Elizabeth’s plan was to reframe Charlotte Brontë as a proper lady in order to counter the scathing reviews of Jane Eyre by Lady Eastlake, who accused the author of: ‘a total ignorance of the habits of society, a great coarseness of taste, and a heathenish doctrine of religion’.
Elizabeth writes to Ellen Nussey in September 1856: ‘The more fully she -Charlotte Bronte – the friend, the daughter, the sister, the wife, is known …the more highly will she be appreciated’.
Daughter, sister, wife were all domestic roles acceptable for women, and while it was important to emphasise her friend’s genius, the ‘naughtiness’ which Elizabeth believed Charlotte wrote in her novels had to be eradicated.
Charlotte, for example, must not appear to be passionate, thus her depression after leaving Brussels in 1845 was attributed to Branwell’s decline, brought on by his employer’s wife Mrs Robinson, later Lady Scott, with whom he was hoping to elope. Her passionate affair with Monsieur Heger, which may only have existed in her head, could not be mentioned as passion, even imagined passion was improper.
Moreover, Elizabeth dwelt on her friend’s hard upbringing at home and at Cowan Bridge School, presented as Lowood in Jane Eyre. Hopefully this background would explain away some of the Brontë sisters’ ‘peculiar’ natures‘.
Criticism and Libel
What in fact happened was that two court cases were threatened against her; one from the son of the Reverend Carus Wilson, the proprietor and founder of Cowan Bridge School for Clergymen’s daughters, the other for libel from Lady Scott. This whole affair was complex and many letters from a variety of sources appeared in the local newspapers. Mr. Carus Wilson was even printing a pamphlet refuting Elizabeth’s charges against his father.
William and the family solicitor, William Shaen, managed to pour calm on these troubled waters, no case was heard providing that the offending passages were removed and an apology written in the Times. When Elizabeth arrived home from Rome at the end of May there were ’above a hundred’ letters waiting for which had not been forwarded. She was unapologetic.
Writing to Rev R S Oldham she claims:
‘I was under a solemn promise to write the life, -although I shrank from the task: against which I was warned by one who knew all the circumstances well, as ‘certain to pull a hornet’s nest about my ears’. But it did not seem right to shrink from the work as soon as it appeared to me in the light of a duty. To do it at all it was necessary to tell painful truths.‘ (L.347a).
Once the criticism became public Elizabeth received more information for her third edition (the second had been recalled although a few copies still exist), but often this was unhelpful.
She writes to William Fairbairn: ‘I had been receiving three letters a day for above a fortnight, finding great fault with me for my chapter about the Cowan Bridge school’ (L. 358) and from her tone she clearly believed some letters were from troublemakers:
‘I have received a letter from Ohio from some Hamilton J.S. Hill who says I have alluded to his mother in the character of Miss Scratchard… who his mother was I can’t possibly say, but as he sends me three sheets of angry abuse I can only see that I have made some one very angry’ (L. 367).
Degrees of Pleasure and Pain
Those who supported her were generally poor people ‘governesses, struggling surgeons’ wives, schoolmistresses &c’, the disenfranchised whose word did not carry much weight. This was a very trying time.
Despite these problems, the first responses to the biography particularly from family and friends were positive. Patrick Brontë read the volumes with what he calls ‘a degree of pleasure and pain’, but was generally very satisfied with the result:
‘You have not only given a picture of my dear daughter, but of my dear wife, and all my dear children and such a picture, too, as is full of truth and life. The picture of my brilliant and unhappy son is a masterpiece…There are a few trifling mistakes, which, should it be deemed necessary may be corrected in the second edition‘ (BLFC P. 221).
In April 1857, William Gaskell writes to Ellen Nussey stating:
‘All the notices I have seen have been favourable, and some of them exceedingly so. I have had a considerable number of letters from distinguished men expressing high approval. Mr. Bronte, too, I am happy to say, is pleased, and I can only hope that Mr Nicholls will (as Sir James Kay Shuttleworth says) “ learn to rejoice that his wife will be known as a Christian heroine, who could bear her cross with the firmness of a martryed saint‘ (BL p. 222-23).
Mary Taylor was also complimentary, claiming the book to be ‘a perfect success’, whilst accepting the difficulties Elizabeth encountered in ‘not being able to give a true description of those around. Though not so gloomy as the truth, it is perhaps as much as people will accept without calling it exaggerated’ (BLFC p. 224).
While the work may have been flawed, hampered by such constraints as delicacy, a consideration of the feelings of those still living, and of course, a dearth of material which had often been carefully sifted through and edited before Elizabeth even saw it.
I will let Charles Kingsley have the final word:
‘You have had a delicate and great work to do, and you have done it admirably. Be sure the book will do good. It will shame literary people into some stronger belief that a simple virtuous, practical home life can be consistent with highly imaginative genius; and it will shame too, the prudery of a…carefully whitewashed age, into believing that purity…is quite compatible with the knowledge of evil’ (BLFCp.22
There is agreement that it was a pioneering biography, and despite the condemnation on the grounds of unreliability, it is still considered a useful resource.
Diane Duffy, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House