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)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor