4. The critics: "ungodly discontent" to "active self-assertion"

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ome of Charlotte Brontë's earliest critics were women, to whom her honest expression of the self and its sufferings seemed self-indulgent, subversive even. That a member of their sex should expose her own problems went completely against the grain of what Lucasta Miller calls "normative [i.e. passive and retiring] femininity" (18) at that time. In her pioneering biography, Elizabeth Gaskell did her best to repackage Charlotte herself, for example, by introducing her correspondence with the Brontës' servant, Martha Brown, in this way: "I give these letters with particular pleasure, as they show her peculiarly womanly character" (470). But she could not hide the defiance of her heroines. Emily Brontë's Catherine Earnshaw finds happiness in Wuthering Heights with a late, companionable haunting. her elder sister's heroines, on the other hand, confront their problems and wring out whatever rewards they can, right here on earth. Their pain has to be confronted, lived through, and then, as far as possible, lived with. Some modus vivendi has to be established.

Such an insistence was astonishingly brave for those times, when a woman was expected to suffer and remain silent. Even the early feminist Harriet Martineau recommended, in her essay "Temper," that "in times of mental distress" the sufferer should adhere to "the principles of endurance and self-mastery" (125); and while Martineau herself later wrote frankly in her Autobiography about her own early torments, she stored the work for posthumous publication.

Harriet Martineau in a drawing by George Richmond of 1849. © National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1796.

The response to Brontë's explicit descriptions of women's frustrations and struggles was predictable. In December 1848, the recently-published Jane Eyre was sweepingly criticized in the Quarterly Review by Elizabeth Rigby, who was convinced that no woman, or at least no lady, could possibly have written such a document:

there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilized society in fact has at the present day to contend with.... the tone of the 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. [qtd. in Allott 109-10]

Rigby, who wrote anonymously here, was soon to become Lady Eastlake, wife of the future President of the Royal Academy. But it was not so much the perceived vulgarity of the enterprise that irritated her, as its expression of "ungodly discontent." No sympathy was offered for the suffering involved; such a reader had simply shut herself off from fellow-feeling. As the suffragist Madame Belloc would later recall, "Lady Eastlake possessed a stalwart intellect, with no softening haze about it. She disliked the literature of passion..." (qtd. in Avery-Quash and Sheldon 198).

Less insensitive readers could not help being drawn in though, and they resented that all the more. This resentment formed the basis of Martineau's objection to Lucy Snowe's anguish in Villette: "the book is almost intolerably painful," she complained in her review of the novel in the Daily News, "the author has no right to make readers so miserable.... we ourselves have felt inclined to rebel against the pain," she wrote (qtd. in Allott 172).

By the time Martineau's autobiography finally came out in 1876, her account in it of a childhood endured without "cheerful tenderness" (1: 11), and her candid disclosure of her later trials, no longer seemed so shocking. In fact, the Spectator review entitled simply "Harriet Martineau's Autobiography" comments regretfully that the book does not "tell us very much of the inner nature" of the author (318). By this time, then, the revelation of women's sufferings no longer seemed shameless, inconsiderate, or a form of sadism practiced on the hapless reader. Nor did it seem an act of defiance. Critics were even beginning to realise that Charlotte Brontë's own revelations only provided half the picture. Thus Sir Leslie Stephen complained about the "inharmonious representation of life" in her work, finding that the hurt she evinced was oddly and incongruously "combined with a most unflinching adherence to the proper conventions of society" (qtd. in Allott 420).

The word "proper" gives away Sir Leslie's sympathies; but the pendulum continued to swing. Later in the twentieth century Charlotte Brontë's feminist readers adopted precisely the opposite view to Rigby's and Martineau's, deploring the fact that the novelist's "rebellion" against society and its rules had not gone further, that the painful struggle was not shown to produce enough results, and that in the end this novelist seemed to settle for compromises. For example, Susan Gubar decried the "social role" in which the spirited eponymous heroine of Shirley "becomes enmeshed" (118) – the more so, perhaps, because this critic so clearly perceives the author's own deep reservations about it. In general, of course, Gubar's complaint reflects major changes in attitude towards the role and rights of women, particularly their right to determine their own course in life and their own sphere of action, to develop their gifts and to reap the rewards of their achievements. In English departments, this was also the time when the New Historicism was flourishing: critics were quick to seize on even the subtlest accommodations to the prevailing ideology, and hence what seemed like failures of nerve in authors who failed to follow through on their own beliefs and aspirations. These critics felt entitled to ask much more from women writers, even women writers of previous eras.

