Monday, December 30, 2013

Charlotte Brontë's Unmet Longing

Charlotte Brontë’s signature melancholy narrative voice in Jane Eyre belies a hidden hopefulness she once exerted, if only briefly.

Her longings came into stark clarity when a little-known story she had written in French at the age of 25 emerged in Belgium long after her death. Titled L’Ingratitude, the story was written for her tutor, a married man with whom Bronte had become infatuated. It was unknown for many decades following her death and was published for the first time in Feb 2012. (Her novel Villette is said to be based upon it.) In it her love was unrequited.

Her despair and general melancholy is matched by the losses she incurred in her short life:

  •     Her mother, Maria Brontë, died in 1821: Charlotte was 5
  •     Her oldest sister, Maria, died in 1825 (age 12): Charlotte was 9
  •     Her next sister, Elizabeth died a month later (age 11): Still 9
  •     Her brother Patrick died (age 29) in 1848: Charlotte was 32.
  •     Her sister Emily (of Wuthering Heights) died the same year (age 29)
  •     Her younger sister Anne, died in 1849 (age 27): Charlotte, 33.

(The Brontë sisters from left; Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte.)

Her first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell (who knew her) wrote:
"I am struck afresh by the absence of hope, which formed such a strong characteristic in Charlotte … . Miss Bronte never dared to allow herself to look forward with hope … . She had no confidence in the future; and I though, when I heard of the sorrowful years she passed through, that it had been this pressure of grief which had crushed all the buoyancy of expectation out of her."                          The Life of Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë kept faith, though she was unsentimental. She did what she needed to do to reconcile life’s ravages with the possibility of hope.

She died at the age of 38 in 1855.

Listen to Gillian Anderson read L'Ingratitude.

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