Monday 18 April 2016

Juliet Barker in Brussels for the Charlotte Brontë bicentenary: 16 April 2016

Juliet Barker’s eagerly-awaited talk in Brussels, over our weekend of events to celebrate the Charlotte Brontë bicentenary, took place against the backdrop of travel disruption following the attacks of 22 March. With flights cancelled or deviated, the weeks leading up to 16 April were anxious ones and the news of a Belgian air traffic controllers’ strike shortly before she was due to fly seemed the last straw. But she made it to beleaguered Brussels Airport, all the way from her home in North Yorkshire.

The main focus of her talk was The things Gaskell left out of her Life of Charlotte Brontë. Over dinner the evening before the talk, Juliet expressed admiration for Mrs Gaskell as a novelist, but her talk made it clear that she has a few bones to pick with Gaskell the biographer. In Barker’s view, the problem with Gaskell’s Life is that it is a fiction rather than a truthful biography.

She began with a reference to an article published in Sharpe’s London Magazine in June 1855, shortly after Charlotte’s death, that deeply upset her friend Ellen Nussey. Called ‘A few words about Jane Eyre’, it revived many of the rumours about Currer Bell that circulated when that novel was published. It contained not just accusations of Charlotte’s impropriety and ‘coarseness’ but accusations against her father, claiming that he had neglected his children and left their education to servants. Nussey was so incensed by the article she asked Mrs Gaskell to mount a defence of Charlotte. Yet ironically, as Barker pointed out, the original source for much of the information in the article was Gaskell herself. It was taken from letters written by her the Lake District shortly after her first meeting with Charlotte, based on spiteful gossip by a disgruntled former employee of the Brontës.

When she embarked on her biography, Mrs Gaskell herself admitted how hard it was for a novelist to be strictly truthful (‘You have to be accurate and keep to facts; a most difficult thing for a writer of fiction’). Barker’s claim is that Mrs Gaskell in fact had no intention of being objective and impartial. Her objective was to defend and vindicate Charlotte as a woman and writer and, in the process, facts were distorted or suppressed; what she omitted was as important as what she included.

Barker started with Gaskell’s description of Haworth, using contemporary sources to demonstrate how far removed the real village and its inhabitants were from the remote spot and wild, lawless community depicted by Gaskell on the basis of sources 100 years out of date. Not only is Haworth a mere four miles from Keighley, but when the Brontës lived there it was a hive of industrial and cultural activity. Far from being a cultural desert, it had an abundance of concerts as well as textile mills, and the Brontës were involved in village life.

Barker then referred to the Brontë juvenilia, pointing out that the sense of fun and the relish for violence and debauchery that overflow from its pages are at odds with the picture of the young Brontës’ oppressed and deprived childhood painted in Gaskell’s Life.

Turning to Charlotte herself, Barker claimed that in portraying her as a martyr whose sense of duty predominated, Gaskell suppressed many facets of her character. Among these were her hatred of teaching and of her pupils and her rebellion against the restrictions of her life, as revealed in the journal she kept at the Roe Head school.

Barker devoted a large section of her talk to Charlotte’s time in Brussels, since one of Gaskell’s most important omissions was Charlotte’s feelings for Constantin Heger. Revealing her love for a married man would have given credence to the notion of her moral laxity both as a writer and – some reviewers suggested – a woman.

Gaskell’s use of Charlotte’s letters from Brussels and, later, to Heger exemplified her cavalier attitude to documentary sources. Gaskell quoted from these letters very selectively, omitting Charlotte’s account of her confession in the Cathedral and her more emotional appeals to Heger. She gave the impression that Monsieur and Madame Heger acted in unison with regard to Charlotte, claiming that it was Madame’s idea to send one of the Heger children to be educated by the Brontës in Haworth even though Charlotte recorded that the idea came from Monsieur but was vetoed by his wife. She distorted the facts to account for the estrangement between Charlotte and Zoë Heger, attributing it to differences over religion even though Heger was just as devout as his wife. Charlotte’s growing unhappiness in Brussels is attributed by Gaskell to her concerns about Branwell, though these belonged to a later date after Branwell was dismissed from his post with the Robinsons.

Gaskell succeeded in her aim of establishing Charlotte’s reputation as a woman and gained a reputation herself as a great biographer. But despite Patrick Brontë’s tribute to the Life as ‘in every way worthy of what one great woman should have written of another’, the storm of protests from Mrs Robinson and others who believed themselves maligned in the book left Gaskell feeling ‘battered and bruised’, Barker said, determined never to write another biography and to confine herself in future to the safer realm of fiction.

Juliet Barker’s talk was followed by a rewarding and wide-ranging question and answer session in which she took the opportunity to defend Patrick and Branwell Brontë, with both of whom she believes Gaskell dealt unfairly. Patrick was an inspiring teacher of his children and Barker pointed out the similarity between his methods and Heger. He would get the children to read articles and then talk and write about them. Instead of rote learning they were encouraged to think for themselves and become passionately involved in what they learned.

Barker also views Branwell as an inspirational force, claiming he was always ahead of his sisters creatively. He was innovative and the first to get published (he had a poem published in a local paper). It was his idea to write novels rather than poems to make it easier to find publishers. In Barker’s view his achievement was less than his sisters’ not just because he lacked their application but because of the sheer diversity of his talents.

Barker also defended Arthur Nicholls, charging Gaskell with revealing too much about Charlotte’s initial rejection of him and being influenced against him by Ellen Nussey. Barker’s verdict is that in her concern to protect Charlotte’s reputation, Gaskell did not scruple to damage that of the three men closest to her.

Helen MacEwan

Committee members of the Brussels Brontë Group with Juliet Barker.
From left to right, Dawn Robey, Jones Hayden, Helen MacEwan,
Juliet Barker and Lisbeth Ekelof.

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