Charlotte Brontë: An Appreciation

David Cody, Assistant Professor of English, Hartwick College

Charlotte Brontë, with her Byronic brother and her tragic sisters, have become the center of a great romantic legend, the cult of the Brontës. Charlotte is the central figure in this cult partly because (though she died at thirty-eight) she survived all the rest, partly because she wrote more that the others did, and at least in part because after her death she was the subject of a great biography.

Charlotte was possessed of a remarkably complex character: she was indomitably honest, tenacious, stoic, full of integrity and determination and independence of thought, enthusiastic, passionate, and yet emotionally insecure, shy, sensitive, physically frail, secretly obsessed with her own ugliness — she was thin, short, and plain, with a reddish face, missing teeth and an overhanging brow, though friends speak of her lovely eyes and beautiful hair — and prone to psychosomatic ilnesses.

Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brontë became authors despite (or perhaps because of) the strange life — outwardly empty, inwardly rich — which they led as children: Charlotte herself, looking back on the years at Haworth, wrote of their feeling of being “buried with inferior minds.”

All of her fictions, with their intensely romantic emphasis on the Gothic and the supernatural, with their intense sexuality (not always detected or acknowledged by contemporary readers — Queen Victoria called Jane Eyre “really a wonderful book,” which she would certainly not have done had she really understood it) their implicit satire, and their emphasis on the sustaining power of the inner life of the imagination, are autobiographical, at least in a psychological sense. The only great passion of her life was a guilty and a doomed one one: as his pupil in Brussels she fell in love with M. Heger, a married man with a large family, and her love was not reciprocated. It is no accident that all of her novels are secretly fairy tales, variations on the Cinderella theme. Her adolescent fantasies set in the imaginary country called, significantly, Angria, were reworked, as she matured, into great novels, all of them concerned with doomed, ardent, sensitive, lonely, passionate heroines who are versions of herself. Rather unfairly, Matthew Arnold, after reading Villette, wrote that her mind “contained nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage”: Virginia Woolf, more perceptively, suggested that “All her force, and it is the more tremendous for being constricted, goes into the assertion, “I love,” “I hate,” “I suffer.”

In a very real sense Charlotte’s life was spent in mourning, in a struggle against the grim realities which surrounded her — abandonment, brutalization, emotional deprivation, death (during her life she was forced to confront the traumatic loss of her mother, her four sisters, and her brother) and the search for reality, for her own identity.

She wrote because writing provided her with a psychological release: life without composition was unthinkable to her. Full of manifestations of her sense of deprivation, tension, and repression, her creative work — intuitively, almost unconscously — came more and more to provide her with a means of “filling the time which spreads between me and the grave,” as one of her characters puts it. She saw only one escape from the trials of life, the one which her sisters and brother had already taken and the one which she eventually chose for herself. Vehemently anti-Calvinistic, she was nevertheless frequently preoccupied with a fear of damnation, but in the end she seems to have chosen death as an alternative to life. Her triumph lay in her ability to employ her remarkable creative powers to transmute her own experiences into great art, but also in her ability to survive for as long as she did in a world which was, so far as her own life was concerned, almost unbelievably burdened with great sorrow and with genuine tragedy.