Today, we salute Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) on the occasion of her 200th birthday!
Here at Chawton House Library, her 1850 letter on reading Jane Austen’s Emma is part of our current ‘Emma at 200′ exhibition, on loan to us from the Huntington Library in California.
Today, we shall toast Charlotte with cake for all visitors, and a mini exhibition of Brontë-related illustrations and ephemera – donated by and on loan from Chawton House Library supporters and collectors Sandra Clark, Texas, and Tony Yablon, London. The display of material will be available to view in our lower reading room until the 21st of May.
Below, PhD candidate at the University of Southampton Eleanor Houghton – the organiser of our May 13th and 14th conference on Charlotte Brontë, where we will cut this celebratory cake – reflects on the importance of this bicentenary.
Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the much loved and celebrated author, Charlotte Brontë. Large-scale exhibitions and events are taking place throughout the length and breadth of the nation and beyond, including those at such eminent institutions as The British Library, The National Portrait Gallery, Westminster Abbey and The Morgan Library, New York. Yet as glasses are raised and wreaths are laid one is led to question how is it that this writer continues to arouse such immense interest so many years after her death.
The reasons are complex. There is no doubt that her novels constitute some of the most forceful and vivid literature of the nineteenth century. Charlotte Brontë played her part in changing the tradition of female writing by daring to challenge social perceptions about marriage, class, education and religion. Her novels also broke new ground in their expression of passion and feeling, revealing an emotional maturity beyond that of her contemporaries. These books would have been deemed radical had they been written by a man, but the revelation that their author was, in fact, a woman “set all the literary world of that day vibrating”, as Anne Ritchie Thackeray observed.
Brontë’s role as literary pioneer was noted as early as 1855, when Margaret Oliphant, of Blackwood’s Magazine, declared that the novelist had changed the direction of female authorship. Oliphant wrote, in an 1855 article entitled ‘Modern Novelists – Great and Small’:
“perhaps no other writer of her time has impressed her mark so clearly on contemporary literature, or drawn so many followers on to her own peculiar path”.
Brontë experimented with internal monologue, but also conversed directly with the reader –forging her own ‘peculiar path’ that led to an intense emotional connection with the protagonist and their inner thoughts. Whilst highlighting in particular, the plight of educated, single women of limited means, her heroines also give utterance to the lonely cry of all humanity: the need for significance, love and free expression of the self. Jane Eyre is thus spokesman for all, when she cries:
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!”
What is clear is that despite her apparent fragility, Jane Eyre has the vision and courage to speak up, to defend her right to a place in the world. In defying social norms, Brontë’s heroines, with their paradoxical displays of strength and weakness, express what it is to be complex, multi-faceted human beings.
This identification with the common human condition was not only communicated through her novels, but was later emphasized through the story of her life – both mythological and factual. The tragic early death of her mother, Maria, was followed at intervals by the untimely deaths of her five siblings Maria, Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily and Anne. As well as these almost overwhelming losses, Brontë also battled with the consequences of relative poverty, plainness and obscurity. Whether because of or despite these things, she achieved an almost meteoric rise to fame as a novelist, before her premature death at the age of 38. This potent combination of life and art blurred the distinction between author and protagonist; the amalgamation simultaneously providing her readers with both role model and romantic heroine.
Although this lack of distinction between the writer and the writing has been the cause of significant debate in the intervening years since Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of 1857, it cannot be denied that together, Brontë’s life and work has continued to captivate and inspire. The author’s identification with the plight of all humanity, but most particularly of women, continues to resonate strongly. It is for these reasons, that with perhaps the exceptions of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, no other English novelist has been so often dramatized, reworked or romanticized as Charlotte Brontë. Over the past one hundred and seventy years, this novelist’s life and work has inspired and influenced countless authors and artists, including such well known names as Elizabeth Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Virginia Woolf, Daphne du Maurier, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys, Barnett Freedman and Paula Rego.
It is clearly appropriate that here at Chawton House Library we too, shall be marking the bicentenary of the birth of this significant woman writer. On the 13th and 14th May we shall we hosting a bicentennial conference celebrating the life and works of Charlotte Brontë. Delegates and speakers from all over the world – Australia, USA, Sweden, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and of course from all parts of the United Kingdom will be coming together in the beautiful setting of Chawton to meet and to share their newest research. It is a fitting tribute to Charlotte’s literary legacy that contemporary scholarship has transcended the obvious and now leads us to a wide place – where nothing is out of bounds. The abstracts submitted have thus covered a wide range of themes ranging from meteorology to medievalism, from marriage to madness.
We have also been fortunate enough to secure three outstanding and equally diverse keynote speakers. On Friday 13th May, Juliet Barker, historian, biographer of The Brontës and previous curator and librarian of The Brontë Parsonage Museum, will open the conference with her lecture entitled, ‘Re-writing Writers’ Lives: Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë’. After a stimulating day of papers, Justine Picardie, author of Daphne, a novel that explores the profound impact of the Brontës on subsequent generations of writers, and Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar and Town and Country magazines, will discuss how the spirit of Charlotte Brontë continues to haunt writers who have followed in her wake. On Saturday 14th May, Sally Shuttleworth, Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and author of Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology and The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science and Medicine, 1840-1900, will conclude what we know will have been an invigorating and significant two days, with her talk ‘Charlotte Brontë: Experimental Novelist’.
As we make final preparations for this exciting bicentennial conference, we can be confident that Brontë’s legacy will continue in the years ahead. It is heartening to think, that in this uncertain world, a tercentennial conference might well be held here to pay tribute to this provocative and trailblazing novelist. For however the world may change in the years ahead, Brontë’s ability to give voice to the aspirations and longings of every human soul transcends both time and place.