Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon

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Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography and analysis of the writer which concentrates less on the ‘Brontë legend' of the tragic family and more on how she was shaped by her peers.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: September 2008
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844084722

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It is hardly surprising that the lives of the Brontës have attracted so many biographers, and the story of the siblings' short existences and premature deaths has been told many a time. Where Lyndall Gordon's account differs from these is in exploring Charlotte's life from a more feminist viewpoint than that of the apparently downtrodden novelist, who in the words of her contemporary and first biographer Mrs Gaskell was a valiant woman made perfect by sufferings.

Naturally the life takes up a good proportion of the book. Gordon paints the familiar, unhappy picture well – the family growing up in unhealthy Haworth, where there was polluted water and no sewers, and where the average life expectancy was 25. She leads the reader through the early deaths of Mrs Brontë and of the two eldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth, the tubercular condition of the two latter exacerbated by the appalling conditions they had to endure at the school from which their youngest sisters were speedily removed before they had a chance to go the same way. We meet the reserved father and aunt who presided distantly over the girls and their brother. Yet the quiet but strong character of Charlotte, the child who was prone to say very little about herself and averse from making any display of what she knew, the one who shaped herself as a survivor against what she saw as her eldest sisters' 'unresisting' deaths, is emphasised from the start.

The time-honoured image of Charlotte – the gentle but determined one who helped to nurture the talents of her two younger sisters as well as herself and guide their novels into print, the one who was left behind with an ageing father when first the brother and then both sisters sickened and died within eight months, and the one who finally found married happiness only to die herself within a year – is an enduring one. Gordon gives us a rather different picture, of an outwardly meek but in actual fact very determined, steely woman who refused to be ground down by fate, the one who admitted that it would take a great deal to crush me. An unrequited passion for her mentor, Professor Heger, during her unhappy time in Brussels, and her anger at the promising but wasted talent of brother Branwell who drank himself to death, seem to have spurred her on. Criticism of disgracing her sex by being coarse, immoral and undignified, in an age when women were meant to be self-effacing, did nothing to deflect her from writing, and she took much inspiration from her feminist friend from younger days, the ever forthright Mary Taylor.

An interesting affair of sorts with her publisher George Smith also played a formative role, before she finally braved her father's disapproval to marry his curate Arthur Bell Nicholls. Though the author suggests that perhaps Charlotte was not cut out for married life, there is little doubt that both partners were happy together, though their life as husband and wife turned out to be cruelly brief.

Overall I felt the book dwelt a little too much in the later chapters on the analysis of Charlotte's personality, and some of this theorising could have been cut back on. Nonetheless it is a thoroughly well-researched and reasoned life and study that adds something, even when set alongside the many other biographies that have appeared over the years.

Our thanks to Virago for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For other 19th century literary biographies, why not try Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright, or Poe by Peter Ackroyd.

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