Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell


First off - I WAS going to put a different image... but I know we're rated PG, so I'll just link to it instead. So, I figured, how often will I ever get the chance to use my "Walt the Plumber" image?

Beyond that...

This book, if you aren't a total Bronte-loser like me, was a biography of Charlotte written by her friend (and also famous authoress) Elizabeth Gaskell (you know, the one who introduced our little blog to "O Gentle Reader" and zombie dwarfs?) It was the first real bio of any of the Brontes, and in many ways created the romantic idea of the Brontes that has survived to this day. It was also the first biography of a woman writer written by another woman writer.

This is one of the only old biographies I've read, and the stylistic changes are fascinating in themselves. In talking about the school that inspired the horrible place in Jane Eyre, for instance, Mrs. Gaskell made great pains to apologize for promulgating a bad name for the real school, talked about all the letters she's received saying that the schoolmaster was really a nice guy who just had a rough first few years of it, taled about how Charlotte didn't think that anyone would recognize the school, or she never would have written what she did. This makes the book sound kind of comically polite, an I suppose it had it's moments, but I really didn't feel like the politeness was a weakness - it's honestly something we could use more of in modern biography. The difference really was that Ms Gaskell never excused herself from the book - throughout the reading, you have the continuous knowledge (and by design, I think) that this is not the authoritative life of Charlotte Bronte, but rather Charlotte Brontes life as told by Elizabeth Gaskell. In other places, this renders a particular power to the book - because you know the author loved her subject, quite literally and honestly and directly, there is more power when you hear her tell about Charlotte's (frankly really miserable) life, you can feel her pathos, rather than a generic, academically dispassionate description of events that may invoke pathos in the reader.

An additional plus is the utter lack of anachronism in the book. Because this was written when the story occurred, you don't feel like the biographer is projecting any 20th century complexes onto a decidedly 19th century woman. This also makes it easier to love Charlotte (who of the three Brontes, I'd probably get along with least as a person) - Ms Gaskell's forgiveness of her friend's faults makes it easier to keep said faults in perspective, and her compassion for her friend's sorrows makes you understand what it is that the world lost when Charlotte and her sisters died so young.

If you don't like the Brontes, you may not enjoy this book. But if you DO, you'll probably enjoy it, and if you LOVE the Brontes, then you should probably go put down whatever you're reading and go get this. It's available on Librivox and Gutenberg.

10 comments:

Amanda said...

It sounds like you learn a lot about Gaskell reading this, actually. I think I want to read some of her books before I read this.

Lula O said...

Being a big fan of the Bronte's and Gaskell, I've had this on my list for awhile, and if it compromised your feelings on Villette then it must've been good. I guess we know why Gaskell took this on. To explain.
I can't wait to read it.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Lula - Yes, actually it made me really want to read Shirley, which I'm adding to my list :) Did you know the character of Shirley was based on Emily?

Lula O said...

I think I have heard that before. So much of their work was autobiographical, except for perhaps Emily. I've never heard where she got the idea for Wuthering Heights. But Shirley, I need to read that one too.

Julie said...

I need to read Gaskell and I'm sure I will eventually.

Rebecca Reid said...

I'm with Amanda: it sounds like you learn about Gaskell too. I haven't read enough of either author, but I will some day.

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda, Ms Reid - You learn, indirectly about Ms GAskell. Actually, I'd REALLY like to read a biography of Gaskell, now.

Ms. Lula O - There was actually an interesting quote in the bio about that, about how Charlotte had been told to 'write what she knew'

Ms Julie - I recommend Cranford - I think you'd like it :).

Amanda said...

It'd be interesting to see how biographies change over time. I want to read Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf from 1972, which would be different from both now and from when Gaskell did hers of Charlotte...

Jason Gignac said...

Then you can go super-retro and read Boswell's Johnson, or even Plutarch's Lives

Nymeth said...

Good timing - the book I finished today, The Brontës Went to Woolworths, mentioned this book, and that made me wonder if I wanted to read it. I think I do. I don't LOVE the Brontës, but I'm interested in them and in the 19th century enough to enjoy it.