Blog Post #1 – On Christopher Rick’s “Gaskell’s Brontë”, Revised
English 402 – Lives and Letters
I am coming to picture letters like they are cupped pairs of gentle hands; a strange simile, maybe, but I am seeing more and more how these texts hold small, trivial, and fleeting things in their details, even more so than other texts we grapple with in our undergraduate English classes. The minutiae and immediacy of everyday life is preserved in the ink of John Adam’s scrawlings to Abigail, for example or in Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Elizabeth Gaskell. Adams writes about his questions regarding the growth of the army in 1776 in letter #119 (“Will your brother enlist?”), and he urges that Abigail write to him, at least a few lines, every week –“It gives me many spirits” (198). To that end, an individual’s raw and present being — how exactly they are feeling at that time, what worry is gnawing at them, any trepidations pulsing in their heart about the future, or about what’s just happened — can be kept in place through letters. So as readers, we are given a chance to sit down next to these writers and peer a bit around the space of their life, for a moment at least; or, to tie back to this simile that has been swirling around in my head, we’re given the opportunity to spend time and learn from the handfuls of rare moments that letters extend to us.
I explored this theme in reading Christopher Rick’s passage on Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Life of Charlotte Brontë.” Consistently, it seems, Ricks finds Gaskell’s work compelling and meaningful because the author is able to express Brontë herself. I write “Brontë herself” because Gaskell seems to continuously include Brontë’s voice — raw quotes from her writings and letters — and thus her emotions, her worries, and her hopes; we can begin to understand how this young woman viewed the world and what her very soul consisted of, firsthand. And this sort of direct knowledge and sharing of Charlotte-essence is made possible because of the stuff of a mailbox; Gaskell had access to Brontë’s letters, and is able to include them in her text. As with the Adams correspondence, Brontë’s letters bring us immediacy, worry, struggle … the direct and palpable emotion of the sister. For instance, Ricks discusses Gaskell’s inclusion of a few lines from Charlotte’s 1849 letter on the dying of her sister, Emily; “Affliction came in that shape which to anticipate is to dread; to look back on grief” (Ricks, 129). It’s a short line pulled from a greater piece, but it’s all that’s needed here I think to depict the intense ache that was triggered in Charlotte, and allow us to even begin to feel that on some level as detached readers. Emily wasn’t dead yet, but Charlotte seemed to operate with a deep ability to know, to predict, and we see that expressed here in her letter, for Emily did die after this, and Charlotte’s ache was valid. Lines like these that help to solidify the theme that seems to be illustrated in most of the letters that we have been engaging with in the epistolary tradition; there is beauty and power in the everyday, and letters help us to gain this presence — even with a character from 164 years ago.