How to win a Victorian culture war
Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë
This is the paid subscribers’ essay about Elizabeth Gaskell’s, Life of Charlotte Brontë. Gaskell was commissioned to write this biography because of the culture war-style commentary on Brontë’s character that raged in the 1850s. Modern critics focus on the way Gaskell elided and omitted material about Brontë’s sexual life, and on Gaskell’s focus on the domestic side of Brontë’s life. These criticisms are misguided—that’s how you win a Victorian culture war!
In fact, Gaskell’s book is about how Brontë’s remarkable talent developed in the obscure and strange conditions of her life. It has not been properly appreciated that Gaskell shows us how Charlotte Brontë became a great novelist. The biography is a study of talent. When we account for the fact that this book is a study of talent, and Gaskell and Brontë’s Christianity, we can see its merits more clearly,—and see that if Gaskell’s hadn’t won the culture war, she wouldn’t have been able to focus on Brontë’s development as a writer as much.
The fact that a gang of ahistorical, myopically literary critics later misread her book is hardly Gaskell’s fault.
“It is possible that it would have been better to have described only good and pleasant people, doing only good and pleasant things (in which case they could hardly have written at any time): all I say is, that never, I believe, did women, possessed of such wonderful gifts, exercise them with a fuller feeling of responsibility for their use.”
Elizabeth Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë
Victorian culture wars
When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855 her reputation was up for grabs. Jane Eyre had been praised by many as a startling work of innovation: a novel about the moral development of a woman with a deep understanding of her consciousness was a new thing in literature.
Many, though, found it “coarse”, “unwomanly”, and “unchristian”. That was big talk for the 1840s. And this matters. There was a crucial link between the personal and the professional for women writers.
As Nell Stevens said,
The idea that Brontë was, in the words of one article, “a filthy minx” seems to us irrelevant now (if luridly exciting). But if people don’t read your books because they think you’re a whore, that is not exciting at all.
This affected Victorian men too. Dickens did himself no favours by leaving his wife.
People speculated freely on Brontë’s personality. Who could have written such a book other than a woman who had “long forfeited the society of her own sex”? Matthew Arnold called Jane Eyre, “a hideous, undelightful, convulsed, constricted novel… one of the most utterly disagreeable books I’ve ever read.” He attributed this to the fact that “the writer’s mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage.” You almost expect, Donald Trump style, to find the word “Sad” at the end of that little outburst.
The Quarterly Review said,
We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.
Imagine thinking that the person who wrote Jane Eyre must have violated every code human and divine. If you enjoy the culture wars, you might also be interested in Victorian periodicals…
Both her remarkable talent, and her bothered and beleaguered reputation meant that a biography was in order when Brontë died. And so Elizabeth Gaskell, novelist and friend, was called in. Her Life of Charlotte Brontë became a classic in its own right. Inevitably, it also became part of the literary culture wars, in its time and ours.
I want to show you that these culture wars issues, while important, are a distraction. It’s time to re-think this excellent book and see it for what it really is: a prescient study of how talent develops in unusual circumstances. Elizabeth Gaskell won the culture war of the 1850s and by doing so she put the focus where it belongs:—on the development of great talent in Charlotte Brontë and her sisters.