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Reader, I stalked him: on Charlotte Brontë in her bicentenary year

A look at the time Charlotte Brontë spent in Brussels revelas a study in creative obsession.

In the run-up to the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth on 21 April 1816, there has been a renewed surge of wonder at this young woman who speaks so intimately across time – “Reader, I married him” – that she binds “Reader” to her. Jane Austen became the prime literary celebrity a few years ago, but in recent years that kind of glory has shifted to Charlotte, whose anniversary is being celebrated with new biographies and a collection of stories inspired by Jane Eyre; exhibitions in New York, London and Haworth; and television and radio programmes, including a Radio 3 series ­acknowledging Charlotte as not only a novelist but also one of the great letter-writers in our language.

Brussels has emerged as a current site of inspection. Charlotte went there, accompanied by her younger sister Emily, in 1842 and she returned alone for a second year in 1843. The idea was to improve her French and German with a view to opening a school at the parsonage in Haworth, but a stronger motive was to travel.

“[S]uch a vehement impatience of restraint & steady work,” she wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey from her situation as a governess in Yorkshire in August 1841, “such a strong wish for wings . . . – such an urgent thirst to see – to know – to learn – something internal seemed to expand boldly for a minute – I was tantalized with the consciousness of faculties unexercised . . .”

At the Pensionnat Heger, in the now buried rue d’Isabelle at the bottom of the Belliard steps that lead down from the park to the old city, Charlotte had the luck to find a born teacher in M Constantin Heger. Her devoirs for “Monsieur” – he would set topics for her French composition – show the leap she took as a writer. In one piece a poor artist approaches a patron, declaring: “Milord, je crois avoir du Génie” (“My lord, I believe I have genius”). It’s an impassioned baring of the soul, with a thin fictional cover, asking her teacher to promote her gift. A poem, written in English, shows the impact of his seeing her for what she felt herself to be. As the laurel descends on the head of a pupil, named Jane, she feels the successive pulse of “Ambition” and “a secret, inward wound”. It was an illicit passion, because Monsieur was married to the school’s head. It was also a creative love, for his wilful, fiery character would light up the heroes of her novels.

Is there anything new to say about the Brontës, the most written about of ­literary families? Ever since the intimate vehemence of Jane Eyre’s voice burst on the Victorian scene in 1847, the mysteriously gifted Brontës have piqued the public’s curiosity. Claire Harman’s graceful, intelligent and meticulously researched biography returns us to the loss that looms so large in the Brontë story. This is the “classic” line, laid down by Mrs Gaskell’s enduring Life of Charlotte Brontë, published in 1857, two years after her friend’s death at the age of 38. Charlotte’s five siblings had all died before her, and Mrs Gaskell, at the outset, stares at the row of family tombstones rearing up in the graveyard opposite the Brontë parsonage in Haworth. These premature deaths cast a shadow of doom over Charlotte from birth. Harman, at the outset, fixes on another kind of tragedy in the summer of 1843 when Charlotte was alone in Brussels.

The headlights go up on a fact Mrs Gaskell suppressed: Charlotte’s hopeless love for her “master”, her first and keenest literary mentor. This love, we assume, was the substance of Charlotte’s confession in the Cathedral of Saint Michel and Sainte Gudule, near the pensionnat. Here, an anti-Catholic daughter of an Anglican clergyman is driven to unburden to a Catholic priest, and though he tells her that le bonheur of confession should not be available to her, she is “determined” to speak – “a real confession”, she confided to Emily.

The confessional cubicles of the cathedral are still there, as is the Protestant church where Charlotte and Emily worshipped, but for a long time it was assumed there was nothing much to see of Brontë sites. In 2000 this was disproved by a Dutch investigator, Eric Ruijssenaars, in Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land, ably followed by Helen MacEwan with detailed topography and vivid detail about sleeping arrangements and food – pistolets for breakfast and pears from the garden cooked in wine – in The Brontës in Brussels (2014). MacEwan leads a vibrant Brontë Society in Brussels which offers tours of the sites, including a visit underground to what remains of where Charlotte and Emily lived, studied and taught.

Claire Harman’s dominant story is about an obsession. This is the Charlotte who writes to Monsieur that she is “the slave of a fixed and dominant idea which controls the mind”. In stressing her reckless emotions, Harman diverges from Mrs Gaskell’s portrait of a well-conducted, dutiful woman who put the needs of others before her own. Four surviving letters that Charlotte wrote to Monsieur after she left Brussels are indeed “heartbreaking”, but also, in Harman’s view – not unlike the understandable view of Mme Heger – outrageous.

Here is a Charlotte who is something of an epistolary “stalker”. Though Harman is too sensitive to state this bluntly, that word does jump out with startling boldness. We are confronted with a question of manners: Charlotte’s pursuit as a pain to the Hegers and a threat to their school. All the same, we can’t be sure what happened between Monsieur and this pupil. Given his proneness to stir girls’ emotions, with a report of girls weeping in his classes, we cannot know how far Monsieur had invited Charlotte’s response (though all would agree that he had not expected to awaken passion on the Brontë scale). If he was implicated, if he went in for emotional manipulation of his pupils, then Charlotte’s letters read as a courageous response to what today we would recognise as a teacher crossing the boundary of stimulation and playing on a pupil’s wish “to be forever known”. Her eloquence is part of what she is saying: displaying her gift, she begs him to continue her “master” in the sense of mentor.

