Honoring the Woman as Writer: Elizabeth Gaskell's the Life of Charlotte Bronte

Article excerpt

For one likes romantically to feel oneself a deliverer advancing with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some stranded ghost. --Virginia Woolf, "The Lives of the Obscure" (The Common Reader)

In Writing a Woman's Life Carolyn Heilbrun cites Elizabeth Gaskell as "the most salient of female biographers." (1) an apparent exception to Heilbrun's rule that (female) "biographers have largely ignored women as subjects, and that critics of biography have written as though men were the only possible subjects." (2) Adducing as evidence the mere six essays by women biographers out of forty included in James Clifford's 1962 Biography as an Art, Heilbrun concludes that before "the advent of contemporary feminism" women biographers chose "comfortable subjects" who "posed no threatening questions" or whose "atypical lives provided no disturbing model for the destinies of other women." (3) Indeed, one may speculate that it is precisely because of The Life's "salience," its divergence from the formal and cognitive paradigms of nineteenth-century biography that David Amigoni has chosen to exclude it from Victorian Biography. (4)

As the chronicle of a woman writer whose life was sufficiently "atypical" to disturb contemporaries such as Arnold, Thackeray, Harriet Martineau, and the James Kay Shuttleworths who had met or known her, and whose early work under the nora de plume Cutter Bell was judged "unnatural" or "rebellious" by some early reviewers, (5) Gaskell's self-described biographical enterprise of "making the world honor the woman as much as they have admired the writer" (6) constitutes itself an atypical moment in the history of the biographical genre--the subjective response, sui generis, of a novelist turned biographer to a subject who was also a friend, a fellow novelist, and native of the North Country. Gaskell's biographical project is informed and enriched by her empathy for its subject, but it is also complicated by her desire both to guard her friend's privacy and to rescue her from obscurity, or at least from the misprisions of critics and readers.

From its publication in 1857 The Life's status as a classic of literary biography has rarely been challenged; its popularity helped to establish the Victorian myth of the Brontes as Romantic archetypes of solitude and imagination, and its presentation of the Yorkshire moors as a matrix fructifying the Brontes' creativity echoes, albeit with diminished resonance, in Pater's, Swinburne's, and Mary Robinson's late nineteenth-century "Appreciations" of the Brontes. Biographical vignettes rather than full-fledged biographies, rhapsodic in tone and elegiac in attitude, the "Appreciations" attempt to resurrect the spirit of the Brontes "buried" in the funerary images and inscriptions that open and close Gaskell's Life. Re-weaving Gaskell's thematic texture of passion, solitude, imagination, and death without emulating her use of history, detail and testimony, these late nineteenth-century biographical vignettes, in their failure to evoke the richness and fullness of Bronte's experience and environment, throw into relief the power and originality of Gaskell's achievement in literary biography. (7)

Indeed, the earliest to the most recent readers and critics of Gaskell's Life have been struck by its originality of form and conception--a re-configuration of the biographical text that inscribes, in Margaret Homans' phrase, the "double voiced discourse" not only of author and subject but of discords and harmonies between the two voices. Some Victorian critics implicitly recognized that the dialogue of female voices in the Life "shattered" or divided the structure of traditional biography so as to contain the doubleness and contrariety of the female artist's experience. This recognition is powerfully, if indirectly, expressed in a passage from Margaret Oliphant's "The Sisters Bronte" quoted by Jenny Uglow in her recent biography of Elizabeth Gaskell. …

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