The Annual Meeting of the Alliance of Literary Societies took place last weekend at Haworth on the bleak Yorkshire Moors as guests of the Bronte Society who are celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte.
The keynote speaker for the weekend was historian Juliet Barker, author of The Brontes: A Life in Letters, who sparked controversy with her talk Rewriting Writers’ Lives – Mrs Gaskell and The Life of Charlotte Bronte. She put forward the theory that Mrs Gaskell was invited to write the biography of Charlotte Bronte immediately after the writer’s death to protect her reputation against prevailing critical opinion that Bronte had written about unsuitable subject matter for a woman author (bigamous marriages, mad women in the attic and un-fulfilled love affairs) with unwomanly lack of reserve and, it was implied, was therefore morally deficient herself. Mrs Gaskell, she argued, had a further agenda in writing the biography, which was to further the cause of women writers generally and to enable them to escape the ghetto of subject matters pertaining to the home and hearth, and raising a family in line with good, true Christian values, to which Victorian critics would wish to consign them.
Barker asserted that in order to fulfill these objectives, Mrs Gaskell presented a partial picture of her subject, drawing on the more outlandish tales of Charlotte’s friends and acquaintances than on the memories of her surviving relatives – her father and her husband. This led to a portrayal of Charlotte’s father as a mean, tyrannical and eccentric figure who was a poor father to Charlotte and her siblings. The poverty of their upbringing was exaggerated and the unhappiness they suffered when sent away to school was over-stated. Mrs Gaskell also, it was suggested, over-egged the wildness of the bleak moors and the resulting social and cultural isolation of the girls growing up in Haworth.
Barker cited the response of her father to this unflattering portrayal of himself was to laugh and that he actively tried to dissuade friends and colleagues who sought to publicly correct what they perceived to be a misrepresentation of him by writing in his defence to the newspapers. She argued that Patrick Bronte in so doing was supporting Mrs Gaskell’s portrayal of the family, not because it was accurate, but in order to further the objectives for which it was written, namely to protect and enhance his daughter’s posthumous reputation and standing as an author. Better to sacrifice his own public reputation, he felt, confident that his true friends would be un-swayed in their relationship with him by Mrs Gaskell’s writing, than to allow his daughter’s reputation to be besmirched.
There were some fierce rebuttals of this thesis by members of The Gaskell Society and strong cross-questioning of the details Barker had put forward in support of her argument. They appeared to feel that this proposition that Mrs Gaskell was selective in her attention to facts from her sources and wrote with an agenda rather than in a purely objective way made her less than truthful.
While I would stop short of suggesting, as Barker somewhat jokingly did, that perhaps Mrs Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte should be placed on library shelves alongside her works of fiction, I accept the basic premise that all biographers must be selective from amongst the plethora of the information their researches reveal when deciding what they include about their subjects in their final publication. And, further, that the selection process will be coloured by any agenda they have in writing the book about their subject’s life. This does not, in my view, diminish the resulting work or make it any less truthful. Indeed, the work of historian’s such as Barker, to examine the underlying processes and potential biases of the biographer sheds greater light on both figures – the subject and the biographer.
By way of lighter entertainment, the afternoon’s speaker was Ian Dewhirst with his talk The Druggist and the Relieving Officer, and Other Writers in Haworth. Dewhirst is a local historian and writer with a droll turn of phrase. As the rain beat against the windows of the room he introduced the audience to the concept of the bleak moors. It was, he suggested, to gales (I chose the word carefully) of laughter, essential to preface every reference to the moors with the word bleak.
From this starting point, he argued that far from being unlikely that three young women in such a bleak, isolated moorland village should turn to writing, there was little else to do and, furthermore, that everyone else was doing it too. It would, he suggested, have been more surprising had they not become writers, when everyone from the local apothecary, to the clergyman in the next village were all at it. The area was, it transpired, a veritable hotbed of literary ventures, with at least two local printers in Keighley, able to publish books indistinguishable in outward appearances from those printed in the major metropolises of London, Manchester or Glasgow. It seems the lines between traditional publishing, self-publishing and vanity publishing were already pretty blurred by the mid-19th century.
By way of example, he recited some of the poetry written by these local contemporaries of the Brontes and demonstrated that the output was indeed a curate’s egg. But amongst the risible there were indeed some gems which might have been polished into respectable literature.
His light-hearted and amusing talk provided the perfect foil to the more earnest debate of the morning while actually providing not a little support for the arguments put forward by Barker earlier in the day. If Gaskell over-emphasised the bleak isolation of Howarth, underplaying its position as a thriving milltown, well-connected with larger towns and cities in the area such as Keighley, Leeds, Bradford and Halifax, she did so for the purpose of emphasising the genius and originality of her subject, Charlotte Bronte.