A LIFE OF EMILY BRONTE By Edward Chitham Basil Blackwell. 288 pp. $24.95
GEORGE ELIOT By Jennifer Uglow Pantheon. 273 pp. $15.95; paperback, $9.95
BOTH George Eliot and Emily Bronte
pose challenges for the biographer, first, because of the apparent contradictions between the way they lived and the fiction they created; second, because for more than a century critics and biographers have so romanticized these writers that the bare facts of their lives have tended to become distorted. In these two new studies, Edward Chitham and Jennifer Uglow attempt to place their sometimes elusive subjects within the contexts of their times and to make sense, as much as possible, of the way their lives informed their fiction.
Surely, for her time, Eliot lived an unusually liberated life: she was a cosmopolitan intellectual whose circle of friends included Cosima Wagner, Florence Nightingale and Herbert Spencer; she eloped with a married man and lived openly with him for most of her life. After his death, she married a man 20 years younger. Throughout her life, she pursued her art with vigor and full commitment. By the time she died, at the age of 61, her seven novels and many stories, essays and translations had assured her of her place as one of the most celebrated writers in England.
Yet Eliot's particular brand of feminism has caused some critics to dismiss her novels as "almost repressively conservative." From first publication, Uglow tells us, these novels "have aroused disgust because the fate of their heroines and the narrow range of opportunities they are offered seem to contrast so strongly with the freedom and achievement of their creator." Uglow, on the other hand, sees Eliot as "describing, rather than prescribing," and in a sensitive feminist reading of Eliot's works, she helps us to understand how a woman so intellectually independent could create such child-like dreamers as Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede or Molly in Silas Marner, or such a dependent woman as Maggie in The Mill on the Floss.
Uglow believes that Eliot's feminism allowed ample room for women whose roles as nurturers, supporters, conservators of rituals and values kept them at home and even kept them submissive. To deny these roles, Eliot demonstrated in her fiction, would be to eliminate a vital feminizing force in the culture. Somehow, she felt, men and women must enter into a partnership where the strengths of each would complement the other.
Eliot never achieved this ideal partnership -- not with her older brother, who rejected her when she chose to live with G. H. Lewes; not even with Lewes himself; surely not with her husband, John Cross. Always Eliot struggled to reconcile her image of femininity with her needs as an artist, and Uglow explores these insecurities and conflicts as she gives an overview of Eliot's life and analysis of her works.
This is not a full-scale biography by any means, nor is it an introduction to Eliot's fiction. Uglow assumes a familiarity with Eliot's novels that many readers may not have. Those who do, however, will find in George Eliot a thoughtful consideration of the writer and an important contribution to women's intellectual history.
Like Uglow, Chitham points to a disturbing question in understanding the relationship between a writer's life and her work: How, he asks, could a recluse, whose short life was spent on the Yorkshire moors, write the passionate and insightful Wuthering Heights?
To consider this puzzle, Chitham sets himself the task of stripping the facts of Emily Bronte 's life from the speculations and conjectures that have been made by her many previous biographers. His study is, in fact, a synthesis and response to the works of many other writers, from Elizabeth Gaskell to Winifred Ge'rin and, as such, may appeal to the scholarly reader more than to those among us who are merely admirers of Bronte 's single major literary creation.
is a woman for whom success threatened deeply-held notions of femininity. For Bronte , as for Eliot, intellectual autonomy felt at times like emotional exile. Renunciation and self-sacrifice were more comfortable. On the surface, it might appear that Bronte
did choose renunciation. Her life was solitary, spent within the confines of her family home. She lived most intensely in Gondal, a fantasy world of the Bronte
children's creation. Her closest relationships were with her two sisters, Charlotte and Anne. She apparently never experienced physical passion. She kept herself far from the social and cultural ferment of her time. She had written only one full-length work by the time she died at the age of 30. Yet in fact Bronte 's intellectual and creative life was experienced deeply, surely as deeply as that of her more gregarious contemporary, George Eliot. Bronte
faced vastly different alternatives and, to protect her existence as an artist, made different choices.
One reason for some of those choices may have its genesis in Emily Bronte 's relationship with her brother, Branwell, a difficult one that in some ways parallels George Eliot's relationship with her older brother, Isaac. For both writers, this early struggle with a male with whom they strongly identified, from whom they feared rejection, and whom they never could fully understand shaped their conceptions of themselves as women and as individuals seeking power over others and over their art.
Chitham follows Emily's evolving relationship with Branwell, as well as those with her sisters, never straying from the few sources available to him -- poems, letters and Charlotte's early attempts to "explain" her sister. Like Uglow, he prefers a close reading of reliable sources (in Uglow's case, Eliot's novels), than a more flamboyant, if risky, speculation based on biographer's intuition.
These are modest books, but no less compelling for their modesty. They offer refreshing and welcome new views of their subjects.
Linda Simon, director of the Writing Center at Harvard, is the author of biographies of Alice B. Toklas, Thornton Wilder and Lady Margaret Beaufort.