Wednesday, October 01, 2014

How the Brontes cheer me up

Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte,
painted by their brother Branwell.
Reading about the lives of the Bronte sisters cheers me up for the same reason that reading about the life and philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer does - no matter how lonely and depressing my life might seem, theirs were much worse.

It's certain that both Anne and Emily died virgins and Charlotte only had sex after she was married, at age 37 - she died a year later.  And she most likely died from run-away morning sickness - so had she remained a virgin she might well have lived into old age.

It was a miracle she married at all at that advanced age. Here she is writing to her best friend (outside of her sisters), Ellen Nussey:

Who gravely asked you whether Miss Bronte was not going to be married to her papa's curate? I scarcely need say that never was rumour more unfounded—it puzzles me to think how it could possibly have originated. A cold, far-away sort of civility are the only terms on which I have ever been with Mr. Nicholls. I could by no means think of mentioning such a rumour to him even as a joke—it would make me the laughing-stock of himself and his fellow-curates for half a year to come. They regard me as an old maid, and I regard them, one and all, as highly uninteresting, narrow and unattractive specimens of the coarser sex.
Reader, she married him - Mr. Nicholls, her father's curate. But this letter was written in 1846 when Charlotte was 30 years old - considered an old maid at 30. That's how extreme the patriarchy was in those days - it made women's lives unbearable, unless they were very wealthy. The Brontes had to make a living as teachers and governesses, and hated it. Without any labor laws to aid them, they were underpaid, overworked and generally treated like absolute shit. Charlotte wrote about her experiences in a letter to Ellen:
...The country, the house and the grounds are, as I have said, divine; but, alack-a-day, there is such a thing as seeing all beautiful around you - pleasant woods, white paths, green lawns, and blue sunshiny sky - and not having a free moment or a free thought left to enjoy them. The children are constantly with me. As for correcting them, I quickly found that was out of the question; they are to do as they like. A complaint to the mother only brings black looks on myself, and unjust, partial excuses to screen the children. I have tried that plan once, and succeeded so notably, I shall try no more. I said in my last letter that Mrs. did not know me. I now begin to find she does not intend to know me; that she cares nothing about me, except to contrive how the greatest possible quantity of labour may be got out of me; and to that end she overwhelms me with oceans of needlework; yards of cambric to hem, muslin night-caps to make, and, above all things, dolls to dress. I do not think she likes me at all, because I can't help being shy in such an entirely novel scene, surrounded as I have hitherto been by strange and constantly changing faces. . . . I used to think I should like to be in the stir of grand folks' society; but I have had enough of it - it is dreary work to look on and listen. I see more clearly than I have ever done before, that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living rational being...

But being a wife was scarcely better - women were basically the property of their husbands, with all the usual horrors that such living arrangements entail. Although as we can see with wealthy women, they pushed the drudgery of motherhood off on the servants as much as possible.

I was reading up on the Brontes over the weekend as research for my play about them for the 365 Women project. I initially thought my play would be 30 minutes, but turns out it's only 10 pages, which is excellent - it will fit nicely with the other plays that are set to be part of the staged reading - they are all 10 minutes long. I'm pleased I have a completed play now, THE BRONTES BEGIN.