Happy Birthday Charlotte Bronte!
Charlotte “Currer Bell” Bronte, the eldest Bronte sister, author of “Jane Eyre” and “Villette,” turned 198 on Monday. She was noteworthy not only for outliving her sisters also but for her wise decision not to see whether she could die standing up by leaning on the mantelpiece. (This is something her brother Branwell tried, at least according to Douglas Adams –“My favourite piece of information is that Branwell Brontë, brother of Emily and Charlotte, died standing up leaning against a mantelpiece, in order to prove it could be done” — and the Bronte biographer Elizabeth Gaskell — “I have heard, from one who attended Branwell in his last illness, that he resolved on standing up to die. He had repeatedly said, that as long as there was life there was strength of will to do what it chose; and when the last agony came on, he insisted on assuming the position just mentioned” — but people seem to be increasingly dubious about the anecdote these days.)
Regardless of whether Branwell died recumbent, prone or upright, Charlotte left a remarkable legacy, including Jane Eyre, the “plain” and self-sufficient heroine who found herself in the midst of a melodramatic romance, complete with brooding Byronic heroes and insane first wives locked in attics, and managed to keep her head. (This book is invariably adapted into a movie that casts someone physically stunning as Jane but, well, such is life.) Jane is one of those vigorous personalities whose existence seems to extend off the page.
The question of “What Would Jane Do” — you would never dream of asking this question of her sister Emily’s Heathcliff or Cathy — remains relevant today, and the advice that comes from asking it remains remarkably sound.
Here, in direct quotations, is Jane’s take on a few modern questions:
Q: Would you rather be happy or dignified?
A: “I would always rather be happy than dignified.”
Q: How do you avoid burning in the fiery pits of hell?
A: “I must keep in good health and not die.”
Q: Are you like a bird?
A: “I am no bird.”
Q: Are you a robot without emotions?
A: “Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!”
Q: Are you an angel?
A: “I am not an angel.”
Q: Do you need other people to be happy?
A: “I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”
Q: Hey, ladieees, want to make a pudding and knit some stockings?
A: “It is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.”
Q: How do women feel?
A: “Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer.”
Q: What are you?
A: “I am a free human being with an independent will.”
Q: Should human beings be satisfied with tranquillity?
A: “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.”
Q: Who cares for you?
A: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”
Happy Birthday, Charlotte! Thank you for giving us someone so witty, self-assured, and vital!
Kate Beaton is, as always, relevant.
10:57 AM Post has been updated to fix spelling of Branwell Bronte’s name.