The individualism and richness of Charlotte Brontë’s (21 April 1816 – 31 March 1855) work arise from the multiple ways in which Brontë’s writing is personal: observation and introspection, rational analysis and spontaneous emotion, accurate mimesis and private symbolism. Tension and ambiguity grow from the intersections and conflicts among these levels of writing and, indeed, among the layers of the self.
Few writers of English prose have so successfully communicated the emotional texture of inner life while still constructing fictions with enough verisimilitude to appear realistic. Brontë startled the Victorians because her work was so little influenced by the books of her own era. Its literary forebears were the written corporate daydreams of her childhood and the Romantic poets she read during the period when the fantasies took shape. Certain characters and situations that crystallized the emotional conflicts of early adolescence became necessary components of emotional satisfaction. The source of these fantasies was, to a degree, beyond control, occurring in the region the twentieth century has termed “the unconscious”; by writing them down from childhood on, Brontë learned to preserve and draw on relatively undisguised desires and ego conflicts in a way lost to most adults.
The power and reality of the inner life disturbed Brontë after she had passed through adolescence; she compared her creative urge to the action of opium and was afraid that she might become lost in her “infernal world.” When she began to think of publication, she deliberately used material from her own experience and reported scenes and characters in verifiable detail. In this way, she hoped to subdue the exaggerated romanticism— and the overwrought writing—of the fantasy fictions. “Details, situations which I do not understand and cannot personally inspect,” she wrote to her publisher, “I would not for the world meddle with.” Her drawing from life was so accurate that the curates and the Yorkes in Shirley were recognized at once by people who knew them, and Brontë lost the protection that her pseudonym had provided.
The years of practice in writing fiction that satisfied her own emotional needs gave Brontë the means to produce powerful psychological effects. She uses a variety of resources to make readers share the protagonist’s subjective state. The truth of the outside world is only that truth which reflects the narrator’s feelings and perceptions. All characters are aspects of the consciousness that creates them: Brontë uses splitting, doubling, and other fairy-tale devices; she replicates key situations; she carefully controls the narrative distance and the amount of information readers have at their disposal.
The unquietness that Brontë’s readers often feel grows from the tension between direct emotional satisfactions (often apparently immature) on one hand and, on the other, mature and realistic conflicts in motive, reason, and sense of self. Read as a sequence, the four completed novels demonstrate both Brontë’s development and the story of a woman’s relationship to the world. Brontë’s heroines find identity outside the enclosed family popularly supposed to circumscribe nineteenth century women. Isolation allows the heroines’ self-development, but it impedes their romantic yearning to be lost in love.
At the beginning of The Professor, William Crimsworth is working as a clerk in a mill owned by his proud elder brother. He breaks away, goes to Brussels to teach English, survives a brief attraction to a seductive older woman, and then comes to love Frances Henri, an orphaned Anglo-Swiss lace mender who had been his pupil.
Brontë’s narrative devices supply shifting masks that both expose and evade the self. The epistolary opening keeps readers from identifying directly with Crimsworth but draws them into the novel as recipients of his revelations. The masculine persona, which Brontë used frequently in the juvenilia, gives her access to the literary mainstream and creates possibilities for action, attitude, and initiative that did not exist in models for female stories. The juvenile fantasies supply the feud between two brothers; the Belgian scenes and characters come from Brontë’s own experiences. Although nominally male, Crimsworth is in an essentially female situation: disinherited, passive, timid. He has, furthermore, an exaggerated awareness and fear of the sexual overtones in human behavior.
Biographical details also go into the making of Frances Henri, the friendless older student working to pay for her lessons in the Belgian school. The poem that Frances writes is one Brontë had created out of her own yearning for Professor Héger. In The Professor, the dream can come true; the poem awakens the teacher’s response.
Like the central figures in all Brontë novels, both Crimsworth and Frances enact a Cinderella plot. Each begins as an oppressed outcast and ends successful, confident, and satisfactorily placed in society. The details of Crimsworth’s story work both symbolically and functionally. The imprisoning situations in the factory and the school reflect his perception of the world. At the same time, these situations are created by his own inner barriers. His bondage as a despised clerk is self-induced; he is an educated adult male who could move on at any time. In Belgium, he plods a treadmill of guilt because of Zoraïde Reuter’s sexual manipulativeness—for which he is not responsible. His self-suppression is also seen through Yorke Hunsden, who appears whenever Crimsworth must express strong emotion. Hunsden voices anger and rebellion not permitted to the male/female narrator and becomes a voyeuristic alter ego to appreciate Frances and love.
