Partying with Charlotte Bronté

We start off this brief story with a word about William Makepeace Thackeray, who was born in 1811.

In his early adulthood, Thackeray was a bit of a ne’er do well who squandered his family fortune. After he married (in 1836), he began to write satirical works for magazines (most famously Punch) because he needed the money to support his growing family. This lifestyle suited him. and he grew famous by satirizing society figures, especially in his serialized novel, Vanity Fair (begun in 1846).  A victorian Truman Capote? Well, not quite. But you get the idea. BTW; he coined the modern use of the word “snob”. and he loathed Irish Catholics. And BTW, Thackeray was tall for his day (standing around 6 foot 3 inches).

Enter Charlotte Bronté. Ms Bronté was an outlier. As a child, she did not thrive in the real world. Indeed, if she and her siblings thrived at all, it was through their sharing stories of fantasy worlds that they created. None of them would enjoy a long life.

As an adult, Charlotte Bronté did the unthinkable. She published poetry and novels (albeit under the curious pseudonym Currer Bell). Worse still, the novels revealed an amazing amount of female passion.  Women had passions?  Who knew? Jane Eyre, Bronté’s most famous work, was her second effort and was published in1847.  BTW, Charlotte Bronté was tiny (under five foot tall).

Both Thackeray and Bronté became well-known literary figures. And they were acquainted. But what an odd pair! Thackeray’s daughter, Anne Isabelle (who would later become a literary figure in her own right), describes a visit to Thackeray by Brontê this way.

… two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This then is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books. … The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, genius though she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, specially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. … Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess … the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all … after Miss Brontë had left, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him … long afterwards … Mrs Procter asked me if I knew what had happened. … It was one of the dullest evenings [Mrs Procter] had ever spent in her life … the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club

Which of the two was more eccentric? I would not hazard a guess. And yet, Bronté was the more controversial, especially (as you can see from the above) because of her lack of social graces.  In victorian times women were expected to please. Men were given more leeway.  Borish as men might be, they could return to their clubs to act out their inner silliness.

And here the story takes another turn. Another victorian lady, Elizabeth Gaskell also knew Charlotte Bronté. Like Bronté, Gaskell was a writer.  Gaskell, however, played the victorian game of being female like a pro. She knew how far she could go and she went just that far and no farther.  From the Guardian

Above all, Gaskell understood the value of domesticity, or at least the appearance of it, to the female writer: for all that it was suffocating and demeaning, it was also a shield.

In other words, unlike Bronté, Gaskell was full of “enjoyments”. Despite their differences, Gaskell was enamored of Bronté. Not in a sexual way, but in a conversational way. The two

… walked together for hours, and “like the moors”, Mrs Gaskell felt, “our talk might be extended in any direction without getting to the end of any subject”.

How different than Brontê’s ill-fated visit to Thackeray!

It is not a huge surprise that upon her untimely death at the age of  38, Bronté would be slighted in the press. Gaskell would have none of it and immediately wrote a highly flattering biography. Unfortunately, there were a few problems. From the above Guardian article

Here are some reasons to hate Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë: it is moralistic and stultifying; it flattens Brontë’s brilliantly transgressive nature and confines her to a saccharine version of Victorian female victimhood. It is inaccurate, overemotional and, at times, libellous towards those she accused of attacking her good friend. You might also criticise Gaskell’s motivations: driven by opportunistic ambition to feed, vulture-like, on the carcass of Brontë’s reputation, rather than a true desire to investigate or memorialise.

Strong words! In this light, it is easy to dismiss Gaskell as lightweight. Not to be taken seriously. And yet, thee is something to praise here. Gaskell and Bronté dared to live as themselves – women writers – at a time when women were expected to assume and play out a  much more restricted and highly artificial role. .One can understand why Gaskell would use all of her wiles, even if she would distort the facts, to defend her dear friend, with whom she shared such deep affections.  Even in our more enlightened times, women sticking up for one another against a male dominated society remains controversial in some circles. The courage to speak out deserves at least some respect.

And if you think about it, of course, Bronté would have been leery of Thackeray.  He was interested in society more than the individual. Perhaps that is why we think him as being hopelessly old-fashioned.


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