YESTERDAY the nation celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday, and the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. Tomorrow, St George’s Day, we have the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death.
Whereas the sovereign’s life has been chronicled in more detail than that of any of her predecessors, the Bard’s remains something of a mystery. And, whereas the Supreme Governor of the Church of England has testified to her personal beliefs in Christmas broadcasts, we cannot even be certain that Shakespeare was a Protestant: we have to focus on the works rather than the life.
In the case of Charlotte Brontë, however, we know so much about her life, and we know her novels —one of them, at least — so well that author and heroine, and their spiritual lives, are frequently confused.
While George Austen’s preaching, full of Georgian common sense and Tory patriotism, clearly shaped his literary daughter Jane’s spiritual formation, Patrick Brontë’s comparatively liberal Evangelical teaching from the pulpit in Haworth competed with other, darker voices that deeply affected his daughter Charlotte in childhood and early womanhood.
Warnings, for example, of the spiritual dangers attendant on sudden death in The Children’s Friend, by the Revd William Carus Wilson, used in his school for the daughters of clergy which she attended at Cowan Bridge, were enough to drive her deeper into the fantasy world of the “Young Men” invented with her brother, Branwell, and described in their juvenile writings.
In adolescence, her Romantic imagination was stimulated by the apocalyptic John Martin prints that adorned the walls of the parsonage at Haworth, and fuelled by her reading of Byron and Blackwood’s Magazine, to which her broad-minded father allowed free access.
Battered by these cross-currents, frustrated by the limitations of life as a teacher at Roe Head School, and perhaps unnerved by her sexual feelings, Charlotte underwent a spiritual crisis as a young woman. “I know the treasures of the Bible,” she wrote to her pious friend Ellen Nussey. “I love and adore them. I can see the Well of Life in all its clearness and brightness; but when I stoop down to drink of the pure waters they fly from my lips as if I were Tantalus.”
She felt “smitten at times to the heart” with the conviction that Ellen’s “ghastly Calvinistic doctrines” were true, and that she was perhaps beyond redemption. In an age in which matters of doctrine were conversational currency among the educated classes, particularly on a Sunday, Charlotte and her sisters would declare that their relationship with God was a private matter. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to suggest that, on the then central theme of judgement and the future life, Charlotte and her sister Anne were drawn towards universalism, or “restorationism”: the belief that all will ultimately be saved.
For the novelist — and it is as a writer that we commemorate Charlotte — the ending to which the narrative presses offers opportunities for judgement or for openness. In design, Jane Eyre is reminiscent of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which, in a sense, the novel rewrites. As a spiritual autobiography, it is more reminiscent of Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners — although, again, in a revisionary way.
Take, for example, Jane’s interpretation of the mysterious cry from the damaged and chastened Rochester, when she is on the brink of submitting to St John Rivers and his call to the mission field. This was “no miracle”, she affirms, but “the work of nature”, and she seems to penetrate “very near a Mighty Spirit” when she hurries upstairs to pray in a “different way” from St John’s.
Then consider the final chapter, which begins with the famous words “Reader, I married him.” Rather than close with Jane as she reaches the goal of emotional fulfilment in this world, the novel ends with the word “Jesus”, as the focus shifts to St John and the heavenly reward that beckons for him.
Daily his Master has announced that “I come quickly,” to which St John replies: “Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!” In closing with the penultimate verse in the Bible, Charlotte’s domesticated Gothic is placed within a specifically Christian framework.
Matthew Arnold wrote his elegiac “Haworth Churchyard” shortly after Charlotte’s death on 31 March 1855, when she was the pregnant wife of the Revd Arthur Nicholls. Although the poet had visited Haworth three years earlier, he evidently failed to realise that the Brontës were not buried in the churchyard “next the moors”, but in a vault under the church.
Elizabeth Gaskell put Arnold right in a congratulatory letter, to which he replied: “I am almost sorry you told me about the place of their burial. It really seems to me to put the finishing touch to the strange cross-grained character of the fortunes of that ill-fated family that they should even be placed after death in the wrong, uncongenial spot.”
Rather than make a pilgrimage to Haworth to see for yourself, I recommend a re-reading of the spiritual journey of Jane Eyre, or of Lucy Snowe in Villette, where the heroine’s troubled relationship with “M. Paul” Emanuel draws on Charlotte’s own experience of falling in love with the married Constantin Héger at his boarding school in Brussels, where she taught English in her mid-twenties.
While remaining alert to the dangers of conflating fact and fiction, author and heroine, we can allow ourselves the harmless pleasure of drawing parallels between them, as we celebrate the bicentenary.
Dr Michael Wheeler is chairman of Gladstone’s Library, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton. Among his books are Heaven, Hell and the Victorians (CUP, 1994), and The Old Enemies: Catholic and Protestant in 19th century English culture (CUP, 2006).