The novel is weakest when it fails to integrate the biography, the emotion, and the ideas. True moral dilemmas are not developed. The heroine, seen through sympathetic male eyes, wins love for her writing, her pride, and her self-possession, and she continues to work even after she has a child. Brontë solves her chronic romantic dilemma (How can a strong woman love if woman’s love is defined as willing subordination?) by letting Frances vibrate between two roles: She is the stately directress of the school by day, the little lace mender by night.
In Jane Eyre, Brontë created a story that has the authority of myth. Everything that had deeply affected her is present in the book’s emotional content. The traumatic experiences of maternal deprivation, the Clergy Daughters’ School, and Maria’s death create the events of Jane’s early life. The book also taps universal feelings of rejection, victimization, and loneliness, making them permissible by displacement: The hateful children are cousins, not siblings; the bad adult an aunt, not a mother. Rochester’s compelling power as a lover derives from neither literal nor literary sources—Rochester is the man Brontë had loved for twenty years, the duke of Zamorna who dominates the adolescent fantasies, exerting a power on both Jane and the reader that can hardly be explained by reason. Jane defied literary convention because she was poor, plain, and a heroine; she defied social convention by refusing to accept any external authority. Placed repeatedly in situations that exemplify male power, Jane resists and survives. At the end of the narrative, she is transformed from Cinderella to Prince Charming, becoming the heroine who cuts through the brambles to rescue the imprisoned sleeper. Identification is so immediate and so close that readers often fail to notice Brontë’s control of distance, in particular the points of detachment when an older Jane comments on her younger self and the direct addresses from Jane to the reader that break the spell when emotions become too strong.
Place controls the book’s structure. Events at Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, and Moor House determine Jane’s development; a brief coda at Ferndean provides the resolution. Each of the four major sections contains a figure representing the sources of male power over women: John Reed (physical force and the patriarchal family), Reverend Brocklehurst (the social structures of class, education, and religion), Rochester (sexual attraction), and St. John Rivers (moral and spiritual authority). Jane protects herself at first by devious and indirect means—fainting, illness, flight—and then ultimately, in rejecting St. John Rivers, by direct confrontation. Compelled by circumstances to fend for herself, she comes— at first instinctively, later rationally—to rely on herself.
The book’s emotional power grows from its total absorption in Jane’s view of the world and from the images, symbols, and structures that convey multiple interwoven reverberations. The red room—which suggests violence, irrationality, enclosure, rebellion, rebirth, the bloody chamber of emerging womanhood—echoes throughout the book. The Bridewell charade, Jane’s paintings, the buildings and terrain, and a multitude of other details have both meaning and function. Characters double and split: Helen Burns (mind) and Bertha Mason (body) are aspects of Jane as well as actors in the plot. Recurring images of ice and fire suggest fatal coldness without and consuming fire within. Rochester’s sexuality is the most threatening and ambiguous aspect of masculine power because of Jane’s own complicity and her need for love. Her terrors and dreams accumulate as the marriage approaches; there are drowning images, abyss images, loss of consciousness. She refuses to become Rochester’s mistress, finally, not because of the practical and moral dangers (which she does recognize) but because she fears her own willingness to make a god of him. She will not become dependent; she escapes to preserve her self.
As Jane takes her life into her own hands, she becomes less needy. After she has achieved independence by discovering a family and inheriting money, she is free to seek out Rochester. At the same time, he has become less omnipotent, perhaps a code for the destruction of patriarchal power. Thus, the marriage not only ends the romance and resolves the moral, emotional, and sexual conflicts but also supplies a satisfactory woman’s fantasy of independence coupled with love.
For the book that would follow Jane Eyre, Brontë deliberately sought a new style and subject matter. Shirley, set in 1812, concerns two public issues still relevant in 1848—working-class riots and the condition of women. Brontë did historical research in newspaper files. She used a panoramic scene, included a variety of characters observed from life, and added touches of comedy. Shirley is told in the third person; the interest is divided between two heroines, neither of whom is a persona. Nevertheless, Brontë is strongly present in the narrative voice, which remains objective only in scenes of action. The authorial commentary, more strongly even than the events themselves, creates a tone of anger, rebellion, suffering, and doubt.
The novel is clearly plotted, although the mechanics are at times apparent. Brontë shifts focus among characters and uses reported conversations to violate the time sequence so that she can arrange events in the most effective dramatic order. Robert Moore, owner of a cloth mill, arouses the workers’ wrath by introducing machinery. Caroline Helstone loves Robert, but her affection is not reciprocated. Although Caroline has a comfortable home with her uncle the rector, she is almost fatally depressed by lack of love and occupation. Property owner Shirley Keeldar discovers that having a man’s name, position, and forthrightness gives her some power but fails to make her man’s equal; she is simply more valuable as a matrimonial prize. Louis Moore, Shirley’s former tutor, loves her silently because he lacks wealth and social position. Eventually Robert, humbled by Shirley’s contempt and weakened by a workman’s bullet, declares his love for Caroline, who has in the meantime discovered her mother and grown much stronger. Shirley’s union with Louis is more ambivalent; she loves him because he is a master she can look up to, but she is seen on her wedding day as a pantheress pining for virginal freedom.
