If Only She’d Been Prettier… Charlotte Brontë & The Male Gaze

the_bronte_sisters_by_patrick_branwell_bronte_restoredI never liked Mr. Rochester. His high-handed behavior and moodiness with Jane Eyre. His sneering treatment of his young ward, Adèle. And his final, obscene pretense that he locked away his mad wife for her sake rather than his own convenience (with all that land and money he couldn’t have had a small cottage built where she could have been kept in relative comfort?). Even when I was much too young to understand how different power dynamics play out in relationships I instinctively knew that Rochester was not for me.

I did like Jane, though. I liked that she was small and plain. And that she was also stubborn and honest and brave, but not a goody-goody. She seemed real to me, particularly when I was younger.  I’d imagine us doing our homework together after school. And the more I learned about Charlotte Brontë the more I assumed she was just like Jane.

In her entertaining, very readable but ultimately frustrating biography Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart* Claire Harman does not share my opinions. Her sympathies seem to reside with the Rochesters of the world.

There is very little left to be discovered about Charlotte Brontë.  The vicarage, her childhood home (as well as the home of her two equally famous sisters) is now a shrine dedicated to all thing Brontë – something which occurred within years of the writer’s death.  Friends and acquaintances happily sold their letters from Charlotte and their memories of the family. Mary Gaskell, a friend and fellow novelist, was chosen by Charlotte’s father to write his daughter’s biography.  He did this largely in an attempt to combat the unpleasant rumors being spread across London (rumors which, ironically, Gaskell was in  large part responsible for spreading) about Charlotte after her death.  The resulting book was thorough, if not entirely objective and possibly fraught with factual errors. But it laid the foundation for the dozens of biographies and critical studies that have followed.  

What is left, then, for the modern biographer? Other than curating the known facts in the hopes of gleaning some new insight the answer is: very little.  And so that is what Harman does. She presents her interpretation of the facts, but it is an interpretation which relies heavily on the Gaskell narrative. Where Charlotte is portrayed as a tragic figure – the kind of feminine martyr of which the Victorians were so fond.

Unfortunately, Harman doesn’t acknowledge that those same facts could just as easily form an entirely different picture if viewed from a contemporary perspective.

The centerpiece of Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart is Brontë’s romantic infatuation with her former Belgium teacher and employer, the married Constantin Héger. This is old news to most Brontë scholars. Even Gaskell was aware of it, though she discreetly chose to omit the details from her biography. Charlotte’s letters written to Héger were published in a London newspaper as early as 1912 – having been preserved and passed down by Héger and his wife to their daughter. None of his letters survive. In the end, any romantic feelings appear to have been entirely one-sided and ultimately an embarrassment to all those involved.  By Harman’s own admission this obsession was conducted entirely via post and lasted one year, perhaps two at the most, before Héger firmly put an end to it. 

So it’s hard to understand why, other than the salacious nature of the tidbit, that Harman insists on amplifying the episode’s importance in the writer’s life. It is inarguable that Constantin Héger was the model for the romantic heroes in Brontë’s novels, particularly Mr. Rochester. But it is also a well known fact that Charlotte frequently based her characters on people she knew. Her four novels are filled with portraits of friends and acquaintances, including her talented siblings. Yet they are not given the same prominence as Héger in Harman’s biography.  Neither is the actual inspiration for Jane Eyre, a story Charlotte once heard about a man who locked his wife in the attic, given more than a few sentences.

Instead Harman focuses specifically on those episodes which reflect poorly on her subject.  When she is done with Héger she moves quickly on to Brontë’s publisher, George Smith.  We are told that Charlotte also had a crush on him, – despite his being handsome, several years her junior and clearly (according to Harman) out of Charlotte’s league. This unkindness, this tendency to exaggerate the negative aspects of the novelist’s character as seen through the male gaze, is a weakness of Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart that is difficult to dismiss. Take for example the following passage –  

‘George Smith… seemed puzzled and sorry that his admired author was, in effect, vain, that “the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance. But I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful. Perhaps few women ever existed more anxious to be pretty than she, or more angrily conscious of the circumstances that she was not pretty.” One would like to hope this was not true for Charlotte, that the creator of Jane Eyre had more faith in herself, but the more she went into society, the more she was worn down by extreme self- consciousness.’

