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ART. VIII.-The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Author of 'Jane Eyre,'
Shirley,' Villette,' &c. By E. C. GASKELL. Two Vols. Smith, Elder, & Co.
A LIFE of the authoress of Jane Eyre, by a writer who holds so high a place among our novelists as Mrs. Gaskell, cannot but command attention, even had the details of that life been scanty and common-place. Charlotte Brontë, however, experienced no common trials, nor was she surrounded by common-place circumstances, during her short, sad journey through life; and thus the story of this remarkable woman, told with such deep and simple pathos by her gifted and affectionate biographer, becomes as interesting as the tale of a second Jane Eyre. Fortunately, too, Mrs. Gaskell, in addition to the interesting character of her materials, has had access to a mass of correspondence, and this gives to the menoir almost the charm of an autobiography, for in the half-unconscious revelations of the letters written to her old and cherished friends, we may trace the formation of her peculiar intellectual character, and the origin and growth of many a feeling and opinion, which, strongly impressed on her own mind, became, of necessity, impressed upon her works. Every writer of fiction should, we think, be judged with reference to the events of his life, and the scenes and characters by which he has been surrounded; let us try the author of Jane Eyre by the same tests, and we shall have no difficulty in pronouncing both a just, and a gentle judgment.
Charlotte Brontë was the daughter of a clergyman, Irish by birth, and thoroughly Irish in bis impulsive waywardness, and of a mother, a gentle west-country woman, refined, well educated, -as education was some fifty years ago,—and a conscientious Methodist. At the time of his marriage, Mr. Brontë resided in Yorkshire, holding, at the period of Charlotte's birth, the incumbency of Thornton, from whence he removed to that of Haworth, when the seven heavily-laden carts, early in the year 1820, 'lumbering slowly up the long stone street, bearing the new 'parson's household goods,' to that long, low, dull, grey parsonage, with its desolate background of bleak moorland, told the gazing parishioners that Mr. Brontë, with his delicate and already sickly wife, and their five little children, had come to take up their lifelong abode there, and, alas! to find their graves among them. At this time, Charlotte was scarcely four years old, with two elder sisters, and a younger brother and sister, and to these another sister was soon after added.
Her Education Moral and Physical.
The account of these poor little ones, as given by the woman who watched the deathbed of the gentle mother, is really painful. They were such still, noiseless, good little creatures, you would not have known there was a child in the house;' and yet there were six, and the eldest only seven years old. Six children in a house, and no laugh and shout of merry childhood! It is true, the shadow of death then brooded over the chamber where the poor mother lay thinking of far-off Cornwall, and longing, perhaps, for a sight of its grand sea coast, instead of those barren, uncongenial moors on which alone her eye rested. But after she had been laid in her grave, still the motherless little ones pursued their lone walks-not along fields bright with buttercups and daisies and blossoming hedge-rows, but out upon the wild dull moors, too stern for beauty, yet not stern enough for sublimity; those trackless wastes yielding but scantily even that precious heritage of childhood, wild flowers. But dull, daily walks might have mattered little, had there been sunlight and gladness at home; and the imagination might even have taken wider sweep, stimulated by the monotony around. But a happy home was what the little Brontës were never to know. The gentle mother was dead, and in their case it was emphatically an irreparable loss, for the father, with his strong passionate Irish nature,' that “worked * off its volcanic wrath by firing pistols out of the back door in
rapid succession, or by sawing down the backs of chairs, or making an auto da fé of the parlour hearth-rug, obviously stood far more in need of a wholesome discipline for himself, than the poor little creatures who stood shrinking before him ; and happy had it been for them, had he, immersed in party and local politics, just handed them over to some decent old woman, who would have carefully superintended their physical well-being, and for abstract propositions and political dogmas, fed their young minds with the wild and the wonderful, although in the homely guise of old-world stories. But these unhappy little ones were not even to enjoy the benefit of a little wholesome neglect. The Rev. Mr. Brontë, although Tory to the backbone-one of that furious, but almost extinct kind, common enough when 'George the Third was King—had most incongruously taken up his notions of infantile education from those awful republicans, Rousseau and Thomas Day; so the children of a delicate mother, quiet and spiritless, and so different to any other children,' were to be placed under a Sandford and Merton discipline, and potatoes for dinner' were substituted for that full and nourishing diet which their consumptive tendencies imperatively demanded. Would that Mr. Brontë had theorized on a less important subject than the physical education of young children! Would that he had experimented on cabbages and potatoes, rather than on the delicate human plant!
Unhappily, a similar wrong-headedness presided over their mental training. No children's books seem ever to have been sought for these little ones. We readily acknowledge the slight respect we have for formal children's books;' and for those children who evince superior abilities, we would in great measure reject them; but the merry nursery rhymes, the pleasant story that holds the little child spell-bound at the nurse's knee, are surely better child's food than the newspaper; yet the wayward father who, acting on Rousseau's principles, would taboo Cinderella, and Bluebeard, and place even Æsop's fables in the Index Expurgatorius, allowed his little daughter Maria, then seven years old, the privilege of ' a newspaper in the children's study,' and when she came out, “she could tell one everything, debates in Parliament, and I don't know what all,' as the admiring old nurse declared. Alas for the poor children, starved in body and starved in mind! Looking back upon our bright and joyous childhood, we feel intense pity for any little one to whom the wide realm of faeryland is an unknown region, and before whose eyes all the gorgeous wonders of the Arabian Nights have never passed along. Dull, indeed, must those silent walks on the moors, hand in hand, have been to little children fed upon the husks of speeches in Parliament, and editors' tirades against Catholic emancipation, and whose objects of hero-worship were but the men of the present day. The father, however, although we think he could not but have observed the gloom which this matter-of-fact teaching, this utter contempt of the wild and the beautiful, cast over their minds in after life, expresses himself, even now, as fully satisfied with his system; and to prove how well it answered, tells us how that, when the eldest was about ten, and the youngest four, he determined to question them, and ‘in order to make them speak with less timidity,' --wherefore should the little child feel 'timidity' in the presence of its father?— happening to have a mask in the house, I told them all to stand and speak boldly from under its cover.'
