Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Charlotte Bronte thought some people were marked out for misery; they should just accept that their lives would be full of sorrow and disappointment. As for why, the parson's daughter believed all would be explained eventually.
Her biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, who summarized Bronte's views from one of their conversations, disagreed. She thought some people had more dramatic patches of good and bad in their lives, while for others these were more evenly blended. But in the end, she thought, it all worked out about the same.
It's easy to understand why each reached their conclusions. Gaskell was a successful author and a happy wife and mother. Bronte, well....
Imagine being one of four closely knit siblings in September of 1848, and by May of 1849, being the only survivor. First went brother Patrick, age 30, dead of drink and dissipation in September. Then beloved sisters Emily and Anne, both published novelists, died of consumption in quick succession, one in December, one in May. Both were under 30. And that was after Charlotte had lost her mother as a child as well as two other siblings much earlier.
According to Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte, what followed the latest round of deaths was six years of lonely misery in her father's isolated Yorkshire parsonage, located unhealthily in the middle of a graveyard. Charlotte was famous from her novel Jane Eyre by then, and could have had a busy life in London's intellectual society. But constitutional shyness and delicate physical health (that graveyard!) made social engagements a trial. At least according to Gaskell's biography, it was a toss-up as to where she was most miserable -- at home with her father and two servants in the bleak parsonage with only books for stimulation; or out in society, where she was stimulated but fraught and ill. She chose the former, where at least she could keep writing.
As Gaskell tells it, Bronte's reward came at last, when her father finally backed down on his longstanding opposition to a marriage proposal she had received. Bronte was supposedly extremely happy in her marriage, but within nine months, after a long period of torturing illnesses, she was dead at age 39.
So, who was right, Bronte or Gaskell? Bronte certainly faced an untoward number of sad deaths and unlucky circumstances. But her worst luck was herself. Judging from both her novels and Gaskell's book, she was torn between her inner instincts that women had the right to achievement, fulfillment and independence, and a religious, conservative upbringing that said women must be submissive, modest, and always put duty first. She had other marriage proposals and chances to live differently, but she could not abandon her father or embrace the idea that she had a right to live her own life and seek her own happiness.
So yes, her 39 years contained mostly misery. As for the purpose of that, perhaps she knows by now.