You’d think that because we know so much more about Charlotte Brontë’s life than we do about her sisters’ it would be easier to write about her, but it only seemed to make my task much harder. I struggled a lot with this one, ripping it up and starting completely from scratch several times.
Thinking of a shape had helped me write the other two songs; the trellis shape of Anne’s and the starry lines of Emily’s, and in the same way I tried to pin Charlotte to a circular shape. I was thinking of the sisters walking around their dining table in the evenings, as they read and discussed their work with each other (Charlotte even continued to circle the table alone after her sisters were gone).
It seemed to me Charlotte was the driving force for their circular evening walks; it was Charlotte that found Emily’s poetry and came up with the idea to write and publish, it was her momentum encouraging the sisters’ writing and whipping things up – like a tornado – to release that work into the world. But whilst this circle shape seemed to work to a certain extent, I couldn’t reconcile it with Charlotte’s changes of heart, changes of mind, all the contradictory aspects of Charlotte’s character and the parts of her I didn’t understand (and some I possibly didn’t like!). Every time I thought I was getting somewhere I felt as though Charlotte was stood in front of me, arms crossed, saying ‘nope, that’s not me either’.
I took a break from Charlotte’s song, hoping that some distance would help. About a week later, I was taking a walk by the river and thinking – given the watery surroundings – of Emily’s song, not of Charlotte’s. I sat down right on the edge of the bank so that the water would drown out all the other sounds. It was then that I saw a huge cloud of flies over the river; an ugly, chaotic, floating mass of tiny insects. But as I looked more closely, and focused on individuals in that mass, I saw that there was order to it after all; each fly had a path to follow – left to right, turning, right to left, turning – until it paired off with another fly mid-air and floated away from the cloud.
Back at home I thought of their flight path, and of Charlotte – that wind I couldn’t grasp and pin down to a circle. Her contradictory nature. Her resistance and forcefulness. I could see the shape of her now:
(I’m sure Charlotte wouldn’t be flattered that mating flies helped me on this, but that’s the truth of it, what can I tell you.)
And now I could see that when she moves from left to right – the direction of writing – she is her pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’; a writer, a free-flowing thought sharer, a mind laid bare. But when she turns and moves from right to left, she is Charlotte Brontë; confused and unsettled, wanting to love and be loved, wanting respect and adoration, unsatisfied and self-conscious, with feelings of failure and regret. It is Charlotte’s many selves, outer and inner, that make her as hard to grasp as the wind.
Charlotte, the Levitator (element = air, liberty = mind)
“The wind shifts to the west. Peace, peace Banshee – ‘keening’ at every window! It will rise – it will swell – it shrieks out long: wander as I may through the house this night, I cannot lull the blast.” – Lucy Snowe, Villette
Picture the Parsonage, with Emily and Anne already busy writing inside; cultivating their imaginary world. Charlotte is outside, restlessly circling the building, protective, contemplative – the face she showed to the outside world – but also full of frustration and impatience at her place in that world. Charlotte felt left out in society, with neither marriage nor satisfying work seemingly open to her, ‘born only to work for a piece of bread’* and carrying a broken heart around with her too – but unable to express all of these thoughts and feelings. She was forever waiting for something to happen:
A stillness she can’t bear, this curling, swirling air
But she holds her breath and – from right to left – patrols the perimeter
It is only when she changes direction and writes that she is able to enjoy a sense of freedom and fulfilment. She goes in to join her sisters, releasing her own talents into that garden, using her inner thoughts as her art; the bottled up feelings pouring out onto the page:
Oh a breeze breathes relief – she comes in, then what’s in is released
Soars to ceiling height and – from left to right –
spreads her secrets to each dew-soaked leaf
Decanter, thought-planter, blow through the grass and speak at last
Set em flyin’ dandelion, come sing out loud, don’t whisper now
Navigator, levitator, over mist prevail to fill that sail
Before you turn again, weathervane
As a writer, Charlotte – like Emily – can exercise control over language and meaning, as though controlling the weather. She has power within the garden of their writing, fuelled by her innermost thoughts and feelings. Importantly, she has another kind of power that can elevate – levitate – her sisters’ work, driving them all towards publishing:
Weeds to tumble and stalks to bend
Soil to crumble and breath to lend
Prithee pepperpot-shaker, show your power, sea-shaper
Take us up, take us out, sky’s friend*
Hair-tangler, cloud-wrangler, it’s up to you when the sun breaks through
Take us higher, spread this fire through the great outside, be satisfied
Fog-lifter, seed-drifter, your own heart as proof, tell the truth
Before you circle back on your corkscrew track
It is here that Charlotte turns again on her flight path, from Currer Bell back into Charlotte Brontë. The release of the Brontë novels into the world, the suspicion cast on the Bells’ gender, and the attacks on their ‘coarse’ and ‘unfeminine’ work was not the kind of attention Charlotte had longed for. She wanted fame, yes, but not to be thought of as a scandalous person. Charlotte wanted irreconcilable things for her time it seems; to be respected and loved for her mind, but still to be seen as a dignified, dutiful woman within the bounds of 1840s society.
