Mightier than the sword

True-crime writer James Tully puts Charlotte Bront

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

When she wasn’t writing novels, Charlotte Brontk busied herself stirring up some bosom-heaving drama of her own. Possessed by jealousy and love, the eminent Victorian kept quiet when her curate husband,
Arthur Bell Nicholls, poisoned her siblings Branwell and Emily. Charlotte herself also
managed to poison her youngest sister, Anne, and eventually died at the
hands of her husband, who wanted to silence one last possible snitch.
If that doesn’t sound like anything you ever read in your “Norton
Anthology of British Literature,” there’s a
reason: This is the Brontk legend according to British true-crime writer James
Tully, whose mystery novel “The Crimes of Charlotte Brontk” owes more to
the Fleet Street school of journalism than the Penguin Classics.

Tully, whose previous book was the nonfiction “Prisoner 1167: The Madman Who
Was Jack the Ripper,” originally submitted his tale to his British publishers as true
crime; Robinson Publishing suggested that his somewhat suspect theories might go over better in novel form. So his conjecture
appears in the form of a deposition given by Martha Brown, a housemaid who did in fact serve the Brontks. (Her protracted dalliance
with Nicholls, however, is invented.) Martha’s story is framed by that of
Charles Coutts, a lawyer who discovered the document and frequently
interrupts Brown to corroborate her testimony.

The resulting schizophrenic narrative veers between Gothic soap opera
and actual scholarship. When it’s soapy, you’re treated to prose as unwittingly
comic in its relentless lack of humor as an academic article on, say,
the concept of the diseased landscape in “Jane Eyre.” A sample, from
Martha’s confession to a rendezvous with Nicholls:

“I do not wish to set down all that happened next — let it be enough to
say that we ended up on the stones of the kitchen floor and when, but a few moments later it
seemed, we got to our feet again we both knew that things would never be
the same again.”

Imagine “Unsolved Mysteries” shooting on remote from the
moors and you might get an idea as to the grace of Tully’s
storytelling; scenes often beg for the subtitle “dramatic reenactment.”



And yet Tully doesn’t miss every mark. When he nearly throws off all
pretense at fiction — as he does in the epilogue — he manages to draw
convincing parallels between the symptoms of the three women poisoned by
Jack the Ripper (purportedly his area of expertise) and those exhibited by
the dying Brontks. Most historians accept the theories
that Branwell died from drink and drugs, Emily and Anne from tuberculosis and
Charlotte, possibly pregnant at the time, from a digestive-tract ailment.

In the end, however, Tully fails to mount a convincing argument. As
evidence, he notes the perhaps mysterious lack of detailed medical records,
three deaths in nine months and all those bestsellers from three little
girls who didn’t have much formal instruction. But he can’t do better than
reinterpret these facts to suit his own theories. What really requires
addressing here is the specter of misogyny that hovers over Tully’s book –
not his chimerical allegations of foul play.

Tully believes that Charlotte Brontk’s additional crimes included
unseemly talent and drive. His Charlotte is a greedy, cheap, delusional,
jealous spinster who only seems to soften up, of course, when she is
satisfying her sexual appetite. Coutts — Tully’s alter ego — sums up her
life:

“Basically she was a domineering and ambitious child who became a domineering and ambitious woman … The only ways in which she
could offset the feelings of shame and inferiority were to tell herself
that she was intellectually superior … and to attempt to dominate … and
become the centre of attention.”

The carps are of antique vintage, not dissimilar to complaints
lodged by some of Brontk’s contemporaries and critics, who felt that her
examination of women’s lives was too honest and charged with feeling.
On the publication of “Villette,” a female critic who had called “Jane
Eyre” “a dangerous book” wrote of Brontk’s characters: “We want a woman at
our hearth, and [Brontk's] impersonations [of women] are without the
feminine element, infringers of all modest restraints, despisers of
bashful fears, self-reliant, contemptuous of prescriptive decorum.”

In writing “The Life of Charlotte Brontk,” Charlotte’s friend and fellow
novelist Elizabeth Gaskell — whose own daughter had to ask her permission
to read “Jane Eyre” — aimed to silence those complaints. She made sure to
erase all traces of rebellion and irreverence from Charlotte’s life in
order to present her as a virtuous woman who had suffered much, to prove
that she really was as church-mouse demure as she appeared to be.
The crimes that Tully pins on her — too much ambition, too much longing to
be heard — are ones that Charlotte probably would have owned up to.
Guilty of wanting more than her Victorian world would allow, she spent her
life torn between her desires and her duty as a sister, daughter and wife.

She couldn’t muster up the necessary subservience needed to be a
governess, or the patience required to teach. While instructing at a
girls’ school in her early 20s, she filled her journal with acidic
disappointment in her less-than-stellar students and agonized over the
workload that prevented her from writing. “If I had time to indulge it,”
she wrote of one fleeting inspiration, “I felt that the vague sensations
of that moment would have settled into some narrative better at least
than any thing I ever produced before. But just then a Dolt came up with
a lesson. I thought I should have vomited.”

And she was ready to die a spinster if that meant a writing life
uninterrupted by the demands of marriage. “I could not sit all day
making a grave face before my husband,” she declared to her friend Ellen
Nussey, on refusing the hand of Ellen’s stuffy brother.

But on the few occasions Charlotte decided to become besotted, the
objects of her intense affections were off-limits or beyond her station.
While studying and teaching at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, Belgium, she
fell in love with its owner, the married Constantin Heger, and stalked him
through the post. She enjoyed a close friendship with her publisher,
George Smith, that skirted romance. But he eventually married someone
more amenable to the role of angel of the house. She turned down four
proposals during her lifetime — including one from Nicholls, to whom she
would eventually relent.

The accusations in Tully’s book, admittedly, will do no real damage to
Brontë’s reputation. So why pay attention to such a crackpot theory about
the great writer, couched in fiction, unsupported by hard evidence?

Perhaps because some of us still can’t bear, as Gaskell couldn’t, to “have
another syllable that could be called coarse associated with [Brontk's]
name.” A world of young women came of age under Brontk’s tutelage. The
eloquent indignation of her heroines — Jane Eyre, Shirley (if
you can get through Brontë’s “social novel” of that name) and Villette — clangs around
unforgettably in the mind of the adolescent girl. These are plain, prickly,
bookish women who must do battle with pretty girls and a host of other
injustices while angling for independence and brooding heroes, and who are brought to
you by a plain, prickly, bookish woman. I’d be hard pressed to come up with
recent novels by women that fooled me into thinking something was at stake
the way her books do.

Near the end of her life, however, Charlotte left clues that hinted at
her own inability to find and keep the independence with which she endowed her
heroines. A post-wedding letter to Nussey reveals that married life
might have encroached upon more of her freedom than she bargained for:
“It is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife.”

That her own story should end with a mysterious admission of
quiet desperation — an admission of, perhaps, her failure to meet her own
expectations — is much more chilling than anything in Tully’s pulp fiction.

Carlene Bauer is an editor at Elle magazine.

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