Charlotte Bronte: The Only Self-Help Author You’ll Ever Need

17Jul13

The publication of Pride and Prejudice is 200 this year, but another widely admired author isn’t too far behind: Charlotte Bronte will have a 200th birthday in 2016. I’ve long admired Jane Eyre for having the kind of clarity and potency of storytelling that allows her to begin a chapter with four simple words: “Reader, I married him.” But there are also important undercurrents in the book, and I didn’t know their source terribly well until I also read The Life of Charlotte Bronte, written shortly after her death by her friend Elizabeth Gaskell.

In the age of the Internet and immediate gratification, it’s hard to imagine Bronte and her sisters, nearly isolated in rural England, walking home from the library and stealing excited glances at a new title. But there’s lesson one from Charlotte Bronte, and her short life: if you want to be a writer (or anything else) learn it like there’s little else in the world. Her dedication to meaningful progress is described later: “Sometimes weeks or even months elapsed before she felt that she had anything to add to that portion of her story which was already written.”bronte

Fairly isolated, enduring dreary weather and fragile health, these women persevered. Courage? Yes, they had courage as well as focus. Her dedication to culture is also described: “She always said there was enough of hard practicality and useful knowledge forced on us by necessity, and that the thing most needed was to soften and refine our minds. She picked up every scrap of information concerning painting, sculpture, poetry, music, etc. as if it were gold.”

These days we fuss when there’s a lineup at Starbucks, and we’re in danger of losing touch with something important – simply enough, it’s that the delay between desire and gratification is what makes something finally, sweetly satisfying. Bronte gave Jane Eyre a quality of centered satisfaction that gave her depth, and made her appealing. Jane appreciated what she had, and wasn’t constantly looking to the next thing. Gaskell reproduces a number of letters by Bronte, and they have statements like “It remains only to do one’s best, and endure with patience what God sends.”

Looking for proof behaviour encourages behaviour, and that kindness is returned to us? An unnamed local man describes walking ten miles at a time to be certain he always had a supply of writing paper to sell them: “They used to buy a great deal of writing paper, and I used to wonder whatever they did with so much. When I was out of stock, I was always afraid of their coming; they seemed so distressed about it, if I had none. I have walked to Halifax (a distance of ten miles) many a time, for half a ream of paper, for fear of being without it when they came. I could not buy more at a time for want of capital. I was always short of that. I did so like them to come when I had anything for them; they were so much different to anybody else; so gentle and kind, and so very quiet.”

He goes on to say, “Charlotte sometimes would sit and inquire about our circumstances so kindly and feelingly! … though I am a poor working man … I could talk with her with the greatest freedom. I always felt quite at home with her. Though I never had any school education, I never felt the want of it in her company.” Clearly, she treated people as human beings first, without concern for title, rank or position.

Bronte had a discussion with her sisters, who felt a fictional heroine should be attractive. She disagreed, saying “I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours.” So, if not exactly a feminist, she was at least interested to show self-worth shouldn’t be attached to any particular standard of attractiveness.

When her brother Branwell was in a period of heavier drinking, she made this observation in a letter: “You ask me if I do not think that men are strange beings? I do, indeed. I have often thought so; and I think, too, that the mode of bringing them up is strange: they are not sufficiently guarded from temptation. Girls are protected as if they were something very frail or silly indeed, while boys are turned loose on the world, as if they, of all beings in existence, were the wisest and least liable to be led astray.”

I’ll make a small confession here: I’m not the biggest fan of self-help books. At least, I don’t trust that the right book frequently meets the right individual at the right time. I think people go through difficult times, and people heal by reaching out to family, friends and community. A belief in God clearly helped Charlotte Bronte, but that may not work for everyone. If anything, I think the right literature at the right time is what can be immensely helpful, and it took a biography of Charlotte Bronte to help me better understand the spirit behind Jane Eyre, and the personality that infused the book. When I worked in a bookstore, I helped a woman looking for a gift for friends who’d just lost a baby. She came to me with various titles and I kept wincing and grimacing until I finally suggested something that doesn’t specifically remind them of their dead baby every time they look at it. Both Austen and Bronte provide rich, graceful reminders happiness is sometimes behind a certain amount of adversity.

Bronte died at thirty-eight, having outlived all her siblings, and despite missing them terribly she tried to remain positive, writing at home with her father on a night of “storms of rain,” she comments, “Though alone, I am not unhappy; I have a thousand things to be thankful for, and, among the rest, that this morning I received a letter from you, and that this evening I have the privilege of answering it.”  She was given fairly little in life, but made remarkable use of it. Today, I try not to judge people too harshly, as it’s human nature to take for granted whatever is almost completely reliable. But that we’re generally far less appreciative in an age of abundance is a great irony.

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2 Responses to “Charlotte Bronte: The Only Self-Help Author You’ll Ever Need”

  1. Really enjoyed this post, Alex. A blog post with content – such a novelty!
    Am reading Villette right now, intrigued by the footnotes as much as the book. Have to read Gaskell’s bio next

  2. Lovely to read such a long thoughtful post about CB. I read the Gaskell biography many years ago after a period of immersion in her novels and I appreciated the care she brought to her friend’s life (and death). Maybe it’s time to revisit both. Thank you for this.


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