Happy Birthday, Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë was born on this day, in 1816. Here is perhaps the most famous image of the Brontë sisters, a portrait done by their dissipated brother Branwell:


Charlotte Bronte, letter to a friend who asked for a reading list:

“You ask me to recommend you some books for your perusal. I will do so in as few words as I can. If you like poetry, let it be first-rate; Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will, though I don’t admire him), Scott, Byron, Campbell, Wordsworth, and Southey. Now don’t be startled at the names of Shakespeare and Byron. Both these were great men, and their works are like themselves. You will know how to choose the good, and to avoid the evil; the finest passages are always the purest, the bad are invariably revolting; you will never wish to read them over twice. Omit the comedies of Shakespeare and the Don Juan, perhaps the Cain, of Byron, though the latter is a magnificent poem, and read the rest fearlessly; that must indeed be a depraved mind which can gather evil from Henry VIII, from Richard III, from Macbeth, and Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. Scott’s sweet, wild, romantic poetry can do you no harm. Nor can Wordsworth’s, nor Campbell’s, nor Southey’s — the greatest part at least of his; some is certainly objectionable. For history, read Hume, Rollin, and the Universal History, if you can; I never did. For fiction, read Scott alone; all novels after his are worthless. For biography, read Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Southey’s Life of Nelson, Lockhart’s Life of Burns, Moore’s Life of Sheridan, Moore’s Life of Byron, Wolfe’s Remains. For natural history, read Bewick and Audobon, and Goldsmith, and White’s History of Selborne. For divinity, your brother will advise you there. I can only say, adhere to standard authors, and avoid novelty.”

Charlotte Bronte:

“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.”

William Makepeace Thackeray after reading Villette, 1835:

“The poor little woman of genius! … I can read a great deal of her life as I fancy in her book, and see that rather than have fame … she wants some Tomkins or other to … be in love with.”

Michael Schmidt on the Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte:

The poems are often the fruit of their big gestures, their brimming hearts and earthquake heartbreaks. This does not mean the three women are a composite creature, what R.E. Pritchard calls a Brontesaurus. In their verse, though Emily is by far the best of the tree, there are differences of emotional intensity and of prosodic and formal skills. All three are gothicized Romantics. Their settings are often nocturnal, wintery – the long dark winters of the Yorkshire Moors around Haworth, where they were born and lived through a litany of bereavements (two elder sisters, their mother), and where they received their education and wrote tirelessly and voluminously. The weathers and settings reflect extreme states of mind and emotion and the forms are somber: balladic and hymn stanzas for the most part.

Charlotte Bronte:

Once indeed I was very poetical, when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen years old – but I am now twenty-four approaching twenty-five – and the intermediate years are those which begin to rob life of its superfluous colouring.

L.M. Montgomery, journal:

It is customary to regret Charlotte Brontë’s death as premature. I doubt it. I doubt if she would have added to her literary fame. Resplendent as her genius was, it had a narrow range. I think she reached its limit. She could not have gone on forever writing ‘Jane Eyres’ and ‘Villette’s’ and there was nothing in her life and experience to fit her for writing anything else…

There was a marked masochistic strain in Charlotte Brontë — revealing itself mentally, not physically. This accounts for Rochester. He was exactly the tyrant a woman with such a strain in her would have loved, delighting in the pain he inflicted in on her. And this same tendency was the cause of her cruelty to Lucy Snowe — who was herself. She persecutes Lucy Snowe all through ‘Villette’ and drowns her lover rather than let the poor soul have a chance at happiness. I can’t forgive Charlotte Brontë for killing off Paul Emmanuel. I don’t know whether I like Lucy Snowe or not — but I am always consumed with pity for and sympathy with her, whereas Charlotte delights in tormenting her — a sort of spiritual vicarous self-flagellation.

Jeanette Winterson:

Who should the poet serve? Society or the Muse? This was a brand new question and not a happy one. If the woman poet could avoid it, the male poet and the prose writers of either sex could not. Of the great writers, Emily Brontë chose well. Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot continually equivocate and the equivocation helps to explain the uneven power of their work.

Charlotte Bronte:

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.”

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

The first novels of Emily and Charlotte Bronte, published the same year, revived out-of-fashion Gothic style. They share rugged, brooding heroes and a wild atmosphere of mystery and gloom. But the books belong to different genres. Despite sex-reversing moments, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre is a social novel governed by public principles of intelligibility. It records the worldly progress of an ingenue from childhood to maturity, culminating in marriage. Emily’s Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, is High Romantic, its sources of energy outside society and its sex and emotion incestuous and solipsistic. The two Bronte novels differ dramatically in their crossing lines of identification. Charlotte palpably projects herself into her underprivileged but finally triumphant heroine, while Emily leaps across the borderline of gener into her savage hero.

Charlotte Bronte:

“Look twice before you leap.”

L.M. Montgomery, journal entry, after reading E.F. Benson’s biography of Charlotte Bronte:

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 Beson’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. But I will admit that she seemed to have an unenviable talent for disliking almost everyone she met … And the things she says about the man she afterwards married!

