Classics

My Grudge with Charlotte Brontë — And How I Finally Let It Go

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Carolina Ciucci

Contributor

Carolina Ciucci is a teacher, writer and reviewer based in the south of Argentina. She hoards books like they’re going out of style. In case of emergency, you can summon her by talking about Ireland, fictional witches, and the Brontë family. Twitter: @carolinabeci

Anyone who’s spent all of 10 minutes in conversation with me knows how much I love the Brontës. Hell, anyone who scrolls down my Book Riot profile for two minutes flat knows how much I love the Brontës. Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are some of my favorite books of all time, and I’ve spent considerable time and money on learning all I could about this fascinating family.

But what do I mean when I say that I love the Brontës? Well, it means that I adore Anne and Emily. I love Aunt Branwell and Patrick. I like Branwell. But I’ve always been ambivalent towards Charlotte. Actually, no, that’s not it: at one point I wasn’t just ambivalent. I actively held a grudge against her.

Now, you may be a normal person who’s wondering: why in the world would I hold a grudge against a woman who had been dead a good 135 years before I was even born? Well, if you’re going to be reasonable about it. But I’m afraid that my answer to your very logical question is not going to be all that logical.

The Beginning

After falling in love with Wuthering Heights as a young adult, I bought a mass market paperback of Jane Eyre and settled down to read it, convinced that I would love it. And I did — at first. Little Jane tugged on all my heartstrings, and I sorrowfully followed her journey of abuse and neglect. I loved her spirit, and I cheered at her anger. I wasn’t yet used to reading 19th century classics, so it was a little slow at times, but no matter. I was hooked.

And then Rochester came along.


Although this comic makes me laugh every time it crosses my social media timelines, I’ve never actually shared it because I don’t agree with it. Wuthering Heights never romanticized assholes: Heathcliff is very clearly an abusive nightmare, and not a single character (aside from an infatuated Isabella who quickly sees the light) ever denies it. Rochester, though? Rochester is the worst.

I’m going to go ahead and give him a grudging pass for marrying a teenager. It was a different time, fine, whatever. But the lies? The gaslighting? The emotional abuse? The attempted bigamy? The locking a woman in the attic? Yeah. He’s not getting a pass for those.

I still rated Jane Eyre highly on Goodreads: the writing is raw and powerful, and Jane herself is lovely. But I walked away less than enthused with Charlotte Brontë’s romantic heroes. Then, then, I read The Professor, and came upon little gems like this quote: “That slut of a servant has neglected [the fire in the hearth] as usual.” It was like being stuck in Rochester’s mind for an entire book, only somehow worse.

Did I say that Rochester was the worst? I stand corrected. Rochester was awful. But William Crimsworth was the worst. At this point, reading Shirley and Villette didn’t appeal anymore.

The grudge

It was around this time that I read the preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Up until then, I had been a Brontë reader. This is when I became a Brontë fan. I particularly admired Anne, and I set out to learn everything I could about her. It wasn’t much: translations of her books were out of print in my country (to my satisfaction, that’s no longer the case), and when I asked about her at my local English-language bookstores, I got blank stares.

“Do you mean Charlotte Brontë? Or Emily?”

Nope. I meant Anne.

I eventually found her books on BookMooch, after lengthy periods occupying the top spots of my wishlist: Agnes Grey came via plane from the U.S., and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall via boat from Malaysia. By the time I read both books, I wanted everyone to do the same. I became that reader, the unbearable one who pushes her favorite books on everyone she knows, not sparing a thought to whether they fit that person’s preferred reading genres and topics or not.

Then I found out why Anne was so underrated, and under-read: although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an instant success, Charlotte blocked it from being reprinted after Anne’s death. She disagreed with the topic (spousal abuse, substance abuse, child abuse), and thought that it was incongruent with Anne’s personality. In her words:

‘Wildfell Hall’ it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake – it was too little consonant with the character – tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer. She wrote it under a strange, conscientious, half-ascetic notion of accomplishing a painful penance and a severe duty … She had in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail as a warning to others.

Charlotte Brontë in a letter to Smith Williams

Oh hell no.

