BOOK REVIEW / Unlacing the corset: Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life - Lyndall Gordon: Chatto, pounds 17.99

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The Independent Culture
TO WRITE a new biography of Charlotte Bronte requires some justification. The popular and enduring image, created by Mrs Gaskell, of 'a woman made perfect by suffering' has been revised in recent years: the masterly biographies by Winifred Gerin (1967) and Rebecca Fraser (1988) have made us see the fiery, ambitious and defiant spirit which lay behind Charlotte's assumed mask of docility and conventionality. All that is left, then, is a question of interpretation.

'There is no final truth about a life,' Lyndall Gordon points out, 'each age will distil its own view.' Drawing heavily on Rebecca Fraser's biography, she offers virtually no new material (despite the jacket claim that she uses unpublished letters) but, thankfully, eschews the more fanciful theories that so often make up for its absence. Her book is, as she suggests, a writer's life, which traces the emergence of Charlotte's distinctive and increasingly confident authorial voice, a voice that demanded the right for women to feel, to be themselves, to make something of their lives, instead of having to circumscribe their emotions and actions as tightly as they corseted their bodies, and to reinvent themselves in the image demanded by society.

This conventional image was not simply a male fantasy: some of Charlotte's bitterest critics were themselves women who considered her work 'unfeminine'. Charlotte herself reserved her most vituperative comment for women. As a governess and later as a teacher, she regularly denounced the pretensions and hypocrisy of the women unfortunate enough to employ her, while finding excuses for the same attitudes in their husbands.

In this biography Lyndall Gordon successfully brings out Charlotte's contempt for her own sex, from the 'fat-headed oafs' she taught at Roe Head to the vindictive portrayal of Madame Heger as the sly, lascivious and unscrupulous Madame Beck in Villette. Even Charlotte's heroines are compelled to play the game and don the mask of public propriety. From Jane Eyre to Lucy Snowe, they play the part of insignificance to perfection, dressing quietly and demurely, sitting in the shadows, observing rather than participating. Apart from their lack of beauty, they appear to be the ideal of Victorian womanhood. What made them and their creator so shocking to contemporaries was the fire within, which is revealed only to those perceptive enough to see beyond the facade. These are intelligent, truthful, and above all, passionate women.

Lyndall Gordon sees Charlotte Bronte's fiction almost entirely in terms of autobiography. This is undoubtedly a valuable exercise, but it has its limitations. It works particularly well for the Brussels period, for instance, where Charlotte's infatuation with Monsieur Heger is illuminated by her fictional accounts in The Professor and Villette. It fails significantly where there is no fictional element to sustain and inform the narrative. This is especially evident in the early chapters of the book, which deal with Charlotte's childhood. If Haworth Parsonage really was the grim, silent house ruled by an egocentric father and authoritarian aunt, why were the Bronte children so eager to remain at home and so unhappy when they were away? If Patrick really shut himself away from his family, caring nothing for their 'distressing prattle', why did he commit so large a proportion of his meagre income to providing them with the best education he could afford, including such luxuries as tuition in art and music? How can one possibly reconcile the 'laughing girl' who arrived at Roe Head with the repressed product of an unhappy and neglected childhood?

The relationship between Charlotte and the rest of her family is not really explored, despite the enormous impact that it had on her personal and literary development. Branwell is caricatured as drunken and drug-crazed from the age of 20 - an interpretation belied by the quality and quantity of writing he was producing at the time. Since we see the juvenilia solely from Charlotte's point of view, we cannot appreciate that, for instance, it was Branwell who broke Charlotte's mould of servile and adoring female characters with his creation of the spirited and independent Mary Percy. To dismiss Branwell as a drunken irrelevance to his sisters' literary careers is to misunderstand his role completely.

Charlotte's much-vaunted dutifulness towards her father, the 'domestic tyrant' who kept her chained to Haworth, is also accepted uncritically. The fact that her father's age and failing eyesight were a useful excuse for staying at home instead of venturing out to yet another uncongenial teaching post is not recognised; had she been forced to earn her own living she would not have had time to write. Similarly, Charlotte's submission to her father's prohibition on her marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls lasted only as long as she herself was undecided whether to accept him: once her mind was made up, she rode roughshod over her father's wishes.

Even where the fictional material yields plentiful clues, the failure to take into account the huge volume of surviving letters often leads to misinterpretations of the evidence. Lyndall Gordon claims that Charlotte set the agenda for her relationship with her publisher, George Smith, in her fictionalised account in Villette. But it is clear from their correspondence that it was Smith, not Charlotte, who ended their friendship, and that his engagement to another woman came as a severe shock and disappointment to her.

This book is a fascinating and intelligent analysis of Charlotte's literary work, but as a biography it is unsatisfactory, failing to reveal the whole woman - her ambition, her sarcasm, her humour, her obsession with her lack of beauty and her extraordinary need for love. Without addressing these issues one cannot explain how and why Charlotte Bronte became Currer Bell.

(Photograph omitted)