Charlotte Bronte:

“There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”

L.M. Montgomery, journal entry:

Charlotte Brontë only made about 7,000 by her books … It seems unfair and unjust. What I admire most in Charlotte Brontë is her absolute clear-sightedness regarding shams and sentimentalities. Nothing of the sort could impose on her. And she always hewed straight to the line. I have been asking myself, ‘If I had known Charlotte Brontë in life – how would we have reacted upon each other? Would I have liked her? Would she have liked me?’ I answer, ‘No.’ She was absolutely without a sense of humor. She would not have approved of me at all. I could have done her whole heaps of good. A few jokes would have leavened the gloom and tragedy of that Haworth Parsonage amazingly.

People have spoken of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘creative genius’. Charlotte Brontë had no creative genius. Her genius was one of amazing ability to describe and interpret the people and surroundings she knew. All the people in her books who impress us with such a wonderful sense of reality were drawn from life. She herself is Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe. Emily was Shirley. Rochester, whom she did create, was unnatural and unreal. Blanche Ingram was unreal. St. John was unreal. Most of her men are unreal. She knew nothing of men except her father and brother and the Belgian professor of her intense unhappy love. Emmanuel was drawn from him, and therefore is one of the few men in her books who is real.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.

I can’t say her books have always been a comfort to me. “Comfort” isn’t the right word. Her stuff is too unnerving. Her books stir up the depths, and sometimes I wish the depths would remain unstirred. Yet I return to her work again and again (although I don’t know if I can bear to subject myself to Villette again. That book is viscerally upsetting, which is obvious from this post.) What I love most about her books is how much she still surprises me, even when I re-read her stuff. Nothing can prepare you for Mr. Rochester. No matter how many times I have read Jane Eyre, he is still startling. The final chapter, involving astral travel or ESP or whatever you want to call it, remains one of the most moving passages in a book I have ever read.

There have been many movie versions of Jane Eyre. I very much liked the most recent one, starring Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. I reviewed it here. I broke down Mia Wasikowska’s striking physicality in the lead role here.

Charlotte Brontë was a magnificent writer but she is not Jane Austen: Jane Austen’s vocabulary and sentence structure is impeccable, dauntingly impeccable. I only bring up Austen because the Brontes are so often “looped together” with Austen – which I suppose is unavoidable: they were all women writing in the same period, when there weren’t too many women players on the board. Okay. But they are two completely different writers, with wildly varying styles and sensibilities. And don’t even get me started on how different EMILY is from … basically anything else, before or since.) Charlotte’s writing has a messy, passionate, urgent THRUM to it. Her writing sometimes trips over itself in its forward-momentum. She’s thrilling that way.

Her books do not become predictable with repetition. They elude capture. They sweep you up in their narrative, and you forget you know already how it ends. This is a rare gift.

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5 Responses to Happy Birthday, Charlotte Brontë

  1. DAW says:

    I recently reread “Jane Eyre” for the first time since high school, which was quite a long time ago. I loved it; it is such a passionate book! I hadn’t remembered how good it was.

    I then went back to reading a couple of Jane Austen novels, including “Sense and Sensibility” and then “Persuasion”. By the time I started reading the second one, I had to stop: I found that I was unable to enjoy Austen’s work at the time. It was too restrained, too detached in style. I was tired of the drawing room conversation and subtle jabs and petty behavior. It all seemed so small in comparison to Bronte.

    In retrospect, it reminds me of the difference between sushi and barbecue. I love sushi, but the flavor is quite subtle. Try eating sushi after eating some barbecued ribs. You can’t taste it anymore — suddenly it’s just raw fish, because your tastebuds can’t adapt after being assaulted with that big pungent barbecue flavor.

    So it was for me with Austen and Bronte.

  2. The Siren says:

    Such an interesting post, Sheila. I love the Brontes too; like LM Montgomery I always bristle at any suggestion Branwell had anything to do with anything. Or that Charlotte was unsympathetic to him; dear god, the man was an addict, he used up love and sympathy like he drank a bottle of brandy, to the dregs. The sisters loved him, but he was a write-off. (Also think idea that there was incest in the family says more about the trite, reductive modern imagination than it does the Brontes.)

    But I digress. Isn’t it interesting that LM Montgomery – who gave her own lovely heroine six children, and almost no writing – has such piercing (and I think mostly accurate) observations about the effect Bronte’s domestic situations had on her genius?

    • sheila says:

      Montgomery goes back to Jane Eyre and Villette again and again and again – it’s so interesting – especially, yes, you’re right, considering the fiery individual heroines she created (and the happy endings she believed in so strongly – since her own “ending” was not so happy). I find Montgomery’s writings on Bronte fascinating and I wish she had done some more finished critical essays on her – but I guess she was too busy writing a novel a year! :)

      And amen, to your thoughts on Branwell.

      I mean, Lord, to be a fly on the wall in Haworth when those four children were running around growing up!!

      Have you ever visited there?

  3. bybee says:

    Jane Eyre was the first book to which I had a visceral reaction. I was probably about 9 years old. I read the first couple of chapters, then when Mrs. Reed took John’s part and locked Jane in the room then sent Jane off to Lowood, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I threw the book across the room, sobbing bitterly.

    • sheila says:


      I know what you mean: the cruelty in those opening chapters is brutal. Well, through the whole thing … but the opening in particular, especially since Jane is a child.

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