Sunday, 30 June 2013

Charlotte Brontë

Non-fiction ~ biography
Published 1932
Approx. 96,000 words
(First read 30/06/2013)


I do not think Charlotte was in the least like the domineering little shrew he pictures her, anymore perhaps than she was like the rather too saintly heroine of Mrs. Gaskell’s biography. I do not put any faith in Benson’s theory that Branwell wrote parts of Wuthering Heights and inspired the whole. There is no foundation in the world for it beyond the assertion of two of Branwell’s cronies that he read the first few chapters of it to them and told them it was his own. They may have been telling the truth, but I would not put the least confidence in any statement of Branwell’s. He was entirely capable of reading someone else’s manuscript and trying to pass it off as his own. No doubt he was more in Emily’s confidence than Charlotte ever knew and had got possession of her manuscript in some way. Benson blames Charlotte for her unsympathetic attitude to Branwell. I imagine that an angel would have found it rather difficult to be sympathetic. Benson cannot understand a proud sensitive woman’s heart. I love Charlotte Brontë so much that I am angry when anyone tries to belittle her.
~L. M. Montgomery, quoted by Sheila O' Malley on The Sheila Variations website
In the introduction to his admirably judicious presentation of the Brontë family, Mr. Benson records a remark once made to him by Sir Edmund Gosse on the subject of writing biography; "Nobody but a novelist," said that scholarly bookman, "should be allowed to write a biography, but he must remember that he is not writing a novel." We now have two biographies of Charlotte Brontë, each of distinguished achievement and both written by novelists—one, the famous authorized biography by Mrs. Gaskell published a few years after Charlotte's death, and the other this present one by Mr. Benson, now published more than three quarters of a century after her death. Both these works bear witness to the wisdom of Gosse's dictum — Mrs. Gaskell's to the vice in its warning and Mr. Benson's to the virtue in it. For after reading Mr. Benson's book we are compelled to agree with him that Mrs. Gaskell was terribly forgetful that she was not writing a novel. "In her admirable zeal to make her friend known and valued," says Mr. Benson, "she (Mrs. Gaskell) sometimes fobs us off with fiction, forgetting that, though a novelist's business is to create characters, it is the business of a biographer to render them, and that the tact of omission, when too unscrupulous, becomes a fabrication." That this kind of tact was employed by Mrs. Gaskell in her justly famous work will be abundantly evident to any reader of Mr. Benson's book, which is at once a rendering of characters and a convincing argument for the life values precipitated by his rendition.
Since the publication of the first edition of Mrs. Gaskell's Life a heavy gray cloud of legends has hung over the remarkable inmates who "dreed their wierds" in the isolated Haworth rectory,
arousing a wide and eager curiosity, and resulting in what Mr. Benson calls the 'Brontë Saga.' This saga still finds its devoted students and expositors in the many admirers of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in the faithful members of the Brontë Society, and in the numerous pilgrims who make the Haworth Rectory their Mecca.
In writing this book, Mr. Benson has dissolved this cloud of legends and translated the saga into the common prose of everyday life. Instead of a mythology he has given us a biology in the literary sense of that word—not of ordinary human beings, of course, but still of human beings with human frailties and human strengths. And he has done this with so engaging an urbanity of style, often tinged with quiet humor, that we look at the pictures he presents as a fresh revelation, and a natural one. Of this family of three young women and one young man, each of whom was singularly gifted, and all of whom were more or less tragically destined, mentally or physically, Emily alone still remains 'unguessed at.' Charlotte, the eldest, easily "abides our question," and Mr. Benson very properly makes her the main subject of his work. With the help of the many letters piously collected and preserved by Mr. Clement K. Shorter, and the voluminous correspondence with Charlotte's friend Ellen Nussey, and also with the strange light thrown on Charlotte's sojourn in Brussels as revealed in the four letters she wrote to M. Heger so remarkably saved from destruction, and now public property, Mr. Benson rebuilds the Brontë home and rehabilitates it. He does this not so much by the magic of a sympathy as by the common sense of a cultured, judicious mind, dealing dispassionately with the evidence largely furnished by Charlotte Brontë herself. The story as he now presents it is quite plain and unvarnished, yet arrestingly dramatic, and it captures out acquiescent interest by its sheer reasonableness and its fidelity to the human qualities of both mind and heart, in the actors of this unique drama.
