Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell first met in August 1850, after Gaskell had already been intrigued by Jane Eyre and its mysterious author for some time. Gaskell writes: “She and I quarrelled & differed about almost everything , – she calls me a democrat, & can not bear Tennyson – but… I hope we shall ripen into friends.” And they did: despite their frequent disagreements, they would exchange letters and ideas and pay each other visits until Brontë passed away in 1855, Gaskell, who had not heard anything from her for four months, did not even know that she had been ill. A few months later, she started working on the story of Brontë’s life; Gaskell spoke to many of Brontë’s friends and collected as much written material as she could get her hands on, including a great number of letters. The resulting book, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, was the first successful biography of a woman and written by a woman.
However, as a source, it is notorious amongst Brontë scholars for being horribly unreliable. Because Gaskell wanted to make the world “honour the woman as much as they admired the writer,” she was very careful not to tread on any toes and to leave out any part of the story that might be embarrassing or hurtful. As a result, the Charlotte Brontë Gaskell describes is a saint, the very picture of feminine virtue, even when Brontë’s own words regularly contradict this image. For example: Gaskell paid a visit to the Brussels boarding school where Charlotte and Emily had spent a couple of years and spoke to Constantin Héger, a teacher who had known them quite intimately. When he showed her letters Charlotte had written him, letters that showed that she had been quite infatuated with him, Gaskell decided to ignore them. After all, any mention of Charlotte having feelings for a married man would not have fit into the tale she was trying to tell about a modest, hard-working model of Victorian morals. So no, if you are looking for a factual account of Brontë’s life, this is not the place to start reading.
However, I still think that this is a fascinating book. Granted, this is the first time I had read any of Brontë’s letters (they are quoted often and extensively), but there is merit to Gaskell’s own writing as well. After all, she did know Brontë personally and she did visit Haworth, Brussels, and her old school; Gaskell’s first-hand knowledge of the family and the environment the Brontë sisters grew up in is incredibly valuable. She can describe the village and its people in great detail because she’d been there, talked to old school friends, teachers, and neighbours. It may not all be true, but it does give you some idea of the time period and the circles the Brontës moved in. There are anecdotes and recollections of conversations that can only be offered by someone who was there, or had spoken to those who were.
In the end, Gaskell cannot convincingly reconcile bold author Currer Bell with her saintly version of Charlotte, the selfless daughter/sister/wife. No matter how much she insists that Brontë was all shyness and modesty, the letters show someone who held strong opinions and was not afraid to speak her mind. This is the woman who, at the age of twenty-one, sent her favourite author and poet laureate Robert Southey a sample of her writing and asked for his advice. He replied that, even though she had a gift, “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be”; it was all very well to write poetry in private, but to seek publication and fame would not be wholesome and affect her “proper duties.” Brontë was mortified and replied that she would “never more feel ambitious to see [her] name in print” and that his advice would “not be wasted; however sorrowfully and reluctantly it may be at first followed.” Ten years later, Jane Eyre was published. Not exactly the wallflower Gaskell describes.