Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

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

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

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. (8) Implicitly connecting Gaskell's re-formation of biographical genre to female gender, Oliphant asserts that Gaskell "originated in her bewilderment a new kind of biography. The cry of the woman almost distressed as well as puzzled the world ... The book was revolution as well as revelation ... The cry shattered indeed altogether the 'delicacy" which was supposed to be the most exquisite characteristic of womankind. The softening veil is blown away when such exhibitions of feeling are given to the world." (9) Other Victorian critics who linked genre and gender did so with a less laudatory purpose than that of Oliphant. Thus, for the critic who reviewed The Life for the Saturday Review, Bronte's suitability as a subject of biography constitutes an exception to "the lives of women, and especially of Englishwomen," which "are marked by little that can excite the attention of those who have never seen them in the domestic world which has been their only sphere of action." (10) Gaskell's biography is "anticipated with 'interest,'" argues the reviewer, because it promises to elucidate "the mystery of (Bronte's) genius" and to probe "the one striking peculiarity of her success," which consists in Bronte's ability to understand "the passion of man." Significantly, like Felicia Bonaparte in The Gypsy-Bachelor of Manchester, (11) the Saturday reviewer identities passion and "the daemonic" with masculinity. It is to see the passion depicted in Bronte's fiction "reflected" in her life that the Saturday reviewer turns to Gaskell's biography. In his review of The Life for Blackwood's, E. S. Dallas also linked biographical genre and gender in order to damn with faint praise Gaskell's "familiar narrative" of domestic detail and event. This female "narrative," according to Dallas, constitutes a "personal discourse" which he implicitly identifies as the characteristic language of female biography. (12)

In the response of Gaskell's contemporaries as well as in that of recent gender and New Historicist critics, we may observe the crucial biographical issues of source, privacy, and the relationship of the writer's life to her work articulated as a duality of revelation/concealment. Whereas Victorian critics frequently castigated Gaskell for revealing too much about Bronte's life, gender critics have sometimes castigated her for revealing too little. W. C. Roscoe in the National Remew voiced one prevalent Victorian view of the perceived revelatory tendencies of The Life when he wrote that "it is indecorous to withdraw the veil from purely domestic affairs" which are "paramount to considerations of gratifying public curiosity, or even to that of securing a full appreciation for the private character of a distinguished author." (13) Roscoe's "conviction" that Gaskell was "mistaken" in lifting the veil that concealed Haworth Parsonage is ironic in light of her efforts to suppress the evidence of Bronte's love affair with M. Heger and of her initial objection to publication of The Professor before she learned of its relatively innocuous subject matter. As Jenny Uglow makes clear, Gaskell continued to press for revisions even after she had recommended the publication of the novel. Gaskell's attempt to suppress "indelicate" passages from The Professor is consistent with her suppression in The Life of the evidence of Bronte's letters to Heger, whose contents, as Uglow states, "it is now generally accepted that Gaskell knew." (14)

Recent gender critics have re-formulated the Victorian duality of revelation/concealment in Gaskell's work as a perceived "split between private and public experience." In her chapter on Gaskell in The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction, Catherine Gallagher argues that even as they attempt to "obliterate the separation" between private and public experience, the novels actually "re-enforce it." (15) Although Gallagher is concerned primarily with Gaskell's fiction, I believe her argument has important implications for The Life as well. The duality of private and public experience shapes the structure of the literary biography and informs Gaskell's purpose and strategy as biographer; however, I would argue that she depicts the interpenetration rather than the separation of private and public spheres. Close analysis of Gaskell's letters composed while she was at work on The Life and of versions of the text reveals a complex interplay of authorial strategies and purposes and an admixture of private and public motives. To publicize the woman as writer, Gaskell revealed the private world of childhood and home that fostered Bronte's creativity; yet to "honor" the writer as woman, Gaskell expunged from the life record the "passion" and "wildness" that she claimed for Bronte's works. Although I do not agree with Coral Lansbury's judgment that The Life constitutes "a feminist manifesto," (while agreeing that it contains strong feminist implications), I believe that she describes well the problematic, self-contradictory nature of Gaskell's biographical purpose of discovering a method which would reveal the tensions between home and work in the life of the female artist. (16)

This complex interplay of biographical purpose and strategy is evidenced in Gaskell's October 2, 1856 letter to George Smith, in which she withdraws her earlier objection to publication of The Professor:

