While America was exploring spirit and self through the Transcendental movement, Europe experienced a very different culture. The Romantic period ended at about the same time that Victoria became the Queen of England. Victorianism influenced literature for the length of Queen Victoria’s reign of more than 63 years.
Intellectual and social advancement were driving influences during this time. The Victorian Period was “heavy” in expectations and affectations. Social status came with strict standards, a truism that fed the need to not only maintain status but also improve social standing. Standards were established for mourning with rules, timeframes and required dress based on the relationship to the deceased. The sight of a woman’s ankle was considered decadent and the turn of an ankle could do serious damage to a woman’s reputation.
Early Victorian writers felt it their duty to guide readers toward “proper” behavior, a trend that aided the rigid, formal stereotype of the era. In later years, literature became more rebellious, challenged codes of conduct in contradiction of the political and social goals and saw a rise in the promotion of aestheticism or “art for art’s sake.”
Charlotte Brontë is one of the most famous Victorian women writers. Best known for her popular novel Jane Eyre (1847), her first published work was a collection of poetry written by two of her sisters and herself. She submitted the poetry under male pseudonyms to improve the likelihood of publication. The Victorian culture viewed the writing of poetry as self-indulgent and potentially morally questionable, both rendering poetry as a financially disastrous endeavor. In addition, such activity was considered a scandalous choice for a woman.
Social conventions could not stifle Brontë as writing had been a major part of her life since childhood. Following her mother’s death when Charlotte was five years old, the Brontë children created an imaginary town called Glass Town and wrote of the various adventures with depth beyond facts understood by their peers.
“In December of 1836 Brontë decided to try her hand at professional writing, with the hope of earning her living as a publishing poet. To this end she sought the advice of no less a figure than Robert Southey, then poet laureate of England, to whom she sent a selection of her poems. The discouraging response in his letter of 12 March 1837 has become infamous:
Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, & when you are you will be less eager for celebrity.” – PoetryFoundation.org
Charlotte embedded poetry in her narrative works or presented it as songs performed by her fictitious characters. At times, the poetry is loosely connected to the plot as if she needed to share the poetry yet had no better place to insert the work.
Charlotte was not a stranger to grief. In her short lifetime, she lost her mother and all five of her siblings before her 32nd birthday. As we can attest, intense emotion fuels creativity. The following poem by Charlotte Brontë contains many layers, from the state of being alone, the nature of secrets, how love leads to grief and how feelings change with the passage of time.
The human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept, in silence sealed;
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
And days may pass in gay confusion,
And nights in rosy riot fly,
While, lost in Fame’s or Wealth’s illusion,
The memory of the Past may die.
But, there are hours of lonely musing,
Such as in evening silence come,
When, soft as birds their pinions closing,
The heart’s best feelings gather home.
Then in our souls there seems to languish
A tender grief that is not woe;
And thoughts that once wrung groans of anguish,
Now cause but some mild tears to flow.
And feelings, once as strong as passions,
Float softly backa faded dream;
Our own sharp griefs and wild sensations,
The tale of others’ sufferings seem.
Oh ! when the heart is freshly bleeding,
How longs it for that time to be,
When, through the mist of years receding,
Its woes but live in reverie !
And it can dwell on moonlight glimmer,
On evening shade and loneliness;
And, while the sky grows dim and dimmer,
Feel no untold and strange distress
Only a deeper impulse given
By lonely hour and darkened room,
To solemn thoughts that soar to heaven,
Seeking a life and world to come.
On March 31, 1855, Charlotte Brontë died along with her unborn child. There are several theories and causes of death cited from different sources although her death certificate lists tuberculosis as the probable cause. She was 38 years old.
Thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights for this glimpse of the immensely talented poet, Charlotte Brontë. Her life and work could fill volumes. I always feel that condensing the information of such great poets into a single article might be doing their memory a disservice but hope that with the tidbits I compile, someone might decide to explore further and get to know the poet in greater depth.