Charlotte Bronte lived from 1816 to 1855. Although she spent a few days in London, several months in Brussels, and a brief period as a governess at Stonegappe, Girl with a Pen takes place where Charlotte lived most of her life, with her family at the Haworth Parsonage in the Yorkshire moors of England.
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Kyle's assessment of Girl with a Pen as fictionalized biography requires that the book be judged by the standards of both fiction and biography. Kyle's careful selection of significant events makes Charlotte Bronte's life even more interesting. The narrative includes only the people and incidents that directly influenced Charlotte's personal and literary choices. Thus, this account of Charlotte's literary success and her decision to marry Nicholls conveys the impression of inevitability that Edgar Allan Poe insisted was the hallmark of a good plot.
Kyle also possesses the novelist's ability to render lively and thoroughly believable major characters. She portrays Charlotte as a complex human being experiencing doubts, uncertainties, and failures familiar to most young readers. Emily and, to a lesser degree, Anne emerge as distinctive personalities as well. Kyle hints at the complexities of Elizabeth Branwell's personality, but most of the other characters are seen only as they affect Charlotte's life.
Kyle's primary intention is to interest readers in the Brontes and their novels, not to provide a complete biography of Charlotte Bronte. Girl with a Pen, therefore, serves only as an introduction to the lives of the Brontes. Readers should be reminded that most of the dialogue is Kyle's imaginative reconstruction, that Charlotte's relationships with men have been romanticized, and that the sequence of events has been altered to a...
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Because Elisabeth Kyle wrote her account of Charlotte Bronte's life for young readers, she perhaps felt it necessary to avoid a starkly realistic depiction of Charlotte's difficult childhood, the tragedies that she endured until her death in 1855, and the sexist literary climate of the nineteenth century. Although this romanticized view in some ways minimizes the impact of Charlotte's struggle to become a serious writer in her time, Kyle portrays Charlotte as an intelligent, determined nonconformist who achieves her ambitions. She presents Charlotte as a role model for young female writers, noting in her afterword that her purpose in writing the book was to stir interest in a "remarkable girl" who wrote "remarkable books."
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Topics for Discussion
1. Charlotte receives marriage proposals from two young clergymen. Why does she refuse the first and accept the second? Are her decisions wise ones? Why or why not?
2. What course does Robert Southey advise when Charlotte seeks literary advice from him? How does his advice affect Charlotte's career?
3. Charlotte's teacher in Brussels, Constantine Heger, strongly influences her first novel. What advice does Heger give her? Why does she not succeed when she attempts to follow this advice? Does Jane Eyre in any way reflect Heger's influence? If so, in what way?
4. At first Branwell Bronte is considered the family genius. How does his personality differ from his sisters'? Why does he not succeed as they do?
5. Perhaps influenced by Patrick Bronte, who did not like her very much, some of Charlotte's biographers have depicted Miss Elizabeth Branwell as extremely critical and demanding. How does Kyle soften this portrait?
6. Kyle emphasizes the shyness of the Bronte sisters. What other elements of their personalities does she describe? Do these characteristics explain their lack of success as governesses? Why do they fail when they attempt to set up a boarding school? How might their literary careers have been different if their school had succeeded?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. In Girl with a Pen, Kyle describes Charlotte's reactions to Queen Victoria and the celebrations surrounding the English queen's visit to King Leopold. Using library reference sources, compare Charlotte's impressions with accounts of the celebrations associated with this state visit. Why was Queen Victoria such an appealing figure to Charlotte?
2. Some critics contend that Jane Eyre is largely autobiographical. Read the novel and perhaps another biography of Charlotte Bronte, then discuss which elements of her life and personality the novel reflects.
3. Most critics today prefer Emily's Wuthering Heights to Charlotte's Jane Eyre, while nineteenth-century critics preferred Charlotte's works. Read both novels, and explain which you prefer.
4. Although Jane Eyre is the best known of Charlotte's novels, she wrote three others. Read The Professor, Villette, or Shirley. How do the incidents, themes, and characters reflect parts of Charlotte's life?
5. Some of Charlotte's early stories are available in The Miscellaneous and Unpublished Writings of Charlotte and Patrick Branwell Bronte. Read some of these stories, and compare their plots and characters with those found later in Jane Eyre or with people and events in Girl with a Pen.
6. The Bronte sisters lived in Yorkshire. Probably the best known modern Yorkshire writer is James Herriot....
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Girl with a Pen's fictionalized and somewhat romanticized style resembles that of Kyle's other biographical works, especially her accounts of Queen Victoria, Victoria: The Story of a Great Queen, and Jenny Lind, The Swedish Nightingale.
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For Further Reference
Alexander, Christina. The Early Writing of Charlotte Bronte. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1983. Analysis of Bronte's childhood writing and. according to Alexander, the "first attempt at a scholarly survey of the early manuscripts in their entirety."
Crompton, Margaret. Passionate Search: A Life of Charlotte Bronte, 1975. Reprint. Philadelphia: Century Bookbindery, 1982. An analysis of Bronte's relationships with her brother, sisters, friends, and suitors, including Arthur Bell Nichols.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. 1857. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 1975. Written by a nineteenth-century popular novelist, this was the first biography completed after Bronte's death....
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