In The Life, then, clothing presents a possible problem as asign of Brontë’s failure in the realm of middle-class femininity, since, for example, her sister “Emily had taken a fancy to the fashion, ugly and preposterous even during its reign, of gigot sleeves, and persisted in wearing them long after they were ‘gone out.’ Her petticoats, too, had, not a curve or a wave in them, but hung straight and long, clinging to her lank figure” (166). Furthermore, beyond this association with her unfashionable sister, Brontë had apparently failed to clothe her fictional characters appropriately, for in her review, Rigby insinuates that the author must be a man as “no woman attires another in such fancy dresses as Jane’s ladies assume” (111). Through careful maneuvering on Gaskell’s part, however, such alleged ignorance of flattering and socially-appropriate apparel serves as another illustration of how Brontë eventually transcends the disadvantages of her early life. Recurring references to clothing function first as a sign of Brontë’s early social deprivation, then as learning experience, and ultimately as evidence of her “gentle breeding” rather than social ignorance (311). As in many of her fictional works, including Cranford and Wives and Daughters, in The Life, Gaskell reaffirms the importance of dress as a marker of class status and femininity, drawing on the specifically upper middle-class “emphasis . . . on subtle understatement in apparel” rather than ostentatious displays of fashion (Langland 35).
Thus, in writing about Brontë as a teenager, Gaskell asks her readers to “think of her as a little, set, antiquated girl, very quiet in manners, and very quaint in dress” (75), though, importantly, through no fault of her own. For one, as an evangelical clergyman, “Mr. Brontë wished to make his children hardy, and indifferent to the pleasures of eating and dress,” and as the knowledgeable Gaskell confirms, “in the latter he succeeded, as far as regarded his daughters” (42). Likewise, Aunt Branwell “on whom the duty of dressing her nieces principally devolved, had never been in society since she left Penzance, eight or nine years before, and the Penzance fashions of that day were still dear to her heart” (75). Noble or kind as their intentions ma have been, neither Mr. Brontë nor Aunt Branwell manage the household with the kind of success Gaskell imagines in her character Mrs. Gibson from Wives and Daughters, who recognizes the importance of selecting appropriate, class-signifying clothing for the young women of a middle-class household.
Fortunately, at least in Gaskell’s opinion, Brontë rectified this early disadvantage in terms of clothing once she experienced the wider world and discovered her innate “feminine taste” and “love for modest, dainty, neat attire” (356), which could so appropriately signal her position as a respectable woman of limited means. To show this transformation from “very quaint in dress” to fashion-conscious, Gaskell brilliantly allows Brontë to speak for herself through quotations from personal letters.
In 1851, for example, Brontë wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey, requesting assistance with the purchase of some “lace cloaks, both black and white,” and she spends a full paragraph
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