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THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, Thursday, April , 1932
Charlotte Brontë, by E.F. Benson (Longmans.  12s. 6d. Net.)

Mr. Benson has written a book of singular effectiveness and charming urbanity.  The Brontë story is one with which it is exceedingly difficult 
to be comfortable, between the constantly conflicting claims of loyalty and common sense.  Their family life was so pitiably enclosed that the thought of it daunts sympathy into shame like the presence of some wild creature caged.  We cannot converse on equal terms with a man who has a raging toothache; the Brontës are like raw nerve crushed under a stopping, to throb unendurably.  It is not surprising that they should have aroused extravagant devotions and become the centre of a cult.  Their fiery natures, distorted by repression and confinement, made them imperfect witnesses of the truth, in spite of their passionate devotion to it; and they were so different from ordinary mortals that it is hard to discover any standard by which their observation can be checked.

Mr. Benson has, in general, followed out the admirable principle that the impressions they produced on other people are more likely to be just than those which burst like superheated steam out of the crater of their sufferings.  He brings them, often with irony but never without 
kindliness, to the bar of a cool and normal human judgment.  He has had access to all the documents which were till recently a treasured preserve of the late Mr. Clement Shorter, and often uses them, with devastating results, against the high fabric of what he calls the Brontë Saga - that monument reared by the speculative adulation of the uncritical; and many, indeed, there are who, to enshrine a writer, will hold reason and nature in suspense.  He justly concentrates his attention on Charlotte's life. 
Upon her energy, after all, the family fortunes turned; through her they emerged from obscurity; she gives a continuous thread, she is the 
survivor.  But his narrative embraces, as it could hardly fail to do, the whole family history, and even discusses such delicate questions as 
Branwell's part-authorship of "Wuthering Heights," of which Charlotte had no inkling.  Although his book does not at any time impress the reader as having been dictated by necessary sympathy or high critical intuition, its breadth and fairness have their way with him increasingly; and it wins, in the end, by its unflagging humour and consistent, quiet strength.  From these emerges a sober and, taken in broad outline, a convincing picture of what the authors of "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" were really like. 
There are no revolutionary disclosures, but there are enough fresh human touches to keep sympathy alive.  One reads the book with such contentment as one might have on finding in its original language a novel hitherto known only in translation, or moving by day among scenes that one had previously visited by night.  In fact, Mr. Benson's level motion, just because there was so little of it in the history of the Brontës and least of all in Charlotte's life, is a refreshing and stimulating accompaniment to our thought of them, a delightful medium for a new assessment of their significance and worth.

There are several passages in which his tolerance and coolness are so richly justified that we have the pleasure as we read of sharing what 
seems to be discovery.  Perhaps the most notable example of a felicitous climax of this kind is his account of the events that preceded Branwell's and culminated in Emily's death.  He has several times remarked on the absence of any congeniality of temperament between Emily and Charlotte, and now he explains the mysterious rigidity of aloofness which characterised Emily's last days as a revulsion of feeling occasioned in her by Charlotte's pitiless and unconquerable repugnance for Branwell in his love-sick degeneracy.  A very dramatic moment occurs when he points out how Charlotte's most censorious disgust was felt and expressed at the very time when she herself, bound hand and foot to the memory of M.Heger, was writing him those almost grovelling letters which are now the property of the world.  What would her sensations have been if Mme. Heger had sent one of them to her father?  Emily, he leaves us to surmise could not be find in Charlotte's unyielding sternness the stiff self-shielding of the Pharisee; and she died in heart-broken loyalty to her brother and pity for is fate.

Another telling passage, in happier vein, recounts anew the courtship of the Rev. Arthur Nicholls, and for the first time establishes the 
consummation of Charlotte's happiness on unassailable ground.  It has always hitherto been difficult even for her more disinterested admirers to believe that that happiness could have been more than nominal, or that in her professions of contentment she was doing more than give an unfortunate situation a tolerable colour before herself and before the world.  But Mr. Benson leaves the reader in no doubt that she had found what she wanted and all that she wanted; and achieves in so doing a remarkable and valuable triumph.  His description of the steps by which she gradually overcame her father's opposition, sandwiched between citations from the letters in which she explains to Ellen Nussey the cares of Providence for her present and her future, is admirably witty and just; Considering that little more than a year ago Papa had nearly had an apoplectic fit at the presumption of the now accepted suitor, Charlotte's management of the affair, and her quiet vanquishing of difficulties that seemed insurmountable, must have been a work of consummate strategy.

 "Providence," she wrote, "offers me this destiny.  Doubtless then it is the best for me."  But, without questioning the supremacy of the 
Divine decrees, we must observe that Providence had offered her that destiny a year and a half ago, and she had rejected it because she had no affection for her lover.  Afterwards, coming round to the belief that it was best for her, and that she really wanted it, she had by the exercise of fact, intrigue and will power secured it.  Providence, in fact, would not have had much chance without her firm cooperation.

BOOK REVIEW DIGEST
Benson, Edward Frederic.  Charlotte Bronte.  313p il $4 (12s 6d) Longmans. 
32-16754

Relying chiefly upon her letters, Mr Benson draws a portrait of Charlotte Brontë which differs essentially from Mrs Gaskell's.  In suppressing the harsh features of her heroine, Mrs Gaskell reduced her individuality.  Mr Benson strengthens the idea of that strange personality lighted by the fires of genius and offers a new interpretation of her relations with her sister Emily and her brother Branwell.

