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BRONTË, Charlotte - GASKELL, Elizabeth.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë.

In two volumes.

London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1857 Stock Code: 138990
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First edition of Elizabeth Gaskell's pioneering, landmark biography of her close friend, "creating a new, feminine form which linked emotional and domestic life and suffering to creativity" (ODNB). The biography was hugely controversial at the time, and remains so today, for different reasons.

Gaskell was asked to write it by Patrick Brontë in June 1853, a few months after Charlotte's death, and spent most of the next two years gathering letters (including 300 written to Ellen Nussey, retained despite Arthur Nicholls's request that they be destroyed) and other information. In order to defend Charlotte against ongoing accusations of "coarseness", Gaskell played down - even though she had read their correspondence - Charlotte's passionate attachment to Constantin Heger, her master at the Brussels Athénée (and the model for Paul Emmanuel in Villette). Instead, she explained Charlotte's despair in 1845 as the outcome of the moral collapse of Branwell Brontë and re-emphasised the sisters' complete isolation.

The biography appeared on 24 March 1857, and to escape the inevitable storm the biographer went overseas with her two eldest daughters for three months. Her husband, publisher, solicitor, and also Ellen Nussey, were largely left to deal with the barrage of criticism and threats of legal action which ensued. Eventually unsold copies of the biography were withdrawn and a formal letter of apology placed in The Times. "Fierce criticism and more legal threats came from supporters of W. Carus Wilson, founder of Cowan Bridge, the school blamed for the deaths of the elder Brontë sisters. Individual complaints came from many individuals, including Harriet Martineau, G. H. Lewes and, most particularly, Patrick Brontë. All were dealt with in the revised third edition. Faced with such criticism, Gaskell took refuge in the justification used of Mary Barton and Ruth: 'I did so try to tell the truth, & I believe now I hit as near the truth as any one could do. And I weighed every line with all my whole power & heart' (Letters, 454)" (ibid.). Today the work is more likely to be criticised for its suppression of Charlotte's true feelings for Constantin Heger and its overemphasis on Brontë "as the suffering victim, rather than active agent" (ibid.).

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2 volumes, octavo. Original cloth, spines lettered in gilt, covers blocked in blind, light yellow endpapers.


Engraved frontispiece to each volume, facsimile manuscript, 16pp. publisher's catalogue at the end of volume 2 dated March 1857.


Contemporary Bookplate of Theodore William Rathbone to front pastedowns. Recased, very light wear at extremities, slight lean to spines, a little shaken, faint marking to cloth. A very good set, scarce in the original cloth.


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