Her frustration begins to take a negative effect on the garden within the Parsonage dining room. Charlotte is now the last sister alive:
But with this tidy turn, the wallflowers wince and waver
Flickering the lamplight, dropping the temperature
Throwing back the bushes, like a tossed head of hair
Right to left – so bereft – blowing a cold, cold air
In an attempt to clear herself and her sisters of accusations of coarseness, and regain their reputations as good clergyman’s daughters, Charlotte wrote the ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’. In this, she described Anne’s depiction of alcoholism and bad marriage in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as “an entire mistake”, dismissing Anne’s courageousness, uprooting her garden and leaving her seeds to lie dormant; Anne’s work is always the last to be appreciated:
“I gift to thee a dormancy”
Charlotte described Emily, with her secluded life, as someone with “no worldly wisdom”, saying “an interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world”, seemingly discrediting Emily’s powers of observation, learning and language and removing Emily’s ownership of her talent, drying up Emily’s waters:
“And evaporate this sinful strait”
Charlotte’s biographical noticed seemed to be an attempt to dim her sisters’ ‘Northern lights’ and simultaneously garner more respect for herself:
Oh banshee, how can she!
“Watch me dim the Northern lights”
Despite this, she would soon ‘turn again’, and write Villette; becoming Currer Bell again and pouring out her inner dissatisfaction:
Turn again, hurricane!
Charlotte, however, could not keep these ideas of her sisters’ ‘innocence’ alive any more than she could keep herself alive (happily married and expecting a child, Charlotte died shortly before her 39th birthday). And as time has gone on since her death, all the Brontë novels have been through different phases of reputation; each sister’s work has been, and continues to be, rediscovered and loved. Time is the real owner of liberty:
The wind can but grasp at the hands of time
Wise-turner, late learner, all liberty thine.
I think I went on a little bit of journey with Charlotte on this song, and though she’s not my favourite of the sisters as writers, she was a fascinating and complex person and I have much more respect and admiration for her than I did before. I’m glad that she found some happiness towards the end of her life, however briefly, in marriage. They said that she looked like ‘a little snowdrop‘ on her wedding day. It is Charlotte’s handwriting that I emulated for the cover of the tiny lyric books that accompany the CD.
*”This hag, this Reason, would not let me look up, or smile, or hope; she could not rest until I were altogether crushed, cowed, broken in, and broken down. According to her, I was born only to work for a piece of bread, to await the pains of death, and steadily through all life to despond.” – Lucy Snowe, Villette
**Charlotte said that the sky was her great companion after her sisters were gone
*** Also in reference to the ambiguous shipwreck at the end of Villette
And here’s a video filmed at the Upper Chapel on 14 October at Off the Shelf:
If there’s anything I haven’t explained well enough, or if you want to ask anything about The Liberty System, feel free to get in touch – leave a comment here, email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet/Facebook me.
With thanks again to Off the Shelf, Beverley and Ilkley Literature Festivals.