A Tale of Two Authoresses

Once upon a time in a land far, far away lived two women named Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell. Though these women were not intimate friends, they each decided to take upon themselves the similar task of recording the events of the past: Martineau, the events of her own life, and Gaskell, those of the life of her recently deceased friend Charlotte Brontë. After months of hard labor and gallons of ink, these women succeeded in their attempt and published their works.

For years their histories were viewed as an accurate account of the events that they recorded. However, one day some literary critics, who had been influenced by the postmodern understanding of the inaccessibility of the past, took it upon themselves to show that the narratives that the authors provided were perhaps not as factual as the readers had supposed. Instead, they argued that the narratives that Martineau and Gaskell presented were respectively “factually inaccurate” (Liddle 57) and supportive of the “[r]eaders’ construction of the Brontës as authors” that is “an important part of the Brontë myth” (Stoneman 216). That is, these critics recognized Martineau’s Autobiography and Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë as mythologized biographical pictures of ideal writers and women, rather than as factually accurate historical accounts of the authors’ lives.

The rather anticlimactic ending of this tale opens up an interesting question. Granted that Martineau and Gaskell were biased and at times factually inaccurate in their presentations of the past, is it possible to look beyond that inaccuracy and perhaps gain an understanding of Martineau’s and Brontë’s experience of the recorded events as they occurred?

Though it may seem that the one who actually experienced the events would be the best authority on that experience, it seems that between the two accounts Martineau’s Autobiography provides the reader with the least accurate recording of her experience of the events. As Liddle points out in her chapter “The Authoress’s Tale,” Martineau carefully crafted her account of her life to show herself to be the natural journalist that she wished to be remembered. As a result, we loose a good deal of how Martineau experienced the events at the time they occurred. Though we are given a glimpse into how Martineau viewed her life in 1855, we do not see what she actually experienced at the time of, for instance, the publication of her first essay in 1822.

Of course, Gaskell also manipulated her account of Brontë’s life to show her as an idealized woman and author. However, Gaskell’s account comes closer to providing us with an account of Brontë’s experience of her life as it occurred. Given that her Life is based upon Brontë’s letters, and indeed contains many of those letters, we are able to get a more accurate picture of what Brontë thought or felt about the events that she experienced as she experienced them. Though Gaskell herself crafts her account of Brontë’s life in order to support “the Brontë myth,” because she bases that account on letters written by Brontë at the time that the events occurred, the reader is able to understand how those events were experienced by the young Brontë.

Thus, because of her extensive use of letters, Gaskell’s Life is able to convey a better idea of Brontë’s actual experience of the events of her life at the time at which they occurred than Martineau manages in her Autobiography. Though both are mythologized, there is perhaps more factual accuracy available from a distanced perspective than from the one living through the Happily Ever After and into The End.

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