Twenty Readings of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë
By Dale Nelson

Charlotte Bronte

To get the full effect, read Machen’s testimonial out loud: “Among the minor classics I should like to place a book which I have just been re-reading – for the twentieth time, I suppose” – Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of the author of Jane Eyre. Gaskell’s book, Machen proclaimed, “is a work of art; it is a composed and perfect picture of Charlotte Brontë, and of the terrible and tragic environment in which she lived. You can hear the wind ‘wuthering’ round that grim parsonage amidst the graves, on the height of those dismal rolling moors; you feel the tragedy of those lives, the horror that surrounded them as the mists surround the bleak hills” (written 1908; reprinted in Mist and Mystery, p. 115).

If I’d known there was a modern book Machen had read five times, I’d have been interested. But twenty times — !

Its first edition was published in 1857, two years after Charlotte Brontë’s death and ten years after publication of Jane Eyre. One hundred and sixty years later, the British Guardian paper named The Life of Charlotte Brontë one of the “hundred best nonfiction books of all time.”

Elizabeth Gaskell

A fine novelist in her own right, Elizabeth Gaskell had been a friend of Charlotte. Gaskell navigated the London literary world confidently, seeing many of her works of fiction into print in a periodical edited by Charles Dickens. When Charlotte died, Patrick Brontë, father of the two famous sisters and their siblings – all of whom he outlived – asked her to write Charlotte’s life. This Gaskell did, in two volumes. The first covers Charlotte’s first 30 years, the second her remaining nine years, for which Gaskell had abundant letters from which to quote.

The Life evokes the West Riding of Yorkshire as a remote world from London, though it was only 200-odd miles away. Here were folk, sometimes reserved, sometimes bursting out in violence, unforgiving of their enemies, standing fast to their friends. Fairies had been seen in living memory and strange lore circulated among the people. Like something out of Spelman’s History and Fate of Sacrilege (1698) – a book “published for the terror of evildoers” – Gaskell tells of Henry Batt, who seized church property in England’s post-Reformation period; thereafter, one afternoon in 1684, his descendant appeared unexpectedly at Oakwell Hall; in fact, this was his apparition, for he had been killed in a duel in London that same day. The Hall passed out of the family’s hands soon afterwards. His bloody footprint remained to be seen in a bedchamber there.

Patrick Brontë, father of the six children, must have become something of a local legend himself. He could relieve his anger by firing a pistol; on one occasion he furiously sawed off the legs from his wife’s chair. He discovered a silk gown that had been given to her and cut it up as being too fine. Servants no doubt found ready ears for such tales among their gossips in the village. His wife died young of cancer.

Readers of Jane Eyre will remember Jane’s miseries at Lowood School, where the girls are starved and bullied by adults. This episode was based on Charlotte’s time at the Cowan’s Bridge School for the daughters of poor clergymen. The master, the Reverend William Carus Wilson, looks himself to have been well fed, but apparently trusted a bad cook who served the girls unwholesome, even literally inedible, food. Gaskell says that Wilson was “apparently unconscious of the fact, that daily loathing and rejection of food is sure to undermine the health.” The children, Wilson held, “were to be trained up to regard higher things than dainty pampering of the appetite,” and “he lectured them on the sin of caring over-much for carnal things.” Charlotte attributed her short stature to inadequate nourishment in girlhood. She believed herself to be “stunted”; and in fact the joiner who constructed her coffin said she was just four foot nine inches, according to Phyllis Bentley.

Carus Wilson also thought it good for the girls’ souls to preach humility at them on the score of their dependence on charity. Sickness throve at the school, and two of Charlotte’s sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died from tuberculosis evidently contracted there, while an outbreak of typhus made perhaps 40 of the girls ill. Charlotte and Emily were brought home in time – though the parsonage was far from being a healthy place. “Haworth is built with an utter disregard of all sanitary conditions: the great old churchyard lies above all the houses, and it is terrible to think how the very water-springs of the pumps below must be poisoned.” Gaskell later adds, “illness often assumed a low typhoid form in Haworth, and fevers of various kinds visited the place with sad frequency.” Recently I’ve been watching the current version of All Creatures Great and Small on public television. The series is set in Yorkshire. A recurrent topic is tubercular cows, whose milk could spread the illness. That may have been a reason that lung disease was so common an affliction among the Brontës.

