No Fury, And All That

March 27th, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

There is something delightfully…mean…about Tanya Gold’s skewering of Elizabeth Gaskell’s skewing of Charlotte Brontë’s life. Mrs. Gaskell, you have an enemy. An enemy who describes your crowning achievment as

…biography is the ultimate piece of feminine passive-aggression, a mediocre writer’s attempt to reduce the brilliant Miss Brontë to poor, pitiful Miss Brontë. Gaskell wrote the Life as a tragedy, not a triumph.

Ah, yes, well, it wouldn’t be Victorian if it were happy. England was undergoing penance after the excesses of the Georgian era and romantic intellectualism of the Regency period. No more! cried the monarchy. No good can come from thinking. We must stop this immediately. The things that make us human are bad. Unless they are the things that make us miserable humans.

This contradiction between reality and idealized femininity (and that was the crowning glory of the Victorians — removing the woman from the female) is summarized as this:

Aged 20, she [Brontë] wrote boldly to the Poet Laureate Robert Southey, asking for his opinion of her talents. He replied: “You evidently possess and in no inconsiderable degree what Wordsworth calls ‘the faculty of verse’.” Then he chides her: “There is a danger of which I would … warn you. The daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind. Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be.” Charlotte ignored Southey but Gaskell couldn’t believe it. She concluded the correspondence “made her put aside, for a time, all idea of literary enterprise”.

Circling back to our latest rant, we continue to emerge from the Victorian mindset in fits and starts, and we believe Southey’s views permeated the literary community far longer than most would like to admit. At least someone has dared to expose the woman behind the porcelain doll that is Charlotte Brontë.

File Under: Square Pegs