We now see that it was Charlotte who was the guiding and [illegible] spirit of the home. The mother died when the children were young, and the father was too self-centered a man to understand even his own children; certainly he was not the kind of man to train and direct them, even had they been willing to accept his ministrations. The ruler of the household was Charlotte, a shy, homely, and tiny little woman, but with an indomitable will and a clear vision of what she wanted, and with the tact and perseverance of a born diplomatist to get what she wanted when she wanted it. As self-centered as her father, she had a natural gift for enlisting the services of others to the satisfying of her ego, even in the belief that such satisfaction was in the nature of things proper for her. She could hate passionately what or whom in any way prevented that satisfaction, and she could love just as passionately what or who contributed to it.
The humor with which Mr, Benson reveals these qualities in her is at times amusingly engaging. It is especially so where he tells us of Charlotte's decision to marry Mr. Nicholls, her father's curate, whom her father detested and for whom she herself had no great liking. She had rejected his suit more than once, but when she did finally decide to accept him, she skilfully and quietly overcame all the difficulties that were in the way of her marriage, and then she could write to Ellen Nussey and tell her that Providence had offered her this destiny. "Providence," says Mr. Benson, "would not have much chance without her firm cooperation."
In several parts of this book Mr. Benson's narrative rises to intensely moving situations. The scene between Emily and Charlotte when Emily finds her sister reading the poetry she had been writing in secret; the story of the happenings prior to Branwell Brontë's death and culminating in Emily's death; the tale of the discovery of Charlotte's abject love letters to M. Heger and the mental anguish she suffered because of his continued silence; the account of Emily's relations with her brother Branwell and of her loyalty to him; all these are dramatically set forth, compelling our heartfelt sympathy and even pity.
Between Charlotte and Emily, the two members of this family who have survived for immortality, Mr. Benson sees a vital difference, an "abysmal, impassable gulf that separated the great talent of the one from the genius of the other."
“Charlotte in her novels used not once, but over and over again, both in motive and episode, the actual experiences of her life—its detested occupations, the relationship between employer and employed as she encountered them in her schoolings, bitterly caricaturing those who had offended her. Emily, on the other hand, save in a few commemorative poems, never drew from external experience—her inspiration, like that of the mystic, came wholly from within, and her work glowed and was fed by the fire and wine of the soul that dwelt apart.”
Mr. Benson has written a winning book and has told a true story in so far as the truth of the Brontë children can be extracted out of the documentary evidence. But the truth of Emily Brontë is still only to be guessed at, and even then by our intuition alone. Her elemental spirit was a natural phenomenon the mystery of which must forever foil our human searching.
~Temple Scott in The Saturday Review, 06/08/1932
There is something special about the Brontës. They produce passionate partisans. They have produced, also, according to Mr. Benson, numerous biographers from Mrs. Gaskell down who
have recklessly juggled with facts and theories in order to present their particular favorite in the best possible light. In this excellent study, therefore —ostensibly of Charlotte, but actually and inevitably of her whole strange, ill-fated family — Mr. Benson has striven to be scrupulously fair and to adhere to the actual record. This, to a large extent, he has done. Ironically enough, however, he is quite unable to disguise the fact that his heart and sympathies lie with Emily, and next with Branwell. He is just to Charlotte; he admires her ability, her practical intelligence, her grit and determination. Nevertheless it is evident that the strain of intolerance and priggishness in her repels him, that he could never forgive her for her harsh attitude towards Branwell, nor for her lack of any real understanding of Emily. This is a delightful biography, free from sentimentality and pseudo-interpretations, sharply real in its descriptions of life at Haworth Parsonage. Nevertheless it is not actually as brilliant, nor as full of warmth, as the really confirmed Brontë fan would like to see it. One feels, at times, that the essential quality in those four eludes Mr. Benson as it has eluded so many others.
