What is it about?

This article places Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë in the context of responses it provoked from contemporaries, including their retrospective re-readings of Jane Eyre. By 1857, the novel form had come a long way from its eighteenth-century origins in the roman à clef, but some parts of Gaskell’s Life return to and invert that tradition, reading almost like a clef to Jane Eyre—so much so as to force a printed retraction and substantial revisions. Gaskell wrote the Life well after fictionality emerged as a concept distinct from history and journalism. Nevertheless, in its intersection with Jane Eyre, the Life reveals the traces of fictional realist convention in factual accounts and, conversely, shows how far the novel, fictional form par excellence, retained an aura of facticity.

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Why is it important?

Readers ask novelists how much of their work is biographical; they ask biographers how much is fictional. This essay on one woman author's account of another considers the facts of Charlotte Bronte's life as they are treated in her own Jane Eyre, and in Elizabeth Gaskell's biography, and demonstrates that the power of the novel--that great fictional form--continued to depend on its relation to "real life" well into the nineteenth century.


This article is part of a special issue of Genre focused on the tension between data and narrative or, as Jesse Rosenthal frames it in his introduction, on the nature of data in criticism and the relation between data-driven literary criticism and more traditional forms of criticism. My Bronte/Gaskell essay is the first stage of a larger project on the novel and biography in the nineteenth century, which looked so much alike that the Hathi-Trust tagger designed to sort texts into genres has trouble telling them apart. What does the tagger's inability to "see" fictionality teach us about the representation of people's lives in the nineteenth century?

Dr Sarah Allison
Loyola U New Orleans

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This page is a summary of: Narrative Form and Facts, Facts, Facts: Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë , Genre, March 2017, Duke University Press, DOI: 10.1215/00166928-3761372.
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