The strength of Lyndall Gordon’s Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life is the work’s versatility. Not only does this book accomplish several different aims as a biography, but it is both academically acute and narratively well built. At times it reads like a strong work of criticism, and in other moments a reader is likely to be consumed as if he or she were engrossed in an entertaining bildungsroman. Gordon profits from the fascinating subject matter to which she has applied her considerable talents; the life of Charlotte Brontë seems calculated to enthrall.
Even for those Brontë aficionados already familiar with the details of one of literary England’s most interesting life stories, Gordon’s text is unique and necessary for its ability to incorporate and assess the biographies of Charlotte Brontë and the criticisms of her work. As Gordon observes, “There is no final truth about a life, and each age will distill its view.” For her particular distillation, Gordon depends heavily upon the masterwork of Brontë bibliographia, Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), the scorn and praise Brontë earned from her fellow Victorians, and the number of significant critical studies of Brontë’s novels offered during the renaissance of women’s literary criticism over the past several decades (most notable among these works being Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s 1979 work, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination).
To understand that an enduring literary figure must be considered, like the body of writing she left, a work in progress, a subject for ongoing inquiry and debate, is a rare and insightful posture for a biographer. Gordon’s work does not aspire to be the last word on its subject, as do too many “critical” biographies authored by scholars. Her sense of literary theory and her appreciation of the depth of character that Brontë continues to represent keep the biographer from such an overblown ambition. This book is thorough without being overly authoritative. As in her earlier biographies of George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Gordon offers an intelligent homage to a writer who deserves the respect her biographer accords her.
What Gordon seems most to respect about the character of Charlotte Brontë is the very quality for which she and her work were often criticized during the Victorian era. Victorians found Brontë “coarse,” by which they meant determined and passionate—qualities that women were not, in the Victorian conception of gender roles, meant to possess. In Gordon’s estimation, it was passion and determination that allowed Brontë to keep alive the pride and confidence that many of her life’s experiences could have extinguished. These same qualities supported Brontë’s artistic ambitions. Passion evidenced itself in the imagination that created the romantic fantasies of her youth, and determination turned this shallow juvenilia into the mature prose style of one of the unquestioned masterpieces in the history of the English novel, Jane Eyre, as well as the remarkable Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853), novels that have been reinvestigated by recent critics and whose reputations are steadily on the rise. In the subtitle of the biography, A Passionate Life, and the chapter titles, which include such impassioned markers as “Love’s Language” and “Buried Fire” and expressions of determination such as “To Walk Invisible” and “Surviving,” Gordon announces her intention to focus on the successes and failures to which Brontë’s “coarseness” led her.
In an early passage of the biography, Gordon displays her many objectives and talents. She describes the unhealthy living conditions in Haworth, the village in which Patrick Brontë was offered a perpetual curacy, and the sociological climate in England that contributed to unsafe working conditions and poverty. Then Gordon switches from the fact-giving voice of nonfiction to a literary, narrative voice that appears often throughout the biography and gives the reader an account of the result of the poor conditions in Haworth: “On arrival at the Parsonage, all the children, except for the baby, Anne, were packed into a narrow room, no bigger than a passage, above the front door. There they remained, unnaturally good and quiet as Mrs. Brontë died slowly on the other side of the wall.” It is Gordon’s style to punctuate her historical and aesthetic observations with such emotional, poetic moments. Her judicious use of the literary voice...
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