PATH TO THE SILENT COUNTRY – The Final Years of Charlotte Brontë
I was shocked when I heard that people were up in arms by the novel Jane Eyre when it first came out in print in 1847. People were offended that Jane Eyre could love a man (Mr. Rochester) who had had an illicit affair with a woman and bore him an child, of which Jane was the governess. To compound matters, Mr. Rochester then went on to make Jane complicit in his scheme to marry him when he already had a living (though unstable) wife. What kind of good Christian woman could possibly write about such things without punishing Mr. Rochester for his sins, instead of ending the story happily in the way she did?
It broke Charlotte’s heart when she heard that people were affronted by the topic of her newest book Jane Eyre. Words such as “coarse,” “over masculine,” “rude,” “harsh,” “vulgar,” even “flippant” were bandied about. Perhaps it was because many of the characters in Jane’s books were based on people she knew, and therefore they did not want to acknowledge their own sins, let alone make them public. Their taunts made her wonder if perhaps there was some hidden part of herself that she didn’t know about that others could perceive through her books. She also questioned how these so called good Christians could be so heartless as to think that a child should suffer because her parents were not circumspect. Hadn’t Mr. Rochester suffered enough when he not only lost Jane, he lost his home and his sight in a fire? Despite this, her publisher assured her that people were indeed buying her book. Clearly, not everyone felt the same way.
To me, the title of this book Path to the Silent Country by Lynne Reid Banks, which has taken the letters of Brontë, along with the writings various biographers, and concocted a story about the final years of the famous authoress, is twofold. The Silent Country could be the village of Hawarth, in Yorkshire, England, where Charlotte and her four sisters: Elizabeth, Maria, Emily and Anne; and one brother, Branwell, grew up. Life was heartbreakingly lonely for Charlotte after her siblings died, particularly Anne and Emily, with whom she could talk to about their respective writing projects. Her father, who was an Anglican Minister, was too busy to even have meals with her, so she was often alone. The long winters were the hardest on Charlotte when the loneliness became unbearable. Long bouts of depression sent her to bed for weeks at a time, and her appetite suffered. She was much happier when she travelled to visit friends, of which included authors, Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau, in Manchester and London. She also visited Scotland with her publisher, George Smith, who she cared deeply for, and eventually Wales, on her honeymoon trip with her husband, Arthur Nicholls.
The Silent Country could also speak to the fact that Charlotte was a woman, and as such, invisible to many as a female writer of the 19th century. When she and her sisters, Anne and Emily, first started publishing their books, they did so under masculine names. Charlotte pseudonym was Currer Bell. But with the success of Jane Eyre, it soon became known that Currer Bell was indeed none other than Charlotte Brontë from the wilds of Yorkshire. This was anathema to the retiring young woman, who wore her emotions close to the surface. She was a nervous woman, coupled with constant ill-health and religious oppression, the constant criticisms of her books, took its toll on her. From my perspective of a 21st century woman, I have always been enamoured of Jane Eyre as a young woman to emulate. Her courage through years of being raised in a school for orphans, where love, food, and a warm atmosphere were in short supply, would find, not only a place in the home of Mr. Rochester, but a love that prevented her from marrying anyone else despite the fact that she would spend the rest of her life a lonely spinster. The dialogue between Jane and Mr. Rochester fairly just jumps off the page. She held nothing back and was unfailingly honest with a man who was her superior in age and position, if not in intelligence. Perhaps there was indeed a side of Charlotte Brontë that she hid from the world. Perhaps Charlotte Brontë, was Jane Eyre.
Check out the PBS series about the Bronte family: To Walk Invisible which begins Sunday, March 26, 2017.