[Paleopsych] Guardian: (Bronte) Reader, I shagged him

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Reader, I shagged him

    Since her death 150 years ago, Charlotte Brontë has been sanitised as
    a dull, Gothic drudge. Far from it, says Tanya Gold; the author was a
    filthy, frustrated, sex-obsessed genius
    Tanya Gold
    Friday March 25, 2005

    Elizabeth Gaskell is a literary criminal, who, in 1857, perpetrated a
    heinous act of grave-robbing. Gaskell took Charlotte Brontë, the
    author of Jane Eyre, the dirtiest, darkest, most depraved fantasy of
    all time, and, like an angel murdering a succubus, trod on her. In a
    "biography" called The Life of Charlotte Brontë, published just two
    years after the author's death, Gaskell stripped Charlotte of her
    genius and transformed her into a sexless, death-stalked saint.

    As the 150th anniversary of her death on March 31 1855 approaches, it
    is time to rescue Charlotte Brontë. She has been chained, weeping, to
    a radiator in the Haworth Parsonage, Yorkshire, for too long. Enough
    of Gaskell's fake miserabilia. Enough of the Brontë industry's
    veneration of coffins, bonnets and tuberculosis. It is time to exhume
    the real Charlotte - filthy bitch, grandmother of chick-lit, and

    When I first read her at the age of 13, I thought she was another
    boring Gothic drudge who got lucky. When I returned to her 10 years
    later, I recognised her. Charlotte was an obscure, ugly parson's
    daughter, a sometime governess and schoolmistress. Her father Patrick
    had fought his way from Ireland into Cambridge University and the
    church. She was toothless, almost penniless and - to Victorian society
    - worthless. But she dared to transcend her background and her
    situation. In her novel Jane Eyre, a dark Cinderella tale of a plain,
    orphaned governess, she dared, baldly, to state her lust.

    After I had reread Jane Eyre, I wanted to know what dark genius
    created this world. I turned to Elizabeth Gaskell's Life, but I could
    not recognise the sanitised Charlotte she conjured up. Gaskell
    befriended Charlotte when the novelist was 34 and already a star.
    Contemporary critics had been appalled by Jane Eyre's "coarseness",
    but the public was thrilled and Charlotte was a celebrity. Gaskell
    waspishly described her first sight of Charlotte in a letter: "She is
    underdeveloped, thin and more than half a head shorter than I ...
    [with] a reddish face, large mouth and many teeth gone; altogether

    Gaskell described her encounters with Charlotte to friends in long,
    gossipy, gawking letters. "I have so much to say I don't know where to
    begin ..." And Charlotte noticed Gaskell's need to weaken and
    infantilise her, writing to her publisher, George Smith, "she seems
    determined that I shall be a sort of invalid. Why may I not be well
    like other people?" Gaskell was already hungrily plotting the
    biography, which she convinced herself was an act of charity. She
    wanted to rescue her friend from the accusations of "coarseness" and
    she did not have to wait long: Charlotte died in 1855, nine months
    after her wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls.

    Gaskell portrays Charlotte as Victim Supreme. She begins to sew her
    shroud from her first chapter, when she copies out the Brontë grave
    tablet in Haworth church, voluptuously listing those who died of
    consumption: Charlotte's mother, Maria, her sisters Maria, Elizabeth,
    Anne and Emily, and her brother Branwell. Charlotte, Anne and Emily
    were "shy of meeting even familiar faces". They "never faced their
    kind voluntarily". The Brontës are shown, with understated relish, as
    lonely, half-mad spinsters, surrounded by insufferable yokels and the
    unmentionable stench of death. Under Gaskell's pen, they become the
    three witches of Haworth and she hurls on the Gothic gloom, ravaging
    the moorlands and the town for appropriate props. She has a particular
    fondness for the graveyard outside their front door: "It is," she
    notes, "terribly full of upright tombstones." She is bewildered by the
    Brontës. She could never accept they were, quite simply, talented.
    There had to be a magical mystery at work on those moors ...

