Charlotte Brontë is thought to have said - “I'm just going to write because I cannot help it”, and the attribution may not be apocryphal: she was impulsive, governed by an extraordinary muse, and powerfully driven to express the kinds of opinions and sentiments which were generally denied to those of her class and gender. The compulsion to speak out was, in other words, beyond her power to resist.
Whenever and wherever there are social iniquities to redress, histories to celebrate, and landscapes to describe, story-making, and story makers, will be in the ascendant. And as the Brontës ably exemplify, Yorkshire has provided an inspiration to many phenomenal storytellers over the generations. Several of our current luminaries, Alan Bennett and Tony Harrison being pre-eminent, harness the intuition of personal experience to make broader social brushstrokes from local nuance and language. Others, such as John Braine and Phyllis Bentley, were able to delineate industrial landscapes and class dynamics which continue to shape the way we view our own heritage. Still other writers, and York-born Kate Atkinson is a best-seller, make bigger pictures from the outset and remind us that provincial provenance need not imply 'provincial' thinking.
At Settle Stories we aim to celebrate this Yorkshire culture of storytelling in all of its diversity, and on the 26th Feb. we will be bringing three published local authors together to talk about their most recent work at our 'Local Writers Meetup.'
With his new novel, Mutable Passions, it is refreshing to find Yorkshire writer Philip Dent actively circumventing the conventional approach to fictionalised Brontë 'biography' by choosing the figure of Charlotte herself, rather than one of her protagonists, as his central character. The actual details of her relationship with Arthur Bell Nicholls, upon which the narrative is based, remain largely hidden from view. Beyond the salient facts, we know little of the courtship which led to their eventual marriage, and it is always tempting, in the light of the passion and vigour which animate her novels, to re-imagine Charlotte's life in the guise of one of her heroines.
We recently interviewed Philip to talk about his work, and, hopefully, to dissolve some of the more tenacious myths which surround Charlotte's life and legacy:
Q. Hi Philip and thank you for taking time out to talk to Settle Stories. Juliet Barker has said that the search for fictional character prototypes in the lives and experiences of the Brontës themselves is irrelevant, if not futile. Might the same assumption be made in reverse ? Is it too easy to imagine Charlotte Brontë through the prismatic mirror of Jane Eyre?
A. It is never easy trying to reimagine a life lived centuries ago, but to suppose that Charlotte Brontë could be imagined through the prismatic mirror of Jane Eyre would indeed be simplistic and wrong. Jane Eyre is a work of fiction and, though widely accepted to contain autobiographical images, most notably alluding to her time at the clergy daughter’s school at Cowan Bridge. The novel is hardly a blueprint of Charlotte’s life and indeed, The Professor and Villette are alleged to reflect certain episodes of her life also, but any attempt to fictionalise Charlotte through her novels would be misleading and convey a false account of her life. This need not necessarily deter writers from taking on the challenge and attempting to construct some kind of believable fictional character from a study of Charlotte’s letters and available biographical material. This would potentially offer up a better account of her life than would a study of Jane Eyre, or any of her novels. The danger is, of course, that writers will elaborate and embellish beyond reasonable boundaries in order to sensationalise. Perhaps I am guilty of this!
Q. You have clearly harnessed a great deal of research in your realisation of a period which is now remote, culturally, from our own. Was it difficult to gauge the nuances of a time in which class and religious registers were as fixed then as they are now fluid?
A. Religion conditioned and controlled much of society in the nineteenth century, possibly more so than any organisation. “God’s will” was all too often accepted as paramount, the unseen judgemental force that governed society. Things are very different now, religion holds much less value and attempting to empathise with accepted values a couple of centuries ago is not easy. Through research one can gain a degree of understanding of what life might have been like, but it is impossible to provide a consensual picture. Every writer will interpret the available material differently and paint a different picture.
Q. Elizabeth Gaskell's perception, particularly of Charlotte, was as hamstrung by those same Victorian social registers as it was also persuasive, and it effectively shaped the latter's reputation for generations. Arthur Nicholls performed a similar service to posterity by posthumously securing Charlotte's personal life from intrusion. Did a relative lack of extant biographical detail make your study of her relationship with Nicholls more difficult, or did it enable a freer narrative hand?
A. The lack of biographical detail pertaining to Charlotte’s relationship with Mr Nicholls did, I feel, enable greater scope to invent a freer narrative. After establishing a chronological framework of that period of Charlotte’s life, I was able to infill the gaps using my own imagination, guided by pointers from the biographical material to invent both action and dialogue.
Q. Many writers and non-writers have given testimony to the extraordinary hold the Brontës have over their imaginations; the size of the Brontë Society is just one indicator of their enduring worldwide popularity. What drove you, personally, to write Mutable Passions?
A. A passion for the Brontës has been with me since childhood, but the real motivation for writing Mutable Passions stemmed from a lack of detail during that period of Charlotte’s life, and namely her relationship with Mr Nicholls. Of the volumes written about the Brontës, little seems to focus on the fleeting happiness she found in her relationship and marriage to her father’s curate. Additionally, Charlotte, I feel, is all too often portrayed as rather drab and frumpy. She certainly had more than her share of tragedy and heartache; and later in life, depression and loneliness affected her greatly. She was not in perpetual mourning, though, and I wanted to bring colour to her life, show a brighter side amid the gloom, show that Charlotte, too, possessed feelings and had romantic aspirations like everyone else. My novel is a love story. Of love overcoming obstacles, from her own initial indifference toward Mr Nicholls, but more crucially the opposition aroused in her father, who was vociferously opposed to her marrying his curate.
Meet the author Philip Dent and 2 other local authors at our Event Local Writers Meetup on Sunday 26th Feb. Tickets are just £2. More info & booking, click here