   I think that--placing myself in the position of a reader--instead
   of a writer--of her life,--I should feel my knowledge of her
   incomplete without seeing the Professor. I suppose biographers
   always grow to fancy everything about their subject of importance,
   but I really think that such is the case about her;, that leaving
   all authorship on one side, her character as a woman was unusual to
   the point of being unique ... And everything she did, and every
   word she said and wrote bore the impress of this remarkable
   character. I as my own reader should not be satisfied after reading
   the Memoir ... if I did not ready her first work,--looking upon it
   as a psychological curiosity. (17)

The letter is remarkable for the way in which it positions Gaskell simultaneously within the roles of reader and writer of biography. The biographer engages in an act of self-reading, a re-visioning of herself as writer/reader and interpreter of Bronte's life and character. As in the letter, so in The Life the boundaries between life and work, private response and public celebration are elastic, permeable. Foreshadowed by the sororal, writerly friendship of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, the mature, collegial friendship of, Gaskell and Bronte forms a dominant motif in The Life, the most compelling example of Bronte's felt necessity to define herself through her friendships with other women. By so depicting herself as a participant in Bronte's life as a member of an imagined "community of women"--Gaskell re-creates herself simultaneously as narrative persona and character, subject and object at the same time that she obliterates the boundaries between subjective and objective perspectives of author and work and private and public spheres of experience.

Paralleling the tension between subject and object, private and public experience is what Gaskell apparently perceived to be the tension between biographical fact or detail and the "truth" of Bronte's life and character. In an August 23, 1855 letter to a potential source, Gaskell expresses her desire "to know all I can respecting the character of the population (Bronte) lived amongst,--the character of the individuals amongst whom she was known." However, she urges her correspondent "to trust to my honor and discretion" that "every particular I can collect is not necessarily for publication" ... "but to enable me to form a picture of (Bronte's) character, and a drama of her life in my own mind." (18) Self-divided as writer/reader, biographical researcher/ interpreter, Gaskell wishes to conceal from the reading public exactly those inapposite details that allow her to see and read the pattern of Bronte's experience in its totality but might blur the "truth" of the woman's, if not the artist's, portrait for the ideal Victorian reader Gaskell envisioned. We know that Gaskell in the early stages of composing The Life gave considerable thought to the relationship between factual detail and interpretive "truth" in biography. Angus Easson cites the notes she copied from her reading of two articles from the Quarterly Review along with an extract from a letter of Anna Jameson's. (19) If we juxtapose the extracts from Jameson's letter and the Quarterly quoted by Easson, we may infer that Gaskell conceived biographical detail to have an equal if not greater metaphorical than factual value. Believing that Charlotte Bronte's creativity both originates and manifests itself in the concrete physical detail of West Yorkshire, Gaskell constructs the landscape metaphorically, in Jameson's words, as a "boundless sphere of feeling and intellect." (20) The moorland landscape metonymically voices the "silent existence" described by Jameson, filling the gaps and "silences" Uglow (21) has noticed with a plenitude of sensuous detail. At once a formal and structural principle, the tension between infinite space and detail, silence and plenitude shapes the biography into an artistic whole. What is suppressed or concealed from the literal life record is obliquely revealed in the metaphoric landscape.

The tension between fact and "truth" also informs the relationship between the original and revised versions of The Life. Expunging the more lurid details of the Cowan Bridge School incident from the third edition of the biography, Gaskell yet retains the "truth" of interpretation rendered by the narrative account of the first edition. She does so by using the direct testimony of Charlotte Bronte, quoting her recollection as an adult of her childhood experience:

   In some of the notices of the previous editions of my work, it is
   assumed that I derived the greater part of my information with
   regard to her sojourn at Cowan Bridge from Charlotte Bronte
   herself. I never heard her speak of the place but once, and that
   was on the second day of my acquaintance with her. A little child
   on that occasion expressed some reluctance to finish eating his
   piece of bread at dinner; and she, stooping down, and addressing
   him in a low voice, told him how thankful she should have been at
   his age for a piece of bread; and when we--though I am not sure I
   myself spoke--asked her some question as to the occasion she
   alluded to, she replied with reserve and hesitation, evidently
   shying away from what she imagined might lead to too much
   conversation on one of her books. She spoke of the oatcake at Cowan
   Bridge (the dap-bread of Westmoreland) as being different to the
   leaven-raised oatcake of Yorkshire, and of her childish distaste
   for it ... (Bronte) said that the mere difference in food was not
   all: that the food was spoilt by the dirty carelessness of the
   cook, so that she and her sisters disliked their meals exceedingly;
   and she named her relief and gladness when the doctor condemned the
   meat, and spoke of having seen him spit it out. These are all the
   details I ever heard from her. She so avoided particularizing, that
   I think Mr. Carus Wilson's name never passed between us. (22) (572)