The primary source of women’s tribulation is dependency. Caroline Helstone craves occupation to fill her time, make her financially independent, and give her life purpose. Women become psychologically dependent on men because they have so little else to think about. Brontë examines the lives of several old maids; they are individuals, not stereotypes, but they are all lonely. Shirley and Caroline dissect John Milton, search for female roots, and talk cozily about men’s inadequacies. They cannot, however, speak honestly to each other about their romantic feelings. Caroline must hold to herself the deep pain of unrequited love.
Although Shirley deliberately moves beyond the isolated mythic world of Jane Eyre to put women’s oppression in the context of a society rent by other power struggles (workers against employers, England against France, Church against Nonconformity), the individualistic ending only partially resolves the divisions. Brontë’s narrative tone in the final passage is bleak and bitter. She reminds readers that Shirley’s events are history. Fieldhead Hollow is covered by mills and mill housing; magic is gone from the world.
Villette is Brontë’s most disciplined novel. Because The Professor had not been published, Brontë was able to rework the Brussels experience without masks, as a story of loneliness and female deprivation, deliberately subduing the wish fulfillment and making her uncompromising self-examination control form as well as feeling. Lucy Snowe is a woman without money, family, friends, or health. She is not, however, a sympathetic, friendly narrator like Jane Eyre. Her personality has the unattractiveness that realistically grows from deprivation; she has no social ease, no warmth, no mental quickness. Furthermore, her personality creates her pain, loneliness, and disengagement.
In the book’s early sections, Lucy is not even the center of her narrative. She watches and judges instead of taking part; she tells other people’s stories instead of her own. She is so self-disciplined that she appears to have neither feelings nor imagination, so restrained that she never reveals the facts about her family or the incidents of her youth that might explain to readers how and why she learned to suppress emotion, hope, and the desire for human contact. Despite—or perhaps because of—her anesthetized feeling and desperate shyness, Lucy Snowe drives herself to actions that might have been inconceivable for a woman more thoroughly socialized. Thrust into the world by the death of the elderly woman whose companion she had been, she goes alone to London, takes a ship for the Continent, gets a job as nursemaid, rises through her own efforts to teach in Madame Beck’s school, and begins laying plans to open a school of her own.
The coincidental and melodramatic elements of the story gain authenticity because they grow from Lucy’s inner life. When she is left alone in the school during vacation, her repressed need to be heard by someone drives her to enter the confessional of a Catholic church. Once the internal barrier is breached, she immediately meets the Bretton family. Realistically, she must have known they were in Villette; she knew that “Dr. John” was Graham Bretton, but she withheld that information from the reader both because of her habitual secretiveness and also because she did not really “know” the Brettons were accessible to her until she was able to admit her need to reach out for human sympathy. The characterization of Paul Emanuel gains richness and detail in such a manner that readers realize—before Lucy herself dares admit it—that she is interested in him. The phantom nun, at first a night terror of pure emotion, is revealed as a prankish disguise when Lucy is free to express feelings directly.
The novel’s ending, however, is deliberately ambiguous, though not in event. (Only the most naïve readers dare accept Brontë’s invitation to imagine that Paul Emanuel escapes drowning and to “picture union and a happy succeeding life.”) The ambiguity grows from Lucy’s earlier statement: “M. Emanuel was away for three years. Reader, they were the three happiest years of my life.” In those years, Lucy Snowe prospered, became respected, expanded her school. Her happiness depends not on the presence of her beloved but rather on the knowledge that she is loved. With that knowledge, she becomes whole and independent. No longer telling others’ stories, she speaks directly to the reader about her most private concerns. Only when her lover is absent, perhaps, can a woman treasure love and emotional satisfaction while yet retaining the freedom to be her own person.
Poetry: Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, 1846 (with Emily Brontë and Anne Brontë); The Complete Poems of Charlotte Brontë, 1923.
Children’s literature: The Twelve Adventurers, and Other Stories, 1925 (C. K. Shorter and C. W. Hatfield, editors); Legends of Angria, 1933 (Fannie E. Ratchford, compiler); The Search After Happiness, 1969; Five Novelettes, 1971 (Winifred Gérin, editor); The Secret and Lily Hart, 1979 (William Holtz, editor).
Miscellaneous: The Shakespeare Head Brontë, 1931-1938 (19 volumes; T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, editors).
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