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Charlotte Bronte And Her Two Great Novels Post by :zapme Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :1607

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Charlotte Bronte And Her Two Great Novels


Charlotte Brontë is always linked in my memory with Thackeray because of her visit to the author of Vanity Fair and its humorous and pathetic features. She went to London from her lonely Yorkshire home, and the great world, with its many selfish and unlovely features, made a painful impression on her. Even Thackeray, her idol, was found to have feet of clay. But this "little Puritan," as the great man called her, was endowed with the divine genius which was forced to seek expression in fiction, and nowhere in all literature will one find an author who shows more completely the compelling force of a powerful creative imagination than this little, frail, self-educated woman, who had none of the advantages of her fellow writers, but who surpassed them all in a certain fierce, Celtic spirit which forces the reader to follow its bidding.

He who would get a full realization of the importance of this Celtic element in English literature cannot afford to neglect Jane Eyre and Villette, the best of Charlotte Brontë's works. Old-fashioned these romances are in many ways, oversentimental, in parts poorly constructed, but in all English fiction there is nothing to surpass the opening chapters of Jane Eyre for vividness and pathos, and few things to equal the greater part of Villette, the tragedy of an English woman's life in a Brussels boarding school.

Who can explain the mystery of the flowering of a great literary style among the bleak and desolate moors of Yorkshire? Who can tell why among three daughters of an Irish curate of mediocre ability but tremendously passionate nature one should have developed an abnormal imagination that in Wuthering Heights is as powerful as Poe's at his best, and another should have matured into the ablest woman novelist of her day and her generation? These are freaks of heredity which science utterly fails to explain.

Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816 and died in 1855. She was one of six children who led a curiously forlorn life in the old Haworth parsonage in the midst of the desolate Yorkshire moors. The outlook on one side was upon a gloomy churchyard; on the other three sides the eye ranged to the horizon over rolling, dreary moorland that looked like a heaving ocean under a leaden sky. One brother these five sisters had, a brilliant but superficial boy, with no stable character, who became a drunkard and died after lingering on for years, a source of intense shame to his family. The girls were left motherless at an early age. Four were sent to a boarding school for clergymen's daughters, but two died from exposure and lack of nutritious food, and the others, starved mentally and physically, returned to their home. This was the school that Charlotte held up to infamy in Jane Eyre.

The three sisters who were left, in the order of their ages, were Emily, Charlotte and Anne. They, with their brother, lived in a kind of dream world. Charlotte was the natural story-teller, and she wove endless romances in which figured the great men of history who were her heroes. She also told over and over many weird Yorkshire legends. These children devoured every bit of printed matter that came to the parsonage, and they were as thoroughly informed on all political questions as the average member of Parliament.

At an age when normal girls were playing with their dolls these precocious children were writing poems and stories. Their father developed the ways of a recluse and never took his meals with his children. Living in this dream world of their own, these children could not understand normal girls. They were terribly unhappy at school and came near to death of homesickness. Finally Emily and Charlotte found a congenial school and in a few years they both made great strides in education. Charlotte tried teaching and also the work of governess, but finally both decided to open a girls' school of their own. To prepare themselves in French, Emily and Charlotte went to a boarding school in Brussels.

This was the turning point in Charlotte's life. Intensely ambitious, she worked like a galley slave and soon mastered French so that she wrote it with ease and vigor. There is no question that she had a girlish love for her teacher, as passionate as it was brief, and that her whole outlook was broadened by this experience of a world so unlike the only one that she had known.

The story of Charlotte's life is told beautifully by Mrs. Gaskell, the well-known author of Cranford. It is one of the finest biographies in the language, and also one of the most stimulating. The reader who follows Charlotte's stormy youth is made ashamed of his own lack of application when he reads of the girl's tireless work in self-culture in the face of much bodily weakness and great unhappiness.

Read of her experiences in Brussels and you will get some idea of the tremendous vitality of this frail girl with the luminous eyes and the fiery spirit that no labor could tire. Mrs. Gaskell has drawn largely upon Charlotte's letters, which are as vivid and full of character as any of her fiction. Genius flashes from them; one feels drawn very close to this woman who raged against her physical infirmities, but overcame them bravely. When the spirit moved her she poured out her soul to her friend in words that grip the heart after all these years.

