Sarah's Reviews > Life of Charlotte Bronte

Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
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Mar 10, 10

bookshelves: brontephilia, best-beloved
Read in March, 2010, read count: 1

After her first meeting with Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote the following in a letter to a friend:

"She and I quarrelled & differed about almost every thing,-she calls me a democrat, & can not bear Tennyson- but we like each other heartily I think & I hope we shall ripen into friends."

...If that sentence doesn't fill you with love and make you excited to read this book, then there's probably no hope for you at all.

This book is a lot more than a biography of Charlotte Brontë. Some of the other topics it touches on, directly or by way of object lesson: feminism/women's place in art and society, the limits and pitfalls of biography, censorship, myths about the Brontës, celebrity, the balance between being a writer and being a person, railway speculation, the history of Haworth, outdated Penzance fashions. It is a heady brew of awesomeness.

Charlotte's letters to her friends and publishers are the main draw here. They're well-chosen to convey her personality--wry, critical, kind, anxious. Props to Ellen Nussey for not destroying Charlotte's letters even under pressure from Arthur Bell Nicholls. I love, love, love thinking about these boss ladies writing letters back and forth, exchanging books and their opinions of them, and being dear friends. I love George Smith and his thoughtful book selections, too.

The introduction by Jenny Uglow in this edition is good and not too long. However, Graham Handley's "other critical apparatus," as the cover so obnoxiously describes it, is not that great. The endnotes often point out the obvious while neglecting interesting subjects. Also, unless you speak French, I'd recommend looking out for an edition that translates the French letters and exercises, at least in summary.

Especially in the early part of the book, you can see where Gaskell got some of the material she uses in her own novels, but this doesn't have the tone or style of her other prose. Still, it's pretty great. You can argue that the book has well-documented issues, but it was Victorian England after all, and by now I think its issues are part of its charm.
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