Mrs. Gaskell’s exposé of the Cowan’s Bridge school was one of the things that created a flap when the first edition of the Life appeared. English literature abounds in fiction and nonfiction about horrible schools, from Charles Lamb’s schoolboys who regarded with dismay the “gags” they were given to eat at Christ’s Hospital, to Dickens’s Dotheboys Hall and Orwell’s St. Cyprian’s – and Machen’s Lupton.

Back in Haworth, young Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, and their ill-destined brother Branwell devoted intense effort to the writing of stories of Gondal, Angria, Glass Town, etc. – recalling and far exceeding the later boyhood absorption of C. S. Lewis and his brother Warren in their imaginary lands of Boxen and “India.” The Brontë stories were written in a tiny print meant to look like type. Thus they beguiled hours in the parsonage, with its view of the graves on three sides, though in girlhood Charlotte was much interested in current politics too, conjured from the newspapers. Phyllis Bentley, in The Brontës and Their World, is more interested in the juvenilia than Gaskell was. Bentley notes that during these six years the four Brontë youngsters composed a “mass” of “childhood writings, rather greater in wordage than the whole of the Brontës’ published works” (which would include a volume of poems plus six novels published in their lifetimes).

The father wanted the children, when they should have reached adulthood, to be able to support themselves in the event of his death; he apparently had little or no savings from a meager salary. Charlotte was next sent to Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, a pleasant establishment “more like a private establishment than a school” and complete with the sound of a “rustling silk gown” as an invisible lady ascended to the unoccupied third story. Charlotte’s weak eyesight amused her schoolmates, as she held her book close to her nose, but her industry as a pupil impressed them and her night-time storytelling nearly frightened them out of their wits and could induce “violent palpitations.”

Then Charlotte returned to the parsonage to teach Emily and Anne. For exercise they walked on the wild moors, preferring to avoid the little village where, however, they taught in the Sunday school. They read, not only volumes by Sir Walter Scott and Wordsworth in the home library, but books from a circulating library in Keighley – a walk of four miles each way. (Machen’s autobiography recalls his own youthful reading of Scott and his long walks.)

At 19, Charlotte became a teacher herself with Miss Wooler, with Emily as a student; but Emily couldn’t bear to be away from the “’liberty,’” as Charlotte put it, of the “‘bleak solitude’” of the beloved heathlands and returned home. Charlotte believed that Emily would have died of homesickness if she had not gone home. Anne took her place at the boarding school.

Gaskell gives us a picture of the three Brontë sisters at home that has become famous. At 9:00 in the evening, they would put away their knitting or sewing, “free to pace up and down (like restless wild animals) in the parlour, talking over plans and projects, and thoughts of what was to be their future life.” She wants us to imagine them in those evenings, “as often with the candles extinguished, for economy’s sake, as not, — their figures glancing into the fire-light, and out into the shadow, perpetually. At this time, they talked over past cares, and troubles; …In after years, this was the time for discussing together the plots of their novels.”

That narrow-walled pacing contrasts with the freedom enjoyed by their brother. Mrs. Gaskell believes they sensed something was amiss with him but didn’t really want to know. Branwell yearned to escape to London and to become a famous author or painter; in the meantime, he hung out with boon companions at such places as the Black Bull tavern. He became entangled with a married woman, a matter that created another flap when it was reported in the first edition of The Life of Charlotte Brontë, where Mrs. Gaskell’s censure of the woman was severe. Furthermore, Branwell’s health was damaged by alcohol and laudanum abuse.

Charlotte served twice as a governess. Even when the work was not onerous, she was tormented “by the consciousness of faculties unexercised.” She could not be content as a teacher of small children, yet what else could she do?

To improve her qualifications, she persuaded her aunt to fund studies in Brussels, the main object being the acquisition of good spoken French, so that she could teach it. At first, Emily came too and, moreover, Charlotte had English friends staying in Belgium. However, after a return to England on their aunt’s death, Emily did not go back to Brussels. Charlotte became a teacher of French girls in the school while learning German. Her English friends had left. Charlotte wrote, “I get on here from day to day in a Robinson Crusoe-like sort of way, very lonely.” Her experiences in Brussels gave her the basis for Villette, sometimes regarded as her masterpiece. It is a great novel of isolation. Machen’s Hill of Dreams was “a Robinson Crusoe of the soul,” and so might Villette be considered to be, rooted in her own anguished solitude.

