Share via Email circa Getty Images Elizabeth Gaskell is a literary criminal, who, in , perpetrated a heinous act of grave-robbing. She has been chained, weeping, to a radiator in the Haworth Parsonage, Yorkshire, for too long.
Enough of Gaskell's fake miserabilia. It is time to exhume the real Charlotte - filthy bitch, grandmother of chick-lit, and friend. When I first read her at the age of 13, I thought she was another boring Gothic drudge who got lucky. When I returned to her 10 years later, I recognised her. Charlotte was an obscure, ugly parson's daughter, a sometime governess and schoolmistress. Her father Patrick had fought his way from Ireland into Cambridge University and the church. She was toothless, almost penniless and - to Victorian society - worthless.
But she dared to transcend her background and her situation. In her novel Jane Eyre, a dark Cinderella tale of a plain, orphaned governess, she dared, baldly, to state her lust. After I had reread Jane Eyre, I wanted to know what dark genius created this world. I turned to Elizabeth Gaskell's Life, but I could not recognise the sanitised Charlotte she conjured up. Gaskell befriended Charlotte when the novelist was 34 and already a star. Contemporary critics had been appalled by Jane Eyre's "coarseness", but the public was thrilled and Charlotte was a celebrity.
Gaskell waspishly described her first sight of Charlotte in a letter: Why may I not be well like other people? She wanted to rescue her friend from the accusations of "coarseness" and she did not have to wait long: Charlotte died in , nine months after her wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls. Gaskell portrays Charlotte as Victim Supreme. Charlotte, Anne and Emily were "shy of meeting even familiar faces". They "never faced their kind voluntarily". Under Gaskell's pen, they become the three witches of Haworth and she hurls on the Gothic gloom, ravaging the moorlands and the town for appropriate props.
She has a particular fondness for the graveyard outside their front door: She could never accept they were, quite simply, talented. There had to be a magical mystery at work on those moors Gaskell carefully fillets the letters to match her agenda. Any hint of Charlotte as a sexual being is tossed on to the historical furnace. Charlotte's correspondence with the married love of her life, Monsieur Heger of Brussels, is ignored, as is her thwarted romance with George Smith.
Gaskell could hardly leave out Charlotte's marriage to Arthur Nicholls - but no doubt she would have liked to.
Gaskell wrote the Life as a tragedy, not a triumph. She was not a wallflower in mourning. She always wanted to be famous; she pined to be "forever known". Aged 20, she wrote boldly to the Poet Laureate Robert Southey, asking for his opinion of her talents.
The daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind. Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life and it ought not to be. She concluded the correspondence "made her put aside, for a time, all idea of literary enterprise". Charlotte continued in her position as a schoolteacher, which she had already held for a year. But she hated her profession and heartily despised the aggravating brats she was forced to teach.
As the children at Roe Head School did their lessons, she wrote in her journal: I sat sinking from irritation and weariness into a kind of lethargy. The thought came over me: Must I from day to day sit chained to this chair prisoned within these four bare walls, while the glorious summer suns are burning in heaven and the year is revolving in its richest glow and declaring at the close of every summer day the time I am losing will never come again? Just then a dolt came up with a lesson. I thought I should have vomited.
Charlotte didn't want to kiss those children; she wanted to vomit on them. Charlotte did not only feel passionate hatred for small children; she felt passionate love for men.
Unlike the female eunuch created by Gaskell, she was obsessed with her sensuality. She wrote to a friend: Gaskell dismisses it as "traces of despondency". In Brussels, studying to become a governess at Heger's school, the virgin became ever more lustful. She wrote obsessive letters to him, begging for his attention. If I sleep I have tortured dreams in which I see you always severe, always gloomy and annoyed with me.
I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to every kind of reproach - all that I know - is that I cannot - that I will not resign myself to losing the friendship of my master completely - I would rather undergo the greatest physical sufferings.
If my master withdraws his friendship entirely from me I will be completely without hope I cling on to preserving that little interest - I cling on to it as I cling on to life. Charlotte's "master" did not return her love, but Jane Eyre's did. Charlotte's fixation with sex could not be realised in truth - so she realised it in fiction.
Her prose is dribbling, watchful and erotic. In Jane Eyre she created the men she could not have in the sack: Both, naturally, beg to marry Jane and Charlotte draws every sigh and blush and wince exquisitely. She writes long, detailed scenarios for her paper lovers. Jane loves to argue with them and she always comes out on top. In the throbbing, climactic scene, after Rochester has teased her lovingly, of course , she pouts: I have as much soul as you and full as much heart.
And if God have gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me as it is now for me to leave you.
I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh - it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed though the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal - as we are. I know Charlotte had an orgasm as she wiped the ink from her fingers and went to take her father his spectacles. Charlotte was not only randy; she was rude. She was sent a copy of Jane Austen's Emma and spouted bile all over it.
Can there ever be a great artist without poetry? I suspect she would have seen it for what it was - the one parasitic shot at immortality of a second-rate writer. I decide to visit Saint Central - the parsonage museum at Haworth - to see if anything of the real Charlotte remains. Might a leg, or an arm or a finger be sticking out from under Gaskell's smiling tombstone? It doesn't look good for Charlotte. A "light installation" is projecting a shadowy grim reaper.
Yes - it is Death. It crawls across Patrick's pillows, returns and crawls again. Inside the house are the relics, pristine and pornographic. Charlotte's clothing is imprisoned behind glass: I can see from the dress that she was a dwarf. A genius indeed, but a dwarf. In the shop, Gaskell, again, has won. There is a Jane Eyre mouse mat that says, "I am no bird and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte wrote "independent human being". She did not write "independent mouse mat". I can find no remnant of the breathing, brilliant novelist in Haworth; it is merely the site of a death cult that weirdly resents its god. This shrine needs desecrating, and I want to watch it burn. I want to see the fridge magnets melt, the tea-towels explode and the wedding bonnet wither.
Somewhere, glistening in the ashes, there might remain a copy of Jane Eyre.