One would like to hope that the biographer would feel more empathy towards her subject… or at the very least attempt to understand the source of the writer’s (apparently entirely justified based on the above) insecurities. And yet this passage is just one of several which reference Charlotte Brontë’s homeliness. This focus, if nothing else, should call into question the superficiality of Brontë’s London friends – and yet their opinions are reported without judgement or context.

In sharp contrast to Héger and Smith, Harman spends much less space discussing the three marriage proposals Charlotte received (seemingly against all comprehension) and declined. Including one from the man she would eventually consent to marry.

Of her marriage to the Reverend Arthur Nicholls, despite the newlywed couple appearing by all accounts to have been extremely happy and well matched, we are rather preemptively told that it was “not a situation that promised well for her writing” and that “By the end of 1854, Charlotte’s London friendships had all but dried up”as a result of her marriage.  These are rather broad statements to make considering the couple married in June of 1854 and Charlotte would be dead nine short months later (after three months of illness).  To put it in perspective: nine months seems hardly enough time on which to base such dire judgments.

In many ways this is Claire Harman continuing the Brontë legend begun by Mary Gaskell.  That of a love-starved novelist who lived a tragic (even Gothic) existence.  And there is something to this: the Yorkshire moors, the heartbreaking deaths of her mother and five siblings, the strange fantasy worlds the siblings created as children and maintained into early adulthood, the prodigious amount juvenalia which they left behind… all the most dramatic elements of the Brontë mythos, and in Anne, Emily and Charlotte’s novels, had a foundation in the three sisters’  lives.

But a life is many things.

A case can just as easily be made that Charlotte Brontë was remarkably independent, highly educated for her time and strongly opinionated. She keenly followed local politics and current events.  (All this is in a large part thanks to her father, though he also fares poorly in Harman’s and Gaskell’s estimation).  She taught, albeit unhappily, at a girl’s school. She took multiple governess posts though, again, unhappily.  But she also was responsible for organizing her and Emily’s trip to Belgium to further their education. And she would eventually return there, alone, to teach. It was Charlotte who  instigated and organized the publication of her and her sisters’ poetry and novels.  And it was Charlotte who would travel to London with Anne to confront their publisher when she felt they were being dealt with unfairly.

Charlotte would eventually find herself a new publisher, the aforementioned George Smith.  After the success of Jane Eyre she visited London frequently as his guest. London’s literary lights were all fans.

While she seems to never have been comfortable moving in the literary circles of London, in spheres where she was more comfortable Charlotte formed meaningful and enduring friendships – most significantly with two women of equally independent dispositions, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor.  And then there was her close relationship to her talented siblings, also given short shrift by Ms. Harman.  These relationships, it should go without saying, were as influential as her crush on Professor Héger… if not more so. And while Harman acknowledges these female friendships, she gives them much less page space in proportion to the men in Charlotte’s life.

As for the novels, themselves, they are only discussed in depth as they function as further evidence of Charlotte’s unrequited love for both Héger and Smith.

Claire Harman’s biggest contribution, and the one for which the book will be remembered in my opinion, is that she manages to shed some light on what is perhaps the one remaining mystery of the Brontë family – the tragic cause of Charlotte Brontë’s death. She makes a strong case for hyperemesis gravidarum, a disease which causes “violent and ceaseless disruption of stomach and sense” in pregnant women. Charlotte wrote in a letter to a friend “my sufferings are very great – my nights indescribable – sickness with scarcely a reprieve – I strain until what I vomit is mixed with blood.” It was long believed that her symptoms were related consumption, the disease that took so many members of her family, but Harman’s theory is more than plausible.

This revelation does not excuse the book’s failings.  Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart makes no effort towards reconciling the writer of Jane Eyre and Villette with the awkward creature Harman is intent on depicting. A woman defined almost entirely by her relationships to men – father, brother, romantic infatuations and husband. Our attentions are constantly directed towards her appearance; her romantic and personal failures (both real and insinuated). All at the expense of the woman… the beloved writer…  and her brilliant, revolutionary mind.

 

Title: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

Author:  Claire Harman

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2016)

ISBN: 978 0 307 96208 9

 

*published in England with the more dignified title of Charlotte Brontë: A Life