Friday, March 24, 2017

The Business of a Woman's Life – Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will

 Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, 1850. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

My story begins, dear reader, with a description of a not-so-distant journey that took me through the sky to the isle of Manhattan, and ultimately inside the workings of a most extraordinary intellect. The destination was that seat of high repute and learning, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. I entered through its glassy doors off Madison Avenue as the autumnal sky above streaked plum and apricot, the colours dancing rich and vibrant on the shadowy walls. After perusing the rare gilt-edged books and illuminated manuscripts lining what had once been banker J.P. Morgan's private library, I ascended to the second storey aboard a chrome elevator. Turning right, I spied a treasure of a different stripe, a simple cotton and wool dress, patterned over with the petals of pale blue flowers. It guarded the entrance of Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will, a unique collaboration between the Morgan and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in England. Commemorating the 200th anniversary of the author's birth in 1816, the intimate exhibition closed in January, but not without creating a lasting impression.

Photo by Graham Haber.
Distinguished by a high-buttoned collar and a slim 25-inch waist, the garment before me, dressing a mannequin, had once belonged to the genius of Haworth, as Charlotte Brontë has become known. Piqued, my already excited mind could easily imagine the intrepid novelist wearing this plain but practical piece of clothing while traversing the moors of her native Yorkshire, doubtless dreaming of the even wilder natures of the characters populating her books. So neat and decorous, the day dress compelled me to draw parallels with Jane Eyre, her most famous creation. Like the "poor, obscure, plain and little” orphan of the novel who eventually found her destiny at Thornfield Hall, home of the Byronic hero, Edward Fairfax Rochester, Charlotte Brontë had worked as a governess and similarly had been compelled to act with propriety even as her passions raged across the written page. Like Jane again, Charlotte was also strong-willed though petite, standing just four feet nine inches tall, as revealed by the diminutive proportions of this dress. That tiny frame, however, concealed a giant talent.

The proof lay inside the rectangular room located just beyond this initial glassed-in display, in an exhibition of visual and literary objects which succinctly but comprehensively conveyed the sweep and magnitude of Charlotte Brontë's trailblazing brilliance. Curated by Christine Nelson, Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will made its case through a fascinating presentation of artifacts and art works on loan from leading British museums in addition to materials borrowed from the Morgan's own significant collection of Brontë letters and manuscripts. The bicentenary celebration convincingly showed Charlotte to be a novelist of unshakeable independence who laboured hard at her craft for most of her short life. The overall impression was of an artist composed more of perspiration than inspiration. Charlotte had long planned for her success. She was an active, not a passive, woman of the early Victorian era.

At the age of 20 she wrote to England's poet laureate, Robert Southey, sending him some of her poems and confessing her desire to be “for ever known” as a writer. Initially it seemed that her gender and inexperience would prevent her from reaching her goal. Southey wrote back, "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be." Chided but not defeated, Charlotte determined to write for writing's sake, fame being beside the point. But it would be a struggle. She had many obstacles in her path, not the least being her own poverty and obscurity. But she would fight for what she believed in and transcend her environment, her principled tenacity ultimately winning the day. "I am just going to write because I cannot help it," she once said. In the exhibition I saw her portable writing desk, displayed alongside an original copy of Jane Eyre, written in her own assured hand, and so I could well believe that she meant it. On loan from the British Library and never before seen in North America, the manuscript lay open on the page in which Jane declares to Rochester that she is "a free human being with an independent will." That quest for autonomy likewise defined Charlotte Brontë.

By Charlotte Brontë, age 12. (Courtesy of the Brontë Parsonage Museum)

One of six children born to a poor clergyman whose wife had died in childbirth, she had learned early on how to enrich herself with acts of the imagination and turn her bleak surroundings into literary gold. After losing two older sisters to sicknessthey died at a disease-ridden boarding school that likely formed the model for the notorious Lowood school for girls in Jane Eyre Charlotte formed a tight bond with her three younger siblings, Anne, Emily and Bramwell, eccentrics all. Together they created a mythical world populated by little people for whom they conceived the tiniest of illustrated books, some only two inches high. Crammed with minuscule writing, the books used poetry, short stories and plays to describe in detail the geography and history pertaining to the imaginary realms of Glass Town, Angria and Gondol. The Brontë children had designed the books for Lilliputians if not for themselves, siblings enrolled in the most private of literary cliques. They produced writing so eye-crossingly small that the Morgan provided magnifying glasses so as to see it with any clarity. How the Brontës produced their elaborate fantasy worlds without going blind emerged as a wonder in itself.

From this daringly auspicious start, Charlotte Brontë moved onto larger-scale projects, copying a print after a painting by Henry Fuseli depicting the grieving shepherd of John Milton’s elegy Lycidas, for instance, a work that hangs in the exhibition together with other drawings executed while Charlotte was a young art student. Equally proficient as a writer, at age 14 she produced The Poetaster: A Drama by Lord Charles Wellesley, a satiric play written in minuscule print in a miniature handmade notebook. Her inspiration was a 1601 work by Ben Jonson, evidence that while Charlotte wrote small she thought big. Her ambition was enormous.

Photo by Graham Haber.
A proto-feminist, she published Jane Eyre (subtitled An Autobiography) in 1847 under the male pseudonym of Currer Bell. Her sisters Anne and Emily, authors of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights respectively, followed suit. Anne was Ellis Bell and Emily was Acton Bell, siblings still despite the gender switch. When eventually their subterfuge was found out, Charlotte said publicly that she and her sisters had wanted to avoid being pre-judged and dismissed as literary artists on account of their sex. "We did not like to declare ourselves women," she wrote in her 1850 introduction to a new edition of her sisters' novels, "because without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked upon with prejudice ...."

Her steadfast resolve, not to mention her unmistakeable literary skills, ultimately helped her achieve her goal. Charlotte Brontë would be "for ever known." But that did not mean she died content. Misery seemed to plague her. In 1848, just a year following the publication of her masterwork, Charlotte lost all three of her beloved siblings to illness within nine months of each other. She climbed out of her grief long enough to produce Shirley, her second novel in 1849, followed by Villette, her third, in 1853. Marrying two years later, in 1855, she choose as her spouse her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. (Given her choice of a pseudonym, her new husband at least had the right name.) But within a few months of the wedding, Charlotte passed away at age 38, likely a victim of severe hyperemesis gravidarum, the relentless vomiting that sometimes accompanies the early stages of pregnancy. Kate Middleton similarly suffered this extreme type of morning sickness, except that the Duchess of Cambridge had the benefit of 21st-century medicine, and survived. Charlotte Brontë, who before she died had just completed a few chapters of her unfinished novel, Emma, did not. She withered away as the fledgling life inside her struggled to grow strong, an ending as gruesomely Gothic as anything found in a Brontë novel.

Since her death, Charlotte Brontë has emerged as something of a cult figure, thanks largely to Elizabeth Gaskell's hagiographic biography, which was published in 1857, two years following her abrupt demise. Pilgrimages to Haworth have become a regular occurrence. But where The Life of Charlotte Brontë painted a picture of a tragedy waiting to happen, this exhibition, mercifully, has exhumed the lady with some grit still clinging to her bones. The net result is that she felt real, this literary giant with the size-small dress. As if she were standing there in the room next to you, nudging with the palpable force of her imagine. Which sounds strange, I know. But true, dear reader. So true.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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