Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mr Charlotte Brontë - A review

Our thanks to McGill-Queen's University Press for sending us a review copy of this book.

Mr Charlotte Brontë
The Life of Arthur Bell Nicholls

Alan H. Adamson

McGill-Queen's University Press
Cloth (0773533656) 9780773533653
Release date: 2008-02-28
CA $29.95 | US $24.95 | UK £13.99
6X9
216pp
19 b&w photos
The three key men in the Brontë saga have been maligned since their own time until relatively recently. And because Charlotte Brontë's death took place after her marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls but before she could make it clear whether she would continue with her literary career - though the answer to that riddle is pretty clear to us - Mr Nicholls has been 'fair game' even since before his death.

Most modern biographies try and look at his own acts instead of relying on the clearly biased accounts of 'witnesses' such as Mrs Gaskell or Ellen Nussey or Charles Hale (who actually was a close friend of Mrs Gaskell's). Published in 1999, the Cochranes' My Dear Boy was the first stand-alone biography of him where they vindicated the figure of this Irish curate who married Charlotte Brontë and who, were you to trust some accounts, always took the wrong decisions and made the worst moves.

Now nine years later, Alan H. Adamson provides us with another biography of this seemingly obscure man who hated fame so much that he didn't even bother to try and defend himself from many untruths and falsehoods. Mr Charlotte Brontë is the title of this new biography - a title which we personally find totally fitting. Mr Adamson, apart from a historian, has family connections which link him to Mr Nicholls' aunt and uncle, who adopted Arthur and his brother Alan.

Mr Adamson makes a point of trying to establish as far as possible Arthur's personality and what made him the man he became. This adoption and separation from his parents - who he never saw again judging from the evidence we have - is, according to the author, a key factor in Arthur's psychological makeup, causing him to be wary of strangers, yet - once the ice had been broken - attaching himself passionately and deeply to a happy few.

Mr Adamson differentiates three clear-cut periods in Arthur's life. Facts from the first period, his Irish formative years, are scarce but just enough to have a glimpse of the young Arthur and to gather where he might have got his High-Church, Puseyite religious ideas which brought him so to clash with both the Brontës and with the villagers of Haworth at times. Mr Adamson is able even to fill a gap in Arthur's superior education: the man whose intellect was written down as not so bright because of his taking extra time to complete his studies according to the Cochranes is now the man who took a year off from University in order to teach. The author also makes use of his family papers to try and describe the home and family Arthur would have known. The well-known Cuba House where Arthur grew up is unfortunately - and unbeknownst to us up until now - sadly in ruins these days, as a couple of pictures in the book show.

Short parts of the biography are written somewhat fictionally, such as Arthur waking for the first time in Haworth to the sound of Patrick's gunshots out of his window at the Parsonage. But this might indeed have been the way in which the second - and most brief and well-known - part of Arthur's life began after about a year in Ireland where his whereabouts are a mystery. Mr Adamson's sympathies clearly lie with the young, foreign curate who finds himself in an idiosyncratic northern village. And perhaps to make the reader share this feeling he tips the balance a little too much in painting Charlotte Brontë a little more unsympathetic than she probably was. Her every mention of the Irish curate is scanned for meaning which might or might not have been there. However, we find the quick, stereotyped summary of the Brontës' lives up until that point somewhat unnecessary, as most people coming to this biography will be quite familiar with the Brontë story. Perhaps - for the few people coming from other directions - that summary could have been left to a footnote.

Arthur Bell Nicholls wasn't definitely one for first impressions. Charlotte Brontë was famously not impressed by him, probably due to a natural callousness when it came to her father's curates - and we all know where she ended up. However, Charlotte's lifelong friend Ellen Nussey seems to have liked him at first, as did Elizabeth Gaskell when she met him for the first time after Charlotte's death. Of course, we know where these two ended up as well: profiting from every chance to criticise Arthur and his attitude and to lean toward the exact opposite direction from where he leant. But, as with Charlotte, we find Mr Adamson to be a little too willing to highlight Arthur's good points by looking at these women's so-called faults through a magnifying glass. Elizabeth Gaskell is accused of leaving England after the Life of Charlotte Brontë was published to 'avoid the controversy', ignoring the fact that Mrs Gaskell always fled from England whenever one of her books was published. Ellen Nussey's possible reasons for constantly wanting to print Charlotte's letters against Arthur's wishes are repeated time and time again with more than hints about her just wanting her proverbial 15 minutes of fame. A few other minor, hardly relevant mistakes appear in the book as well, despite Mr Adamson's extensive and aptly-used bibliography.

This interesting second period, which has been looked into ad infinitum, is naturally the less interesting within the biography. Still, it is sympathetic and moving and, for anyone who likes Arthur - as you will after having read the previous pages of the book - and who likes Charlotte it is simply a pleasure to read up until when Charlotte's condition worsens, and a drama to read up until Patrick dies. Oh the struggle to defend Charlotte's reputation, to ward off gossips and to try and lead a normal life. Both dramatic and hilarious the 12-letters-in-10-days exchanged by Patrick and Arthur with Harriet Martineau are, for us, one of the highlights of this period, as Mr Adamson comments them both seriously and inevitably jokingly.

This period ends with Arthur's 'dismissal' by the Haworth board of trustees after Patrick's death. Mr Adamson tries to reach conclusions as to why the trustees voted against him and treats the painful subject in-depth and with compassion.

The third and last period in Arthur's life is his return to Banagher, Ireland, with his Aunt and cousin Mary Anna - who would later become his second wife, although Arthur is supposed to have told her that he had buried his heart with Charlotte - is the most interesting and the one to include most new things. Not only does Mr Adamson pepper the text with lively, vivid anecdotes of family folklore but he also brings us Mr Nicholls at his most charming and relaxed, on his way from Charlotte Brontë's 'dear boy' to the elderly, much-loved particularly by children and animals, 'dear baboo Nick'. But the Brontë connection was impossible to leave behind. He was now great friends with the Brontës' old servant, Martha Brown (who hadn't liked Mr Nicholls at first either), with whom he kept in touch by letter and by her frequent stays in Banagher. He once went back to Haworth even! And his home at the Hill House (now a bed and breakfast called Charlotte's Way) seems to have been a Brontë shrine. Even though the stories of his precious Brontë items stored in cupboards is well-known, many other valuable items were cherished and displayed prominently inside the house. Arthur's life after the Brontës is also the afterlife of Brontë items, which is always interesting to read, despite the cringe-worthy dealings of T.J. Wise.

This biography of Arthur Bell Nicholls reads like a grabbing novel and closes like one, too, with that mixture of satisfaction and sadness which reigns at the end of a good story. Mr Adamson provides us with a perceptive, fresh new approach and in telling the life of Charlotte Brontë's husband poses some very interesting - albeit unanswerable - questions concerning the Brontës themselves. What's more important, it shows - hopefully for once and for all - that Charlotte Brontë didn't marry a monster, but a highly private man who, above all, loved his wife Charlotte Nicholls but who also cared about Charlotte Brontë's literary reputation inasmuch as that was strictly restricted to her books, not her private affairs.

Let us finish with his own words on the controversial subject of Charlotte Brontë's married happiness:
There is also another misconception, which I am told by a Literary Friend, prevails--'that her [Charlotte Brontë's] married life was unhappy'--I should have thought that her own words written from her deathbed had made such a statement incredible but I am told that it exists.
~ Arthur Bell Nicholls to Mrs Humphry Ward, 28 November 1899
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