The Brontë siblings were arguably some of the most influential writers of the Victorian era, but any discussion of the Brontës at 40 is somewhat hindered by the fact that not one of the Brontë children survived to the age of 40. But a writer’s legacy does not end with their life, and in Charlotte’s case, the 40th year after her birth heralded a dramatic boost to her reputation.
Elizabeth and Maria Brontë, the two eldest siblings, died of tuberculosis in 1825 while away at school, aged 11 and 12 respectively. The four most famous siblings survived somewhat longer, although none were lucky enough to make it to the big 4-0. Branwell, after battling alcoholism and drug addiction, died in September 1848, aged 31. Emily died of tuberculosis shortly after, in December 1848, aged 30, one year after the publication of Wuthering Heights. Anne followed Emily, succumbing, like her sister, to tuberculosis in May 1849, aged 29.
Charlotte Brontë is the only sibling to come close to the age of 40. Having married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell-Nichols, in 1854, she soon became pregnant. However, in 1855 her health declined rapidly, and she, along with her unborn child, passed away in March 1855, three weeks before her 39th birthday.
Four months after Brontë’s death, the author Elizabeth Gaskell made the journey to Haworth, West Yorkshire, to talk to Patrick Brontë about writing a biography of Charlotte’s life, and, in March 1857, two years after Charlotte’s death – when she would have been 40 – Gaskell published her now iconic biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë.
Gaskell’s book both transformed and confirmed public opinion of Charlotte and her work. For some, like Charles Kingsley, who had previously declared himself ‘disgusted’ by Brontë’s novels, Gaskell had written a perfect biography: “Well have you done your work, and given us a picture of a valiant woman made perfect by sufferings.” Others, like John Skelton, thought that reading Life had shed new light on Brontë’s novels: “when you read her life, you read Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, in fragments.”
While Gaskell was privy to Charlotte Brontë’s correspondence, primarily her letters to her closest friend, Ellen Nussey, the picture Gaskell paints of Brontë is most certainly an edited one. In some cases, it was simply an attempt to avoid a scandal. Gaskell significantly suppressed the details of Brontë’s one-sided love affair with her married teacher, Constantin Héger, to whom Brontë wrote numerous letters after her brief time in Belgium. Despite this editing, however, Gaskell was entirely unable to avoid a scandal. In fact, Gaskell’s biography stirred up almost as much controversy as Charlotte’s own novels.
The first controversy surrounded Gaskell’s depiction of Cowan Bridge School, which Charlotte had attended between 1824 and 1825. The conditions at Cowan Bridge, the inspiration for the horrific Lowood School in Jane Eyre, were pretty horrendous, and it was there that the two eldest Brontë siblings, Maria and Elizabeth, had contracted tuberculosis. Reverend William Carus Wilson, the school’s proprietor, strongly refuted Gaskell’s claims, even going so far as to circulate pamphlets. Arthur Nicholls, Charlotte’s husband, drawn into the dispute by Wilson’s numerous public statements, published his own replies in the press, in the hopes that Wilson would desist.
Similar controversy surrounded Gaskell’s depiction of Mrs. Robinson, the married woman with whom Branwell Brontë is thought to have had an affair. Gaskell, rather than shying away from the scandal, frankly accused her of seducing Branwell, to which Mrs. Robinson – now Lady Scott – responded by threatening libel action. Gaskell’s publishers were ultimately forced to print a retraction of Gaskell’s statements in The Times, and all unsold copies of the book (both the first and second edition, which had been printed in May), were recalled for corrections.
The final controversy surround Gaskell’s depiction of Patrick Brontë himself, with whom she had collaborated to created her biography. Gaskell’s picture of the Brontë patriarch is not a particularly pretty one. He comes across as strick, stern, and even violent, a myth that unfortunately prevailed even into the 20th century. Patrick Brontë seems to have taken much of this criticism on the chin, remarking that he ‘was not in the least offended’ at Gaskell ‘telling [him] that [he has] faults.’ It was, in fact, Brontë’s friends that were the most offended. William Dearden, an old friend of Brontë, wrote to the Bradford Observer numerous times, angrily refuting Gaskell’s claims, and even went so far as to “quote” Brontë as stating ‘everything in that book […] is either false or distorted.’ Patrick Brontë was actually quite embarrassed by his old friend’s conduct, and wrote to Gaskell offering his continued support.
Unfortunately, Harriet Martineau – who had shared a friendship, and, according to Gaskell, a later feud with Charlotte – made her own public statements, both on the depiction of Patrick Brontë, and her own depiction within the biography. The controversy surrounding Brontë’s depiction lead to Gaskell’s promise to remove any passages on Brontë deemed false, a promise which she made good on in the September of 1857, with the publication of a revised third edition of The Life of Charlotte Brontë.
Despite all the controversy, however, Gaskell’s biography was the beginning of what might be deemed “Brontëmania.” From as early as May 1857, tourists were beginning to make the trip to Haworth, to see for themselves the little village in which three of Britain’s greatest novelists had lived and died, a journey which has now become somewhat of a pilgrimage for Brontë fans.
Charlotte Brontë would have turned 40 on April 21st, 1856, just over one year after her death. And yet, during what would have been her 40th year, her extraordinary life and talent was still managing to stir up controversy.
Brontë at Buckingham: This post was written by Tabitha Price, who successfully completed a research masters with distinction at Buckingham, on the topic of the Brontës and Hannah Moore. She is now undertaking a PhD at Buckingham on the subject of the Brontës’ juvenilia.