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How Did Charlotte’s Brontë’s Sisters Influence Jane Eyre?

Book cover of Jane Eyre

The result of a couple of weeks’ worth of work in total, this post is over 4000 words. I have thus formatted it as a research article and for convenience linked to the various sections.

Table Of Contents

Preface
Abbreviations
Introduction
Working Together
Plain Jane
The Other Sisters
Conclusion
Footnotes
Appendix A: Contemporary Reception of Life
Appendix B: Anne’s Own Influences – Agnes’ Horrific First Placement
References

Preface

In planning and writing this piece I chose for the most part to stick to primary and early secondary sources; this naturally afforded the opportunity to study the work of those closest to Charlotte (both in terms of relationships and era) without too many tertiary sources, and made research a lot easier in terms of access. I often made use of the Project Gutenberg versions of texts; where page numbers were not included I referred to digital versions of the originals. Contemporary sources, both first-hand accounts and literary criticism, are vast, and Charlotte’s own comments of her writing abundant; I decided to limit my research to Charlotte and her sisters – when I had the thought to look at their brother, Branwell, I discovered sources that are not considered trustworthy (this is the opinion of a number of other contemporary sources)1, and in terms of the family in general there is a great amount of information extending past the nuclear family that would have made this piece far too long. (William Wright’s 1893 book, The Brontë’s In Ireland, seems to have been well-regarded by his fellow enthusiasts.) This said, whilst I have focused on the sisters and Charlotte’s opinion of herself, I have allowed for slight wandering where I have discovered further interesting information as a result of my research.

Abbreviations

LifeThe Life Of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cowan Bridge – Casterton Clergy Daughters’ School, in the village of Cowan Bridge (Charlotte often refers to it by the village’s name).

Introduction

“You think, because I always do as you bid me, I have no judgment of my own: but only try me – that is all I ask – and you shall see what I can do.” (2017, p.9)

This is from chapter one of Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. In chapter twenty-three of Jane Eyre, written after Anne’s book (though ultimately published before), older sister Charlotte included a line that is rather similar, and more well-known:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart!” (2007a, pp.305-306)

The two lines are, in terms of phrasing and language, the same. They also share a similar context in terms of self-belief, and of course they are both uttered by characters who are known to be formed from the traits and values of their authors. But the wider contexts are entirely different. Agnes is responding to her family’s teasing that she is too young and dependent and so forth to go to work as a governess. She’s 18; the baby of the family. Jane is in the midst of a passionate argument with Rochester in regards to her belief that he’s about to marry marriage Blanche Ingram. She’s also rebuffing the way he treats her (Jane).

A comparison could be made in regards to the literary treatment, and questions asked about whether the two Brontë sisters felt a lack of self belief in themselves. Then there are the social, gender, contexts of the day to consider. But that’s not what I was thinking of when I found the two lines. Instead I wondered about the bigger picture of the sisters writing and how much they might have influenced each other, particularly, if it could be found, in this case of Agnes and Jane. (Gaskell reported that Charlotte’s character Shirley represented Emily2.) Having struggled and failed to find a publisher for her first manuscript, The Professor, yet succeeding in getting both Anne’s and Emily’s novels accepted as a two volume publication, and knowing that Charlotte read both, how much would Anne and Emily have influenced Charlotte as she tried to write something ‘acceptable’? And, knowing that Jane is in many respects Charlotte herself, how does her line from above relate?

Working Together

The sisters retained the old habit, which was begun in their aunt’s life-time, of putting away their work at nine o’clock, and beginning their study, pacing up and down the sitting room. At this time, they talked over the stories they were engaged upon, and described their plots. Once or twice a week, each read to the others what she had written, and heard what they had to say about it. Charlotte told me, that the remarks made had seldom any effect in inducing her to alter her work… It was on one of these occasions that Charlotte determined to make her heroine plain, small, and unattractive, in defiance of the accepted canon. (Gaskell, 1857a, pp. 10-11)

