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Charlotte And Emily Bronte
by [?]

The controversy here is with those who admire Charlotte Bronte throughout her career. She altered greatly. She did, in fact, inherit a manner of English that had been strained beyond restoration, fatigued beyond recovery, by the “corrupt following” of Gibbon; and there was within her a sense of propriety that caused her to conform. Straitened and serious elder daughter of her time, she kept the house of literature. She practised those verbs, to evince, to reside, to intimate, to peruse. She wrote “communicating instruction” for teaching; “an extensive and eligible connexion”; “a small competency”; “an establishment on the Continent”; “It operated as a barrier to further intercourse”; and of a child (with a singular unfitness with childhood) “For the toys he possesses he seems to have contracted a partiality amounting to affection.” I have been already reproached for a word on Gibbon written by way of parenthesis in the course of an appreciation of some other author. Let me, therefore, repeat that I am writing of the corrupt following of that apostle and not of his own style. Gibbon’s grammar is frequently weak, but the corrupt followers have something worse than poor grammar. Gibbon set the fashion of “the latter” and “the former.” Our literature was for at least half a century strewn with the wreckage of Gibbon. “After suppressing a competitor who had assumed the purple at Mentz, he refused to gratify his troops with the plunder of the rebellious city,” writes the great historian. When Mr. Micawber confesses “gratifying emotions of no common description” he conforms to a lofty and a distant Gibbon. So does Mr. Pecksniff when he says of the copper-founder’s daughter that she “has shed a vision on my path refulgent in its nature.” And when an author, in a work on “The Divine Comedy,” recently told us that Paolo and Francesca were to receive from Dante “such alleviation as circumstances would allow,” that also is a shattered, a waste Gibbon, a waif of Gibbon. For Johnson less than Gibbon inflated the English our fathers inherited; because Johnson did not habitually or often use imagery, whereas Gibbon did use habitual imagery, and such use is what deprives a language of elasticity, and leaves it either rigid or languid, oftener languid. Encumbered by this drift and refuse of English, Charlotte Bronte yet achieved the miracle of her vocabulary. It is less wonderful that she should have appeared out of such a parsonage than that she should have arisen out of such a language.

A re-reading of her works is always a new amazing of her reader who turns back to review the harvest of her English. It must have been with rapture that she claimed her own simplicity. And with what a moderation, how temperately, and how seldom she used her mastery! To the last she has an occasional attachment to her bonds; for she was not only fire and air. In one passage of her life she may remind us of the little colourless and thrifty hen-bird that Lowell watched nest-building with her mate, and cutting short the flutterings and billings wherewith he would joyously interrupt the business; Charlotte’s nesting bird was a clergyman. He came, lately affianced, for a week’s visit to her parsonage, and she wrote to her friend before his arrival: “My little plans have been disarranged by an intimation that Mr.–is coming on Monday”; and afterwards, in reference to her sewing, “he hindered me for a full week.”

In alternate pages Villette is a book of spirit and fire, and a novel of illiberal rancour, of ungenerous, uneducated anger, ungentle, ignoble. In order to forgive its offences, we have to remember in its author’s favour not her pure style set free, not her splendour in literature, but rather the immeasurable sorrow of her life. To read of that sorrow again is to open once more a wound which most men perhaps, certainly most women, received into their hearts in childhood. For the Life of Charlotte Bronte is one of the first books of biography put into the hands of a child, to whom Jane Eyre is allowed only in passages. We are young when we first hear in what narrow beds “the three are laid”–the two sisters and the brother–and in what a bed of living insufferable memories the one left lay alone, reviewing the hours of their death–alone in the sealed house that was only less narrow than their graves. The rich may set apart and dedicate a room, the poor change their street, but Charlotte Bronte, in the close captivity of the fortunes of mediocrity, rested in the chair that had been her dying sister’s, and held her melancholy bridals in the dining room that had been the scene of terrible and reluctant death.