines for the soldiers, writing out their own compositions in microscopic script. This scribblemania continued long after they had outgrown the toys which had originally inspired it and eventually became a purely literary adventure. By the time they were into their teens, their understanding of the term “Genius” was more metaphorical than it had been, but no less potent. Eventually, the siblings split off into two separate camps, Charlotte and Branwell chronicling the history of the imaginary kingdom of Angria while Emily and Anne invented their own fantasy world, Gondal.
At an early age, the young Brontës formed a habit of treating writers as heroes. In one game, played when they were aged between seven and eleven, each had to pick an island and its chief men. Their chosen leaders included literary figures such as Sir Walter Scott, J. G. Lockhart, Leigh Hunt, and “Christopher North” (John Wilson) of Blackwood’s magazine, all of whom were clearly believed to be as powerful as a man of action like the Duke of Wellington, who was also selected. Though Emily’s and Anne’s early prose has not survived, Angria and its predecessor Glass Town are vividly documented in Charlotte’s and Branwell’s voluminous juvenilia, which reveal their fantasy world as a place where writers were important figures.
Charlotte’s early-established belief in the writer as an exceptional individual derived from her sophisticated childhood and teenage reading and continued into adulthood. During the 1820s and 1830s, Blackwood’s Magazine, and later Fraser’s, formed the core of her cultural education. Unlike today’s magazines, these periodicals were not mere ephemera but would have been kept and reread like books. They offered an often highbrow mix of poetry, fiction, satire, criticism, philosophy, history, and political commentary, often sustained to booklike length. Blackwood’s, in particular, turned its contributors into cult figures, such as James Hogg, “the Ettrick Shepherd.” A serialized “Gallery of Literary Characters” in Fraser’s during 1832 reinforced the celebrity status of the writer. Steeped in the fallout from the Romantic movement, these magazines fostered the belief that poets were not mere linguistic craftsmen, but privileged souls whose personalities were as important as their actual literary output. One Blackwood’s article on Byron in 1828 casually refers to “Great Poets” as “the Chosen Few.” Another, two years later, also on Byron, describes famous poets as “fixed stars” forming their own “celestial clubs.”
In their imaginary city of Glass Town, Charlotte and Branwell could aspire to join this heavenly clique by writing poetry and prose under the pseudonyms of their favorite characters. These alter egos were all, without exception, men. As Christine Alexander points out, writing was regarded in the Brontë household as “very much a male domain.” At this stage, Charlotte had no conscious anxiety about unquestioningly identifying herself with the power and privilege of her narrators, who were male simply because she had few female models to emulate (there was no Jane Austen, for example, on the Parsonage shelves). The conflict between her gender and her desire to write would only become explicit later, particularly when she made contact with the real-life world of professional letters. Even so, it still provoked latent tensions in her juvenilia which would not be finally exploded until Jane Eyre, in which she used a woman’s voice. Charlotte’s best mature fiction is remarkable for the subjective intensity of its female first-person narrators, but in her juvenilia she tended to adopt the pose of a cynical and detached male narrator. Something held her back from total engagement, except as a voyeur.
When thirteen-year-old Branwell threw himself enthusiastically into the character of Young Soult, an inspired poet, fourteen-year-old Charlotte could only stand back and mock in a satirical drama, The Poetaster. Soult is turned into Henry Rhymer, a drunken coward who writes trite little verses about his own Orphic powers, stamps his foot, and treats his social superiors with absurd flattery one minute, insults the next. When Lord Charles Wellesley, Charlotte’s cynical alter ego, reads Rhymer’s effusions, he can hardly contain his giggles. Rhymer ends up being kicked out of the room by another of Charlotte’s alter egos, the Angrian prose author Captain Tree. Rhymer responds by murdering the unfortunate Tree, but is reprieved on the gallows when Tree is magically brought back to life.
