The Galaxy/Volume 24/Number 1/Charlotte Bronte
Not long after the death of her father, a leading journal in this country rejoiced that there were no more Brontës: "none left to bear that name which always meant misery and spiritual unhealth"—a statement which has waited long for qualification, certainly demanded in the case of the elder sister. Nothing is more true than that Mr. Brontë and his children possessed very positive traits, and in combinations peculiar to themselves, producing a very striking family idiosyncrasy. It is plain enough that Anne was unhealthy, that Branwell made a wreck of his life, and that Emily was a different kind of woman from any we shall be likely to meet with. No other proof is needed of this last assertion than "Wuthering Heights." It is not to be desired that another such book should be written, powerful beyond most novels though it be. Its characters are detestable, but drawn with such boldness, that we are appalled at the nerve of the writer who could conceive of such a group of beings, or, having conceived, carry them on through their individual parts to the end without faltering. Those five or six men and women stand out distinct from any company in all fiction. And the girl who projected them against the background of that inhuman story was diseased in feeling and in judgment unsound. Yet, all through that book of warped but giant growth, what a keen relish of nature's delights is shown, what tenderness for wild birds, what joy in the purple moss, what passionate love for the freedom and gladness of outward life! Surely such influences are kindly; and subject to them, Emily Bronte, had she lived, might one day have found healing.
But Charlotte did such service for justice and humanity, did so exalt duty and self-sacrifice, that the world must come more and more to recognize both the service and the spirit. Author and woman cannot be separated; in Jane, Caroline, and especially Lucy, are laid bare the struggles of a heart which could find its only rest in the many-mounded churchyard at Haworth. Incomparably better than Mrs. Gaskell, do these tell her history—the roots which that biographer said "struck down deeper than she could penetrate" are shown in the so-called fictions.
As Mr. Reid remarks, this daughter of an obscure clergyman among the moors of Yorkshire startled both hemispheres by her first book. All classes read it; even those who object to novels eagerly possessed themselves of its contents; and not a few were in a state of mental intoxication over it. No one who ever read it has forgotten it; other books, with the names of hero and heroine, may have slipped away beyond recall, but who ever forgot Mr. Rochester or Jane Eyre? And on writers such was its influence, that much of the fictitious literature for a dozen years after took a coloring from it; while small, plain women, and middle-aged men, of curt speech and ungracious manners, became quite too common in that class of writings.
Marvellous power of words! What is there about the book to stir one like that? What is that immortal element which the author's spirit imparted, to make of a few hundred printed pages such a power?
In incident "Shirley" falls far short of "Jane Eyre," and yet "Shirley" was read with equal avidity; by those of sound literary taste with greater interest. The mass of readers do not, of course, stop to investigate the mechanism of a book that pleases them, or ask why it does; but even the most superficial felt that there was something real about "Jane Eyre," as if the people were actually alive; and they were not uninfluenced by the circumstance that it was written as if it were fact. The author was one of such integrity of motive that she had not swerved aside from the main purpose, but as scrupulously put the events on record as if they were historical verities. And to do this she used words with a rigid adherence to their precise meaning, selecting the right one with almost unfailing accuracy. Her style has been objected to; but if the object of writing is to express what one has to communicate, in pure, strong prose, then by whom have the point and force, the purity, and pathos, and directness of which the English tongue is capable, been brought out more fully than by Currer Bell?
Those readers who were susceptible to the merits of "Jane Eyre" must have felt the charm of keen analysis and descriptive power of the highest order, the easy flow of narrative, and perfect harmony as a whole. But beyond all this they must have been conscious of soundness of tone—notwithstanding the objectionable hero—moral healthfulness, a principle of cheerfulness, and courage, and endurance, and patient endeavor. It is in "Villette" that the greatest trial over self is reached; but in "Jane Eyre" it is evident enough that feeling must be set aside when it comes in conflict with duty. There are no good "reflections" in the book; but the truth is bravely enforced that it is the work of every man and woman to do his or her part, wherever the place, without shirking or complaining; if there is a cross presented to them, take it on submissive shoulders; receive the burden there is for them to carry; begin the march, and fare on, without rebelling. The author denounced cant; she abhorred tyranny; she gave its own sterling importance to self-respect, and she did this in a manner for which every good woman should thank her. When it became known that "Jane Eyre" was written by a woman, a young woman, and the daughter of a clergyman, the wonder was great how she could have come by the knowledge of such a man as Mr. Rochester, or what could have induced her to select him, and to put into his mouth such language; but for all this, was there ever a reader of any discrimination who was hurt by the book?
