Wednesday 17 October 2012

Lyndall Gordon shows us Charlotte Brontë’s hidden face

On 13 October 2012 Dr Lyndall Gordon (St Hilda’s College, Oxford; author of several biographies including of Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson) gave a talk called The Hidden Face of Charlotte Brontë in which she explored some of the insights she gained in writing her biography Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life.

Lyndall Gordon proved to be as fascinating and engaging as a speaker as she is as a writer. She spoke of the gap between Charlotte’s inner and outer self, the different selves she presented in letters to different friends and the person we find in her journals and novels.

The Brontës resented the fact that as governesses they often seemed to be invisible, yet Charlotte herself presented a demure and ladylike exterior when it suited her – to Mrs Gaskell, for example. Drawing comparisons with other women writers of the period, Lyndall Gordon reflected on the tension and power created in her novels by this gap between her private and public persona.

Dr Gordon has a particular interest in the Brussels period and considers that it was in Brussels that Charlotte became a writer. Heger understood her as a person as well as nurturing her talent. Her fictional heroes were similarly capable of engaging with her heroines’ inner selves.

Brontë had a similar experience with her publisher George Smith. She had subtle and ‘indefinable’ relationships with both men, creating intimacy with them through letters.

Turning lastly to Arthur Bell Nicholls, Dr Gordon said that in marrying him Charlotte chose life over art and that she found happiness in her marriage.

The discussion that followed was very lively and wide-ranging. Lyndall Gordon told us that in a few days’ time she was to be filmed in the British Museum, talking about the Heger letters, for a documentary on the Brontë sisters to be shown as part of ITV’s Perspective series. The crew will then be coming to Brussels to film with our group. During the discussion we took the opportunity to explore some of the questions the documentary will be raising, such as the factors that may have contributed to producing the phenomenon of the Brontë family. We doubted that the programme would find all the answers in the hour allocated to it!

Over the weekend we enjoyed showing Lyndall and her husband around the Brontë sites and pointing out the confessional in the cathedral where, in 1843, a priest may have had a glimpse of that inner self of Charlotte Brontë we were able to explore with Lyndall Gordon.

Lyndall Gordon (fifth from right) with members of the Brussels Brontë Group.
Photo: Paul Cagli

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