Making the Brontë Myth

Charlotte Brontë married Arthur Bell Nicolls on this day in 1854. Brontë was forty-one, and she would die just nine months later, during pregnancy. In her influential 1857 biography, Elizabeth Gaskell used the marriage as a capstone to her portrait of Brontë (and her sisters) as captive to some gothic nightmare, her fate determined by her gender, her village isolation, and her impossible father. To emphasize Reverend Brontë’s role in this confinement, Gaskell excerpts from this letter in which Charlotte begs for her release from spinsterhood, if only to Nicholls, her father’s curate:

Father, I am not a young girl, nor a young woman, even--I never was pretty. I now am ugly. At your death I will have £300 besides the little I have earned myself--do you think there are many men who would serve seven years for me?... Yes, I must marry a curate if I marry at all; not merely a curate but your curate; not merely your curate but he must live in the house with you, for I cannot leave you.

Gaskell goes on to emphasize how Reverend Brontë maintained his disapproval and petulance right up to wedding day:

It was fixed that the marriage was to take place on the 29th of June. Her two friends arrived at Haworth Parsonage the day before; and the long summer afternoon and evening were spent by Charlotte in thoughtful arrangements for the morrow, and for her father’s comfort.... When all was finished--the trunk packed, the morning’s breakfast arranged, the wedding-dress laid out,--just at bedtime, Mr. Brontë announced his intention of stopping at home while the others went to church. What was to be done? Who was to give the bride away?

A number of modern critics have concluded that Gaskell and those biographers who have followed in her footsteps are themselves guilty of critical confinement and distortion, having created a Charlotte who is "chained, weeping, to a radiator in the Haworth Parsonage" (Tanya Gold, London Observer). Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth (2005) starts with debunking the Gaskell portrait and goes on to survey the history of narrow or restrictive interpretations of the sisters and their books.

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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