Brontë: A Case for Imaginative Truth

Excerpts from a Lunch with Lyndall in New York (Spring 1995)

This winter the biographer Lyndall Gordon was in the United States on a book tour promoting the American publication of Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life. Despite Gordon's schedule of lectures, book signing and research for a new biography "involving" Henry James, she met with The Lincoln Center Review over a long lunch and talked about her passion for biography. Gordon's Charlotte Brontë won the 1994 Cheltenham Literary Prize. Gordon teaches at Oxford University.

I am very influenced by something that Yeats said: the great writer isn't like most of us, the muddle who sits down to breakfast, he is reborn as an idea, something intended, complete. There is a driving pattern to a creative life. I've always looked for what Henry James called "the pattern in the carpet," the pattern of the life. In a way it is a more demanding idea of biography because there is no formula. It's from the writer's work that I get a sense of the pattern of that life. I've always chosen autobiographical subjects. Shakespeare and Jane Austen were detached writers, who dramatized at a distance from themselves. But Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and Charlotte Brontë tell you about their lives in their work. The work speaks. So I go to the documents, letters, diaries, drafts, with a prepared mind. It's like a scientist having a hypothesis. Of course, sometimes my expectations are overthrown.

I have never believed in the big, official, definitive biography, the voluminous tome. I've always been interested in something more highly selective. Virginia Woolf wrote a wonderful essay called "The Art of Biography"; she was interested in whether biography could be an art. Woolf had behind her a family tradition of biography because her father was the founder of the Dictionary of National Biography. In the essay she discusses what facts we choose; she says we can do so much more than add another fact to our collection; we can choose the fertile fact, the suggestive fact, and avoid the barren fact. So that's been a kind of watchword statement for me, that you don't have to document every time somebody goes to the dentist. We don't need the pointless, random, barren facts that go into so many biographies.

I went to a conference on biography in England; everyone agreed that it is a highly subjective genre, not in terms of fiddling with facts but in terms of what facts you select. Richard Holmes is writing a two-volume biography of Coleridge. His first highly praised volume was published in 1989. At this conference Holmes gave a talk entitled "Inventing the Truth," where he explained that he wrote two endings to his first volume and both were factually correct. One ending was rather solemn, the other comic, and he decided on the more comic ending. I would like to make a case for imaginative truth, which must coexist with factual truth. My ambition is to do something more artistic with the genre, to leave formula behind and move into an area where the subject and the biographer's intuition determine the form of the biography.

At a certain point, I decided to try the equivalent of the short story; the distilled biography. I'd planned to write a book called Lives for Women, which was to include Charlotte Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf. I was going to explore the unseen spaces in several women's lives. But when I started with Charlotte I became gripped. I saw that my view of her was different from most people's. I realized I needed to bring out her strength rather than the sense of pathos and the victim.

The traditional view of Charlotte Brontë was that she was a pathetic, dutiful daughter overpowered by her father. But when you read her work, you hear this volcanic voice, a voice so strong that it shocked the Victorians. They couldn't believe that it was a woman's voice, and they blamed her for it, said she was coarse, which upset her. By "coarse" they meant passionate and vehement: she couldn't be that strong and be a lady. When Mrs. Gaskell wrote her biography of Brontë, I think she got the blueprint of Charlotte Brontë's character from Brontë herself. She presented a mousy image of herself to the world; she had to in order to survive.

There's a scene in Virginia Woolfs first novel The Voyage Out, where the heroine appears at the rail of a ship, and she is fantasizing about life under the water: the great white monsters of the lower waters who would explode if brought to the surface. That idea is part of Woolfs "pattern in the carpet": whatever is lurking underneath might be perceived as monstrous by the public.

Charlotte Brontë was her mousy self when she met Mrs. Gaskell; she confided to Mrs. Gaskell about her suffering, and Mrs. Gaskell thought she was seeing the real Charlotte Brontë. Mrs. Gaskell went to her first meeting with Charlotte Brontë with a fear that Brontë might be just a little bit coarse, and she writes her friends, "I'm reassured. She's a perfect lady, what a life of desolation." Brontë knew what she was doing. For the person that she was at home, the one she calls "my natural home character," was totally different, sarcastic, laughing, full of wit. This comes out in her letters. And T.S. Eliot was the same. People thought Eliot had unbuttoned with them when he wasn't an uptight, bowler-hatted, man-about-the-city-of-London type. Among his men friends, he was the joker. He had roles upon roles, masks upon masks. Very few people knew personally the deeper Eliot of his plays and poems.

I've just reviewed for one of the English papers Doris Lessing's autobiography. She actually has a clear agenda. She says she wrote her autobiography to forestall biography, to defeat future biographers, though she is shrewd enough to know she's not going to succeed. There are about six biographers already started on her. But she is defiant. She says, there are things no biographers will know. She recreates her childhood in the African bush with smells and impressions. It's very acutely sensed. But she warns us that nobody will ever know the hidden self which is the silent observer—antithetical to the visible, bouncing, public persona. No one will know what she chooses not to tell us, the sealed space of her most hidden self, to which nobody will ever have entrée.

The most exciting thing about writing this biography was asking where Charlotte Brontë's volcanic voice came from. Its origin was what is called the Roe Head Journal—really no more than an assortment of fragments. I was amazed how her rage came pouring out in words that weren't ladylike, how her writing lifts off into lyricism, how she would vituperate. If you trace the romantic tosh of her early juvenilia, you see how she had to grapple to put that behind her. She matured late because she had this druglike, addictive link to her adolescent dreams; it was a ridiculous fantasy of a high-life that she had to relinquish.

With Charlotte Brontë, I was never trying to supersede previous biographies. In fact, the two most recent ones are very accurate. Brontë speaks differently to different generations—to the Victorians in one way about pathos and suffering, but to us she can speak about strength and resilience and she'll speak to another generation yet another way. In Brontë's wonderful novel Villette, the heroine, who is closely modeled on Brontë, starts out with a strict facade; she seems impenetrable, dull, frigid and frozen, but then a fire of talent and expression emerges. By the end she breaks through the crust of obligatory weakness and compliance. People in the novel begin to wonder if she's got some special advantage, education, wealth, a secret identity: "But are you anybody?" she is asked and she replies, "Yes, I'm a rising character."