The individualism and richness of Charlotte Brontë’s work arise from the multiple ways in which Brontë’s writing is personal: observation and introspection, rational analysis and spontaneous emotion, accurate mimesis and private symbolism. Tension and ambiguity grow from the intersections and conflicts among these levels of writing and, indeed, among the layers of the self.
Few writers of English prose have so successfully communicated the emotional texture of inner life while still constructing fictions with enough verisimilitude to appear realistic. Brontë startled the Victorians because her work was so little influenced by the books of her own era. Its literary forebears were the written corporate daydreams of her childhood and the Romantic poets she read during the period when the fantasies took shape. Certain characters and situations that crystallized the emotional conflicts of early adolescence became necessary components of emotional satisfaction. The source of these fantasies was, to a degree, beyond control, occurring in the region the twentieth century has termed “the unconscious”; by writing them down from childhood on, Brontë learned to preserve and draw on relatively undisguised desires and ego conflicts in a way lost to most adults.
The power and reality of the inner life disturbed Brontë after she had passed through adolescence; she compared her creative urge to the action of opium and was afraid that she might become lost in her “infernal world.” When she began to think of publication, she deliberately used material from her own experience and reported scenes and characters in verifiable detail. In this way, she hoped to subdue the exaggerated romanticism—and the overwrought writing—of the fantasy fictions. “Details, situations which I do not understand and cannot personally inspect,” she wrote to her publisher, “I would not for the world meddle with.” Her drawing from life was so accurate that the curates and the Yorkes in Shirley were recognized at once by people who knew them, and Brontë lost the protection that her pseudonym had provided.
The years of practice in writing fiction that satisfied her own emotional needs gave Brontë the means to produce powerful psychological effects. She uses a variety of resources to make readers share the protagonist’s subjective state. The truth of the outside world is only that truth which reflects the narrator’s feelings and perceptions. All characters are aspects of the consciousness that creates them: Brontë uses splitting, doubling, and other fairy-tale devices; she replicates key situations; she carefully controls the narrative distance and the amount of information readers have at their disposal.
The unquietness that Brontë’s readers often feel grows from the tension between direct emotional satisfactions (often apparently immature) on one hand and, on the other, mature and realistic conflicts in motive, reason, and sense of self. Read as a sequence, the four completed novels demonstrate both Brontë’s development and the story of a woman’s relationship to the world. Brontë’s heroines find identity outside the enclosed family popularly supposed to circumscribe nineteenth century women. Isolation allows the heroines’ self-development, but it impedes their romantic yearning to be lost in love.
At the beginning of The Professor, William Crimsworth is working as a clerk in a mill owned by his proud elder brother. He breaks away, goes to Brussels to teach English, survives a brief attraction to a seductive older woman, and then comes to love Frances Henri, an orphaned Anglo-Swiss lace mender who had been his pupil.
Brontë’s narrative devices supply shifting masks that both expose and evade the self. The epistolary opening keeps readers from identifying directly with Crimsworth but draws them into the novel as recipients of his revelations. The masculine persona, which Brontë used frequently in the juvenilia, gives her access to the literary mainstream and creates possibilities for action, attitude, and initiative that did not exist in models for female stories. The juvenile fantasies supply the feud between two brothers; the Belgian scenes and characters come from Brontë’s own experiences. Although nominally male, Crimsworth is in an essentially female situation: disinherited, passive, timid. He has, furthermore, an exaggerated awareness and fear of the sexual overtones in human behavior.
Biographical details also go into the making of Frances Henri, the friendless older student working to pay for her lessons in the Belgian school. The poem that Frances writes is one Brontë had created out of her own yearning for Professor Héger. In The Professor, the dream can come true; the poem awakens the teacher’s response.
Like the central figures in all Brontë novels, both Crimsworth and Frances enact a Cinderella plot. Each begins as an oppressed outcast and ends successful, confident, and satisfactorily placed in society. The details of Crimsworth’s story work both symbolically and functionally. The imprisoning situations in the factory and the school reflect his perception of the world. At the same time, these situations are created by his own inner barriers. His bondage as a despised clerk is self-induced; he is an educated adult male who could move on at any time. In Belgium, he plods a treadmill of guilt because of Zoraïde Reuter’s sexual manipulativeness—for which he is not responsible. His self-suppression is also seen through Yorke Hunsden, who appears whenever Crimsworth must express strong emotion. Hunsden voices anger and rebellion not permitted to the male/female narrator and becomes a voyeuristic alter ego to appreciate Frances and love.
The novel is weakest when it fails to integrate the biography, the emotion, and the ideas. True moral dilemmas are not developed. The heroine, seen through sympathetic male eyes, wins love for her writing, her pride, and her self-possession, and she continues to work even after she has a child. Brontë solves her chronic romantic dilemma (How can a strong woman love if woman’s love is defined as willing subordination?) by letting Frances vibrate between two roles: She is the stately directress of the school by day, the little lace mender by night.
In Jane Eyre, Brontë created a story that has the authority of myth. Everything that had deeply affected her is present in the book’s emotional content. The traumatic experiences of maternal...
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