Then, too, we might take in the fact that French freed her to say things she might not have said in English, which makes her final words to Heger, a PS in English, a point of no return. “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaketh”. To bare her feelings in her own language, rooted in the eloquence of the King James Bible, touches her so strongly that she adds something which no naked eye noticed until it was blown up by a cameraman filming the letters in a small, dark room at the British Library two years ago. I was reading the postscript aloud and the cameraman was filming over my shoulder when suddenly he exclaimed, “What’s this?” Blown up on screen, what had looked like the full stop at the end of this leave-
taking turned out to be a minute heart.

This invisible message to Heger is tantamount to Mr Rochester calling to Jane across an impossible space. Harman believes that Rochester’s call was something that Charlotte Brontë experienced, and it’s the artistic finale to a biography that opens with her act of confession in Monsieur’s home town.

In this narrative, the sequel to Charlotte’s pushy obsession with M Heger is her “impertinent” behaviour, some years later, towards her London publisher, the handsome young George Smith, when she leans forward in a carriage with her hands on his knees. At this moment, after a London party, she is teasing Smith about marriage to a beautiful poetess. Harman suggests that Smith would not have liked Charlotte’s gesture – he said long after her death that he liked her best when she was in Yorkshire – yet there’s much other evidence that he enjoyed her company when they were together, to the extent of inviting her to accompany him on a trip to Edinburgh and then urging a Rhine journey. Though excited by the prospect, she was prudent enough to back away from the Rhine, fearing his mother would not like it.

Smith was put out by her portrait of him as the princely but imperceptive Graham Bretton in Villette (Charlotte’s 1853 novel, named after her fictionalised Brussels); this was because the heroine, Lucy Snowe, comes to prefer a choleric French master. In fact, it was part of the teasing relationship between Brontë and Smith that he had asked her to include him in this novel.

Surviving facts about Charlotte Brontë are so abundant that a definitive biography is impossible. As Lucasta Miller has shown in her brilliant and witty book The Brontë Myth (2001), one approach succeeds another. Harman is a superb biographer – she has composed wonderfully vivid portraits of Fanny Burney and Jane Austen in particular – and there is ample evidence for a cooler portrait of Charlotte Brontë. The challenge (it’s the challenge all biographers have to face) is that our subjects are complex and can be inconsistent. Charlotte’s character, tested by loss and her power to turn loss to gain, is, like all great drama, open to endless interpretation.

Brussels again is a crucial site for Deborah Lutz, whose scrutiny of nine objects in The Brontë Cabinet includes a chapter on the letters to M Heger. Concentrating on material detail, Lutz retells the amazing history of these letters: how Monsieur tore them up; how Mme Heger fished the fragments out of her husband’s waste-paper basket and sewed or stuck the fragments together, and how she kept them in her jewellery box for the next fifty years. Lutz suggests that the reason the Hegers’ daughter gave for keeping the letters, that the amour was all on Charlotte’s side, “doesn’t feel like the whole truth”. The history of stitching and storing in the jewellery box “has a tinge of obsessiveness to it, as if the troubled relationship between the two women” remained as active for Zoë Heger as it did for Charlotte.

A selection of objects is a form of biography that surrenders narrative momentum for the sake of physical intimacy through relics – a very old form of intimacy. Letters, walking stick, portable desk, dog collar, sampler, locks of hair and other posthumous relics are examined intently for marks, stitches and scratches. Might a scratch on Emily’s desk-box be the residue of initials? “Was this a message from the dead . . . ?” Lutz asks. Here are close-ups of the Brontës’ lives through objects they handled and made. It is in a way a collection of essays, opening out from each object to encompass events in the family’s lives and, more widely, to see the objects in the context of their times.

I especially delighted in the chapter on the tiny booklets that the Brontë children put together and wrote themselves under noms de plume, what Lutz aptly calls the “micro-tomes”. Book-making was part of their fantasy lives. “Rather than just a holder of ‘content’ or text to be read, like today’s electronic books, books were things to be manipulated, made personal, appreciated in a tactile way.”

Where the Cabinet invites us to inspect, touch and even smell a collection of treasures, a different kind of closeness may be found in Reader, I Married Him. It’s a terrific set of stories by some of our leading novelists, each of whom engages with a chosen aspect of Jane Eyre. Everyone entranced with Mr Rochester will love “Dangerous Dog” by Kirsty Gunn, in which a fitness instructor, at once alarmed and courageous, tames a fearsome pit bull terrier, confounding the bullies who torment him. And all who enjoy a pained laugh will relish Linda Grant’s “The Mash-Up”, about a disastrous wedding where the Jewish bride and Persian groom are stymied by obstacles. In “The Orphan Exchange”, Audrey Niffenegger dreams up a heartfelt lesbian version of the solace Jane finds in Helen Burns at the cruel Lowood school. In a masterly contribution by Jane Gardam a girl presses her grandmother about her marriage, feeling her way past barriers of time and modesty into a recessed past where there is a glimpse of marital passion. It bears on Jane Eyre’s confidence that: “No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.”

All these stories and both new biographies testify to the live legacy of an author with her finger on the pulse of our feelings. The longer I’ve lived with Charlotte Brontë, the more I’ve come to admire her honesty, in letters and in novels that clasp her characters close enough to hear their hearts beat.

Lyndall Gordon’s Charlotte Brontë: a Passionate Life is published by Virago

Tracy Chevalier (9 April) and Claire Harman (10 April) will be appearing at the Cambridge Literary Festival. Details:

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”