~The Forum, 09/1932
Three-quarters of a century has gone by since Mrs. Gaskell brought a hurricane about her ears by the publication of her Life of Charlotte Brontë. Since then we have had innumerable biographies of the Brontës, but we are as far as ever from getting an impartial one. Something in the air of Haworth Parsonage seems to go to the heads of chroniclers, and they emerge from their researches in states of violent partisanship.
Although Mr. Benson has made Charlotte the titular heroine of his book he inclines to the Emily-cum-Branwell cult. Poor Charlotte emerges as an acidulous, spinsterish little figure-of-fun, driving her talented sisters and brother with her own furious ambition. Often Mr. Benson seems aware that he is not presenting a woman who could by any sweep of the imagination have been a genius, and at such moments he halts his interpretation to recall to us, flatly, that he is writing of the author of Jane Eyre and Villette. But the moment passes; we have again the resentful, driving, managing creature before us, and the task of re-creating her as the mystery she was is all to be done over again.
This is not to say that Charlotte Brontë is not an excellent book. It is one that should be on the shelf of every Brontë-lover. In retrieving Mrs. Gaskell's error of presenting Charlotte as a saint without stain, Mr. Benson occasionally leans too far in the other direction, and presents her as something just short of an hysteric. But he has had the inspiration to tell about her straightforwardly as a woman who was capable of falling deeply, wildly, and indiscreetly in love (though indeed how the indisputable evidence of her love for M. Heger can still be ignored is inexplicable). In building up the character of a woman capable of deep emotion, Mr. Benson quotes extensively from Charlotte's letters to her school companion, Ellen Nussey. These quotations are wild enough, in all conscience, and yet perhaps a protest is again in order: in the middle of the last century a Gothic madness was abroad in the land, and many a good soul poured out the frenzied self-accusation that was customary, that was in fact downright modish, who hadn't a sin to bless herself with.
Mr. Benson has a theory, to me, I confess, more ingenious than convincing, that Branwell Brontë had much to do with Wuthering Heights. It is well stated, worth considering, and recommended to all who like insoluble problems.
~Frederic Shepard in The Bookman, 09/1932

The flood of works published in recent years upon the Brontës, their lives and their works, and the support afforded from all parts of the English-speaking world to the Brontë Society, show how strong a hold, even to fascination, this 'Yorkshire tragedy' has upon the imagination and the affections of readers. But popularity is apt to invite depreciation. Admiration is often mistaken by those who do not share it as adoration, earnest students are regarded as fanatics, and the subject of their study becomes in the eyes of the unbeliever a cult or an idolatry, and a challenge to the iconoclast. Moreover, biography-writing itself is subject to fashions. Certain writers have shown how easy it is to give novelty and piquancy to their narrative by adopting the tone of the discoverer and censor of scandals.
These differing attitudes of mind are illustrated by the two brothers Benson. The late Arthur C Benson, the essayist and poet, was moved some years ago to the writing of a vivid and appreciative 'personal sketch' of Charlotte Brontë, which he contributed to a volume published by the Brontë Society, besides other addresses and writings appreciative of her 'message'. The other brother, Mr E F Benson, author of the famous Dodo and fifty other books, approaches the subject differently. Reading the life and letters of Charlotte Brontë with a disposition to get as near as may be to the truth without sentimentality and, as he expressly assures us, without malice, he finds Charlotte a golden idol with feet of clay. He is not inappreciative of the passion and sincerity, though keenly alive to the technical defects, of her literary work, but it is with austerely unsentimental eyes that he views her character as revealed in her letters and, to a degree unusual to novelists, in her fiction.
