Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Life of Charlotte Brontë

Just finished rereading Jane Eyre. As a teenager, this was the novel that started my interest in literature and stopped me attending football practice to audition for plays. In its honour, I'm reposting a blogpost from spring 2011 I wrote while working night shifts in a hotel.

How can I be blogging? Because I'm on the Night Shift (sung to the tune of Liz Lemon singing Night Cheese)

Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall... classics from the library of English Literature. I'm in the middle of Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte (while I'm on the Night Shift), and was surprised to learn there were many more Brontes than the famous three sisters. The northern landscape was particularly grim, living conditions weren't up to much and all the siblings died of tuberculosis at a young age.

The oldest two sisters, Maria and Elizabeth died at the ages of 11 and 10 respectively. They suffered hunger, cold, and privation at Cowan Bridge School. The death of Maria inspired the part in Jane Eyre that absolutely broke my heart as a kid, the death of Helen Burns.
Liz Taylor played Helen Burns in the 1944 adaptation of Jane Eyre, with Orsen Wells

(Maria was) an object of merciless dislike to one of them (one of the mistresses)... depicted as Miss Scatcherd in Jane Eyre, whose real name I will be merciful enough not to disclose (Miss Andrews). I need hardly say, that Helen Burns is as exact a transcript of Maria Brontë as Charlotte’s wonderful power of reproducing character could give. Her heart, to the latest day on which we met, still beat with unavailing indignation at the worrying and the cruelty to which her gentle, patient, dying sister had been subjected by this woman. Not a word of that part of “Jane Eyre” but is a literal repetition of scenes between the pupil and the teacher. Those who had been pupils at the same time knew who must have written the book from the force with which Helen Burns’ sufferings are described. They had, before that, recognised the description of the sweet dignity and benevolence of Miss Temple as only a just tribute to the merits of one whom all that knew her appear to hold in honour; but when Miss Scatcherd was held up to opprobrium they also recognised in the writer of Jane Eyre an unconsciously avenging sister of the sufferer.

One of their fellow-pupils, among other statements even worse, gives me the following:—The dormitory in which Maria slept was a long room, holding a row of narrow little beds on each side, occupied by the pupils; and at the end of this dormitory there was a small bed-chamber opening out of it, appropriated to the use of Miss Scatcherd. Maria’s bed stood nearest to the door of this room. One morning, after she had become so seriously unwell as to have had a blister applied to her side (the sore from which was not perfectly healed), when the getting-up bell was heard, poor Maria moaned out that she was so ill, so very ill, she wished she might stop in bed; and some of the girls urged her to do so, and said they would explain it all to Miss Temple, the superintendent. But Miss Scatcherd was close at hand, and her anger would have to be faced before Miss Temple’s kind thoughtfulness could interfere; so the sick child began to dress, shivering with cold, as, without leaving her bed, she slowly put on her black worsted stockings over her thin white legs (my informant spoke as if she saw it yet, and her whole face flushed out undying indignation). Just then Miss Scatcherd issued from her room, and, without asking for a word of explanation from the sick and frightened girl, she took her by the arm, on the side to which the blister had been applied, and by one vigorous movement whirled her out into the middle of the floor, abusing her all the time for dirty and untidy habits. There she left her. My informant says, Maria hardly spoke, except to beg some of the more indignant girls to be calm; but, in slow, trembling movements, with many a pause, she went down-stairs at last,—and was punished for being late. Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte
The three remaining sisters and brother - Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell - were very close and they developed their childhood imaginations through the collaborative writing of increasingly complex stories. The early death of their mother and siblings had a profound influence on their writing.
(at the end of the day) They put away their work, and began to pace the room backwards and forwards, up and down, - as often with the candles extinguished, for economy's sake, as not, - their figures glancing into the fire-light, and out into the shadow, perpetually. At this time, they talked over past cares, and troubles; they planned for the future, and consulted each other as to their plans. In after years, this was the time for discussing together the plots of their novels. And again, still later, this was the time for the last surviving sister to walk alone, from old accustomed habit, round and round the desolate room, thinking sadly upon the "days that were no more." Gaskell

Portrait of Emily, by brother Branwell
They wrote compulsively from early childhood and were first published, at their own expense, in 1846 as poets under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. (while they sought anonymity, the brother’s frustration at lack of fame or reward for his talents led to alcoholism and drug addiction). The book attracted little attention, selling only two copies. The sisters returned to prose, producing a novel each in the following year. Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were released in 1847.
In 1948, Branwell's severe addictions was masking the onset of his illness. His family did not realise that he was seriously ill until he collapsed outside the house. Emily Brontë died of the disease in December of that year and Anne Brontë the following May.

Portrait of Anne by sister Charlotte
Their fame was due much to their own tragic destinies as well as their precociousness. Since their early deaths, and then the death of their father in 1861, they were subject to a following that did not cease to grow. The Brontë family can be traced to the Irish clan Ó Pronntaigh, which literally means 'grandson of Pronntach'. They were a family of hereditary scribes and literary men in Fermanagh. The Brontë Country is a name given to an area of south Pennine hills west of Bradford in West Yorkshire, England. The name comes from the Brontë sisters. (Wiki-p)

There is an interesting Bronte Blog, with many e-texts that include works of the lesser known Brontes.

PS, it's 2.30am and I'm hitting the Night Shift wall

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