Major anniversary of her birth today, on 21 April. A ‘national treasure’, epitomising a certain kind of stoical, homely, female Britishness. Revered and adored by millions. Her family home a major tourist attraction. A life dedicated to self-sacrifice and the service of others. Plainly but elegantly dressed: not a follower of fashion. Rather severe-looking when not smiling.
Yes, I’m thinking of Charlotte Brontë, and so should we all be, in this her 200th anniversary week. The third of six children of the Revd Patrick and Maria Brontë, all of whom died long before their father did, she wrote a revolutionary novel so grippingly, movingly brilliant that people still love it even if it was their set text.
‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’ How I remember first reading that opening sentence of Jane Eyre as a teenager. I myself was avoiding a family outing in order to curl up with a book. The narrator goes on: ‘I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes…’
Exactly. And, Reader, from that moment, you’re hooked. You become that ten-year-old girl, not wanting to go for a freezing walk, living a lonely, unloved life with a vicious aunt and cruel cousins. You are locked into the Red Room and are terrified. When the manuscript (under the masculine pseudonym Currer Bell) landed on the desk of the publisher William Smith Williams at 65 Cornhill in 1846, he was so gripped that he read the whole novel in one sitting, hastily scribbling a note to cancel a midday appointment and asking for sandwiches to be sent up. I know the feeling. This novel gives us the total satisfaction of the perfect Cinderella story. For many of us it was the first ‘grown-up’ novel we read, and it set the bench-mark for (a) novels and (b) our love lives.
Some people find it all a bit too Gothic and melodramatic, with the mad woman in the attic who has a chillingly scary laugh and sets fire to the bedclothes. But the backbone to the novel is actually the wonderful, teasing, banterous relationship between Jane the plain governess and Mr Rochester her landowning employer. The story gives hope to plain Janes everywhere. From the moment they first meet, we know that this is a meeting of two kindred souls. Any conventions about social rank and ‘looks’ just fall away. Every word they speak to each other crackles with sexual chemistry. The scene where they do part is enough to reduce grown men to tears, let alone teenage girls. And when they find each other again at the very end… I mean, who cares about the small matter of Mr Rochester being blind and scarred from the fire, and missing a hand? Love is love. ‘Reader, I married him.’
The Charlotte Brontë novel you could go off, if it was your set text, is Villette, the second-most-read of her three novels (Shirley being the third and the one that is less talked about). Brontë’s London publishers longed for another novel as perfect as Jane Eyre, but they never quite got one. Again we have a plain governess in love with her master, this time in a school in Brussels; but compare and contrast the attractive Mr Rochester with the creepy Frenchman whom Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, is in love with. Paul Emanuel, or ‘Monsieur’, as she calls him, is an irascible, sweet-toothed little man who runs the school and teaches her French, and they meet in overheated classrooms where she’s always noticing his ‘jetty hair’ and ‘Spanish face’. She admits that he looks rather like Napoleon. Even his dog is unattractive: whereas Mr Rochester has the noble hound Pilot, Monsieur Emanuel has a silly little ‘spanieless’ Sylvie to whom he feeds chocolate comfits.
Some critics protest (almost too much) that Villette is better than Jane Eyre, a more profound psychological study. But go into any household and look for copies on the shelves and you’ll probably find that Villette has a suspiciously creaseless spine. Perhaps the novel is just too embarrassingly close to the truth. Brontë did teach at a convent in Brussels and had a total but chaste crush on Constantin Héger, the married man who ran the school. Her later letters to him were serialised in the Times on 29 July 1913, and they make one squirm. He wasn’t replying to her letters and she was desperate.
The illnesses in the Brontë world! And the unhappiness, and the utter stultifying boredom of women’s existences! This is another aspect that makes reading the novels and thinking about the Brontë story such a comforting pleasure for anybody who enjoys reading about other people’s dismal lives. In real life, the ‘Helen Burns’ figure who died of TB in Jane Eyre was based on Charlotte’s sister Maria who died just such a death at horrible Cowan Bridge school, aged 11, and another sister, too, Elizabeth, aged 10. In spite of this double-death of his daughters, Patrick Brontë sent Charlotte and Emily back to the school for another term. Small wonder that Charlotte became a ‘poet of suffering’. She wrote about what she knew.
The average age of death in the village of Hawarth in the 1840s was 24, and the Brontës did not buck the trend. Their mother died when Charlotte was five. Anne died at 29 and Emily at 30, both of TB. Hopeless Branwell, the non-achieving brother, died of TB and opium addiction at 31. Charlotte was the last to go, lasting till 38 and dying perhaps the cruellest death of all: she had at last married her not-Mr-Rochester, the kind, devoted but not Byronic curate. She was pregnant, and died of acute morning sickness with her unborn baby. That her great novel of wish-fulfilment is still widely devoured is the supreme happy ending.