    Gaskell carefully fillets the letters to match her agenda. Any hint of
    Charlotte as a sexual being is tossed on to the historical furnace.
    Charlotte's correspondence with the (married) love of her life,
    Monsieur Heger of Brussels, is ignored, as is her thwarted romance
    with George Smith. Gaskell could hardly leave out Charlotte's marriage
    to Arthur Nicholls - but no doubt she would have liked to. Her
    biography is the ultimate piece of feminine passive-aggression, a
    mediocre writer's attempt to reduce the brilliant Miss Brontë to poor,
    pitiful Miss Brontë. Gaskell wrote the Life as a tragedy, not a
    triumph. But if Charlotte Brontë's life is a tragedy, what hope is
    there for the rest of us?

    Let me introduce you to the real Charlotte Brontë. She was not a
    wallflower in mourning. She always wanted to be famous; she pined to
    be "forever known". Aged 20, she wrote boldly to the Poet Laureate
    Robert Southey, asking for his opinion of her talents. He replied:
    "You evidently possess and in no inconsiderable degree what Wordsworth
    calls 'the faculty of verse'." Then he chides her: "There is a danger
    of which I would ... warn you. The daydreams in which you habitually
    indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind. Literature
    cannot be the business of a woman's life and it ought not to be."
    Charlotte ignored Southey but Gaskell couldn't believe it. She
    concluded the correspondence "made her put aside, for a time, all idea
    of literary enterprise".

    Charlotte continued in her position as a schoolteacher, which she had
    already held for a year. But she hated her profession and heartily
    despised the aggravating brats she was forced to teach. As the
    children at Roe Head School did their lessons, she wrote in her
    journal: "I had been toiling for nearly an hour. I sat sinking from
    irritation and weariness into a kind of lethargy. The thought came
    over me: am I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched
    bondage, forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness, the apathy and
    the hyperbolic and most asinine stupidity of these fat headed oafs and
    on compulsion assuming an air of kindness, patience and assiduity?
    Must I from day to day sit chained to this chair prisoned within these
    four bare walls, while the glorious summer suns are burning in heaven
    and the year is revolving in its richest glow and declaring at the
    close of every summer day the time I am losing will never come again?
    Just then a dolt came up with a lesson. I thought I should have
    vomited." Note to Mrs Gaskell: Charlotte didn't want to kiss those
    children; she wanted to vomit on them.

    Charlotte did not only feel passionate hatred for small children; she
    felt passionate love for men. Unlike the female eunuch created by
    Gaskell, she was obsessed with her sensuality. She wrote to a friend:
    "If you knew my thoughts; the dreams that absorb me; and the fiery
    imagination that at times eats me up ... you would pity and I daresay
    despise me." The thwarted lust of a parson's daughter? Gaskell
    dismisses it as "traces of despondency". In Brussels, studying to
    become a governess at Heger's school, the virgin became ever more
    lustful. She wrote obsessive letters to him, begging for his
    attention. "I would write a book and dedicate it to my literature
    master - to the only master I have ever had - to you Monsieur." Later
    she writes: "Day or night I find neither rest nor peace. If I sleep I
    have tortured dreams in which I see you always severe, always gloomy
    and annoyed with me. I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to
    every kind of reproach - all that I know - is that I cannot - that I
    will not resign myself to losing the friendship of my master
    completely - I would rather undergo the greatest physical sufferings.
    If my master withdraws his friendship entirely from me I will be
    completely without hope ... I cling on to preserving that little
    interest - I cling on to it as I cling on to life."

    When Gaskell heard of these letters she panicked. "I cannot tell you
    how I should deprecate anything leading to the publication of these
    letters," she clucked to her publisher.

