Charlotte Brontë in an 1850 portrait by George Richmond, © National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1452.
In her own life, when "past thirty and plain," Charlotte Brontë still managed to make an impact on people, if only through what Matthew Arnold described as her "expressive gray eyes" (qtd. in Murray 112). She is known to have turned down at least three marriage proposals, including one from Ellen Nussey's brother Henry; and her comparatively late marriage to Arthur Nicholls is now thought to have been much more satisfactory than her earlier biographers suggested, producing "a new, contented Charlotte" (Fraser 473). Whatever the medical cause — and, like so much else in her life, this too is disputed — she died in the early stages of pregnancy, that ultimate thumbs-up to life.
In her work, as in her own experience, she had the strength of mind to face the deepest anguish, and to accept that there are no easy answers to it. She revealed fissures in the innermost self, and in how that self experiences the outside world. Having set herself to probe deeply and honestly, and to express what she found, she had succeeded in doing so. Her work therefore stands at the brink of a new age for literature, in which novels of introspection, of guilt and of angst would appear, and in which the exploration of painful and untidy reality would be valued much more than a neat plot with a fairy-tale ending.
There are still criticisms. Sally Shuttleworth, for example, feels the lack of "an overall moral vision" in Brontë's work (247). But it is worth noting that Lucy Snowe is left at the end of Villette not only with a "legacy" from M. Paul, but also with her own "pure faith" (594). This reminds us of Christopher Ricks's finding, that some favourite lines from Psalm 16, about how God appoints our destinies, often came to the author's own "support and even her rescue" (137). The psalm opens with the words, "Preserve me, O God, for in thee do I put my trust." Such a trust comes through in many of the difficult choices made by her heroines, and indeed guides those choices.
Whatever the source upon which she drew, Charlotte Brontë did fight off debilitating despair, both in her life and through her protagonists. Writing about this difficult struggle was far from self-indulgent: it required self-knowledge, candour and courage. Above all, as anyone who has tried it knows, using pain in the service of art requires self-discipline. This author's great and continuing popularity suggests that the reading public has always appreciated this, and is no more swayed by critical opinion now than it was in the past.
- Review of Nick Holland's In Search of Anne Brontë" (draws a more negative picture of Charlotte Brontë)
Created 20 January 2018