G. H. Lewes, c. 1865, albumen carte-de-visite by John & Charles Watkins. © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG Ax7530).

Brontë critics have continued to ask more radical questions, probing the attitudes of this author's heroines, and the nature of the accommodations which they reach. Again, the debate on these issues has its roots in past critiques. G. H. Lewes, for instance, had posited in his review on the novel's first publication that the "reality" offered in Jane Eyre is not the ordinary novelistic one, but a "deep, significant reality.... it [the novel] is soul speaking to soul; it is an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit: suspiria de profundis!" (qtd. in Allott 84). Brontë, who had been steeling herself for Lewes's judgement, remarked to her editor on his "strange sagacity" (Letters 1: 571), and wrote to thank Lewes for his "generous review" (Letters 2: 9).

At the end of the twentieth century, the scrutiny became still more probing and thought-provoking. Sally Shuttleworth, for example, in her study of the works in the context of Victorian psychology, agreed with Martineau that the novels are not simply tormented but "tormenting" (247). But she saw the reason for this as being rather different — not because they make us feel how women suffered in an age when their voices were stifled by propriety, but because her narrators are so conflicted and unreliable that we are left to interpret the narrative ourselves. Moreover, she says, we are finally unable to do so because the narrative is so deeply riven by the "drama of internal pain and division" (241). Physical and spiritual needs jostle with each other in these heroines, as do private interests and social obligations, and the desires for power and submission in the male-female relationship. As a result, she concludes, we are baffled, and forced to challenge our own "cherished assumptions of subjective integrity and literary unity" (247).

Yet how well this corresponds with our most recent expectations of the novel! Probably it helps to explain why Brontë's work still resonates so powerfully with us today. The stream of consciousness technique, which can also involve the juxtaposition of disparate consciousnesses, long ago challenged E. M. Forster's ideal of rounded, not entirely predictable characters, replacing them with the kind of characters described by D. H. Lawrence in "Why the Novel Matters," as those who "do nothing but live" (107). In our own times, James Wood describes such characters equally simply as "sites of human energy" (96). For his own reasons, Lawrence himself failed to respond to the kind of nervous, edgy life which flows through Brontë's characters, but readers have always done so, and been convinced by these characters, too, seeing them as valid agents of thought and feeling. They continue to do so, and we now have a critical vocabulary for textual disjunctions and provisionality, and even a predilection for them; we may be challenged by them, but not alienated.

Another factor, inherent in the text, also helps us through the "torment" that we might feel. This is the constant effort towards equilibrium in the narrative, which makes us aware of the controlling intelligence behind it. This reassurance is felt even – or especially – when the "windings-up" of the narratives alert us to alternative readings or subtexts, and leave questions unanswered or suffering unassuaged.

There is a sense, therefore, in the oeuvre as a whole, of a theme being worked out slowly, painfully but surely. "The Critics will accuse you of repetition," Arthur Nicholls warned his new wife, when she read him the opening of the novel she had started before their marriage (qtd. in Barker 768). For the fragment, Emma, sets up a familiar scenario: a girl is abandoned at school under mysterious circumstances, a victim, it seems, first of her guardian's and then of her schoolmistress's callousness. But this last young heroine herself is described as being "insolently distant" (236), and already seems less open and more stubborn than her predecessors in the earlier novels. Not the heiress she was given out to be, not even the person she was originally named as, Emma seems set to raise even more probing questions about her identity than Lucy Snowe does. Even though the author's own circumstances had changed, her preoccupations, clearly, had not. The signs are that, had she survived to complete this new work, she would have continued to express the drive towards "active self-assertion" (Flint 190).

Created 20 January 2018