If morbidness belonged to Miss Brontë, the one of her characters most fit for its display was Caroline Helstone; but even in her sound sense triumphed in the end, and instead of dying, according to precedent, she rallied and began anew. "Jane Eyre" was written under circumstances by no means favorable to cheerfulness; and what shall we say of "Shirley" and "Villette"? Think of the life of Charlotte—so often told—in that parsonage, approached through the churchyard, where the blackened slabs over the graves lay as thick as paving stones in the streets of London; behind it the wide and solitary moors; the family secluded in their habits; the six little motherless children left to take care of themselves, dying, one after another, till none but herself was left. All of the time while she was writing "Jane Eyre" she lived in constant apprehension of something terrible to befall her brother; she was worried by care, "which never vacated its seat in her breast." Between the publication of "Jane Eyre" and the completion of "Shirley," died Branwell, Emily, and Anne, and Charlotte was left to the dismal house, with memory and imagination for companions; she finished the story under the depressing gloom of that desolated home, from which the three had so lately been carried to join the other three in the narrow house just without the door; but can any one see where, in "Shirley," she laid down the pen, and where, after such interruption, she took it up again?
In "Villette" Charlotte's crushed heart will cry out, but her moral strength, her integrity of purpose does not fail. "Villette" is her greatest work; it has more calm and completeness than the others; it is sounder, healthier, broader in its aims and experiences; it is more finished and harmonious; the characters, though more in number, and more involved, are drawn with greater care and more skilfully analyzed; and in it is the most of herself. The depth of her anguish finds voice in Lucy Snow. The appalling loneliness and stagnation of her life, against which her feelings rose calling for some part in this world's activities, weighed upon her with a pressure which a less elastic nature could not have resisted. To allay that suffering she flung all her energies into "Villette," though pain was gnawing at her vitals, and shadows from those graves were haunting the room where she wrote. Not without cause was the sharp cry, half stifled in utterance, from the white lips of Lucy Snow. Those records of agony from tortured nerves, from heart-hunger, and heartbreak, have a most profound pathos. One of the most sublime spectacles ever seen was her life at that time—a woman of organization so sensitive that she could almost feel it if a shadow crossed the sun, her mortal part wholly disproportioned to the soul it held: "battling with life and death, and grief and fate," sending a shuddering cry along those pages for some human help, some human solace, yet saying amid the thick darkness, "These ills cannot happen without the sanction of God"; "I know that His treasures contain the proof as the promise of His mercy." The conflict in such a heart was terrible; but with all her sensibility, she had Spartan endurance; in such extremes, they seldom meet; the former alone, in the degree possessed by her, so wrought upon by sleepless nights, so influenced by outward agencies, would have carried her to the verge of insanity; the latter alone would have made her cold and hard; but incorporated as they were, we have Charlotte Bronte and her incomparable books.
Yet with all her capacity for suffering, who ever had a quicker instinct for enjoyment, or a finer relish? Its evidence is everywhere. What fondness for adventure! what a zest for novelty! with what eagerness she caught at all which savored of the hazardous and the daring! There was about some moods and movements of Jane, Shirley, and Lucy a kind of freedom that is refreshing, bracing as a tonic. There was no moping with Currer Bell. Some bits of conversation show a spirit emitting flashes like chain-lightning. In Jane they take the form of pungent retort; in Shirley, the swift cut of sarcasm. The humor of Miss Brontë was subtile and delicate, fine as a diamond point. She never repeats herself; and who can doubt that in her daily moods she must have been piquant and delightful? While Emily and Anne lived, in spite of anxiety and trial, there must have been many shrewd, bright talks between the wondrous three, some sparkles of nimble wit. Charlotte's was the daintiest spirit. How much of the impalpable entered into her composition, and how little of the earthy! How lightning-quick, were her perceptions, how magnetic her sympathies! A creature, Ariel-like, part of flame, or air, to elude the grasp and mock the vision!
Her actual contact with her kind was limited, her external resources scanty; but of these she made the utmost. And from her stores, what treasures she brought forth, and what a sumptuous feast she spread! If she had but a treeless moor before her, Slackened with crags, without living thing, save as a lizard crept over the stone, or a little bird flitted in the hot air, or a bee droned in the heather-bloom, she could paint a picture of such exquisite beauty that it would charm beyond a landscape of Italy.
"Nature never did betray the heart that loved her"; she restores the equipoise; she rounds off the angles; she softens many asperities; she imparts robustness, freshness, and elasticity. All this, and infinitely more, she does for those who are in sympathy with her; and of such, beyond almost any writer, was Charlotte Brontë. She never wrote of the outward world in vague phrase, or with the cant of sentiment. Her touch was as true and tender as her tints were life-like. No other books have anything approaching her word-paintings. There are delectable bits in Charles Kingsley; and Ruskin has pictures innumerable, but in such an iridescence of color that we are bewildered by them; but the fairy-small and supple fingers which pictured the moorlands around Whitcross had the skill, as enchanting as it is rare, to make them as truly visible to the eye as the things the eye actually sees; and in that loving labor they must have had bounteous delight.
Of the small portions of happiness—as we should regard them—dealt out to her, how much Charlotte Brontë made! And how thankfully she received them! Those who have an abundance can hardly conceive of the joy with which these crumbs were gathered up. How many times she speaks of her scant possessions of human love! "Let me be content with a temperate draught from the living spring," she says. But, once she murmured. It was at the last, when Death was about to put forth a pitiless hand to take her from the good man and true lover who had waited so long for the wife he was to lose so soon. "Oh, I am not going to die, am I?" was Charlotte Brontë's pathetic whisper. "He will not separate us, we have been so happy!"