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CHARLOTTE BRONTE'S NOVELS, article in The Literary World 1870
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Men whose hair is as yet but sparsely touched with grey can recollect the excitement produced in the literary world by the appearance of "Jane Eyre, a Novel, by Currer Bell." Literary fashions change very quickly in these days, and they have changed several times since all the penmen and penwomen to whom novel-writing is as much a trade as bonnet-making to the milliner, or cake-making to the confectioner, or shoddy-making to the manufacturer of that popular article, concentrated their energies upon the task of throwing off plaster casts of the little governess and her grim lover. No manufactured novel twenty-five years ago went to press without a tiny Jane and a black-browed Rochester,— the one ugly, oppressed, sorrowful, but irresistibly clever and fascinating; the other haughty, overbearing, haunted by some mysterious anguish, theatrical in speech and manner, whose part it was first to browbeat and insult the small maiden, and then to fall passionately in love with and marry her. We have since then had heroes and heroines compared with whose performances in murder, suicide, bigamy, trigamy, and wickedness in general, the questionable procedures of Rochester and Jane were but peccadilloes. It is a beneficent provision of nature that the numberless imitations which every work of imaginative genius calls forth, and which temporarily injure it in the public regard, are sure after a brief and uncomfortable existence to sink into utter oblivion, and leave the work of power and originality in the solitude of its greatness. The troops of tearful, pale-faced governesses, which marched across the page of English fiction for some ten years, have all followed Banquo's ghostly issue into the realm of eternal shadow; but the mother of the whole ill-starred race, the queer, plain, keen, clever, indomitable Jane Eyre of Charlotte Bronte, remains an imperishable figure in the imaginative literature of England. And though the character of Jane Eyre is the most original and striking of her delineations, that of Shirley, the brave, brilliant, kind-hearted, sharp-tongued Yorkshire girl and heiress will hardly fail to live. None of Charlotte Bronte's men are so good as her women. Rochester has ineradicable traces of the histrio and the snob; St. John Rivers is a not ill-executed portrait of the devout Anglican parson, but not so good as we have had from other hands; both the Moores are related, if somewhat distantly, to the prig family; but Jane Eyre, and Shirley, and Caroline Helstone, and oven subordinate and slightly sketched female characters from her pen are of sterling truth and value.
Charlotte Bronte was the eldest of a large family, all except one in the number being girls, born to the Rev. Mr. Bronte, incumbent of Keighley, Yorkshire. The father was of Irish birth and descent, his name being originally Prunty. The son turned out a drunken reprobate. Three of the daughters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—gave proofs, while still young, of great literary talent, the two first of strong and rare genius. Emily published "Wuthering Heights," an unwholesome, sensational novel, but splendidly written and full of power. Anne produced one or more works of fiction, but they fall markedly below the level of her sisters' books. All three wrote verses, and they published a small selection of pieces, calling themselves on the title-page Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell. Those by Emily are decidedly the best, and it can hardly be doubted that her vein of genius was of a more fiery and unique character even than that of the longer-lived and more celebrated Charlotte. "What a story," says Thackeray, "is that of that family of poets in their solitude yonder on the gloomy northern moors! At nine o'clock, Mrs. Gaskell tells, after evening prayers, when their guardian and relative had gone to bed, the three poetesses—the three maidens, Charlotte, and Emily, and Anne—Charlotte being the 'motherly friend and guardian to the other two'—began, like restless wild animals, to pace up and down their parlour, 'making out' their wonderful stories, talking over plans and projects, and thoughts of what was to be their future life." For Thackeray Charlotte Bronte entertained an admiration verging on reverence. When she came to London, he was one of those whose acquaintance she was specially proud and happy to make:
"I saw her first just as I rose out of an illness from which I had never thought to recover. I remember the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great honest eyes. An impetuous honesty seemed to me to characterise the woman. Twice I recollect she took me to task for what she held to be errors in doctrine. Once about Fielding we had a disputation. She spoke her mind out. She jumped too rapidly to conclusions. (I have smiled at one or two passages in the Biography, in which my own disposition or behaviour forms the subject of talk.) She formed conclusions that might be wrong, and built up whole theories of character upon them. New to the London world, she entered it with an independent, indomitable spirit of her own; and judged of contemporaries, and especially spied out arrogance or affectation, with extraordinary keenness of vision. She was angry with her favourites if their conduct or conversation fell below her ideal. Often she seemed to me to be judging the London folk prematurely; but, perhaps, the city is rather angry at being judged. I fancied an austere little Joan of Arc marching in upon us, and rebuking our easy lives, our easy morals. She gave me the impression of being a very pure, and lofty, and high-minded person. A quiet and holy reverence of right and truth seemed to me to be with her always. Such, in our brief interview, she appeared to me. As one thinks of that life so noble, so lovely—of that passion for truth—of those nights and nights of eager study, swarming fancies, invention, depression, elation, prayer; as one reads the necessarily incomplete, though most touching and admirable history of the heart that throbbed in this one little frame—of this one amongst the myriads of souls that have lived and died on this great earth—this great earth?—this little speck in the infinite universe of God,—with what wonder do we think of to-day, with what awe await to-morrow, when that which is now but darkly seen shall be clear!"
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