The Brontës’ Secret

The Jews have a word for the feverish imaginings that run like bright threads through their Torah commentaries: midrash, the spinning of gloriously weird backstories or fairy tales prompted by gaps or contradictions in the narratives. Midrash isn’t just a Jewish hermeneutic, by the way. You could call the Gospels a midrash on the Hebrew Bible, the lives of the saints a midrash on the Christ story, the Koran a midrash on all of the above.

.. Charlotte’s writing would have been even better, Woolf says, had she “possessed say three hundred [pounds] a year.”

.. Motherless since they were very young, the Brontës enjoyed the benign neglect of their busy father and made the most of their freedom to develop elaborate fantasy worlds.

.. Charlotte hung on a year longer, mostly because she fell in love with her teacher and colleague Constantin Heger. A brilliant, charismatic professor, he was the first male non-Brontë to recognize their powers and treat them as intellectual peers.

.. But in her next novel, Jane Eyre, and her last,Villette, she put her work history to spectacular use. She expressed her outrage at the degraded status of governesses and teachers. She condemned the isolation and vulnerability of a woman who goes into the world to make her own way. She let loose her feelings for Heger, electromagnetizing the novels with sensuality.

.. In short, had Charlotte been in possession of 300 pounds a year, she could never have written novels that startled her readers then with their frank depiction of middle-class women’s working conditions and continue to edify those of us who also have to earn our own living.

.. Deborah Lutz calls attention to the mixed meanings of 19th-century housework in the sisters’ lives and novels, especially needlework, with which ladies were expected to keep their hands busy at all times. Charlotte was indignant when her first mistress demanded that she add sewing to child care, requiring her to make doll clothes and stitch hems on sheets.

.. As a governess, Jane Eyre hides behind her stitching when she wants to watch rather than talk.

.. It has only belatedly dawned on readers that Nelly is an unreliable narrator. Read in a certain light, her story seems to be hinting that it was she who sabotaged the families as much as or even more than Heathcliff. If so, she did this by skillfully deploying the two main weapons of the household help: obscurity and ubiquity.

.. That the poet Ellis Bell was Emily Brontë came out only after her death, at age 30, one year after the publication of Wuthering Heights. She didn’t intend unsubtle readers to see Nelly any more than she wanted them to see her.

.. And therein lies at least one solution to the Brontë mystery. The sisters hid their subversiveness behind housewifery, and used their seeming eccentricity to excuse their shirking of social niceties. Early on, when their old housekeeper grew too lame to work, they took over her duties rather than let a stranger into their house. “I manage the ironing and keep the rooms clean,” Charlotte wrote a friend. “Emily does the baking and attends to the kitchen. We are such odd animals that we prefer this mode of contrivance to having a new face among us.”

.. life in their “attic” didn’t make the Brontës near-madwomen. It made them writers—admittedly, almost the same thing.

.. Dickinson’s biographer Alfred Habegger asserts that for her, reading an 1883 life of Emily Brontë “effectively validated her idea of power based in weakness.”

.. The Brontës lived as they did because they needed privacy to write their extraordinary but scandalizing novels—alternately extolled as having no “rival among modern productions” (as one critic said of Jane Eyre) and attacked for a “low tone of behavior” and “coarseness” (charges leveled against all three sisters’ works).

A new biography of Charlotte Brontë

Harman also begins weaving in what will prove to be an important thread in her portrait of Charlotte, which has to do with the novelist’s ingrained sense of herself as resolutely unattractive: “She looks in the mirror and sees, with ruthless clarity, a catalogue of defects; a huge brow, sallow complexion, prominent nose and a mouth that twists up slightly to the right, hiding missing and decayed teeth.” Despite living in less harshly looksist times than our own, and despite being the recipient of two marriage proposals before finally accepting the hand of the enigmatic curate Arthur Bell Nicholls, Charlotte was deeply bothered by her ostensible lack of feminine charms—enough to have caused her publisher, George Smith, to observe that she had “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 circumstance that she was not pretty.”

.. and her journal fragments of these years” suggest that Charlotte may have used opium (which Branwell became addicted to) to reach her “visions,” despite her denial to Gaskell of ever having touched the drug.

.. The main thrust of Harman’s biography endeavors to show how this most self-doubting yet obdurate of young women turned her emotional vulnerability and anxieties about her place in society as a fiercely passionate but plain Jane into a new kind of literature, one that forged a candid and poignant female voice of unaccountable power, telling of childhood loneliness and adult longing. Charlotte’s thwarted relationship with Heger, which Harman attributes more to a cultural misunderstanding than to deliberate cruelty, would eventually lead to the triumph of Villette, featuring “a disturbing, hypersensitive alter ego, a ticking bomb of emotions called Lucy Snowe.”

Jane Eyre and the Invention of the Self

The now-ubiquitous selfie expresses in miniature the seismic conceptual shift that came about centuries ago, spurred in part by advances in printing technology and new ways of thinking in philosophy. It’s not that the self didn’t exist in pre-modern cultures: Rather, the emphasis the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century placed on personal will, conscience, and understanding—rather than tradition and authority—in matters of faith spilled over the bounds of religious experience into all of life. Perhaps the first novel to best express the modern idea of the self was Jane Eyre, written in 1847 by Charlotte Brontë, born 200 years ago this year.

.. The broader cultural implications of the story—its insistence on the value of conscience and will—were such that one critic fretted some years after its publication that the “most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion of Jane Eyre.”

.. The Reformation empowered believers to read and interpret the scriptures for themselves, rather than relying on the help of clergy; by extension, this seemed to give people permission to read and interpret their own interior world.

.. It is exactly this willingness—desire, even—to be “at war with the accepted order of things” that characterizes the modern self.

.. More disturbing to Brontë’s Victorian readers than the sheer sensuality of the story and Jane’s deep passion was “the heroine’s refusal to submit to her social destiny,” as the literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert explains. Indeed, one contemporary review complained, “It is true Jane does right, and exerts great moral strength,” but the critic continues that “it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself.” In presenting such a character, the reviewer worries, Brontë has “overthrown authority” and cultivated “rebellion.”