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ecent biographers have overturned the way we look at the Brontës. They point out that Haworth, the Reverend Brontë's parish on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, was a bustling place only ten miles from Bradford, and well-supplied with amenities including six pubs; and that, despite the early loss of their mother and two eldest siblings, the parson's children led a more cheerful and stimulating life than their first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, has led us to believe. Even their childhood reading has been re-read: Juliet Barker explains that, far from being a substitute for more appropriate reading matter, the newspapers at the parsonage were "a fascinating source of information and had plenty to interest bright young children" (112). Vigorously debunking the old "parable of victimhood" (Miller 161), these biographers stress the resultant resilience and feistiness of the eldest sister Charlotte in particular.

Haworth on the edge of the moor. Source: Wood, facing p. 288.

Yet, with its preponderance of mill-workers, farmer-labourers and miners, Haworth had little to offer the Reverent Brontë's family socially. Charlotte Brontë herself said, in her biographical notice about "Ellis and Acton Bell," that "there was no inducement to seek social intercourse beyond our domestic circle" (Letters 2: 742). When the sisters went out into the wider world, it was a shock. While the Charlotte coped considerably better with it than her next sister Emily, the effort always cost her hugely. Early on, in her schooldays, she made and sustained close friendships outside the family circle with Ellen Nussey and the Taylor family. But only with great difficulty could she be persuaded to visit the more distinguished friends that she met later, like the educationist Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth and his wife. Again, it is true that she managed schoolrooms at home and abroad, and also made several extended visits to London. She went to the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace not once but five times; attended a legendary dinner in her honour thrown by Thackeray, and daringly travelled to Scotland to spend time with her publisher and admirer, George Smith, and his sister. However, not one of these events was undertaken lightly. At Thackeray's dinner, for example, the guests were nonplussed by the lack of conversation which went with her nervousness. Moreover, this nervousness brought on terrible sick headaches. A remark to Mary Taylor poignantly reveals her battle against this affliction: on setting out with her youngest sister Anne for an evening at the opera with the Smiths, Charlotte reports, "I put my headache in my pocket ... and went with them to their carriage" (Letters 2: 113).

Emily's watercolour of her dog, Keeper. Source: Wood, facing p.256.

On other occasions, the young woman put her suffering into her work instead of into her pocket. Along with hauntings, storms, disappearances, reappearances, desperate flights and other manifestations of the Gothic, her novels are studded with graphic descriptions of pain. One of the most harrowing of these descriptions occurs in Shirley, written during the desperate period of 1848-49, when all three of her surviving siblings died. This is when the eponymous heroine describes cauterizing a mad dog's bite on her arm by boring the glowing tip of a hot iron "well in" to the wound (478). As is well known, this was based on an incident in Emily's life rather than her own (see Barker 198). But neither the association of pain with the Gothic nor the particular biographical source here is as significant as the way the pain is deployed in the novel. Shirley was modelled on Emily; but whereas Emily herself might have used such an incident in her work to point up the extremes of passion, Charlotte uses it to show her heroine's extraordinary strength of will and capacity for endurance. Only after a period of solitary anxiety does Shirley report her agony, with dramatic effect, to Louis Moore, a favoured and suitably quiet listener. In this way, intense physical pain segues into psychological torment, nicely illustrating the shift in the Gothic, discussed by Patricia Ingham (176), from the exterior world to the interior; and the torment eventually erupts into the narrative, illustrating too Charlotte Brontë's own way of loosing her pent-up feelings upon generations of readers.

Self-expression of this kind may well have been therapeutic, but it was much more than that as well. It was part of this novelist's very mission as an artist. Shirley's "devoir" about Humanity and Genius in the same novel is entitled "La Première Femme Savante." It is spun from the first two verses of Genesis, Chapter 6, and is generally taken more specifically as "Charlotte's myth of female creativity" (Miller 176), as well perhaps as a defence and idealisation of her sister Emily's gift. The figure that represents Humanity here is a typically Brontëan one: Eva is a lonely orphan, surrounded by the infinite, "boundlessly mighty" universe. Yet she is still convinced of her own significance: "herself seemed to herself the centre." The very awkwardness of the words here, coupled with the repetition of "herself," increases their force. Occupied "rather in feeling than in thinking," Eva knows instinctively that the brightly burning flame of her sensitive soul has a "God-given strength" which demands "exercise": her life that beats "so true, and real, and potent" must have its outlet (457-58). The urgency and religious fervour here are echoed later in the image of Lucy Snowe pursuing her intellectual growth like a "pain pressed pilgrim" in Villette. "Prove yourself true ere I cherish you," orders her master M. Paul in that novel, compelling Lucy to struggle onwards, but metaphorically strewing her way with thorns, briars and flints – and making her lay bare "the furthest recess of [her] existence" in the process (438).

This struggle to be true to her innermost self, to express it and develop it against all odds, could be excruciating, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but it is the one in which Charlotte Brontë herself engaged; it is the very key to the power of her work. Accepted as a struggle rather than as a fait accompli, it underpins all her narratives and progressively steels the nerves of her heroines – although that is not always how the critics have seen it.

Created 20 January 2018