- Inventing Charlotte Brontë
A couple of days ago, having gotten sick of the Aeneid, I found myself fidgeting among my bookshelves, looking for something to distract me from the ponderous exploits of that pious sap Aeneas (and it’s no wonder Juno keeps trying to kill him; he’s such a pill). Soon I pulled out Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, and quickly remembered that the paperback I’d been dipping into periodically for the past twenty years had disintegrated, on last use, to a jaundiced brittle stack of pages laced with little white spine-glue chips that sifted onto my stomach when I tried to turn a page in bed.
This discovery has not led me to toss the book sensibly into the woodstove and choose something more cohesive to read. Instead, in hopes of saving the last fragile remnants of cheap binding, I’ve taken to reading Shirley at a speed that resembles the delayed slow motion one sees in explanatory replays of baseball pitches: sitting bolt upright, preternaturally alert for a page explosion, my neck cocked stiffly at goose angle, both hands gripping the Scotch-taped cover with the sort of tension I exhibit when I’m driving in a snowstorm.
If Charlotte Brontë were to step into my kitchen right now, she would no doubt glance briefly at my contortions over her novel, snort, and then announce that my discomfort serves me right. “You ought to suffer,” she’d say. “And, what’s more, you like it.”
Oh, Charlotte. One could not exactly call her a sadist. Nonetheless, with Currer Bell for a big sister, Emily and Anne must have had their whiteknuckle moments. Even her ally and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, whose tender forbearance presses me to remember how terribly the Fates battered away at Charlotte’s short life, hints at a vein of harshness in her friend’s character and expectations: “She is sterling and true; and if she is a little bitter she checks herself.”
Charlotte, in truth, is more than “a little bitter.” She is often downright vengeful—as are, at some point, all of her major and many of her minor characters, from Shirley’s tense, repressed, white-faced Caroline Helstone to Villette’s chubby manipulative Madame Beck to Jane Eyre’s mission-besotted Saint John Rivers to the most malignant instance, The Professor’s bullying schoolmaster William Crimsworth. An author is not necessarily a stand-in for her inventions, but Charlotte constantly acknowledges the pleasures of torment, whether she is inflicting pain on her characters or speaking their [End Page 393] lines or engaging in one of the intimate author-to-reader chats that she, like so many Victorian novelists, sows liberally among her plots.
The Brontë sisters had brief and often dreadful lives, and the family’s predilection for pain comes as no surprise to any reader of their novels. Even the less skillful Anne writes well enough to make that family pattern clear. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall her bland and priggish heroine finds considerable consolation in thwarting a drunken husband’s happiness, being prone to diary jottings that regretfully admit, “I ought to sacrifice my pride, and renew my efforts once again to make his home agreeable and lead him back to the path of virtue.” And consider Emily, who in Wuthering Heights blithely depicts Hareton Earnshaw, one of her romantic leads, in the act of hanging a litter of puppies from the back of a chair. Even in her moments of high tragic melodrama, Emily forces me to focus not on the lovers’ passion but on specific details of cruelty, as when the dying Catherine “retained in her closed fingers a portion of [Heathcliff’s] locks she had been grasping. As to her companion, while raising himself with one hand, he had taken her arm with the other; and so inadequate was his stock of gentleness to the requirements of her condition, that on letting go I saw four distinct impressions left blue in the colourless skin.”
Charlotte’s attitude toward suffering is, at least in comparison to Emily’s, less supernatural; but it can seem even more insidious and inescapable. Often that’s...