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Charlotte Brontë Discovered the Plain Heroine
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Charlotte Brontë Discovered the Plain Heroine

By Photo: Rischgitz/Getty Images

"Books and Things"

August 31, 1918

One hundred and ninety-eight years ago today in Thornton, West Yorkshire, Charlotte Brontë was born, the eldest of three daughters who would together leave an indelible mark on the history of the English novel. From the New Republic archives, an appraisal of Charlotte and Emily's unique brilliance from 1918.

IN 1886 the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ninth edition, said of Charlotte Brontë: "A comparison has sometimes been made between Miss Brontë and Miss Austen. The points of contrast are certainly more apparent than the points of similarity; and it is a fact not without significance that Miss Brontë could never thoroughly appreciate the merits of her great predecessor. Both were consummate masters of literary expression, and both finished their work with the utmost care and Precision."

Nonsense, we say of 1886 in 1918, when even the meanest of God's creatures is aware that Miss Austen's and Miss Bronte's " points of similarity" are exactly three: both were women, both wrote novels, the novels of both were published in the nineteenth century. Their "points of contrast" are all the differences between the world of high comedy and the world of passion and of stormy landscape. Nothing could be more apparent and less important than both differ­ence and similarity. Miss Bronte's inability to appreciate Miss Austen is a fact without significance. What she said of Miss Austen, whom she disesteemed, is not so wide of the mark as what she said of Thackeray, whom she admired. She deemed Thackeray's "an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognized," she regarded him as " the first social regenerator of the day," she said "he resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vul­ture." Her literary opinions are worth recalling only be­cause they count so little in the total impression that she leaves, only because the same woman who could write of Thackeray so strangely could study his face, in an engrav­ing sent her by Mr. George Smith, and make a good guess at his character.

Charlotte Brontë, as we all agree now, was an in-and­-outer. She had her terrible off days. She could be inno­cently guilty of the Blanche Ingram scenes in Jane Eyre. When "punch" was her goal she could write like this: "Up the blood rushed to his face; forth flashed the fire from his eyes; erect he sprang; he held his arms out [shouldn't it have been "out he held his arms" or "out his arms he held"?]; but I evaded his embrace, and at once quitted the room." What do these things matter? Could she not also say, when in an infrequent mood of delicate fancy, and when "a splendid midsummer shone over Eng­land," that "it was as if a band of Italian days had come from the south, like a flock of glorious passenger birds, and lighted to rest them on the cliffs..."?

One likes to remember the passage in which Mrs. Gaskell tells of her visit to Haworth parsonage in 1853, the year before Miss Brontë's marriage: "But now to return to our quiet hour of rest after dinner. I soon observed that her habits of order were such that she could not go on with the conversation if a chair were out of place; everything was arranged with delicate regularity." And it is this orderly spinster who makes Jane Eyre, not long after her "thin crescent-destiny " has begun to enlarge, speak of "that something which used to make me fear and shrink, as if I had been wandering amongst volcanic-looking hills, and had suddenly felt the ground quiver, and seen it gape." A mis­placed chair put her out, and her imagination was at home upon volcanic-looking hills! How did this imagination work its miracles? She has told us as much as she could tell. Mrs. Gaskell, surprised by the vividness with which the effects of opium are described in Villette, asked whether she had ever, taken opium. Charlotte "replied that she had never, to her knowledge, taken a grain of it in any shape, but that she had followed the process she always adopted when she had to describe anything that had not fallen with­in her own experience; she had thought intently on it for many and many a night before falling asleepwondering what it was like, or how it would betill at length, some­times after her story had been arrested at this point for weeks, she wakened up in the morning with all clear before her, as if she had in reality gone through the experience, and then could describe it, word for word, as it happened." A flawed artist, no doubt, but one whose enormities, whose occasional magniloquence and unrealities and atrocious phrases, do not spoil our interest in her story, or keep us from seeing that her hatred of "tame, vacant life" was without flaw, that her books are an honest and often a splendid hymn in praise of the "good, true, vigorous” passion that strikes its roots deep and lives long. And let us not forget, however often people may bore us by repeat­ing it, that she was a great innovator. She discovered the plain heroine. She discovered the frank heroine who some­times told her love. In English fiction wasn't she one of the two pioneers in whose work we find the first impassioned rendering of the modern intimacy between man and landscape? As for Sir Walter Scott and Mrs. Radcliffe, much as their men and women observe and enjoy landscape, he did not try for and she did not achieve the degree of intimacy which is so high and so modern in the Brontës.

The other pioneer was Emily Brontë, born a hundred years ago, two years after Charlotte. Mrs. Gaskell's life revealed Charlotte Bronte, and since it appeared several hundred letters have been published. They better our acquaintance with Charlotte. In the letters to Miss Nussey we can learn, almost week by week, her first, second, third, fourth impressions of the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate, whom she was afterward to marry and love. Mrs. Gaskell told us ever so much less about Emily, and this little is still almost all that we know. Her published letters are still only two. Mme. Duclaux has added one unforgettable picture of Emily's dying. A hundred and thirty-eight poems, more than half of them discovered by Mr. Clement Shorter, have come to light. But of new material that is mere information we have next to nothing. It is not by any satisfactions of curiosity that her fame has grown. She is still as remote and unknowable as she was when alive.

This inaccessibility has helped her fame. Her eulogists have helped it. The impression made by Matthew Arnold’s praise and by Swinburne's deepens all the time. M. Maeterlinck has added to theirs his own more penetrating and more curious praise. Miss May Sinclair has destroyed many myths in The Three Brontës, a delightful witty book, rich in insight and contagious generosities, though here and there a little fanciful, and mostly pitched in too high a key. With the newly discovered poems as a guide Miss Sinclair has mounted the stream and visited the springs of Emily’s imagination. And yet, when we speak of Emily, the best we can do with any certitude is to repeat what Matthew Arnold wrote, that her "soul knew no fellow for might, passion, vehemence, grief, daring, since Byron died.” She belonged, as do Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, to "the true aristocracy of passionate souls," and the passion in all three has a depth and reach and integrity far beyond Byron's. Her genius, austere, intense, mystical, made Wuthering Heights like a piece of granite that surprisingly grows, twisted and glowing, out on the moors that she loved with all her solitary heart, and where the high winds put the last touch to her isolation.

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