Book review – Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon

charlotte bronte.jpg

Published 1995


After watching the BBC One drama To Walk Invisible shown over Christmas and written by the enviably talented Sally Wainwright, I decided to pull off my shelf a book that’s been sitting there overlooked for some time. It’s a biography of the life of Charlotte Bronte by Lyndall Gordon, a book I found in a charity shop a few years ago. It’s only now that I’ve found the time (with the prompting of the fantastic BBC drama) to read it.

I should also mention that charity shops are my go-to place for books. Not only are they cheap (I buy so many) but I feel like I’m also doing my bit for charity and if you’re lucky enough to find a really good one, then the range of titles you come across can be a revelation. My particular favourite at the moment is the Oxfam in Manchester City Centre. The books are a little pricier than in most charity shops but the variety and condition tends to be better and I certainly don’t regret braving a wet afternoon for this little gem of a book.

What Lyndall Gordon has set out to do is to reimagine, “The usual view of Charlotte Bronte…as a figure of pathos in the shadow of tombstones” to someone who was “very much a survivor, a determinedly professional writer, impatient, sarcastic.” He shows how this is at odds with her public image, one that was cultivated after her death by the likes of her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls and the writer Elizabeth Gaskell, among many.

He states that he isn’t attempting, “A final truth about a life” but rather that, “The time has come to bring out the strength that turned loss to gain.” That for me is what Gordon’s book hinges on, showing how Charlotte Bronte was able to turn tragedy into something productive and imaginative. His intention, he adds, is to open up the gaps in her story with the help of her autobiographical fiction, to reveal a hidden life with, “Abundant creative energy”, as someone who wasn’t afraid to speak up got the socially obsure.

Gordon delves into what lies between the facts since many parts of her life were obscured by decisions taken after her death. He builds (he says) on the research of Winifred Gerin and Rebecca Fraser. Having read neither’s work, from the onset I decided to judge this work on it’s merits alone rather than where it fits into Bronte scholarship. I’m not a Bronte specialist, simple an avid reader of their work. What I wanted from this book was a fresh insight into Charlotte Bronte’s writing and life. I hoped it would bring another layer of meaning to my readings of her work and that is exactly what Lyndall Gordon has done.

This illuminating biography makes use of a wealth of Charlottes correspondence between those closest to her, correspondence that was either not used or withheld from Charlotte’s first biographer Elizabeth Gaskell. What they reveal is how these individuals, in tandem with a series of life-changing events, shaped her life and work and just as importantly, how closely the two were intertwined for Charlotte Bronte.

It also explores the questions that were of vital interest to Charlotte, questions such as, what is passion for a woman? How much she emerge from silence, raise her voice, pick up her pen?  As Gordon acknowledges, Charlotte was not as shrinking as she appeared and had the, “Courage to enter uncharted regions of women’s lives, to meet the shades who lived there, and find words for their existence.” She did this at a time when to do so would find her labelled as rebellious, unchristian or unwomanly.  Gordon describes her as, “The source of a new voice of truth that was to burst on Victorian society in the late 1840’s.”

Irrespective of whether you’re a Bronte fan or not this is a book that will appeal to all literature fans. What Gordon has attempted to do, with much success, is to dispel the myth of Charlotte Bronte as a lonely governess frequenting the moors and surrounded by the tombstones of loved ones. Instead, Gordon’s presents Charlotte Bronte as  much more of fiery character in the company of those closest to her whilst reserved and at times difficult around strangers.  Charlotte comes across less a victim and more a heroine fit for one of her own novels and at times this does feel like a reach. She’s even used as an influence on the Suffrage movement with Gordon arguing that, “She remains a speaker for the soul as for women. It could be said that she conferred a soul on the Cause which was then coming into being.” But there’s so much to recommend about this book that the unproven speculations (so much of her correspondence was destroyed) and questionable interpretations (in relation to the reasons for her marrying Arthur Bell Nicholls) can be overlooked in favour of a biography that attempts to offer fresh interpretations of her life and work, as a woman who only emerged fully in her novels.

4 stars



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