“Let me introduce you to the real Charlotte Brontë. She was not a wallflower in mourning. She always wanted to be famous; she pined to be ‘forever known’… Her prose is dribbling, watchful and erotic… (Gold, par. 8 and par. 11)
On my author bio, I used to list some of my favorite authors and the Brontes were always on that list. This is, strictly speaking, not quite true. There are really only two Brontes that I like, Charlotte and Emily (I never quite got into Anne Bronte’s works).
The film Devotion (1946) is, strictly speaking, about all the Bronte children, including the tragic Byronic artist-turned-alcoholic figure of brother Branwell Bronte. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly a biopic. The film plays very fast and loose with the facts of the Brontes’ lives. However, in one way, the film tells the truth — Olivia de Havilland’s Charlotte Bronte is closer to the woman who was than most Bronte lovers would like to admit.
There have been many complaints (including those in the tongue-in-cheek article by Tanya Gold referenced above) and rightly so that the persona of Charlotte Bronte has been distorted and skewed beyond recognition from very early on. I tend to agree with this. Bronte’s image suffers from Angel-in-the-house-itis – that is, even from the first (specifically, from novelist Elizabeth Gaskell’s well meaning but misleading biography The Life of Charlotte Bronte published a few years after the author’s death) critics and writers have put Bronte on a pedestal and preferred to see her as the epitome of the Victorian “angel in the house”. This concept not only puts women (especially wives) on par with the angels but also removes all sexual and intellectual identity from them. It’s no wonder Virginia Woolf insisted there was no way a woman could be a writer unless she killed the angel in the house.
Even today, there are people who still believe seem to prefer to believe Bronte was the angel in the house. Nava Atlas’ biographical article on Bronte seems to lean in this direction, focusing on Bronte as a martyr whose purpose in life, other than writing , was to take care of her family. In one passage, Atlas praises Bronte for spearheading the quest to publish not only her own work but those of her sisters when she discovered some of her sister Emily’s poetry. While this is partly true, as I pointed out in this blog post, Bronte’s motivation for publication and her opinions of her sister’s writing was much more complex than that and not always so self-sacrificing.
What makes Devotion so fascinating to me and override many of its flaws (like the dominance of a love rivalry that never happened and actor Paul Henreid’s rather condescending role as a man of the cloth) is the way de Havilland breaks down the pedestal on which the legend of Charlotte Bronte had stood so high. I think de Havilland understood Bronte was not the perfect duty-filled sister history seems to want to make her out to be. She had many unpleasant, alibi realistic sides. Her extreme ambition to be a part of the London literary circles made her sacrifice not only her sister’s work but also her own (note that the books written after the ground-breaking Jane Eyre were much more conventional love stories that aspired to the kind of psychological insights her mentor, William Makepeace Thackeray was being praised for at the time). She could be very tart in her opinions, almost bitchy, as well as egocentric and arrogant. These are all qualities de Havilland brings out beautifully in her portrayal of Bronte in the film, along with the more accepted vision of the character, such as Bronte’s duty and affection for her family. Many complaint hat this made Bronte unlikeable but to me, it makes the character more multi-dimensional and more interesting.
There are certain ironies looking back at this role of de Havilland’s in light of her career. Like Bronte, she was no angel in the house. Paul Henreid admitted actresses who strove for stardom in Hollywood could not be shrinking violets and de Havilland certainly wasn’t one. In fact, Devotion was the last film she made before the infamous court case against Warner Brothers that changed things for many actors at that time. There is also a certain irony in the fact that, like Charlotte Bronte, de Havilland survived her sibling Joan Fontaine and in fact, at the age of 102, survives many of her Hollywood contemporaries. She is indeed no angel in the house but a strong survivor and, like Charlotte Bronte, should be admired in light of all her complexities and not in an image that doesn’t exist.
Atlas, Nava. “Charlotte Bronte.” Literary Ladies Guide. Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life, 2018. 30 March 2018. Web. 27 June 2018.
Gold, Tanya. “Reader, I Shagged Him: Why Charlotte Bronte was a Filthy Minx.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 2018. 24 March 2015. Web. 27 June 2018.