1 April 2016 Susannah

Happy 200th birthday, Charlotte!

One afternoon, when I was about 11 years old, I came home with a school library book and showed it to my mother. It was a very slim volume that I expected to get through that evening, and it had attracted me because of the promise of a mad woman in an attic. My mother looked at it in horror. “You are not reading that!” she insisted. “Take it back to the library tomorrow. I’ll read you the proper book.” And she took from her bookshelf a copy of Jane Eyre, about 20 times the size of the abridged edition I had brought home, and that evening she began to read it to me. For night after night I lay on her bed as she knitted and read, and I was totally entranced. So many readers have shared my raptures at first encountering Charlotte’s wonderful novel. The first ‘reader’ at the firm which published the book cancelled all his engagements and stayed up all night until he’d finished the story. It is a great and gripping book.

Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond image

Sketch of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond

This month, on 21 April, it is Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday. There are plenty of good ways to celebrate this important anniversary. You could read Claire Harman’s excellent new biography Charlotte Brontë: A Life, you could listen to an audio version of Jane Eyre which will help you find things in it that you have never noticed before, or you could try some of Charlotte’s other novels. Many critics think that her greatest work is Villette. I find it an intriguing novel, with one of the strangest heroines in fiction, and an even stranger hero, but it is a masterly study of loneliness. The use of French is inconsistent and odd, but Lucy Snowe’s plight does grip you and it is a book you must read if you want to really understand Charlotte herself. Shirley, which was written while her sisters were dying, is an uneven novel, but it has a lovely beginning: “Of late years an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills, every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.” I love the idea of “a shower of curates”. I’m not keen on The Professor which was published posthumously, but you might like to give it a try. You could also consider joining the Australian Brontë Association or you could come along to some of the talks I am giving this year about Charlotte’s life and works.

Soon after his only last child Charlotte died in 1855, the Reverend Patrick Brontë requested her friend and fellow novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell, to write his daughter’s biography. The result was The Life of Charlotte Brontë, published in 1867, which has long been regarded as a classic. However at the time it caused a furor. Read about this in my Literary Snapshot.

I am grateful to my mother for saving me from a bastardised version of Jane Eyre (I do wonder how much was left of Jane’s story in that very thin volume?) and for making sure that my first experience of such a great classic was so fabulously memorable.

What are your memories of your first encounter with Charlotte Brontë? Visit my Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Happy 200th birthday, Charlotte!

Leave a comment.

  Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Charlotte Brontë
  Susannah Fullerton: Who are the Biggest Readers?

   Jane Eyre By Charlotte Brontë
   Villette By Charlotte Brontë
   Shirley By Charlotte Brontë
   The Professor By Charlotte Brontë

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Featured image credit- Celebration Cupcakes on Cake Stand by Ed Gregory http://stokpic.com/project/free-food-photos-celebration-cupcakes-on-cake-stand/
Body image credit- By George Richmond – http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw00798/Charlotte-Bront, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1910795

Comments (2)

  1. Jessie Terry

    I feel Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography is more hagiography than biography but I have no doubt it was a comfort to her father. I have read all of Charlotte’s novels except ‘The Professor’ and enjoyed them all, especially ‘Villette’. Although I enjoy (with the attitude of ‘What a hoot!’) the few Gothic novels I have read Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ does not impress – or did not when I was 15 and I have not read it since – maybe I should. Anne’s ‘Anne Grey’ is worth more than one read, I think. What a tragic family they were. I wish I had the time and opportunity to join the Bronte Society but JASA and JASACT and a book group keep me busy.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Hi Jessie. I love Gaskell’s biography because she gave such a wonderful depiction of where Charlotte lived and the difficulties of being a female author having to juggle writing with household tasks. She got some facts wrong, and she is pretty harsh on Patrick, but I think considering the era and the trouble she ahd collecting facts, she did a wonderful job. I fell deeply in love with Wuthering Heights when I was a teenager and wanted a Heathcliff to come and sweep me away to the moors. I couldn’t think of anything more awful now. I would prefer to take him to see a psychiatrist. However, I still adore the book because of the exquisite quality of the prose.

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