In Life, Gaskell sets the scene, inferring that the sisters discussed their writing every evening. It’s interesting to note the words ascribed directly to Charlotte here: ‘remarks’, ‘seldom any effect’, and, particularly, ‘inducing’. It could be that Gaskell herself composed the sentence, and that would possibly be the opinion of others who knew Charlotte, given their reception of Life (see Appendix A), but if we consider the account to be verbatim, then those words are very similar in their approach and mood, and they are pointed. Why ‘remarks’ instead of the softer ‘comments’ or ‘thoughts’? ‘Seldom any effect’ – nowadays this phrasing might be taken as haughty, but if we exclude that idea and consider that that might not be the case here, we still have a phrase with two possible subtexts: firstly, that the ‘remarks’ truly didn’t have an effect, and secondly, that they did and Charlotte wished to say otherwise.

It’s the use of ‘inducing’ that rounds it all off – did Charlotte think her sister’s opinions unworthy or were they being quite forceful in their feedback? Was Charlotte perhaps covering up her positive reception of their feedback? Certainly she edited her sisters’ works3; would they not have been able to do likewise, if not publicly?

There is another, more specific, occasion recounted in Life, the original source cited only in vague terms that might therefore have been lost on us now if it hadn’t been specified by others. Another literary friend of Charlotte’s who, given Gaskell’s description of their article, “a beautiful obituary”, and, helpfully, “most likely learnt from herself [Charlotte] what is there stated” (Gaskell, 1857a, p. 11) was Harriet Martineau, who says the following:

…She [Charlotte] once told her sisters that they were wrong – even morally wrong – in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course. They replied that it was impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. Her answer was: “I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a heroine as plain and small as myself, who still shall be as interesting as any of yours.” “Hence ‘Jane Eyre,'” said she in telling the anecdote: ‘but she is not myself, any further than that.’ (Martineau, 1869, p.48)4

Not only does this provide insight into the sisters’ working method, it also provides added context for Gaskell’s anecdote.

Plain Jane

In her 1886 book, Hattie Tyng Griswold seemingly expands on the information in Martinteau’s account:

She was extremely sensitive about her personal appearance, considering herself irredeemably ugly, and always thinking that people must be disgusted with her looks. She purposefully made her heroine in “Jane Eyre” unattractive, as she felt it an injustice that a woman must always be judged by her looks, and she felt that novelists were somewhat to blame in the matter, as they always made their heroines beautiful in person, however unattractive in mind or character (p. 296).

We know Charlotte felt negatively about her looks. On 24th March, 1847, Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey5 and said:

I’ll take care not to tell you next time, when I think I am looking specially old and ugly; as if people could not have that privilege, without being supposed to be at the last gasp! I shall be thirty-one next birthday. My youth is gone like a dream; and very little use have I ever made of it.” (cited in Gaskell, 1857a, pp. 18-19)

She also spoke openly to Gaskell about her looks, to which Gaskell adds for the reader her own commentary, ending with a refutation of the opinion:

Much of this nervous dread of encountering strangers I ascribed to the idea of her personal ugliness, which had been strongly impressed upon her imagination early in life, and which she exaggerated to herself in a remarkable manner. “I notice,” said she, “that after a stranger has once looked at my face, he is careful not to let his eyes wander to that part of the room again!” A more untrue idea never entered into any one’s head. (1857a, p. 290)

Of particular interest here, in regards to the use of a ‘plain’ character, is the note that Charlotte’s thoughts had been provided to her – how, we may not know, but in Gaskell’s words is the suggestion that third parties had vocalised their opinions. Perhaps this was why Charlotte was outspoken about her feelings – she was simply repeating (and, sadly, had taken to heart) what others had told her. (Whilst there’s a chance that it was Charlotte who had made the impression herself, Gaskell’s wording makes this unlikely.)

When we add this to Griswold’s extra commentary, and regard both in the light of that statement from Jane to Rochester, we can see someone who had an idea of herself that she was perhaps used to, but nevertheless railed against. And this in itself provides background for Griswold’s statement about injustice – Jane may be plain but that doesn’t mean she is soulless and heartless.

