Bearing more than a few parallels to her heroine, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë was born poor, obscure, and plain. Despite leading a life filled with hardship and tragedy, Brontë became a successful novelist in her thirties. Yet while she received popular acclaim, Brontë also faced scathing reviews and harsh personal criticism.
Brontë's 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, earned the ire of critics for its frank depiction of passion in a woman - a governess, no less. Brontë was maligned as "unwomanly" and "unchristian." Poet Matthew Arnold wrote, "Miss Brontë has written a hideous, undelightful, convulsed, constricted novel... one of the most utterly disagreeable books I've ever read." The Quarterly Review asserted that Jane Eyre revealed "tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine." The novel had its share of defenders as well, not the least of which was fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.
Gaskell and Brontë met when they were both successful writers. Their friendship, though never close, was significant to both women. Gaskell encouraged Brontë to marry and helped arrange financial support for Brontë and her husband. Most notably, however, Gaskell wrote the first biography of Brontë after her untimely death at age 38. This biography changed public perception of Brontë and also solidified Gaskell's career.
Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë remains a remarkable publication. At the time, it was unique for focusing on Brontë's personal life rather than on her accomplishments. It was also unusual for being a biography about a woman written by a woman. In her book, Gaskell aggressively addressed Brontë's reputation as masculine and godless. Carefully selecting anecdotes and letters, Gaskell shaped Brontë into a heroine of towering virtue - a paragon of morality, duty, and sacrifice. Censoring less flattering aspects of her life (such as her open love for a married teacher), Gaskell portrayed Brontë as the fulfillment of womanly duty - a devoted wife, daughter, and sister. Indeed, a woman who died during pregnancy - the ultimate sacrifice for a female of the time.
Gaskell's efforts were an overwhelming success. The Life of Charlotte Brontë sold rapidly and received enthusiastic reviews. The Saturday Review wrote, "We see the woman, not the authoress... and as a woman Charlotte Brontë was in every way remarkable. She clung to duty with a most unselfish completeness and an utter abnegation of all that makes a woman's life happy." Harriet Martineau - the first woman sociologist - compared the work to Plutarch's biographies and medieval hagiographies, claiming Brontë had earned "a better title than many a St. Catherine or St. Bridget."
Brontë's reputation was entirely transformed. Yet soon Gaskell faced her own troubles: a host of libel accusations. The second edition of The Life of Charlotte Brontë has a unique history and importance. The first edition of the book sold out quickly, but the second edition was only available for sale for one brief month. On May 26, 1857, after several lawsuits were directed at Gaskell, the publishers pulled The Life of Charlotte Brontë from shelves and pressured Gaskell to eliminate the challenged material. Lady Scott sued Gaskell for her depiction as seducer of Charlotte's brother, Bramwell. In another instance, relatives of William Carus Wilson, founder of the Clergyman's Daughter's School, disputed Gaskell's portrayal of Wilson and his institution (the inspiration of the abusive school in Jane Eyre). Even Brontë's widower asked for revisions.
Gaskell acquiesced to avoid legal battles and the third and subsequent editions of the book were cleansed of controversial passages. Most were unimpressed with the revisions, and Mary Taylor, a friend of Gaskell, referred to it as the "mutilated edition."
Gaskell's work remains an important literary and historical work today, although one does wonder if in Gaskell's zeal to defend Brontë's honor, she failed to convey the indomitable spirit of her subject. A proto-feminist, Brontë chaffed at traditional women's roles. She viewed a governess' life as bondage and vehemently opposed marriages lacking in love and respect. Brontë created one of the most beloved, impassioned, and fiery Victorian heroines, Jane Eyre. A character who asserted, “Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!" In writing Jane, Brontë captured a part of herself. It is a pity that Gaskell downplayed Brontë's remarkable spirit to defend her to the moral censors of the time.