I have quoted this passage at length because it vividly illustrates a number of Gaskell's biographical strategies. The avowed purpose of concealment and exoneration is undercut by the fullness of Bronte's narrative account, vivified by splashes of local color and intensified by the use of children in the present to catalyze Bronte's memory of her own painful childhood. The third edition actually improves on the Cowan Bridge section of the first edition, which is more documentary and less narrative in approach. Moreover, the incident gains in vividness and intensity because of the presence of Gaskell in the

scene both as interlocutor and as biographical interpreter of the evidence. Positioning herself in the text as narrator/character and observer/participant, Gaskell multiplies the perspectives through which the audience reads and interprets narrative and commentary.

The Life's structure and rhythm, then, are informed and indeed, enriched by the tension between Gaskell's desire to render Charlotte Bronte's character and experience in all their complexity and plenitude and her desire to conceal feelings and events that might dishonor the woman as writer in the view of imagined Victorian readers with whom Gaskell partially identified herself and from whom she wished to shield and protect the subject of her biography. Placed against the fullness of setting and context, the richness of geographical and historical detail, the generous use of informant and testimony--the crowdedness of the canvass--the stark outlines of Bronte's life stand out the more dramatically.

Despite Gaskell's ostensible intention to "honor the woman," I believe that it is the achieved equilibrium between the claims of woman and artist that shapes The Life thematically and formally. To view the biography as formalizing "a deliberate concentration on the woman, as opposed to the writer," as does Uglow, (23) or as "a defence of Bronte ... in terms of Victorian womanliness rather than in terms of the special qualities of her writing," as does Jane Spencer, (24) reduces the complexity of The Life's structure and grants too little to the subtlety of Gaskell's biographical method. Uglow has noted that "the formal structure of the book ... has passed without notice;" (25) it is to this form that we must now turn to prove the claim that Gaskell honored the artist as well as the woman.

The tension between artist and woman overarches a series of subordinate tensions between paid labor and creative work, work and freedom, education and creativity, submission and rebellion, village and city, the domestic interior and the "boundless" space of the moors, stasis and change, departure and return. There is a continual shifting and blending of terms within and among these dualities. Thematic contrasts are personified in the disparate experience and character of Charlotte and Emily Bronte: to protect her intellectual independence and creativity, Emily rebels against the pedagogic authoritarianism of M. Heger; to satisfy her craving for knowledge, Charlotte submits; Charlotte earns her keep by teaching, Emily by domestic labor; Emily seeks freedom in the moors, Charlotte in the city and in the friendship of women and artists; Emily remains in Haworth, Charlotte leaves at progressively frequent intervals; Charlotte's sphere of experience expands, Emily's contracts. The sisters' opposed character and experience are the more powerfully rendered because they are revealed not in direct commentary but through metaphoric landscapes that foreshadow and externalize the interior play of feeling and motive. Indeed, it was for Gaskell's ability to "make us inmates of an interior" that G. H. Lewes praised the "artistic power" of The Life. (26)

The thematic tensions are symbolically contained in the duality of enclosed and open space--the interior of Haworth Parsonage and the "sea of heather" rolling to infinity. The book itself inscribes the enclosure of experience within a circular journey--from dust to ashes, from death to death, from epitaph to epitaph. Within this larger pattern, the narrative traces the progressive turning of the seasons: Uglow perceptively describes the "periodical rhythm" of The Life. (27) Yet equally as prominent is the pattern of ebb and swell that encapsulates the cyclical rise and fall of Bronte's fortunes, the cycle of hope and defeat, anticipation and disappointment. The Brontes at the high tide of their fortunes experience "the world beyond" West Yorkshire only to be flung back in failure against the gates of Haworth. The temporal movement of the biography is both progressive and retrogressive, the plot line simultaneously surging forward toward the epiphany of Bronte's recognition as an artist and falling backward toward the "familiar," domestic circle and even the ancient and more recent historical past of West Yorkshire. Just as the architectonics of open/enclosed space articulates metaphorically the duality of imprisonment/freedom or "bounded"/"boundless" experience, so the rising and falling rhythm of the temporal movement articulates the duality of exile and return. Frequently the biographical narrator views events through the prism of retrospection, which half-illuminates, half-obscures the shadowy, fragmented past. It is significant in this context that Elizabeth Gaskell first met Charlotte Bronte near Windermere in Wordsworth's Lake Country, for The Life draws partly on the Wordsworthian genre of revisitation or return. This is especially apparent in the latter half of Volume two at the point in which Gaskell enters the narrative directly and describes retrospectively the landscapes she and Bronte have visited together.

