BOOK REVIEW / Two voices and one earthly comfort: 'Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life' - Lyndall Gordon: Chatto & Windus, 17.99 pounds: Claire Tomalin on a patient, subtle but speculative new biography of Charlotte Bronte

IN the summer of 1850, the young publisher George Smith took one of his distinguished authors, Charlotte Bronte, making a rare visit to London, to the House of Commons. She had to watch the proceedings from the Ladies' Gallery; and they found it was arranged so that nothing but the eyes of the ladies could be seen by anyone looking up. Smith proposed that, when she had had enough, she should signal to him with her admirable eyes: but when he began to scan the gallery he found that all the eyes looked the same and he was quite unable to distinguish hers. So after a while he simply went to collect her, and apologised for his delay. She told him she had sent no signal, and had not wished to leave.

It was a typically Brontean episode - the ladies in their purdah, Smith's failure to find Charlotte's eyes more luminous or expressive than the others, her being obliged to leave the gallery when she wanted to stay - amusing and awkward, with a double sting of humiliation and frustration for its heroine. Lyndall Gordon uses anecdotes and details of this kind well, and has produced an intelligent and sometimes provocative biography, firmly rooted in its Victorian context and informed by sympathetic feeling; her reading of Charlotte's letters is particularly interesting, as you would expect from a literary scholar of her distinction.

Her view is that Charlotte was much less a victim than Mrs Gaskell made her out to be in her great biography of 1857, which set the tone for all subsequent ones. Gordon's Charlotte is a wily fighter for her own needs. She sees her shaping her own path and character through knowledge and self-discipline, in marked contrast to her younger sisters, both of whom held to their 'given' selves living and dying without compromise or change. She notes the bursts of fury in Charlotte's early journal, when she was teaching at Roe Head, which helped to keep alive the possibility of becoming a writer later; she even reads the submissive answer to Southey's famous put-down, when he told her that writing was not for women, as a piece of sarcasm.

Charlotte's remark - 'in the evenings I confess I think' - provokes modern readers to laughter, which prompts Gordon to the claim that Charlotte here forged a voice to carry her beyond her own age; and this is true, although I am not convinced that she meant it in the spirit in which we now respond to it, or that she was consciously mimicking the accents of subjection, as Gordon suggests. But the argument is ingenious, and there is no doubt that Charlotte had two voices, the smooth, flat tone of the 'dutiful daughter of a clergyman', and the throbbing energy of the passionate and determined woman who compared herself to her own tyrannical father when asking for money from her aunt to enable her to study abroad: 'When he left Ireland to go to Cambridge University, he was as ambitious as I am now.'

Gordon points to the same double voice in the letters to Monsieur Heger, the Belgian schoolmaster who was the great love of Charlotte's life. Heger saw that he had an outstanding pupil in this mouselike young Protestant, set her challenging devoirs, and flirted, as most teachers flirt with clever students; and Gordon casts him as the enabler of her genius. She says he made her visible in a world which had not hitherto noticed her, but always through words; she loved him for 'the stirring exchange of words', not adultery. Although he kept her passion at bay, and soon stonily refused even to answer her letters, let alone drop the crumbs of affection she begged for, without Heger the narrative voice of Jane Eyre might never have been forged: a voice that shocked and entranced the world in equal measure, making its mark on writers as far away as Tolstoy, who was inspired by it when he wrote Family Happiness.

Gordon also rejects the standard view of the end of Charlotte's life. She sees her husband, the curate Arthur Nicholls, as meeting her need because he was the one who valued her for her domestic rather than her writing self, and gave her the demonstrative, physical love she wanted. For this, she was prepared to give up her freedom, and to give it up to a man she knew to be her inferior intellectually; to lose her privacy, her time, her work and even her women friends, whom Arthur resented. We may accept that she made the choice deliberately, but still think it a rotten bargain. Five months after their wedding, she remarked to him one evening, 'If you had not been with me I must have been writing now.' Four months after that she was dead; the diagnosis was tuberculosis, aggravated by severe pregnancy sickness. Gordon suggests it may rather have been a chance infection, which is possible; and insists on the happiness of the last year in which she chose life over art, marital submission rather than writing.

Charlotte's final written words spoke of her heart being knit to her husband as 'the best earthly comfort any woman had'. Still, we cannot help thinking that, without Arthur Nicholls, she would have lived and written on.

Gordon likens her to George Eliot and Sylvia Plath, both of whom, she suggests, also chose to live 'shadowed' lives because they wanted sexual love as much as they wanted to write. Yet Eliot was encouraged and supported in her work by her husbandly lover; and Plath married her intellectual and artistic equal. Had Charlotte Bronte been able to marry Heger or George Smith, her situation would have been more hopeful; only she did not. Her remark that 'It would take a great deal to crush me' remained true as long as she faced the world alone; it was the assuaging of her hunger for love that crushed her.

This is a book full of brilliant suggestions, and if Charlotte Bronte sometimes figures more as a case or a problem than as a living being, the case and the problem do engage our attention and interest from the first page to the last.

(Photograph omitted)

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