Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857)

The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Elizabeth Gaskell. 1857/1975. Penguin Classics. 623 pages. [Source: Bought]

I should have read it years ago. I really should have. I simply loved, loved, loved Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte. Yes, it's packed with information on the Brontes. But it's more than that. It's how this information is conveyed, it's how the story is written that makes it a compelling read. Not many biographies are impossible to put down. This one was. Gaskell, in many ways, let Charlotte Bronte speak for herself by sharing so many letters or excerpts from letters. One really gets a sense of "knowing" from reading it. And that isn't always the case with biographies, though it is sometimes the case with autobiographies. I appreciated Gaskell's narrative voice very much. It was a real treat. Anyone who loves Victorian literature should read this one. Or anyone who loves Jane Eyre or any other Bronte novel.

Quotes:
I read for the same reason that I ate or drank; because it was a real craving of nature. I wrote on the same principle as I spoke--out of the impulse and feelings of the mind; nor could I help it, for what came, came out, and there was the end of it. ~ Charlotte Bronte in a letter to Mr. Wordsworth, 1837
It is very edifying and profitable to create a world out of your own brains, and people it with inhabitants, who are so many Melchisedecs, and have no father nor mother but your own imagination. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1840
Some of my greatest difficulties lie in things that would appear to you comparatively trivial. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1841
Write to me often; very long letters. It will do both of us good. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1841
If I could, I would always work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1841
They wanted learning. They came for learning. They would learn. Where they had a distinct purpose to be achieved in intercourse with their fellows, they forgot themselves; at all other times they were miserably shy. ~ Elizabeth Gaskell about Charlotte and Emily going to Brussells 
Any one who has studied her writings,—whether in print or in her letters; any one who has enjoyed the rare privilege of listening to her talk, must have noticed her singular felicity in the choice of words. She herself, in writing her books, was solicitous on this point. One set of words was the truthful mirror of her thoughts; no others, however apparently identical in meaning, would do. She had that strong practical regard for the simple holy truth of expression, which Mr. Trench has enforced, as a duty too often neglected. She would wait patiently searching for the right term, until it presented itself to her. It might be provincial, it might be derived from the Latin; so that it accurately represented her idea, she did not mind whence it came; but this care makes her style present the finish of a piece of mosaic. Each component part, however small, has been dropped into the right place. She never wrote down a sentence until she clearly understood what she wanted to say, had deliberately chosen the words, and arranged them in their right order. Hence it comes that, in the scraps of paper covered with her pencil writing which I have seen, there will occasionally be a sentence scored out, but seldom, if ever, a word or an expression. She wrote on these bits of paper in a minute hand, holding each against a piece of board, such as is used in binding books, for a desk. This plan was necessary for one so short-sighted as she was; and, besides, it enabled her to use pencil and paper, as she sat near the fire in the twilight hours, or if (as was too often the case) she was wakeful for hours in the night. Her finished manuscripts were copied from these pencil scraps, in clear, legible, delicate traced writing, almost as easy to read as print. ~ Elizabeth Gaskell about Charlotte Bronte's writing habits
Even at the risk of appearing very exacting, I can't help saying that I should like a letter as long as your last, every time you write. Short notes give one the feeling of a very small piece of a very good thing to eat,—they set the appetite on edge, and don't satisfy it,—a letter leaves you more contented; and yet, after all, I am very glad to get notes; so don't think, when you are pinched for time and materials, that it is useless to write a few lines; be assured, a few lines are very acceptable as far as they go; and though I like long letters, I would by no means have you to make a task of writing them. . . . ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1847
If "Jane Eyre" has any solid worth in it, it ought to weather a gust of unfavourable wind. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1847
If I ever DO write another book, I think I will have nothing of what you call 'melodrama;' I think so, but I am not sure. I THINK, too, I will endeavour to follow the counsel which shines out of Miss Austen's 'mild eyes,' 'to finish more and be more subdued;' but neither am I sure of that. When authors write best, or, at least, when they write most fluently, an influence seems to waken in them, which becomes their master—which will have its own way—putting out of view all behests but its own, dictating certain words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature; new-moulding characters, giving unthought of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully-elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1848
Every one has a right to form his own conclusion respecting the merits and demerits of a book. I complain not of the judgment which the reviewer passes on "Jane Eyre." Opinions as to its tendency varied then, as they do now. While I write, I receive a letter from a clergyman in America in which he says: "We have in our sacred of sacreds a special shelf, highly adorned, as a place we delight to honour, of novels which we recognise as having had a good influence on character OUR character. Foremost is 'Jane Eyre.' ~ Elizabeth Gaskell on book reviews
I wish you did not think me a woman. I wish all reviewers believed 'Currer Bell' to be a man; they would be more just to him. You will, I know, keep measuring me by some standard of what you deem becoming to my sex; where I am not what you consider graceful, you will condemn me. All mouths will be open against that first chapter; and that first chapter is true as the Bible, nor is it exceptionable. Come what will, I cannot, when I write, think always of myself and of what is elegant and charming in femininity; it is not on those terms, or with such ideas, I ever took pen in hand: and if it is only on such terms my writing will be tolerated, I shall pass away from the public and trouble it no more. Out of obscurity I came, to obscurity I can easily return. Standing afar off, I now watch to see what will become of 'Shirley.' My expectations are very low, and my anticipations somewhat sad and bitter; still, I earnestly conjure you to say honestly what you think; flattery would be worse than vain; there is no consolation in flattery. As for condemnation I cannot, on reflection, see why I should much fear it; there is no one but myself to suffer therefrom, and both happiness and suffering in this life soon pass away. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1849
You say that you suspect I have formed a large circle of acquaintance by this time. No: I cannot say that I have. I doubt whether I possess either the wish or the power to do so. A few friends I should like to have, and these few I should like to know well. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1850
I have read Tennyson's 'In Memoriam,' or rather part of it; I closed the book when I had got about half way. It is beautiful; it is mournful; it is monotonous. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1850
It is my intention to write a few lines of remark on 'Wuthering Heights,' which, however, I propose to place apart as a brief preface before the tale. I am likewise compelling myself to read it over, for the first time of opening the book since my sister's death. Its power fills me with renewed admiration; but yet I am oppressed: the reader is scarcely ever permitted a taste of unalloyed pleasure; every beam of sunshine is poured down through black bars of threatening cloud; every page is surcharged with a sort of moral electricity; and the writer was unconscious of all this—nothing could make her conscious of it. And this makes me reflect,—perhaps I am too incapable of perceiving the faults and peculiarities of my own style. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1850
You charge me to write about myself. What can I say on that precious topic? My health is pretty good. My spirits are not always alike. Nothing happens to me. I hope and expect little in this world, and am thankful that I do not despond and suffer more. ~ Charlotte Bronte, 1851
Even if it should turn out reasonably well, still I regard it as ruin to the prosperity of an ephemeral book like a novel, to be much talked of beforehand, as if it were something great. People are apt to conceive, or at least to profess, exaggerated expectation, such as no performance can realise; then ensue disappointment and the due revenge, detraction, and failure.~ Charlotte Bronte, 1852

© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

2 comments:

Carissa Horton 2:26 PM  

I never knew Gaskell wrote a bio on Charlotte Bronte. When I have a month to spare, I may track this one down and give it a read.

Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) 9:15 AM  

I didn't know about this either -- what a great find!

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