Lastly on this note is this statement by contemporary author Margaret Oliphant, who reviewed Jane Eyre. Oliphant’s words join Gaskell’s ‘more untrue idea’ and put Jane where Charlotte perhaps wanted her to be, a place vastly different to the one other reviewers had set her:

I am not sure, indeed, that anybody believed Miss Brontë when she said her heroine was plain. It is very clear from the story that Jane was never unnoticed, never failed to please, except among the women, whom it is the instinctive art of the novelist to rouse in arms against the central figure, thus demonstrating the jealousy, spite, and rancour native to their minds in respect to the women who please men (1897, p, 18).

It would be fair to say that Charlotte’s construction of a plain heroine, to show her sisters how interesting one such character could be, succeeded. Oliphant’s positive opinion was but one of many; Charlotte could count Thackeray among her readers, and many reviewers loved it. As we know, it quickly became a sensation and went swiftly to a second edition.

The Other Sisters

If we’re to look at Charlotte’s sisters, we must not forget the eldest. There were originally five Brontë sisters; Maria and Elizabeth died young as a result of illness caught at school. The details were summed up in the third volume of Chambers Cyclopaedia of English Literature, published in 1903, in the section about Charlotte:

The two eldest daughters were sent, in July 1824, to a school for clergymen’s daughters at Cowan Bridge near Kirby-Lonsdale, and Charlotte and Emily followed in September. A low fever broke out in the school, and Maria and Elizabeth became seriously ill, and were taken home to die. Though Charlotte was but eight years old, the habit of observation had set in, and she attributed the death of her sisters to their cruel treatment in the school, an injury avenged in the opening scenes of Jane Eyre (p. 520).

The ‘low fever’ was likely tuberculosis – the disease came in the aftermath of a typhoid outbreak at the school (Wikipedia, n.d. b)6.

Like the other descriptions of the Brontë’s in this era, we can assume Chambers took as its source Life and/or derivative works made from it. Gaskell herself says in particular that Helen Burns is a transcript of Maria, and that those who had been pupils alongside Charlotte recognised in Charlotte “an unconsciously avenging sister of the sufferer” (Gaskell, 1857b, p.73). Following this, Gaskell provides an account from one of those pupils of a day during Maria’s illness when the woman in charge – Gaskell calls her by the name given to her in Jane Eyre, Miss Scatcherd – got angry about Maria not getting out of bed, and ‘abusing her all the time for dirty and untidy habits’ (ibid., pp. 73-74). This information forms part of a vast amount of content provided by Gaskell about Cowan Bridge, comprised of both objective facts and Charlotte’s feelings about her time there.

Helen Burns’ situation is of course dire, a painful disease followed by death that affects Jane a lot. The story is very much the conclusion of an awful time at an awful school, echoing Charlotte’s time and experience, which was perhaps made worse by Charlotte’s young age, the way experiences can be heightened then. Gaskell says, as one of many paragraphs about Cowan Bridge:

Miss Brontë more than once said to me, that she should not have written what she did of Lowood in “Jane Eyre,” if she had thought the place would have been so immediately identified with Cowan Bridge, although there was not a word in her account of the institution but what was true at the time when she knew it; she also said that she had not considered it necessary, in a work of fiction, to state every particular with the impartiality that might be required in a court of justice, nor to seek out motives, and make allowances for human failings, as she might have done, if dispassionately analysing the conduct of those who had the superintendence of the institution. I believe she herself would have been glad of an opportunity to correct the over-strong impression which was made upon the public mind by her vivid picture, though even she, suffering her whole life long, both in heart and body, from the consequences of what happened there, might have been apt, to the last, to take her deep belief in facts for the facts themselves – her conception of truth for the absolute truth (ibid., pp. 64-65).

For a more modern explanation of the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth we can turn to Margaret Smith, recent editor of Charlotte’s letters, who notes that the sisters ‘began or grew worse’ at Cowan Bridge (Smith, in Bronte, 2007b, p.87n). If the latter – ‘worse’ – then it’s perhaps more reasonable that those at Cowan Bridge might be angry – Helen’s fate sets in stone the earlier experiences of Lowood. But to her publishers, of the scenes at Lowood, Charlotte said:

Perhaps too the first part of ‘Jane Eyre’ may suit the public taste better than you anticipate – for it is true and Truth has a severe charm of its own. Had I told all the truth, I might indeed have made it far more exquisitely painful – but I deemed it advisable to soften and retrench many particulars lest the narrative should rather displease than attract (ibid., p.86).