The formal and thematic patterns shaping The Life are inscribed in the opening epigraph taken from Aurora Leigh. The quotation from Barrett Browning's poetic kunstleroman about the development of the female artist suggests not only that Gaskell viewed Bronte as a member of a "community of women" artists but that she conceived her biographical project to be the examination of the sources and conditions of Bronte's creativity. In its counterpointing of fame and solitude, the firelit interior and the winter landscape, the epigraph introduces thematic and metaphoric dualities that will recur throughout The Life. The line "And the nations praising them far off" hints both at the encomiastic role of the biographical narrator and introduces the contrast between provincial isolation and public celebration that dominates the biography.

Inscription and epitaph are etched into the extended landscape description of chapters one and two. Through the deft selection and patterning of detail, Gaskell, in the words of Charlotte Bronte, metamorphoses the West Yorkshire setting into a "Hieroglyphical Scroll" in which she "deciphers" the character and history of the local inhabitants and of the Bronte. The landscape is presented as a frozen temporal sequence, archeological strata that testify of "the centuries" brought into "strange, close contact." Frequently in single passages there is a rapid shifting between historical periods, the recent and the more ancient past. The accumulation of detail conveys the paradox that "remote," "wild," and "provincial" as West Yorkshire is, it nevertheless has been affected by the major historical movements of the Civil War, the Evangelical Awakening, and the Industrial Revolution.

Ruskin's" Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century" hangs heavily over the West Yorkshire described in the opening passage of the biography:

   The Leeds and Bradford railway runs along a deep valley of the
   Aire; a slow and sluggish stream, compared to the neighboring rive
   of Wharfe. Keighley station is on this line of railway, about a
   quarter of a mile from the town of the same name. The number of
   inhabitants and the importance of Keighley have been greatly
   increased during the last twenty years, owing to the rapidly
   extended market for worsted manufacturers, a branch of the industry
   that mainly employs the factory population of this part of
   Yorkshire, which has Bradford for its centre and metropolis ...
   Nothing can be more opposed than the state of society, the modes of
   thinking, the standards of reference on all points of morality,
   manners, and even politics and religion, in such a new
   manufacturing place as Keighley in the north, and any stately,
   sleepy, picturesque cathedral town of the south.... Grey stone
   abounds; and the houses built of it have a kind of solid grandeur
   connected with their uniform and enduring lines. The framework of
   the doors and the lintels of the windows, even in the smallest
   dwellings, are made of blocks of stone.... The town of Keighley
   never quite melts into country on the road to Haworth, although the
   houses become more sparse as the traveller journeys upwards to the
   grey round hills that seem to bound his journey in a westerly
   direction.... For a short distance the road appears to turn away
   from Haworth, as it winds round the base of the shoulder of a hill;
   but then it crosses a bridge over a "beck" and the ascent through
   the village begins. The flagstones with which it is paved are
   placed endways, in order to give a better hold to the horses' feet
   ... The steep aspect of the place ... is almost like that of a wall
   ... The parsonage stands at right angles to the road, facing down
   upon the church; so that, in fact, parsonage, church, and belfried
   school-house, form three sides of an irregular oblong, of which the
   fourth is open to the fields and moors that lie beyond. (53-6)

The landscape of West Yorkshire is rendered through two distinct perspectives: that of the Southern traveller (the inhabitant of a cathedral town) who journeys northward toward a remote and "primitive" terrain and that of an ethnographer who meticulously notes local geography, dialect, architecture, customs, manners, and morals. Gaskell apparently shared the ethnographical belief that environment and culture shape character. The adjectives "wild," "untamed," "harsh" are frequently used in The Life to identify both the "character" of the landscape and the character of its inhabitants. There is a sense in the passage of the inhabitants emerging from, being shaped out of the local grey stone that becomes more "irregular" as the road twists and narrows before the final ascent to Haworth Parsonage. An imagery of boundary and enclosure is sustained throughout the passage; the "grey hills bound the journey," and the Parsonage is walled in, enclosed on three sides. The "framework of the doors and the lintels of the windows" made of "blocks of stone" may allude to Wuthering Heights. The use of architecture to symbolize enclosure or stultification in this passage is similar to its use in the section on the Brontes' residence in Brussels. As in Yorkshire, so later in Brussels, Gaskell places the Bronte' experience against a long historical perspective. M. Heger's Pensionnat is enclosed within "a walled garden" which "looks down upon the chimneys of the houses." In the Yorkshire passage, the "oblong" formed by the Parsonage, church, and school provides a narrow opening to "the fields and moors." The contrast here between enclosed and open space foreshadows the contrasts delineated throughout The Life between the two sisters. For Emily, the "bounded" hills open to "the solitude and freedom of the moors;" for Charlotte, the "remote" landscape is stultifying and restrictive, "bounding" her within the "familiar" round of home and domestic duties.