When I first read this, I became angry. I already knew that writing a heroine who wasn’t beautiful, something that wasn’t common at the time and for which Charlotte gets all the innovation points, Anne had done first in Agnes Grey. That was only an irritant: after all, it’s hardly Charlotte’s fault that Anne’s publisher didn’t publish Agnes Grey until after Charlotte had sold and published Jane Eyre. But this? This was Charlotte’s fault. And Anne was considered the lesser Brontë sister for over a century because of it.

You might be thinking that I sound overly invested in this. To which I say: I absolutely was. I’m more than a little embarrassed now typing this out. But at the time, I was depressed, lonely, and looking for purpose. This cause gave me that, with the convenient bonus of lacking any and all personal stakes.

Soon enough, as I began to heal, the intensity of my feelings abated: I was no longer angry at Charlotte, but I still took any and all opportunity to point out her flaws. For years.

The Reckoning

Okay, it was not quite as dramatic as all that.

For several years, every new thing I learned about Charlotte kept my disdain setting on high: the letter she wrote to Smith Williams saying that, although she had accepted Anne’s death, she couldn’t accept Emily’s; her editing Anne’s poems in her own style, thus changing Anne’s intended words (see Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors); her — by all accounts unwelcome — love letters to a married man, and using his wife as the model for the antagonist in two of her books (the headmistress in The Professor and Madame Beck in Villette); calling her students stupid; and, most crucially, refusing to take a consumptive Anne to Scarborough for months. Oh, and saying that Anne was glad to die and had “laid [her life] down as a burden” when, in fact, Anne wrote herself that she wanted to live.

Some of these things are worthy of disdain. But her own feelings about her own sisters and their deaths? Not knowing Anne enough to avoid confusing forbearance with a desire for death? Those are simply Charlotte being her own person with her own feelings, and (like all of us) being closer to some family members than to others.

Once I accepted that I was wrong about some of these things, how could I not reexamine the others?

Charlotte blocked the reprinting of Tenant. The very controversial Tenant, which Anne herself said had been met by many with unexpected hostility. They had lambasted her for “a love for the coarse and the brutal.” They had lambasted Emily and Charlotte, too, for doing the same thing in their own books.

I had to wonder: how would I feel if I were Charlotte? If I had lost my mother and two elder sisters during childhood, and then gone on to lose my three remaining siblings within a year? If I had to do my grieving while knowing that people out there were accusing those dead siblings of enjoying brutality?

All of a sudden, Charlotte’s choices started to make a lot more sense. I still didn’t agree with them, but I could no longer find it in me to judge her for it.

Okay. So I was too quick to judge there. What about the rest?

Well. I pictured myself as a child with a dead mother, undergoing abuse and neglect at boarding school. Then one of my older sisters falls ill and dies. I don’t get to say goodbye. My other older sister soon follows. All of a sudden, I’m the eldest daughter in a world where that comes with very definite expectations. And I have to face all of those while grieving.

But maybe things will improve with time? Let’s see where I am a few years later… Ah. An unmarried, poor, educated woman in a society where that leaves me with exactly one choice that I happen to hate: teaching. In the meantime, my brother and childhood playmate has become an alcoholic and had an affair with a married woman. Okay, fine. I’ll write a book. I manage to publish it to resounding success. Excellent! Things are finally looking up…

… Until my brother and my younger sister die the following year, and my youngest sister the year after that.

Yikes. Nothing like exercising empathy to make you feel like an asshole. How did this woman even get up in the morning? More importantly, why did I ever think I could stand in judgement?

The Acceptance

Looking back, I can’t believe I ever wasted my time resenting Charlotte Brontë. Anne was long dead, so who exactly was I helping by harbouring this grudge? Even if Anne had been alive, I rather suspect she’d resent me for resenting her sister. After all, Anne Brontë’s last words, spoken while holding Charlotte’s hand, were “Take courage, dear Charlotte, take courage.”

I talked a big game about empathy — and yet I refused to exercise enough empathy to understand that a) somebody’s personal feelings about their own family are none of my business, b) I was ignoring the debilitating amount of loss and grief in Charlotte’s life, as well as the enormous strength it must have taken to keep going and continue opening her heart to other people, and c) she’s been dead for almost 150 years. This woman didn’t kick puppies or steal from the elderly, she didn’t do anything so terribly wrong that strangers should be judging her even a year after her death, let alone 150.

I have since read and enjoyed Shirley. Charlotte really hit her stride as an author in this novel, and I look forward to seeing what she did with Villette.