It is here that Charlotte accepts the suggestion to add ‘an autobiography’ to the title. A few months later, in a letter to the publishers’ literary adviser, William Smith Williams, Charlotte spoke about seeing ‘an elderly clergyman reading it the other day, and had the satisfaction of hearing him exclaim…’ (ibid. pp. 96-97) and she notes the man’s declarations of the school and the teachers, which in her transcription is devoid of specifics. (Charlotte makes use of the common literary device of the day wherein references to specific people and places are excluded, presumably, in this case, to lessen any more complaints should anyone else hear of the inclusion of the school, particularly as the words of the ‘elderly clergyman’ – whom Smith says may be Charlotte’s friend, a reverend who had sent his daughters to the school (ibid. p. 97n) – are strong and damning.)

Conclusion

It is clear that Charlotte’s sisters had a big influence on Jane Eyre. Where Emily and Anne were very well placed to provide advice and inspiration in real time, Maria and Elizabeth’s lives, in terms of Charlotte’s memories and the reflections of others, provided content that Charlotte used as the background to her character. Charlotte’s agreement to use ‘an autobiography’ on the title page, together with her openness about her inspiration – an openness that extends to a fair amount of the characters and themes in general – provides evidence; it also provides us a wonderful, detailed, look into Charlotte’s world, both in terms of her mental processes and how she lived. Through her letters and the accounts of those who knew her we can see the turmoil and battles she went through in order to do justice to the various aspects of her life and family, and the strength she kept hold of when negative reactions to her work rolled in. Jane Eyre is as much about her loyalty to her family and their struggles as it is about her time as a governess, gender, and the unrequited love she felt for her teacher, which she had unsuccessfully written about before and would reform in order to create her third publication.

Footnotes

1 Chambers Cyclopaedia of English Literature (vol 3) offers a brief summary about Branwell and Patrick Brontë: ‘Doubtless the book was unusually outspoken. The obsession of Branwell’s conduct and conversation at the time she [Charlotte] wrote it goes further than anything else to account for this. There is also abundant testimony that her father and one or two men who visited her home talked before her, if not to her, with as little reticence as Rochester talked to Jane Eyre.’ (1903, p. 522). Whilst the accounts Chambers references seem to be legitimate, there is an account of a meeting with the family that also fits the description but is possibly not reliable in Francis Gundy’s book, Pictures Of The Past (an autobiographical work published in 1879).
2 Charlotte had apparently told Gaskell that Shirley was Emily: ‘The character of Shirley herself, is Charlotte’s representation of Emily. I mention this, because all that I, a stranger, have been able to learn about her has not tended to give either me, or my readers, a pleasant impression of her. But we must remember how little we are acquainted with her, compared to that sister, who, out of her more intimate knowledge, says that she “was genuinely good, and truly great,” and who tried to depict her character in Shirley Keeldar, as what Emily Brontë would have been, had she been placed in health and prosperity.’ (1857a, p.116). But Ellen Nussey, who knew Emily as well as anyone outside the family, did not recognise Emily in Shirley (Wikipedia, n.d. c).
3 The second edition of Emily’s Wuthering Heights, published in 1850, was edited by Charlotte.
4 It is likely to have been the author and critic Clement Shorter who added the first written citation of this reference to Martineau; Shorter’s 1900 edition of Life notes Martineau’s article as having appeared in the Daily News (Shorter, 1900, p.324). The editor of the 1996 edition of Life, Angus Easson, cites the exact date: 6th April 1855 (Easson, 1996, p. 529). Martineau’s book, Biographical Sketches, came later, in 1869, and in it the introduction to Charlotte’s reported dialogue was altered. In addition, the article, seemingly in its original form, was reprinted in the Daily Alta California on 30th May 1855. (See the References section for a link: the Daily News article appears to not be online, so, whilst the American reprint is a little difficult to read, it offers a chance to view it.) Interestingly, this reprint cites the London Morning News, suggesting Martineau’s article had been widely syndicated.
5 Life does not say that the letter was to Ellen, however Shorter identifies it as such (1990, p.331). Nussey was Charlotte’s long-term close friend.
6 The Wikipedia article includes further information about the conditions at the school in regards to Charlotte’s own treatment.

