Whose line is it anyway? William Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë


When you first look at the manuscript of Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, you are struck by how messy it is—compare this to her other manuscripts and the difference is quite shocking (for people like me, who live for this stuff). It’s no surprise: Charlotte Brontë, in many ways, was Gaskell’s ultimate challenge. She had never attempted biography; she had never had to contend with real-life characters who threatened to charge her with libel (‘and here’s to you, Mrs Robinson’)* and demanded revisions (Harriet Martineau, I’m lookin’ at you)**. Even before she started writing, Gaskell knew that this was a precarious business—she had been approached by Patrick Brontë to write the biography in response to rumours that were circulating about Charlotte after her death.

This may explain why the manuscript is so full of cancellations and revisions. There are, very interestingly, instances where Gaskell finds it necessary to negotiate her expression, perhaps with these social intentions in mind (but that’s something for my next few posts…). If you look more closely at the first few folios, however, you can observe something more at play. There is another hand present—an imposter you might say—correcting Gaskell’s grammar and expression. Grammatical changes, such as ‘which’ to ‘that’ or changes in words such as ‘more’ to ‘greater’ are all completed in William Gaskell’s hand, suggesting that Elizabeth Gaskell enlisted her husband to proof-read her work for her. This is a normal response for many writers—particularly one who is having to exercise such caution towards her subject. William Gaskell’s input goes further, however, to the point that he changes the aesthetic of the text. The transcription below show William’s revisions in red.


Revisions that occur while Elizabeth Gaskell is writing are easy to discriminate. They occur during composition and show Gaskell adjusting her expression to achieve the image and feeling of oppression she experiences in the landscape surrounding Haworth. William Gaskell’s restructuring of this image, however, serves to emphasise not only the bleakness of the moors but the unhealthy, adverse environment inhabited by Charlotte Brontë. William Gaskell’s moors are not just oppressive, but they are shapes which remove one from the physical world and instead ‘suggest’ the ‘idea’ of ‘oppressive desolation’—a phrase that no longer evokes just a feeling, but visually recalls the dark and barren moors. The aesthetic of the passage therefore shifts away from the materiality of the landscape and instead places emphasis on the latter part of the sentence, where Elizabeth transforms this physical experience into the ‘mood of mind in which the spectator may be’. This begins to construct the pervasive theme that Brontë’s character (and morality) fall victim to her landscape—it is not just her geographical isolation, but the mental oppression of the moors that explains ‘the existence of coarseness here and there in her works’.

Much has been written on Gaskell’s representation of Charlotte Brontë, and women writers more generally, in the Life. William’s influence in constructing this myth of isolated genius problematises this commentary and, arguably, Gaskell’s intentions. In her work on the relationship between biography and autobiography, Gabriele Helms argues that ‘a biography can also be read as an autobiographical work about [the biographer]’. Many have argued that this is exactly the dynamic at play in the Life, where Gaskell asserts her own status as a writer through the way she constructs Brontë’s authorial identity. The manuscript, however, forces us to question how much Gaskell’s authorial persona is influenced by William’s attitude towards female authorship.

William Gaskell’s revisions may well have been enabling for Elizabeth, refining her expression into more cohesive prose. The extensiveness of William’s interruption of the text is, however, unsettling. There are, for example, large gaps left by Elizabeth to be filled by William, suggesting that there are points throughout the Life where one could argue the pair work collaboratively. William’s revisions are also occasionally rather condescending. He changes Elizabeth’s use of the term ‘quarter of a century’, for example, to ‘twenty years’—an unnecessary and, one could argue, rather pedantic amendment to the text. My more extensive study of the manuscript will identify the dynamic between these two writers and how Elizabeth Gaskell embraces—and distorts—her husband’s revisions.

*Branwell Brontë had an affair with a woman called (wait for it)…Mrs Robinson. She threatened to sue for libel when the biography was published and she was exposed.
**Harriet Martineau was shocked and dismayed by Gaskell’s suggestion that, when Charlotte went to stay, Martineau ignored her all morning until she had finished her writing. It’s a Victorian thing. Read this to find out more: Linda Peterson, ‘Triangulation, Desire and Discontent in The Life of Charlotte Brontë’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 47.4 (2007), 910-920.


  • Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. by Elisabeth Jay, (London: Penguin Books, 1997)
  • Gabriele Helms, ‘The Coincidence of Biography and Autobiography: Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë’, Biography, 18.4 (1995), 339-359

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