There is no doubt that Branwell at this age could be infuriatingly bumptious and probably deserved everything he got. Yet the very mercilessness of Charlotte’s attack suggests how threatened and excluded she felt by her brother’s confident identification with the poet who knows that after his death he will become (quoting the Blackwood’s article on Byron of a few months before) “a fixed star ascending to the heaven of literature and there establishing its glory, in the midst of poets which are its fellows, to all eternity.” This is Henry Rhymer speaking in Charlotte’s satire, but his words sound remarkably similar to her own Romantic ideals. Indeed, his Keatsian belief that true poetry comes as naturally as the leaves to the tree—“The thoughts should come spontaneously as I write or they’re not the inspiration of genius”—is almost identical with the credo earnestly expressed by Charlotte thirteen years later. In an essay written while she was studying in Brussels in 1843, she argued that for the true poet “inspiration takes the place of reflection” and that “the man of genius produces, without work.” If the teenage Charlotte found her brother’s posturing unbearable, it was because she would herself have liked to identify with the high Romantic conception of the man of genius, but felt prohibited from giving herself fully to the fantasy because she was a girl.
When Charlotte does write in a nonsatirical poetic voice, we find her bewailing the fate of the “neglected genius” who dies unrecognized:None can tell the bitter anguish
Of those lofty souls that languish,
With grim penury still dwelling:
Quenched by frowns their sacred fire,
All their powers within them swelling,
Tortured by neglect to ire.
It may be written in the voice of the Angrian Marquis of Douro, but this poem reflects Charlotte’s angry sense of her own unacknowledged worth. In it, she goes on to address Genius as a “Spiritual essence, pure, divine” which purifies the vision of the favored mortals to whom it is given. Though awkwardly expressed here, the faith she held at fourteen in the God-given origin of her own artistic creativity would change little as she matured.
Through her early reading, Charlotte absorbed the influence of two distinct types of Romanticism which both informed her view of what the creative writer ought to be. On the one hand there was the visionary Romanticism found in her poem on the neglected genius. This enshrined the imagination as the “divine faculty,” which allowed the gifted individual to see beyond appearances into spiritual reality and was ultimately derived from Wordsworth, Coleridge, and lesser figures such as John Wilson of Blackwood’s. When Wilson exhorted “us visionaries” to apply their transcendent imaginations to a sublimely craggy landscape, Charlotte would have included herself in the invitation.
Charlotte quotes Wordsworth and Coleridge in her juvenilia, but in her prose writing she was less interested in their visionary aesthetic than in chronicling the political and amorous intrigues of the Angrian scene. As a result, the two authors she most admired in her late teens, and whose impact on her writing is most apparent, were Scott—she believed all other novels after his were “worthless”—and Byron. Scott’s legacy can be seen in her stories of abducted damsels and civil war, Byron’s in her cynical men-of-the-world narrators and her obsession with the amours of her aristocratic hero, Zamorna. Both writers were among the biggest celebrities of their age and would have informed Charlotte’s idea of what it was to achieve literary success.
Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) was, as Carlyle put it in a review of Lockhart’s biography of 1837–38, “like some living mythological personage, and ranked among the chief wonders of the world.” Lord Byron (1788–1824) had not only been the most famous poet of his day, but had notoriously lived out his private life on the public stage. His glamour and fame were reinforced by Thomas Moore’s biography of 1830, which was devoured by the Brontë children. In a review, Macaulay commented on the interchangeability of the writer and the work, suggesting that Byron had consciously set out to become a legend: “He was himself the beginning, the middle, and the end of all his own poetry—the hero of every tale—the chief object of every landscape. Harold, Lara, Manfred, and a crowd of other characters, were universally considered merely as loose incognitos of Byron; and there is every reason to believe that he meant them to be so considered.”
After her death Charlotte Brontë would come to rival Byron in personal fame. But in her early prose fiction she was not so much trying to be Byron as to look through the keyhole onto Byronic scenes of aristocratic seducers and swooning ladies in glittering silks. Her contact with Byron’s life and works (including his racy Don Juan, which she had read herself by the time she was eighteen, but which she advised her ladylike friend Ellen Nussey to avoid) exposed her to the frank literary portrayal of sexuality which would reemerge, in modified form, in her adult novels to upset many readers of the 1840s and 1850s.
Instead of plunging directly into this risqué world of Angrian amours, Charlotte habitually described it through the eyes of a noncommital narrator, “Charles Townshend.” This was a safety valve designed to prevent her from getting too involved. For she was beginning to feel increasingly guilty about her reliance on this secret fantasy life, which jarred more and more with the social identity she was expected to develop as the demure daughter of the local parson, whose duties included organizing tea parties for Sunday-school teachers who would never have suspected what was going on in their young hostess’s mind.
Excerpted from The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller. Copyright © 2005 by Lucasta Miller. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.