'Personally Hard'
Arthur Benson recognised in Charlotte's writings “the qualities which her deeply seated diffidence prevented her from displaying in daily life. Her humour, her penetrating insight, her delicate fancy, her liveliness, her passionate affections, the noble scorn of all that was cold or mean, all these flashed into life on her pages.” Mr E F Benson regards her as personally hard, bitter, morbid ~ except perhaps that she became more human in the few months of her married life ~ engrossed in the symptoms of her own ill-health; to the end revengeful, incapable of recognising the genius of her sister, Emily, with whom she was, he thinks, never on intimate terms; and implacable towards her brother, Branwell. He finds much that it is 'impossible to accept' as true in her letters and in her poignant little memoirs of her sisters, and he accounts for the tenderness of tone as 'remorseful'. The friendship of Charlotte with Ellen Nussey, prolonged from schooldays to the last letters from her deathbed, is to him evidence of a 'sex-obsession'.
Mrs Gaskell's life of Charlotte Brontë is regarded as a book in which the novelist as creator of characters gets the better of the biographer as mere recorder, and the authoress is lashed very severely for her exaggerations and suppressions, especially for softening the 'hard lines and characteristic traits' in her portrait of Charlotte. With such a Charlotte and such a Mrs Gaskell ever before his mental vision, Mr Benson reviews the story of the Brontës, colouring afresh in what he believes without malice to be the true tints in which the various episodes should be presented. He has no new information to offer. The reviewer has detected only one 'fact' which is new and maybe true and a minor addition to our knowledge, but even that more probably is a blunder. Mostly the book reminds one of the reflections of the distorting glasses popular at fairs.
Who Wrote Wuthering Heights?
His new readings of character are not limited to Charlotte alone, but involve Emily. He represents Wuthering Heights as the result of a 'collaboration' of Emily with Branwell. His only evidence is that Mr Dearden, more than twenty years after the event, published a statement that at a poetic tournament at the Cross Roads Inn, at Haworth, in 1845, Branwell read a 'fragment' of a story with the same characters introduced as those of Wuthering Heights. Mr Edward Sloane, a friend of Branwell's and of Mr Dearden, declared to the latter that Branwell had read to him, “portion by portion, the novel as it was produced at the time”; and there is a third witness who 'felt certain' that it must have come from Branwell's pen.
This evidence does not leave much work for Emily, nor much basis for her reputation as a novelist. Yet Emily, as 'Ellis Bell', had the effrontery more than a year and maybe eighteen months before her brother's death in October 1848 to negotiate for the publication of the book with, on the title-page, her own pseudonym ~ the same she had used on the poems published in 1846. It is true that Emily about this time called Branwell 'a hopeless being', but can we imagine her counting so surely on his death as to steal the share of literary fame which, according to the evidence, was rightfully his? Was she, less than Charlotte, imbued with that 'noble scorn of all that was cold and mean'? Mr Benson has not faced this question fairly and squarely.
Mrs Gaskell's worst offence as biographer was the omission of any indication of the passionate nature of the 'love-letters' of Charlotte to her old professor in Brussels, Monsieur Heger ~ whose name Mr Benson persistently misspells. He will not tolerate any excuse that Mrs Gaskell wrote while yet both Monsieur and Madame Heger were alive. He is not sure “whether or no she [Charlotte] actually muttered 'Je me vengerai' to that lady when she left Brussels for the last time (but) she had kept these things in her heart,” and when she wrote 'immortally' her Villette “she took her revenge.” It was not till sixty years later that there were published the letters which Madame Heger had “picked out of the [her husband's] waste-paper basket and pieced together,” but with their publication Mr Benson thinks Madame Heger was 'quits' with Charlotte.
Such is Mr E F Benson's contribution to what he calls 'the Brontë Saga'.
~Herbert E. Wroot in The Yorkshire Post, 16/04/1932

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