Appendix A: Contemporary Reception of Life

Some years after Life was published, a letter from Charlotte’s father, Patrick, to Gaskell, was discovered. In it, he requests his recipient write about his daughter, saying: “You seem to me to be the best qualified for doing what I wish should be done. If, therefore, you will be so kind as to publish a long or short account of her life and works, just as you may deem expedient and proper, Mr. Nicholls and I will give you such information as you may require.” (Patrick Branwell to Elizabeth Gaskell, 16th June 1855, cited in Shorter, 1900, pp. xxiii-xxiv). However, the resulting text was not well-received. Shorter says later in his introduction, “Not only the public but the intimate relations and friends appeared to be satisfied” and includes letters from Patrick Brontë to the publisher and to Gaskell (Shorter, 1900, p. xxvii), however as the book became widely known, “Mrs. Gaskell found herself in a veritable ‘hornets’ nest’ – as she expressed it. She visited Italy the moment her task was completed, and during April and May of the year 1857 her publishers had to bear the brunt of a considerable number of lawyers’ letters.” (ibid., p.xxx) One of these letters was in regards to the lady Charlotte’s brother, Branwell, had likely had an affair with. Others were in regards to those who had been negatively described: ‘The published text does not go so far as to blame him [the school master] for the deaths of two Brontë sisters, but even so the Carus Wilson family published a rebuttal with the title “A refutation of the statements in ‘The life of Charlotte Bronte,’ regarding the Casterton Clergy Daughters’ School, when at Cowan Bridge”.’ (Wikipedia, n.d. a)

Appendix B: Anne’s Own Influences – Agnes’ Horrific First Placement

Gaskell and Charlotte spoke about the sisters’ writing far beyond methods, editing, and Charlotte’s thoughts as to heroines. In Life, Gaskell writes about a conversation she had with Charlotte in regards to Anne’s first book; this answers a question readers may have as to the reality of the scene in which Agnes swiftly destroys a nest of baby birds in order to prevent the slower, sadistic killing by her young charge:

I was once speaking to her [Charlotte] about “Agnes Grey” – the novel in which her sister Anne pretty literally describes her own experiences as a governess – and alluding more particularly to the account of the stoning of the little nestlings in the presence of the parent birds. She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of “respectable” human nature… (Gaskell, 1857b, pp. 189-190)

Following this, Charlotte had recounted a story from her own life wherein a boy had thrown stones at her.

References

Books

Brontë, Anne (2017) Agnes Grey, Vintage Classics, London
Brontë, Charlotte (2007-a) Jane Eyre, Vintage Classics, London
Brontë, Charlotte (2007-b) Selected Letters, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Chambers Cyclopaedia of English Literature Vol 3 (3rd ed) (1903), W&R Chambers Ltd, Edinburgh
Easson, Angus (ed.) Explanatory Notes, in Gaskell, Elizabeth, (1996) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857-a) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 2, Smith, Elder & Co., London
Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857-b) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Smith, Elder & Co, London
Griswold, Hattie Tyng (1902) Home Life Of Great Authors, 7th ed, A C McClurg & Co, Chicago
Martineau, Harriet (1869) Biographical Sketches, author’s edition, Leypoldt & Holt, New York
Oliphant, Margaret, “The Sisters Brontë” in Oliphant et al (1897), Women Novelists Of Queen Victoria’s Reign, Hurst & Blackett, London
Shorter, Clement K (ed.) Gaskell, Elizabeth (1900) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Haworth edition, Harper & Brothers, New York/London

Articles

Daily Alta California (30th May 1855) Death of Currer Bell, Vol. 6, Number 136, front page, accessed 8th February 2019
Wikipedia (n.d.-a) The Life of Charlotte Brontë, accessed 11th February 2019
Wikipedia (n.d.-b) Cowan Bridge School, accessed 24th April 2019
Wikipedia (n.d.-c) Shirley (novel), accessed 24th April 2019

 
 

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