The latest edition of the writings of the Brontë sister1 is a notable one. The seven ample volumes are a pleasure to the eye and the hand. Facsimiles of manuscript, abundant illustrations of scenes and buildings associated with the novels and their authors, and the reproduction of every available portrait, including Richmond’s lovely head of Mrs. Gaskell, ought to satisfy the most exacting collector of Brontiana. Mr. Shorter’s excellent annotations to the Life furnish some details hitherto unpublished, though nothing that affects materially one’s impression of the justice or the charm of that memorable biography. It is through Mrs. Ward’s introductions to the novels, however, even more than in its mechanical perfection and its skillful use of expert knowledge, that the Haworth edition may well claim to present the works of the Brontës in definitive form.
The public has grown hardened to new editions of once popular or still popular books, “ with introductions by some other Tommy,” as Mr. Barrie has lately phrased it. The service of a distinguished living Tommy in vouching for the worth of his predecessor commands, no doubt, a commercial value. Still, that service is likely to be either patronizing, as when some youthful sword-and-buckler fictionist gravely tells us that Sir Walter Scott, all things considered, wrote very good novels, or else perfunctory, as is witnessed by the melancholy list of English classics dully “edited” for school and college use. But to the task of commenting upon the work of the Brontë sisters Mrs. Ward brings a natural sympathy, born of race and sex and personal affinity, and of professional craftsmanship. Her scholarly appreciation of distinguished literary workmanship, as well as her insight into rare spiritual experiences, was shown long ago in her preface to Amiel’s Journal. In dealing with the Brontes she is upon even more congenial soil. Her critical acumen is too keen for overpraise. She is under no illusion as to the limitations of the three sisters, or their positive defects in taste and constructive faculty. She has not been deafened by the extravagant eulogies pronounced by followers of the Brontë cult. Yet she penetrates to the real power of these extraordinary Yorkshire women through her kinship with their seriousness, their strenuousness, their emotional intensity.
Mrs. Ward herself has known the potency of environment — whether it be gray Northern moorland or the brilliant life of a foreign city — in stimulating the imagination. She follows Charlotte Brontë to Brussels and back again, with full comprehension of the significance of the sojourn there. Her thorough study of the great European writers of the romantic school has taught her the part played by the unsophisticated inmates of the Haworth parsonage in that new dramatic attitude toward life and nature. She perceives the English girl — pure of heart, isolated, yearning for the right — back of the rebellious romanticist. Finally, Mrs. Ward’s own training as a writer of fiction, in novels that are increasingly faithful to the best traditions of the English school, helps her to perceive the skill with which the Brontës utilized their narrow field of observation, and breathed into those secretly written books their own fiery energy of soul. While she never intrudes her personal interpretation upon those who read the Brontë novels in this edition, she unquestionably illuminates the stories with new meaning, both as records of the human spirit and as signal achievements of the art of fiction.
And what, after all, is the reason for the continued vitality of these novels ? They contain grave lapses against perfection of form; they are full of hasty, diffuse, and extravagant writing ; they reveal astounding ignorance of the motives, the words, and the ways of actual men and women. Jane Eyre, the most widely read of the group, has been riddled by critics, burlesqued by novelists, imitated by penny dreadfuls without number. Yet it lives ; and Shirley lives, and the “imperishable” Villette, and Emily’s marvelous Wuthering Heights.
A partial explanation, no doubt, is to be found in the unique interest attaching to the tragic fortunes of that singularly gifted family. Mrs. Gaskell’s Life, finely reticent as it is, throbs with sympathy for the piteousness and glory of those brief lives, and has done much to intensify the purely personal concern for all that pertains to the dwellers in the Haworth parsonage. Understanding the sisters as completely as we now may, it is difficult to escape the assertive force of their individual genius. The penetrating intelligence, the stubborn courage of Charlotte, the flame and music of Emily, the gentle gravity of Anne, have become a part of their printed pages.
It is true, also, that by some happy prescience their art availed itself of methods that have grown more and more effective in the fifty years that have elapsed since these books were written. Their use of landscape, to select an obvious example, has naïvely anticipated many of the consciously impressionistic or symbolistic experiments of later writers. By natural sensitiveness to the influences of sky and moor, of sodden mist and luminous moonlight and impenetrable night, these amateurs in fiction still move the mind to wondering delight or vague foreboding. Their stage machinery creaks and jolts, or grows palpably absurd ; but the gleams and shadows that irradiate or enshroud it belong to another and more real world, — the world of nature as beheld by the modern spirit.
We turn to the enduring books for what they do — not for what they do not — contain. The shortcomings of the Brontë novels are easily detected. But to read them, nevertheless, is to go deepsea fishing. Not everybody cares for that sort of pleasure. It entails inconveniences and annoyances, narrow quarters and alien horizons ; and one may toil long and take nothing. Yet if one likes it, one may always go down with Charlotte and Emily Brontë into the great deeps of passion and of will. The face of these waters is a solitary place ; there are no fellow voyagers save memory, and half-conquered hope, and an unconquered faith that holds the rudder to the polestar of duty. But there is nothing trivial there or ignoble, and all around are the brightness and the mystery of the brine.
- Life and Works of the Sisters Brontë. The Haworth Edition. Illustrated. With prefaces by Mrs. HUMPHRY WARD, and annotations to Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë by CLEMENT K. SHORTER. In seven volumes. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1899-1900.↩