For biographical sketch of the author see Boston Transcript p1 Ag6 '32

Mr. Benson's book is a good one...  It makes absorbing reading, though it will not displace Mrs. Gaskell's in spite of Mrs. Gaskell's shortcomings. Mrs. Gaskell has more intensity, she makes us more intimately aware of her subject than Mr. Benson does.
Theodore Spencer.  Atlantic Bookshelf, O '32, 400w

Mr. Benson has drawn a convincing portrait of this sad, indomitable woman, and has been especially skillful in suggesting the differences 
between her and her sisters - Anne with her gentle heart, Emily with her wild genius.  He has analyzed the love story clearly enough, and presented reasonable evidence regarding the other permanent Brontë controversy: Branwell's share in the writing of "Wuthering Heights."  Yet though he has used all the material available to construct a plausible picture, the book is wanting.
Babette Deutsch.  Books, p2, Ag 7 '32, 1150w

He is at once a scrupulous realist and exquisitely sympathetic.  A book about any of the Brontës is of necessity a book about the Brontë family, and there is nothing better in Mr. Benson's than the perceptiveness which he has brought to bear on the mutual relations of the children of Haworth Parsonage.  Here the novelist's habit of viewing characters in relation has stood him in good stead.
Christian Science Monitor, p6, My 14 '32, 480w

A competent and readable biography...  Mr. Benson's writing is easy to read though it never rises to any distinction, and his undue harshness 
toward Mrs. Gaskell is sometimes a little annoying.
E.S.H.  Churchman, p5, S 3 '32, 100w

This is a delightful biography, free from sentimentality and pseudo-interpretations, sharply real in its descriptions of life at Haworth Parsonage.  Nevertheless it is not actually as brilliant, nor as full of warmth, as the really confirmed Brontë fan would like to see it.
Forum, 88:vi, S '32, 200w

Mr. Benson recreates it all with admirable skill, with evident care, with reserve yet with a proper eloquence.
Dorothy Van Doren.  Nation, 135:286, S 28 '32, 750w

Benson's whole treatment of Branwell is not only the best but the only adequate one that we have had.  And his efforts to fathom the secret of Emily are sound and valuable.  Charlotte, because she revealed herself so completely, must always remain the central figure, and Benson has given her a splendid piece of interpretative biography.  But he has left out something - the seasoning.  We find here the slightly acrid and self-righteous Charlotte, the capable and executive Charlotte, the pride, courage and sensitiveness of the woman; but we miss the brilliant girl who, in her own circle, could be so animated, satirical and witty.
 F.T. Marsh.  New Repub, 71:349, Ag 10 '32, 600w

Mr. Benson is out to steer a middle course between the faith of Mrs. Gaskell and the fanaticism of a host of other writers.  His manner is cool 
and unemotional, and his matter convincing.  Charlotte does not emerge too well from the ordeal, but we feel at last that we know the facts about her...  It remains only to congratulate Mr. Benson on a distinguished piece of work, level headed, admirably written, and interesting as any novel, which should be a permanent addition to biographical literature.
L.A.G. Strong.  New Statesman and Nation, 3:486, Ap 16 '32, 1050w

Mr. Benson's is the first really fair biography of the Brontë family that has been written, and as such is most refreshing.  Emily's genius means more to him than Charlotte's cleverness, and he paints his picture without straightening this feature or omitting that blemish.  Throughout the book he exposes the criminal omissions in Mrs. Gaskell's biography, and gives the evidence both for and against, and the reader is then left to form his own judgment.
A.A.  Sat R, 153:373, Ap 9 "32, 900w

In writing this book, Mr. Benson has dissolved the cloud of legends and translated the saga into the common prose of everyday life.  Instead of a mythology he has given us a biology in the literary sense of that word - not of ordinary human beings, of course, but still of human beings with human frailties and human strengths.  And he has done this with so engaging an urbanity of style, often tinged with quiet humor, that we look at the pictures he presents as a fresh revelation, and a natural one.
Temple Scott.  Sat R of Lit, 9:25, S 3 '32, 1250w

Mr. Benson has done good service by this accurate and conscientious, yet lively, piece of work.
E.E. Kellett.  Spec, 148:513, Ap 9 '32, 550w

Mr. Benson has written a book of singular effectiveness and charming urbanity...  He brings the Brontës, often with irony but never without 
kindliness, to the bar of a cool and normal human judgment...  There are no revolutionary disclosures, but there are enough fresh human touches to keep sympathy alive.  One reads the book with such contentment as one might have on finding in its original language a novel hitherto known scenes that one had previously visited by night.
 Times [London] Lit Sup, p244, Ap 7 '32, 1050w

[Booklist, 29:16, S '32] [Reviewed by Frederic Shepard.  Bookm, 75:516, S 
'32, 350w] [Reviewed by Fanny Butcher.  Chicago Daily Tribune, p10, O 15 
'32, 60w] [N Y Times, p4, Ag 7 '32, 1350w] [Reviewed by M.L. Becker.  Sat 
R of Lit, 9:82, S 3 '32, 70w] Wis Lib Bul 28:301, N '32] [Reviewed by F.E. 
Ratchford.  Yale R, n s 22:196, autumn '32, 950w]
 
 
 

 

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