I began with the youngest, (Anne, afterwards Acton Bell) and asked her what she most wanted ; she answered, ‘age and experience.' I asked the next, (Emily, afterwards Ellis Bell) what I had best do with her brother Branwell, who was sometimes a naughty boy; she answered, “reason with him, and when he won't listen to reason, whip him.' I asked Branwell what was the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of men and women; he answered, ‘by considering the difference between them as to their bodies. I then asked Charlotte, what was the best book in the world; she answered, the Bible.' And what was the next best; she answered 'the book of
She is sent to Cowan's Bridge School.
221 Nature.' I then asked the next what was the best education for a woman; she answered, that which would make her rule her house well.' Lastly, I asked the eldest, what was the best mode of spending time; she answered, ‘by laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity.''
We agree with Mrs. Gaskell, as to the strangeness and quaintness of this proceeding, especially as to the mask, but its simplicity,' we cannot acknowledge. Nor can we find any proofs of the rising talent,' which the father discovers in answers which were evidently mere echoes of 'the fragments of clerical conversation which they overheard in the parlour. “The best book in the world.' What a question for a little girl of seven to answer!indeed, excepting little Emily's answer, what were they all but mere common-place apophthegms, each fit to be written with the most carefully-selected pen, in most unexceptionable round-hand, in the copy-book which was to be handed round to admiring friends during the Christmas holidays. Of the religious teachings afforded to these poor children, Mr. Brontë tells us nothing, but from Charlotte's letters, as well as from her published works, we think it must have been sadly inadequate, if not positively wrong. We do not find them learning any little hymns, nor ever referring to those portions of Scripture history which dwell upon the mind of every little child. There is scarcely an allusion to the Gospels in any of Charlotte's writings, and yet the parables, and the teachings of Him who bade little children come unto Him, were especially suited to those desolate, motherless little ones, who had need to look up from their strange, wayward, earthly father, to a tender Father in heaven. But a religious gloom seems to have rested upon all the sisters; and Charlotte, in some of her letters, when rising into womanhood, paints with a lurid eloquence which in its strength and its weakness, reminds us of Cowperher fears that she is a castaway.
For more than a twelvemonth after the poor mother's death, the children continued with no companionship but the two servants, and then their mother's sister, an elderly, stiff, wellmeaning, but formal woman, came to take charge of the household. Soon after, we however find Mr. Brontë proceeding with his two eldest girls to the school at Cowan's Bridge—that insti. tution destined to enduring ill-fame as Lowood School,—and hither, in the autumn of the same year, 1824, he also brought Charlotte and her next sister, Emily, a poor little child under five years old!
Little did Carus Wilson, little did the gentle lady superintendent, or the more ungentle teachers, dream, when they first saw the little old-fashioned, plain-featured girl of eight years old
glancing timidly round with her strange, troubled eyes, that a child-yes, that mere child—was 'amang them taking notes,' and stealthily, but sternly marking every character and every incident, ' destined to be reproduced in fiery words a quarter of a century afterwards.
Much has been said respecting this school at Cowan's Bridge since these volumes have been before the world—much we think that is unfair. Mrs. Gaskell gives us its general rules and its dietary, and neither are exceptionable: she also remarks, from personal observation, that the situation seemed to be well chosen. Now that the cook was careless and dirty, and that sanitary regulations were not sufficiently attended to—though in what school were they so, thirty years ago ?—were certainly grave faults; but they were such as the best institution might be liable to; and when we are told that, as soon as discovered, they were remedied, we think Cowan's Bridge School has scarcely deserved the bitter things said both of it, and its founders. That its memory should be bitter to Charlotte Brontë was natural enough. If it had been even faultless, the shy little recluse, unaccustomed to any companionship save that of her brother and sisters, must have found a school of a hundred young girls, strong and healthy, and brought up in ways so widely different to that in which she had been trained—a strange and a foreign land, and herself a melancholy exile among them. And then, ere the impression of strangeness had worn away, the sickness and death of her two elder sisters followed, and she henceforward added the charge of shortening their lives to the other rankling memories of hated ‘Lowood School. Now these poor girls, whose deaths at an interval of only six weeks from each other must have powerfully impressed that earnest, gloomy child's mind, were, it should be remembered, sickly like the others, starved like the others on a potato diet, and actually sent off to a distant school, ere they had recovered from the joint effects of those two most trying disorders of childhood—especially in their after influence on the constitutionmeasles and hooping-cough. That the father considered no blame to attach to the school authorities in this case, is evidently shown by his sending Charlotte and Emily back again. Let us then justly denounce the cruel tyranny of Miss Scatcherd, and laugh at the busy wrong-headedness of others; but let not errors almost unavoidable in the management of a new institution be so severely censured on the authority of a fiction.
Ere the next winter vacation came, Charlotte and Emily were fetched home, and from thenceforward until she was fifteen years old, the author of Jane Eyre had no school instruction, and scarcely an acquaintance beyond her own family. Her aunt taught her needlework and household duties; but it does not