Charlotte Brontë: a ‘great literary gift’
By MICHAEL CAINES
Some writers float in and out and then back into fashion (no more about John Williams's Stoner for now, please); some sink like the obviously solid objects they are; others seem to become lily pads fit for the critical frogs to bask on, thinking their fine, fly-focused thoughts. (There must be more types, but mercifully I'm out of rubbish metaphors.) Charlotte Brontë, in case you were in any doubt, seems never to have been in any danger of losing buoyancy – she was born 200 years ago today, and has been assured of some kind of attention since 1847 at least, when the publication of Jane Eyre by "Currer Bell" triggered such excitement and curiosity about the pseudonymous author. The novel's immediate reception is well known: Elizabeth Rigby's damning of its "gross inconsistencies and improbabilities", as well as Jane's "unregenerate and undisciplined spirit"; G. H. Lewes's enthusiasm for this "utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit". What happened after that?
Well, if you really want to know the answer to that question: you could do worse than leafing through the pages of the TLS archives. The first and most significant piece about Charlotte Brontë being Virginia Woolf's anonymously published essay of a hundred years ago:
". . . there is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season . . . . the novels of Charlotte Brontë must be placed within the same class of living and changing creations, which, so far as we can guess, will serve a generation yet unborn with a glass in which to measure its varying stature. In their turn they will say how she has changed to them, and what she has given them . . . . At the conclusion of Jane Eyre we do not feel so much that we have read a book, as that we have parted from a most singular and eloquent woman, met by chance upon a Yorkshire hillside, who has gone with us for a time and told us the whole of her life history . . . ."
Woolf ends by referring to Brontë's "great literary gift", her achievements as a "writer of genius" but also a "very noble human being". (Writers aren't always so complimentary about one another, even/especially when separated by such a distance in time, situation and aesthetic.)
From there, you proceed to rediscoveries such as The Twelve Adventurers and Other Stories (1925) and The Spell: An extravaganza (1931) – tales from the youthful realm of Zamorna, and the latter the work of another alter ego, "Lord Charles Albert Florian Wellesley". Then there are the scholarly companions such as E. M. Delafield's contemporary life records (1935), the various new editions of the novels and the poems, the critical and biographical studies . . . There is Q. D. Leavis working out the dating of Jane Eyre in 1965 and Rosemary Ashton calling in passing, in 1988, for a new edition of the letters, which comes along eight years later, just after Lorna Sage has reviewed Lyndall Gordon's biography ("Repression remains the keynote, but it's repression squared, repression chosen and embraced").
And that takes us almost to the present day: Claire Harman on a case of mistaken identity, Mark Bostridge on the Brontë "conmen", Samantha Ellis on relics of the Brontës and how their admirers are to interpret them. (And for those who enjoy such curious connections: Thea Lenarduzzi on the umlaut-free "Duke of Bronte".)
And it wouldn't do to omit the nineteenth-century forerunners to the recent National Theatre Jane Eyre, a history of which was reviewed by Judith Flanders in 2007, not to mention Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, which was reviewed for the TLS in 1966 by a certain Mary-Kay Wilmers. Is this something else you can say about remarkable books and their remarkable creators? That readers' reactions will take the strangest turns. Into academic studies and guides for the literary tourist, yes – but back into fiction, too.