Further to my post from yesterday, I’ve decided to continue my reading of Charlotte Brontë’s works (and fiction inspired by her literary catalogue) for the month of April, to commemorate her 200th birthday this April 21st, 2016. I began my study of the young Charlotte with her collection of short stories entitled The Secret (you can read my review of the collection here), and today I wanted to expand on the way in which this particular work furthered my understanding of Charlotte as a woman, the real Charlotte who lived behind the famous pen.
If you read my #JNGReads post last weekend (if not, you can do so here), you’ll know that I recently finished reading the new biography of Miss Brontë, Claire Harman’s Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart. This biography was brilliant and breathtaking, and I was specifically touched (as I discuss in my previous post) by its investigation of Charlotte’s insecurities. Harman uses quotes from Charlotte’s contemporaries to illustrate just how self-conscious Charlotte often was and just how preoccupied and concerned she was about being beautiful and physically pleasant. I found it fascinating that such a confident writer could ever have periods of doubt, but it was also reassuring, for a modern reader bombarded by perfect, filtered photos on Instagram every day, to realize that someone so talented worried about how others perceived her just as much as any of us do today.
Harman’s articulation of Charlotte’s anxieties made the ever impressive Miss Brontë into a more realistic and relatable figure for me. And, as I began my first encounter with Charlotte’s juvenilia and opened the pages of The Secret, I expected to encounter a bit of this insecurity and self-consciousness in the writings of a young woman trying to hone her craft. Although Charlotte’s concerns about her own appearance are not too obvious or heavy-handed, her descriptions of her female characters are extremely telling and provide an insight into her own definition of ideal female beauty.
“a few touches brought her soft, naturally curling glossy tresses into becoming order.” – “The Secret”, Charlotte Brontë
“True, Lily was handsome enough to attract the attention of any man …”
“… She was about 18 years old, rather above than under the middle size, elegantly formed, with graceful limbs and small fairy like face and hands.” – “Lily Hart”, Charlotte Brontë
The first quote, taken from the titular short story of the collection, is from a description of one of Charlotte’s main female creations, Marian Hume. Marian, who marries the Marquis of Douro in this particular tale, is effortlessly beautiful, as is quite evident from the fact that she hardly has to make herself up at all or do anything in particular to get her hair to look flawless. Evidently, the young Charlotte Brontë prized natural beauty, physical perfection that requires little work or aid, that isn’t enhanced by any means other than those that are inherent or God-given. Marian’s hair curls “naturally”, it is “soft” and “glossy”, and this is a trait that Marian has possessed since birth. Charlotte obviously believes that some women are born with more attractive features, and this is the sort of physical appearance she longs for and idolizes.
Lily Hart, of the short story of the same name, is also gifted with natural good looks. At only 18 years old, she is already “handsome enough” to receive the affections and capture the interests of many men, and, like Marian, she doesn’t seem to have to try very hard to attract people. What is interesting about the more detailed description of Lily, though, is that Charlotte seems to attribute traits to her character that she is known to have possessed. Charlotte Brontë herself was very “small” and has been described as being just “above…the middle size”. However, whereas Charlotte was uncomfortable with and self-conscious about her diminutive stature in real-life, in her fiction, she represents a small figure as “graceful”, “elegant” and beautiful. It seems as though Lily’s littleness is her most endearing quality, and rather than being associated with a lack of development (as many people speculated of Charlotte), Lily’s petite frame is described as “fairy like”, or ethereal and otherworldly. Lily is attractive precisely because her small features set her apart from the rest.
Is Charlotte Brontë, then, trying to make herself beautiful in her fiction? I believe so. We all have those moments where we feel compelled to boost ourselves up, to make ourselves feel better about our physical appearances. We want to believe that we are worthy of affection and interest, and so we make ourselves more confident by creating outfits that resemble the ones we’ve seen in fashion magazines, or by styling our hair and makeup in the way we’ve seen famous bloggers do it on Instagram. In some cases, if we are creatively inclined, we may create stories and characters that are like us but that live much more fantastical and exciting lives. And, I believe that is just what Charlotte Brontë did in her early fiction: she created a life for herself (or for characters that closely resemble her) that was much more full of love and romance than her actual existence. Although her later works about self-proclaimed “plain” women like Jane Eyre suggest that Charlotte eventually wished to create more realistic characters and narratives, it seems that the young Charlotte wanted nothing more than to feel, even if it was simply through a page, what it was like to be “beautiful”.
Girl with a Green Heart