For being entitled The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography devotes a large amount of the story to narratives of death: first Mrs. Brontë, then Maria and Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily, Anne, Tabby, and, finally, Charlotte herself. In an age of nascent medical science, poor hygiene, and rampant, fatal communicable diseases, death was a fact of life for the Victorians; yet it was not without deep emotional significance. Gaskell’s accounts of the deaths of Branwell, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte all share striking commonalities. What defines these death narratives, and what do they tell us about Victorian culture?
During his life, Branwell becomes “dissipated,” buried in debts, and hopelessly addicted to opium. For years, his struggles with addiction afflict the sisters and their father, as they struggle to keep Branwell out of trouble and away from harming himself or others: “… he [Branwell] would sometimes declare that either he or his father should be dead before morning…The sisters often listened for the report of a pistol in the dead of the night, till watchful eye and hearkening ear grew heavy and dull with the perpetual strain upon their nerves” (Gaskell 227). Yet despite his behavior and his addiction-related mental illness, death reveals the noble character that he still possessed. Gaskell writes, “I have heard from one who attended Branwell in his last illness, that he resolved on standing up to die. He had repeatedly said, that as long as there was life there was strength of will to do what it chose” (Gaskell 289). Gaskell’s narrative reveals a strong belief that one’s true character emerges at the moment of death. In his last moments, Branwell becomes a hero: resolved, courageous, and ready to face whatever might come next.
Emily’s death account shows a similar heroism in the face of fate. For the females of Gaskell’s narrative, the defining theme is independence until the final breath and the avoidance of burdening others: “She made no complaint; she would not endure questioning; she rejected sympathy and help” (Gaskell 290). Outwardly, she denied her illness and refused to see a doctor until it was too late. Though it seems foolish, Emily’s refusal to see a doctor probably did not hasten her death, given the unreliable nature of medical treatment.
Like Emily, the sense of hopelessness pervades Anne’s attitude towards medicine; however, though she knows her death is inevitable, “she was too unselfish to refuse trying means from which, if she herself had little hope of benefit, her friends might hereafter derive a mournful satisfaction” (304). Anne also tries to burden the healthy as little as possible; she was “the patientest, gentlest invalid that could be,” and “dependence and helplessness were ever with her a far sorer trial than hard, racking pain” (307).
Charlotte’s own death is born in the same kind of tragic courage against an inevitable human fate. Her illness is “still borne on in patient trust” even though she takes “stimulants” for her pain and departs in “low wandering delirium” (455). Her reflections on her sisters’ death are telling when compared to her last words. When Emily and Anne die, she warns herself, “These things make one feel, as well as know, that this world is not our abiding-place. We should not knit human ties too close, or clasp human affections too fondly. They must leave us, or we must leave them, one day” (Gaskell 290). Yet on her deathbed, she whispers to her husband, “I am not going to die, am I? He [God] will not separate us, we have been so happy” (455). As it is impossible not to be human, it is impossible for Charlotte not to love.
The tragedy of death in the Victorian culture, and the need for a “good death” narrative to console the living, reveal a society wrestling to define a concrete belief in the afterlife. In Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, Deborah Lutz writes that “intermingled with this need to hold onto the memory of the beloved was an anxiety that this matter might finally signify nothing and that death was simply meaningless annihilation. Unfolding this dialectic of doubt and its function in Victorian death culture leads to the evangelical ‘good death’…” (10). Lutz goes on to explain that the life and significance of the Brontes were preserved through relics. Gaskell’s death-surrounded biography led to the late Victorians’ sanctification and enshrinement of the Brontes’ parsonage, along with items touched by the deceased– down to the couch where Emily is believed to have died, and the children’s scribblings on the walls, preserved under glass (52-53). Gaskell’s portrayal of the Brontes’ “good deaths” empowered her eulogizing rhetoric, creating the romanticized image of the Brontes that the living remember today.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Ed. Angus Easson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Lutz, Deborah. Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 February 2015.