A Victorian Lady and Her `Brazen' Work

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None of the Brontes - from the three extraordinary sisters to their dissipated brother, Branwell, and steely father, Patrick - has lacked for biographers, least of all Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855), who was always and still remains the most accessible member of her family.

In her lifetime the most famous of the sisters, the one who ventured out farthest into society, Charlotte nonetheless struck many who met her as singularly reclusive. ``When public appearance became inevitable,'' writes her latest biographer, Lyndall Gordon, ``Charlotte was on guard against the image of `rather a brazen Miss': every gesture, every movement and facial expression declared the opposite.''

Through the medium of her fiction, Charlotte Bronte spoke out in a voice charged with feeling, candor, and intimacy. Victorian readers were enthralled by the power of this unknown writer who at first concealed her identity and gender under the pseudonym ``Currer Bell.'' Yet they were also made uneasy by what they were hearing: the voice of a passionate woman who revealed thoughts and emotions that ladies were not supposed to have. It was, as Gordon notes, hard for ``fashionable London'' to reconcile the impetuous voice heard in ``Jane Eyre'' and ``Shirley'' with ``this quivering mouse.''

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To claim, as did Jane Eyre and Shirley Keeldar, the right to form their own opinions, to judge their betters, to fall in love, seemed in many eyes downright revolutionary. For, despite her demure demeanor and impeccable private life - loving sister, dutiful daughter, and later, devoted wife - Charlotte Bronte boldly expressed in her novels the burning aspirations of intelligent, portionless women consigned by society to lead shadowy lives of quiet desperation.

Following Charlotte's death, her friend Mrs. Gaskell undertook to write a work that would acquaint the public with the modest and high-minded character of this supposedly dangerous radical. What that excellent portrait left out later scholars would fill in.

Gordon, whose biographies of T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf demonstrated her ability to infuse new life into familiar subjects, sensitively portrays Bronte in terms drawn from Bronts own writings. Gordon borrows terms like ``shadow,'' ``pilgrim,'' and ``a rising character'' to describe the radiant originality of a woman writing about desires that seemingly had nowhere to go in the constricting world she inhabited. Shorter and less richly detailed than Rebecca Fraser's fine study a few years back, Gordon's work is more of an attempt to get inside her subject's head, to follow her into the recesses where her creations took shape.

The author also has some intriguing suggestions about Bronts outward life. On the question of her death, which most previous scholars have ascribed to tuberculosis or problems in her pregnancy, Gordon argues that she may have had from typhoid. On a more literary note, she suggests that Dickens's ``Nicholas Nickleby'' might have given Charlotte the idea that schoolroom terrors could provide a fit subject for fiction.

Like Charlotte Bronte herself, Gordon proves a subtle reader of character, able to distinguish among fine shades of feeling in discussing Charlotte's relationships. Most crucial of all, she brings us close to that mysterious region where life is transformed into art, leaving us with the haunting image of a woman of genius writing in the shadows, concealing her inner fire from the public eye, yet revealing her deeply private self to the private self of her entranced imagined ``reader.''

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