The West Yorkshire setting of The Life is chiefly important because it provides a source and means of invention for the Bronte' fiction. Gaskell related the history of West Yorkshire so extensively because Charlotte Bronte knew and used it in her fiction. Through a number of direct and indirect means Gaskell keeps the focus in The Life on the Brontes' role as novelists. It is true that she does not directly engage in literary criticism of the fiction, but her response to it is expressed in the metaphor of landscape. The attributes of "passion" and "wildness" that Gaskell associates with the terrain and inhabitants of West Yorkshire are also, of course, attributes she would associate with Bronte's fictional characters. But Gaskell also engages more directly in source criticism, tracking down the living prototypes of characters in the novels and examining the actual places and historical events that Bronte used as the settings of her fiction.

We may use a passage from the section on Miss Wooler's School to illustrate how Gaskell uses landscape and history to focus on Bronte as novelist:

   Such are the contrasts of modes of living, and of times and
   seasons, brought before the traveller on the great roads that
   traverse the West Riding. In no other part of England, I fancy, are
   the centuries brought into such close, strange contact as in the
   district in which Roe Head is situated. Within a walk from Miss
   Wooler's house ... lie the remains of Howley Hall ... Near to it is
   Lady Anne's well; "Lady Ann," according to tradition, having been
   worried and eaten by wolves as she sat at the well, to which the
   indigo-dyed factory people from Birstall and Batley woolen mills
   yet repair on Palm Sunday ... All round the lands held by the
   farmer who lives in the remains of Howley Hall are stone houses of
   today, occupied by the people who are making their living and their
   fortunes by the woolen mills that encroach upon, and shoulder out
   the proprietors of the ancient halls ... A smoky atmosphere
   surrounds these old dwellings of former Yorkshire squires, and
   blights and blackens the ancient trees that overshadow them ...
   From the "Bloody Lane," overshadowed by trees, you come into the
   rough-looking field in which Oakwood Hall is situated. It is known
   in the neighborhood to be the place described as "Field Head,"
   Shirley's residence. The enclosure in front, half court, half
   garden; the Panelled hall ... are described in "Shirley." The
   scenery of that fiction lies close around; the real events which
   suggested it took place in the immediate neighborhood. (126-7)

The patterning of details works to convey how an ancient past shapes the lives of people living in the present. Successive temporal periods are frozen in the "remains" of architecture. Moreover, the details of domestic architecture show people shaping as well as being shaped by their environment. Although the biographical narrator does not say so directly, the reader may infer that the visualization of this past in the landscape has catalyzed the fictional invention of Shirley. The ancient past of Yorkshire is not only visible but audible to Bronte in the legends such as "Lady Anne's Well" that have been handed down from generation to generation. In the section on Miss Wooler's School, Roe Head, Bronte is depicted as both a creator and auditor of narrative.

The biographical narrative of The Life constitutes itself a meditation on the origin and process of narration. Gaskell allows us to observe the Brontes during various phases of creativity: as children and youths, listening to the local legends of Tabitha and Miss Wooler, then inventing or "making out" the juvenile stories of "The Islanders." A copy of the minutely printed, miniature notebooks in which the Brontes wrote is inscribed in the text as if it were a "hieroglyph" to be deciphered. Indeed, the "riddle" or mystery of the Brontes' creativity is at the core of The Life. As the Brontes reach adulthood in the biographical narrative, the issue of creativity becomes problematized, complicated by their need to earn an independent income.

