This year marks the 200th birthday of English novelist Charlotte Brontë, author of the ever popular Jane Eyre, and the eldest of three sisters who wrote their way to fame from a parsonage in Yorkshire. Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell were born between 1816 and 1820, and are all being commemorated by literary events over the next five years.
Christine Alexander, a Professor Emeritus of English at the University of New South Wales and an expert on the Brontës, is playing a major role in the celebrations as a speaker and co-author of a lavishly illustrated book on the life and times of Charlotte Brontë. Carolyn Moynihan asked her what makes the famous romantic and proto-feminist author a great literary figure.
The Brontë family looms large in English literature, although, thanks to their short lives, their collective output seems small. What things have gone into the making of the Brontë myth?
The Brontë story of three sisters—Charlotte, Emily and Anne—and their wayward brother Branwell, living in a remote village on the English Yorkshire Moors and producing from their wild imaginations works of great literature has always appealed to readers. Early audiences were shocked by their radical views and the uncouth, unorthodox subject matter of their novels, but also recognized the genius of their writing. And despite their tragic lives, they achieved lasting fame. This has all helped to fuel the “myth” of the Brontë sisters that has been passed down through the years.
To those of us who cut our literary teeth on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights at school, these novels were great romantic tales. As such, they have made great movies. But what makes Jane Eyre, for instance, great literature?
Jane Eyre has always been something of a literary phenomenon. It’s revolutionary in both subject and style. It’s the tale of an unusual heroine—a little governess, ‘disconnected, poor, and plain’—whose huge strength of spirit and intellect enables her pilgrimage towards self-respect and true love. The novel is revolutionary on the need for women to have meaningful work and on equality in marriage. And in terms of style, Charlotte Brontë combines gothic romance and realism in Jane Eyre, and uses an ‘autobiographical’ technique of narration that allows us to understand the psychological state of her heroine.
Charlotte Brontë was born the year before Jane Austen died. They were both daughters of Anglican clergymen of relatively modest means, and both did time at ghastly boarding schools. Perhaps there are other similarities; but their works are very different. Did the earlier writer have any influence on the later? Do we know what Brontë thought of Austen’s novels?
Brontë famously praised Austen’s novels for their elegant fidelity to the surface details of life but criticised their lack of passion and poetry. She denied having read any Austen novel before Jane Eyre, although it’s possible she may have done so. She read Emma when advised to do so by the critic George Lewes and said that she admired it “with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable”. She knew this was probably heresy but she thought Austen’s work too cool and restrained. Brontë was writing at the end of the Romantic period and her taste in literature was different.
You are an expert on the juvenilia – the childhood writings of Charlotte and her siblings, much of which was written in very tiny script in miniature books. Do we know why they did that? What is the significance of this early writing for the later works?
The Brontë juvenilia allow us to understand the creative development of these writers, their remarkable imaginations, the books they read, and their amazing eclectic knowledge at an early age. Their earliest productions were tiny handmade magazines in miniscule script, written for their toy soldiers and intended to imitate newspaper print. Their size also meant they could keep their risqué stories secret, since adults found them difficult to read. As they grew older, the size of their manuscripts got larger but the script remained miniscule. They wrote hundreds of poems, tales, magazines, newspapers, fictitious histories, dramas, and novelettes—all based on their imaginary worlds of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal. Charlotte’s early writing alone is larger in volume than her four novels together!
Most of Charlotte’s stories are written in the voice of a cynical male narrator who undercuts the Byronic romances of her heroes and heroines. She is constantly experimenting and playing with different styles and voices. They are great fun to read and give you an insight into the Brontës’ unconventional but relatively happy childhood. Charlotte’s later writings reveal her conflicted adolescence and sexual awakening, and a governess Elizabeth Hastings who is a prototype for Jane Eyre.
If readers would like an introduction this Brontë juvenilia they will find a wide selection of stories and poems in my Oxford World Classics edition: Christine Alexander (ed.), Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Writings of the Brontës (OUP, 2010).
Since the Brontë sisters turned to writing – or at least publishing — novels only after generally unhappy experiences with teaching and governessing, one gets the impression that they were almost driven to it by their circumstances. If Charlotte had married earlier would she still have been a great writer?
We will never know the answer to this. But I’m convinced that writing was a panacea for Charlotte. She hated governessing and was temperamentally unfit for teaching. But she adored learning and writing. When she was frustrated with life and deeply depressed, writing allowed her to express herself, to analyse and examine her own thoughts and feelings, and to transform imaginatively her strong beliefs and ideals—and much of her own experience— into literature.
Was Charlotte a feminist before feminism?
Yes, I think so. She believed strongly in the right of women to have meaningful work rather than conventional serving positions, such as teaching and dressmaking. Her novels advocate marriage founded on love (a revolutionary idea at the time) and equality in marriage, ideals taken up twenty years later by John Stuart Mill in his essay “The Subjection of Women” (1869).
Was she religious? As in Austen, there are churches and clergymen in her books, but Jane Eyre, for all her trials and tribulations, never seems to turn to God.
Brontë often satirises clergymen in her writings, but she was deeply Christian. Jane Eyre is a pilgrimage through life in which Jane relies heavily on God to see her through. She becomes worried when she realises that she loves Rochester so much that she has made an idol of him. She says, “I could not, in those days, see God for his creature.” When she flees the temptation to become Rochester’s mistress, she relies heavily on God—especially during her awful night on the moors. Brontë believed we are closest to God when we are close to Nature. Jane Eyre says that it is in Nature that “we read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence”.
Did she have socialist leanings, as her sympathy for exploited workers in her novel Shirley, suggests?
Brontë certainly explores the industrial situation in her time and the problems of both mill owners and mill workers in Shirley. She is actually a Tory, but she is even handed in her novel, I think—showing real sympathy for the plight of unemployed workers. Her main concern is with the position of women and the fate of her two heroines within the wider industrial, social and political context.
You have a new book, co-authored with Sarah L. Pearson from Trinity Western University, coming out: Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life Into Literature in Jane Eyre. When will that be published, and what delights does it hold for Brontë fans?
The book will be published next month. It invites the twenty-first century reader into Charlotte’s material world, both the world of the author and the world she created in her most famous novel. The book is lavishly illustrated with objects and images from the author’s own life and times. It has been great fun to write, and to explore Charlotte Brontë’s accomplishment in imaginatively transforming her lived experience into a fictional masterpiece.
Christine Alexander is Emeritus Scientia Professor of English at the University of New South Wales, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and Director of the Juvenilia Press Project. The latter produces attractive little editions of the early writings of famous authors like the Brontës, Austen, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Philip Larkin, Dorothy Hewitt and Margaret Atwood.
In August Dr Alexander will speak at the Brontë Society’s conference in Manchester, joining as a keynote speaker with Germaine Greer, Professor Sally Shuttleworth from Oxford University and Brontë biographer Claire Harman as they address the position of women in the mid-19th century. She is also speaking at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.