    Charlotte's "master" did not return her love, but Jane Eyre's did.
    Charlotte's fixation with sex could not be realised in truth - so she
    realised it in fiction. Jane Eyre has spawned a thousand luscious
    anti-heroes, and a million Pills & Swoon paperbacks. Her prose is
    dribbling, watchful and erotic. It's much better than The Story of O,
    or Naked Plumbers Fix Your Tap. In Jane Eyre she created the men she
    could not have in the sack: rude, rich, besotted Edward Rochester and
    beautiful, sadistic St-John Rivers. Both, naturally, beg to marry Jane
    and Charlotte draws every sigh and blush and wince exquisitely. She
    writes long, detailed scenarios for her paper lovers. Jane loves to
    argue with them and she always comes out on top. In the throbbing,
    climactic scene, after Rochester has teased her (lovingly, of course),
    she pouts: "Do you think, because I am poor, plain, obscure and
    little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much
    soul as you and full as much heart. And if God have gifted me with
    some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to
    leave me as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now
    through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal
    flesh - it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both
    had passed though the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal - as we

    Rochester melts. "'As we are!' repeated Mr Rochester - 'so,' he added,
    enclosing me in his arms, gathering me to his breast, pressing his
    lips on my lips: 'so, Jane!'" The St-John fantasies are filthier yet,
    as Charlotte's masochism oozes on to the page. "Know me to be what I
    am," he tells Jane. "A cold, hard man." Jane watches St-John admire a
    painting of a beautiful woman and the voyeurism excites her; "he
    breathed low and fast; I stood silent". I know Charlotte had an orgasm
    as she wiped the ink from her fingers and went to take her father his

    Charlotte was not only randy; she was rude. She was sent a copy of
    Jane Austen's Emma and spouted bile all over it. "[Austen] ruffles her
    reader with nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound," she
    bitches. "The passions are perfectly unknown to her ... the unseen
    seat of life and the sentient target of death - this Miss Austen
    ignores." Later she smacks her more firmly over the bonnet. "Miss
    Austen is not a poetess. Can there ever be a great artist without
    poetry?" If Charlotte slagged off Austen - her only real rival in the
    canon of superb, sex-starved writers - what would she have made of
    Gaskell's blackwash? I suspect she would have seen it for what it was
    - the one parasitic shot at immortality of a second-rate writer.

    I decide to visit Saint Central - the parsonage museum at Haworth - to
    see if anything of the real Charlotte remains. Might a leg, or an arm
    or a finger be sticking out from under Gaskell's smiling tombstone? It
    doesn't look good for Charlotte. Just nine months after the 150th
    anniversary of her wedding (there was a mock ceremony, with a shop
    manager as Mr Nicholls and the villagers as the villagers) the Brontë
    groupies are excitedly preparing the "celebrations" for the 150th
    anniversary of her death. A "light installation" is projecting a
    shadowy grim reaper. Yes - it is Death. It crawls across Patrick's
    pillows, returns and crawls again. Pictures of the "Brontë waterfall"
    are gushing noisily over the front of the parsonage. Inside the house
    are the relics, pristine and pornographic. Charlotte's clothing is
    imprisoned behind glass: her ghastly wedding bonnet, covered with
    lace; her gloves; her bag; her spectacles. I can see from the dress
    that she was a dwarf. A genius indeed, but a dwarf.

    In the shop, Gaskell, again, has won. There is every Brontë-branded
    item the mother of the cult could wish, except, perhaps, enormous
    golden Bs. I choose a gold fridge magnet, a tea-towel that says
    "Brontë genius - love, life and literature" and a toy sheep stamped
    with the word "Brontë". There is a Jane Eyre mouse mat that says, "I
    am no bird and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an
    independent will." This souvenir disgusts me, but no doubt Mrs Gaskell
    would love it. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte wrote "independent human
    being". She did not write "independent mouse mat".

    I can find no remnant of the breathing, brilliant novelist in Haworth;
    it is merely the site of a death cult that weirdly resents its god. I
    wander up the road to the moors and am surprised they haven't packaged
    the mud - "Real Brontë Mud!" As the taxi bumps down the famous cobbled
    street, past the Brontë tea-rooms, the Villette coffee shop,
    Thornfield sheltered housing (imagine 50 creaking Mr Rochesters) and
    the Brontë Balti (Brontë special - Chicken Tikka; it's true), I yearn
    to rip the road signs down and torch the parsonage. This shrine needs
    desecrating, and I want to watch it burn. I want to see the fridge
    magnets melt, the tea-towels explode and the wedding bonnet wither.
    Somewhere, glistening in the ashes, there might remain a copy of Jane
    Eyre. That is all of Charlotte Brontë that need loiter here.

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