Charlotte Brontë Analysis

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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The nineteen poems selected by Charlotte Brontë (BRAHNT-ee) to print with her sister Anne’s work in Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846) were her only other works published during her lifetime. The juvenilia produced by the four Brontë children—Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell—between 1824 and 1839 are scattered in libraries and private collections. Some of Charlotte’s contributions have been published in The Twelve Adventurers, and Other Stories (1925), Legends of Angria (1933), The Search After Happiness (1969), Five Novelettes (1971), and The Secret and Lily Hart (1979). A fragment of a novel written during the last year of Brontë’s life was published as Emma in the Cornhill Magazine in 1860 and is often reprinted in editions of The Professor. The Complete Poems of Charlotte Brontë appeared in 1923. Other brief selections, fragments, and ephemera have been printed in Transactions and Other Publications of the Brontë Society. The nineteen-volume Shakespeare Head Brontë (1931-1938), edited by T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, contains all of the novels, four volumes of life and letters, two volumes of miscellaneous writings, and two volumes of poems.

Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Charlotte Brontë brought to English fiction an intensely personal voice. Her books show the moral and emotional growth of her protagonists almost entirely by self-revelation. Her novels focus on individual self-fulfillment; they express the subjective interior world not only in thoughts, dreams, visions, and symbols but also by projecting inner states through external objects, secondary characters, places, events, and weather. Brontë’s own experiences and emotions inform the narrative presence. “Perhaps no other writer of her time,” wrote Margaret Oliphant in 1855, “has impressed her mark so clearly on contemporary literature, or drawn so many followers into her own peculiar path.”

The personal voice, which blurs the distances separating novelist, protagonist, and reader, accounts for much of the critical ambivalence toward Brontë’s work. Generations of unsophisticated readers have identified with Jane Eyre; thousands of romances and modern gothics have used Brontë’s situations and invited readers to step into the fantasy. Brontë’s novels, however, are much more than simply the common reader’s daydreams. They are rich enough to allow a variety of critical approaches. They have been studied in relation to traditions (gothic, provincial, realistic, Romantic); read for psychological, linguistic, Christian, social, economic, and personal interpretations; and analyzed in terms of symbolism, imagery, metaphor, viewpoint, narrative distance, and prose style. Because the novels are so clearly wrought from the materials of their author’s life, psychoanalytic and feminist criticism has proved rewarding. In Brontë’s work, a woman author makes significant statements about issues central to women’s lives. Most of her heroines are working women; each feels the pull of individual self-development against the wish for emotional fulfillment, the tension between sexual energies and social realities, the almost unresolvable conflict between love and independence.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Does Charlotte Brontë’s father or his children themselves deserve more credit for their creativity as youngsters?

How do major characters in Brontë’s novels mirror the author’s extraordinary ability to overcome obstacles to her creative achievements?

Explain Brontë’s knowledge of Romantic poets and her keenness for art as bases for her depiction of nature in her novels.

What combination of personal traits makes Jane Eyre such a successful heroine?

Discuss whether Villette deserves a higher rank in English fiction than it has received.

Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. This massive study of the entire Brontë family sometimes overwhelms with detail, but it presents a complete picture of one of English literature’s most intriguing and productive families. Barker’s analysis of the juvenilia, in particular, constitutes a major contribution to Brontë scholarship. Not surprisingly, the author has more to say about Charlotte than about other members of the family.

Edwards, Mike. Charlotte Brontë: The Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Extracts sections from Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Villette to analyze the layers of meaning and the combination of realism and fantasy in these texts.

Fraser, Rebecca. The Brontës: Charlotte Brontë and Her Family. New York: Crown, 1988. Thorough and engrossing biography of Charlotte Brontë and the rest of the Brontë family is carefully researched and annotated and offers a vividly written portrait of the Brontës and their world. Makes use of letters, published and unpublished manuscripts, and contemporary news sources to examine this complex literary family.

Gaskell, Elizabeth C. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. 1857. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 1975. Still an indispensable source for any student of Charlotte Brontë’s life, this biography offers the insights that Gaskell gained through her long friendship with Brontë. Herself a popular novelist of the time, Gaskell creates a memorable picture of Brontë both as a writer and as a woman.

Gates, Barbara Timm. Critical Essays on Charlotte Brontë. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. The collection reprints some of the more provocative and salient evaluations of Charlotte Brontë’s life and work, such as Adrienne Rich’s “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman.”

Glen, Heather. Charlotte Brontë: The Imagination in History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Presents analysis of all of Brontë’s novels and contradicts previous biographical works with evidence that Brontë was more artistically sophisticated and more engaged in contemporary social issues than many scholars have asserted.

Glen, Heather, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Collection of essays examines the lives and work of the three sisters. Includes analysis of all of Charlotte’s novels, a feminist perspective on the sisters’ work, and a discussion of the Brontës and religion.

Gordon, Lyndall. Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Written with the blessing of the Brontë Society, which granted access to and permission to reproduce from its copious archives. Readable account of Brontë’s life and literary output makes good use of the materials provided by the society.

Ingham, Patricia. The Brontës. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Chronological examination of the three sisters’ lives and works includes chapters detailing the literary context in which they wrote and their treatment of social class issues, with particular focus on Shirley, and of gender in Jane Eyre. Includes bibliography, index, list of relevant Web sites, and list of film and television adaptations of the sisters’ books.

Lloyd Evans, Barbara, and Gareth Lloyd Evans. The Scribner Companion to the Brontës. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983. Provides an overview of the Brontë family as a whole. Includes the story of the Brontës’ tragic history; sections on the young Brontës’ juvenilia; discussions of Charlotte, Anne, and Emily’s published works; and excerpts from criticisms written about those works at the time they were first published.

Menon, Patricia. Austen, Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and the Mentor-Lover. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Examines how Brontë, Jane Austen, and George Eliot handled matters of gender, sexuality, family, behavior, and freedom in their work.

Plasa, Carl. Charlotte Brontë. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Assesses Brontë’s writings by viewing them from a postcolonial perspective. Examines her novels and other works in terms of their treatment of miscegenation, colonization, slavery, and the Irish famine.

Rollyson, Carl, and Lisa Paddock. The Brontës A to Z: The Essential Reference to Their Lives and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2003. Takes an encyclopedic approach to the family, including ill-starred brother Branwell. Offers synopses of the novels and discussions of poems as well as details of the lives of the authors. Includes reproductions of illustrations from early editions of the works.

Thomas, Sue. Imperialism, Reform, and the Making of Englishness in Jane Eyre. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. The significance of gender and race in Jane Eyre are the focus on this work. Also discussed is the 1848 stage adaptation of the book. Includes over 300 works cited, which encourage further reading.