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne had hoped to attract pupils for a school of their own at the Haworth parsonage. This project was a failure (and one might remember Arthur Machen’s gig as a tutor in London). At age 28, Charlotte wrote, “I feel as if we were all buried here.” Unknown to the world, however, they kept up their “pacing up and down the sitting room”; the time came when “they talked over the stories they were engaged upon, and described their plots. Once or twice a week, each read to the others what she had written, and heard what they had to say about it” – a sororal, non-beery Inklings. “Charlotte told me, that the remarks made had seldom any effect in inducing her to alter her work, so possessed was she with the feeling that she had described reality; but the readings were of great and stirring interest to all, taking them out of the gnawing pressure of daily recurring cares, and setting them in a free place. It was on one of these occasions, that Charlotte determined to make her heroine plain, small, and unattractive, in defiance of the accepted canon.” Emily and Anne were sure the heroine had to be beautiful in order to interest readers, but Charlotte told them she would prove to them that they were wrong!

In 1847 came exciting news indeed. The novels by Emily and Anne were accepted for publication. Charlotte’s first effort, The Professor, had been turned down, but while in Manchester with her father, who was undergoing cataract surgery, she had begun Jane Eyre; its writing went quickly, and, as it turned out, before her sisters’ tales appeared in print, Charlotte’s second novel was not only accepted but published. By the end of 1847 the three women were novelists with books – though not books to their names.

The Bronte Sisters             

The sisters used the pen names Acton (Anne), Currer (Charlotte), and Ellis (Emily) Bell. Some of Emily’s poetry is esteemed, and Charlotte’s novels Shirley and Villette are impressive in their own right and not just as books that happen to be by the author of the much-loved Jane Eyre. Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, are still read. Machen said Emily’s Wuthering Heights was “a work of the highest genius,” while Jane Eyre was the lesser book but still “a remarkable book indeed” (Mist and Mystery, p. 116). Introduce a bright girl of 12 or so to Jane Eyre and she’s likely to take to it and never afterwards be afraid of tackling Victorian novels, even the thickest ones.

Branwell’s wretched life came to its end in September 1848, when Charlotte was 32. Emily and Anne followed him in death, victims of lung disease. Charlotte remained at the Haworth parsonage with her father, who was pleased about his daughters’ literary success but kept much to himself. His one surviving child, now a spinster in her thirties, craved privacy but realized the “Currer Bell” identity was futile. She met her literary hero Thackeray and various members of the publishing world in London, but these visits were always a strain. In Haworth, she wrote, “I am free to walk on the moors; but when I go out there alone, everything reminds me of the times when others were with me, and then the moors seem a wilderness, featureless, solitary, saddening. My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry-leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet, but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon.”

Mrs. Gaskell had plenty of letters to draw upon for the last few years, and readers may find Charlotte’s musings on health and isolation repetitive. Finally, at 38, she accepted the proposal of a curate of her father’s, but she died less than a year after the wedding. The Reverend Mr. Brontë lived for six more years.

Haworth Parsonage

C. S. Lewis read Gaskell’s Life in his late teens. Having just finished Anne’s Tenant, “I am now beginning Mrs. Gaskell’s ‘Life’ in the household edition & love it already. The description of Haworth with the moors going up behind it is heavenly,” he wrote to Arthur Greeves. In his next letter he says the book is “quite beyond all praise, especially in the description of scenery,” and “Mrs. Gaskell’s excellent description has quite fired me.” Readers like to think of the Oxford of Tolkien and Lewis, of Dickens’s and Sherlock Holmes’s London; some think of Arthur Machen’s Gwent; and many readers indeed imagine the Yorkshire moors of the Brontës.


Mrs. Gaskell rewrote portions of the Life that had provoked certain families, and added to her story with material that had come her way since she first composed the book. The edition read by Machen was, I suppose, the third. I read the 1975 Penguin Classics version with copious notes by Alan Shelston. The main text is Gaskell’s first edition, with material from the third in appendices.

This essay: copyright 2023 by Dale Nelson

One thought on “Twenty Readings of “Life of Charlotte Brontë”

  1. This is fascinating – thanks! I’ve enjoyed the Elizabeth Gaskill fiction I’ve read, so far – the very different-from-each-other Cranford and North and South (both from earlier in the 1850s), and this sounds an intriguing book to compare and contrast in its vivid imagination of landscape and fireside (and various schools!).


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