It is not only that the duality of work and creativity is factually represented in the text but that the phases and rhythms of artistic creation are embodied in the narrative rhythm of recurrent images and events. Work and creativity follow the progression of the seasons, the recurrent rhythm of exile and return. As governesses and teachers, the Brontes return to Haworth for the Christmas vacation; a series of chapters opens with a description of the firelit study in which the Brontes re-gather, the moors outside blanketed with snow. At home the Brontes give vent to the narrative impulse repressed during the long weeks in exile, until they must interrupt the flow of narrative to return to their governess posts. The interruption of creativity by work is manifest in Gaskell's depiction of Charlotte Bronte as a teacher at Roe Head. Bronte is in the habit of falling into reverie or "making out" stories in her head during the brief interval between the end of her workday and the onset of darkness, Gaskell tells us. Unable to find the time to write down what she silently rehearses, Bronte abandons this activity. The incident as Gaskell relates it attests to her empathy with and understanding of the importance of dream and reverie in the creative process of the Brontes. The plot of The Life moves forward toward the moment when the creative process is completed with the publication of the novels and then, after she discards the mask of Cutter Bell, Charlotte Bronte's achievement of fame as a novelist with the resulting expansion of her intellectual and social sphere.

Elizabeth Gaskell may have begun the task of writing about Charlotte Bronte's life with the intention "to honor the woman," but the biography that resulted honors the female artist by rendering in vivid detail the special conditions under which women produce works of art. Gaskell brought formidable sympathies and powers to her task: not only her own North Country upbringing and residence in Cheshire and Lancashire, but the research into local traditions and dialect undertaken for Mary Barton; not only her personal knowledge of the "industrial condition" of the textile factory workers, but the practice of having dramatized these conditions in Mary Barton and North and South; not only her intuitive sense of seasonal periodicity in the lives of women, but the experience of having portrayed this in Ruth. Gaskell's status as a fellow novelist informs the structure and shapes the narrative style of The Life; it is, after all, the biographer as well as the author of Mary Barton who enters into the biographical narrative to research the background of Shirley in the Luddite riots of 1812. This sense of a shared condition of female authorship suffuses The Life and is why the image of the sisters locked into a closed artistic community is so forcibly etched into the text. The achievement of Elizabeth Gaskell in The Life of Charlotte Bronte is to have formalized the experience of the female artist in the audible rhythm, the rise and fall, ebb and flow of creativity.

Mount St. Mary's College


(1) Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman's Life (NY: Norton, 1988), 22.

(2) Heilbrun, 21.

(3) Heilbrun, 21-2.

(4) David Amigoni, Victorian Biography (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1993).

(5) See especially the reviews of Jane Eyre appearing in The Christian Remembrancer (April 1848) and the Spectator (6 November 1847). These are collected in The Brontes: The Critical Heritage, ed. Miriam Allott (London: Routledge, 1974), 88-92; 74-5.

(6) The Letters of Elizabeth Gaskell, ed. J. A. V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967), 417.

(7) For Swinburne's "Appreciation" see A Note on Charlotte Bronte (London: Chatto & Windus, 1897); for Pater's "Appreciation" see the "postscript" to Appreciations (London: Maxmillan, 1924); for Robinson's "Appreciation" see Emily Bronte (London: W. H. Allen, 1883).

(8) Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993), 391.

(9) From Margaret Oliphant, "The Sisters Bronte" in Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign (London, 1897).

(10) The Victorian reviews of Gaskell's Life are collected in Elizabeth Gaskell: The Critical Heritage, ed. Angus Easson (London: Routledge, 1991). Review of The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Saturday Review (4 April 1857), pp. 313-14.

(11) Felicia Bonaparte, The Gypsy-Bachelor of Manchester: The Life of Mrs. Gaskell's Demon (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992).

(12) Eneas Sweetland Dallas, Review of The Life of Charlotte Bronte Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (July 1857), pp. 77-94.

(13) W. C. Roscoe, Review of The Life of Charlotte Bronte the National Review (July 1857), pp. 127-8.

(14) Uglow, 398.

(15) Catherine Gallagher, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative From 1832-1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 177.

(16) Coral Lansbury, Elizabeth Gaskell (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1975), 146.

(17) Letters, 417.

(18) Letters, 369.

(19) Angus Easson, Elizabeth Gaskell (London: Routledge, 1979), 150.

(20) Ibid

(21) Uglow, 407.

(22) All citations of The Life of Charlotte Bronte are to the first edition, ed. Alan Shelston (London: Penguin, 1975) and containing chapters from the third ed.

(23) Uglow, 391.

(24) Jane Spencer, Elizabeth Gaskell (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1993), 71.

(25) Uglow, 409.

(26) "George Henry Lewes to Elizabeth Gaskell," 15 April 1857; rept. in Elizabeth Gaskell: The Critical Heritage, 385.

(27) Uglow, 407.

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