Claire Harman: ‘The Suspicions of Mrs Gaskell’, 24 February 2015

Claire Harman, renowned biographer of Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson among others, has a forthcoming biography of Charlotte Brontë. In this talk, Harman instructed her audience in the making and legacy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Brontë. Published in 1857, it was the first, and remains a popular, biography of Charlotte Brontë.

Harman explored Gaskell’s efforts to provide an impression of Brontë’s character. In acquiring and describing this information, Gaskell relied partly on gossip, and partly on fact, constructing her approach through anecdotes and stories.

Brontë herself also had some agency in the creation of the ‘Brontë myth’.[1] Gaskell and Brontë were writing their novels at the same time and place in 1846 in Manchester. Gaskell had written to ‘Currer Bell’ (Brontë’s pen name) to compliment her on her novel Shirley and then the two were introduced by Lady Kay Shuttleworth over a three day visit in the Lake District. After this visit, Gaskell wrote to Catherine Winkworth describing Brontë’s appearance. She appears to Gaskell to be ‘a little lady in a black silk gown. She is, as she calls herself, underdeveloped.’ The letter also described what Haworth (Brontë’s hometown) looked like, and included stories about Patrick, Charlotte’s father, being half-mad. It also included Charlotte Brontë’s anecdotes about the starvation regime at her school and the poverty at home, anecdotes that seemed to be fully crafted, narrated and full of significance. Claire Harman sees these anecdotes from Brontë as something that Brontë gifted to Gaskell, a kind of special nod from one novelist to the other. Gaskell went on to re-use this material in The Life.

After her sisters Anne and Emily Brontë died, Charlotte wrote the preface to the second edition of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights (1850). The preface included biographical information about her sisters, evoking their life in their Moorland home, and the edition was well received. This preface also helped initiate the Brontë myth. Charlotte Brontë was subsequently invited to many London parties, but, extremely reticent, was disgruntled by the attention stemming from her celebrity, and was a difficult dinner guest. Then Brontë met her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was a curate to her father, Patrick Brontë. She was married to Nicholls and, Harman speculates, quickly became pregnant. Gaskell had been abroad, and said that she felt she would have been able to prevent Brontë’s death if only she had been in the country. Claire Harman suggested that Gaskell would have had access to abortion doctors for Brontë and that Gaskell’s confident statement leads us to infer this was a problematic pregnancy. From the symptoms, Harman believes Brontë contracted the severe morning sickness, hyperemesis gravidarum: the same illness the Duchess of Cambridge Katherine Middleton has suffered with in her pregnancies. Unfortunately the care Brontë received was inadequate and Harman assumes Brontë’s death was terribly painful.

After Brontë’s death, Gaskell received a letter from Patrick Brontë asking her to write the official and ‘truthful’ biography. This would turn out not to be a traditional ‘life and letters’ biography, a ‘portrait’ of an author, but a novelist’s view of a character. Gaskell did seek out letters and anecdotes for the biography, however, including the letters from Brontë to her married mentor in Brussels, Constantin Héger. Gaskell had not realized Héger was such a meaningful figure in Brontë’s life until Gaskell visited him in Belgium on a trip for research. Gaskell soon realized she could not use this story of unrequited love in the biography. It was too revealing and diverged from the character of Brontë she was trying to represent.

After the publication of the first edition (1857) of Gaskell’s biography of Brontë, there was what Claire Harman called a ‘shaking up of material, a loosening of anecdotes’. The second and third editions of the biography have ‘odd lacunae’ where Gaskell rescinded material that Patrick Brontë objected to about himself, mostly accounts that suggested he was controlling of his wife’s and his children’s behavior. Harman thinks that what has remained then in these subsequent editions must therefore have been reliable, like the report that Brontë’s mother Mariah wasn’t pretty.

The anecdotes that make up Gaskell’s biography helped form the idea that its subject is a character within a wider story. Claire Harman took her rapt audience through some of these anecdotes and the process that Gaskell underwent in constructing this lasting and popular biography of Charlotte Brontë.

[1] To see more on this term, see Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth (2001)

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