The boarding-school project fell through, and for some years the three sisters lived at home and devoted themselves to literary work. The first fruits of their pen was a small volume of poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the pseudonyms of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. This book fell practically stillborn from the press, but the sisters were undaunted and each began a novel. Without experience of life it is not strange that these stories lacked merit.

Charlotte drew her novel from her Brussels experience and called it The Professor. Though it was far the best, it was rejected, but Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Gray were published. Emily's novel revealed a powerful but ill-regulated imagination, with scenes of splendid imaginative force, yet morbid and unreal as an opium dream. It received some good notices, but Anne's was mediocre and fell flat. Nothing daunted by the refusal of the publishers to bring out her first book, Charlotte began Jane Eyre, largely autobiographical in the early chapters, and this book was promptly accepted and published in August, 1847.

Jane Eyre was a great success from the day it came from the press. It was an epoch-making novel because it dragged into the fierce light of publicity many questions which the English public of that day had decided to leave out of print. To us of today it contains nothing unusual, for modern women writers have gone far beyond Charlotte Brontë in their demands for freedom from many strict social conventions. What makes the book valuable is the glimpse which it gives of the wild revolt of a passionate nature against the coldness, the hypocrisy and the many shams of the social life of England in the middle of the last century.

This novel is also noteworthy for its intense picture of the sufferings of a lonely, unappreciated girl, who felt in herself the stirrings of genius and who hungered and thirsted for appreciation. The terrible pictures of Lowood, the fiction name of the Cowan's Bridge School, where her two sisters contracted their fatal illness, are stamped upon the brain of every reader, as are those of the humiliations of the governess. The style of this book was a revelation in that period of formal writing. Like Stevenson, Charlotte Brontë wrought with words as a great artist works with his colors, and many of her descriptions in Jane Eyre have never been surpassed. Hers was that brooding Celtic imagination which, when given full play, takes the reader by the hand and shows him the heights and depths of human love and suffering.

The success of Jane Eyre opened wide the doors of London to the unknown author. For a time her identity was hidden, but when it was revealed she was induced to go up to London and see the great world. Thackeray was especially kind to her, but his efforts to entertain this Yorkshire recluse were dismal failures. Nothing is more amusing than his daughter's story of the great novelist, slipping out of the house one night, when he had asked several celebrities to meet Charlotte Brontë. The party was a terrible fiasco, and so he escaped, putting his finger to his lips as he opened the front door to warn his daughter that she must not reveal his flight. Charlotte's correspondence with her publisher is also full of pathos. It shows how keenly she felt her aloofness from the world, which she could not overcome.

The story of Villette is the real story of Charlotte's experiences in a Brussels boarding school, where she first tasted the delights of literary study and her genius first found adequate expression. The original draft of this novel was called The Professor. Charlotte knew that it contained good material. So, after the death of her sisters, she took up the subject, and with all her mature power produced Villette--one of those novels struck off at a white heat, like George Sand's Indiana or Balzac's Seraphita. The story is largely autobiographical, but the episodes of Charlotte's life are touched with romance when they appear as the experiences of Lucy Snow, the forlorn English girl in the Continental school, among people of alien natures and strange speech.

In Shirley, Charlotte Brontë revealed much genuine humor in the malicious portraits of the three curates, who were drawn from real life. In fact, throughout her books one will find most of the characters sketched from real people. Hence, if one reads the story of her life he can trace her from her return from her Continental life down through the cruel years almost to the end. Back she came to her gloomy home from Brussels only to watch in succession the lingering death of her brother and her two sisters. Think of these three sisters, two marked for sure and early death, laboring at literary work every day with the passion and intensity that come to few men. Think of Emily, the eldest, with fierce pride refusing help to climb the steep stairway of the parsonage home when her strength was almost spent and her racking cough struck cold on the hearts of her sisters. And think of Charlotte in her terrible grief turning to fiction as the only resource from unbearable woe and loneliness. It is one of the great tragedies of literature, but out of it came the flowering of a brilliant genius.

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Charlotte Bronte And Her Two Great Novels

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