Saturday, March 12, 2016

Charlotte Brontë: a life (book review)

Published in the US as Charlotte Brontë: a fiery heart, this new biography by English writer Claire Harman surpassed all my expectations.

I've long possessed a keen interest in the Brontë sisters, not merely because of the unusual books they endowed to posterity. As a group of writers their ability to decipher human emotions and psychology is astonishingly acute for women whose lives offered very little in the way of human society. How did they grow into this and what influenced them? I was keen to find out and excited about reading this new book. 

Claire Harman has delved deeply into the entire Brontë catalogue of research, particularly the hundreds of surviving letters that passed between Charlotte Brontë and her closest friends. She spent hours at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, immersing herself as much as possible in the world of the Brontës, their home as well as the drearily beautiful surroundings of the rugged moor and the "strange uncivilized little place" in which they spent most of their short lives.

Charlotte Brontë and her sisters existed in a world --an entire culture of dependence-- that is almost completely forgotten in today's Western society. The reliance of women on the benevolence of their fathers and brothers was absolute, unless they were able to receive an education or marry. Fortunately for Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, their father was a Church of England vicar who was unusually well educated for a man who had been born into poverty in Ireland.  He made his way to England and never looked back, possessing a will to forge ahead and compartmentalise. This indomitable will kept him going through his wife's early death, pushed him to educate his children himself away from the "uncivilized" world of Haworth, and probably influenced his elderly manipulation of his surviving daughter Charlotte.

The pre-Jane Eyre part of Charlotte’s life makes for a dark preface to her future success. After being cocooned in a home environment that was marked by the oddly detailed creation of imaginary worlds with her siblings, she goes to Brussels with her sister Emily to round out her education. Experiences incurred here influence her writing for the rest of her life.

Upon her return home from Brussels, she and her sisters Anne and Emily embark on an almost feverishly intense quest to publish their writing. Here Jane Eyre comes into being, written in a fury. The three sisters finally publish their first books under gender-neutral aliases: Acton, Currer, and Elliot Bell.

One of my favourite scenes in this book is the one in which Charlotte reveals her true identity to her London publisher, Mr Smith. Chased by rumours that "all those Bells" were actually one and the same author, Anne and Charlotte set out to disprove the gossip by visiting London in person to prove their identity.  Wisely, Harman allows Charlotte to relate the story herself through a letter to a friend. After she tells Mr Smith she is Currer Bell, handing him a letter from himself to confirm it, he "looked at it-- then at me--again--yet again-- I laughed at his queer perplexity-- A recognition took place--. I gave my real name--Miss Brontë..."

What would pass for a cute "mistaken identity" anecdote in today's society was a profound shocker in early Victorian England.  What a triumph for these Brontë women who were so ahead of their time!

Any of us who have some familiarity with the Brontë saga are aware that their era was plagued by high mortality, caused by disease, lack of access to clean water, and poor nutrition. Anne, Emily, and Charlotte endured the sorrow of losing their mother when they were small children, and less than a year later their eldest two sisters died in short succession after virulent attacks of tuberculosis. Their one surviving sibling, Branwell, wrote brilliant poetry and attempted portrait painting but could not control his addiction to opium and alcohol. He died not long after his sisters' initial writing successes. Within months of his death Emily and Anne both died of tuberculosis, leaving Charlotte to care for her elderly father.

Claire Harman writes carefully and honestly about this time in Charlotte's life, adroitly avoiding a sense of melodrama that has pervaded other accounts of the Brontë family. The grief that controlled Charlotte's existence and the immutability of her beloved sisters' deaths is obvious without being overdone. Charlotte also had to endure critics who did not recognise her sisters' genius, in a total misunderstanding of the nature of their novels. In her newfound status as a bestselling author, she wrote biographical prefaces to new editions of Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey in the hope that they would not be forgotten.

For Charlotte the next four years were marked by constant writing, most notably a rewrite of her first novel, The Professor (published posthumously) and her usual personal correspondence with friends. Shirley, published right after Anne's death, did not possess the brilliance of Charlotte's first novels. She was clearly feeling a profound sense of loss. I find this a telling clue that Charlotte's own creativity was fed and fanned into flame by the close proximity of her sisters, their ideas and intensity. I wonder what different novels we might be reading today if not for the fact that their writing burst from a creative bubble that collectively enveloped the three of them. 

In the final year of Charlotte's life, she married her father's curate after an intense period of emotional manipulation by her father, who preferred that she take care of him rather than marry. The marriage was finally agreed to under the condition that the newly married couple live with him in Haworth.  Just months after Charlotte's marriage, she died abruptly of what Claire Harman surmises was "hyperemesis gravidarum" --an unusual condition of pregnancy that causes the sufferer intense sickness: in the 1850's, virtually a death sentence.

As in the case of Jane Austen, I've always wondered: what would Charlotte have written had she lived into old age?  

"Of all the subjects I have written about, hers is the most unquiet ghost," Claire Harman says of Charlotte Brontë. 

And as much as I enjoyed this biography, indeed, I finish reading it with a sense of "unquiet".

Charlotte Brontë: a fiery heart@ Barnes &

Charlotte Brontë: a life @

Related post: read my review of 2011 Jane Eyre film

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tenth Birthday Interview With Mr J



What's the adventure you would most like to have? 
Go camping in the woods.

What is one of your favourite things to do right now?
Make up stories about Mr Sacksall. He's an imaginary person I made up a while ago. He drives a little van and is about five inches tall. He reads adventure books. He goes rafting and has lots of adventures.

Which books are your favourites?
Pilgrim's ProgressWhere the Red Fern Grows, and the Paddington books

What are your favourite things to play with right now?
Lego, Playmobil figures, cardboard footballers [a game our boys devised with handmade football players and goal]

What is your favourite colour?

What's your favourite animal?

What do you like about dogs?
They're fluffy, cute, playful, and I just love them.

What are the names of the people that you enjoy spending time with?
You and Daddy, Coo, Lefty, Righty.

What do you like to eat?

What makes you happy?
Playing with dogs.

What makes you sad?
When dogs and people die. Like Max [dog] and Solomon [little brother].


What do you like to do with Lefty and Righty?
Play tennis and football. [soccer]

What do you like to do with Daddy?
Play card games.

What do you like to do with Coo?
Play Playmobil.

What do you like to do with me?
Listen to you reading aloud, hug you. 

What do I do all day?
Make soap and cook food.

What does Daddy do all day?
Helps us learn math, breaks his toes. [J is referring to Daddy's recent numerous foot injuries]

What do you do all day?
Play, eat, and imagine.

Mr J's ninth birthday interview can be found here.  The birthday interviews we do are an idea from Lauren, who blogs at Sparkling Adventures. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Southern Wedding

My youngest brother, alternately known as Uncle Nathan, was married last week.  

Mr J, Coo, Righty, and Lefty were thankful that Nathan and his bride, Anna, opted for a dessert reception and partook enthusiastically. 

Dan and I were happy about the coffee bar.  I still feel a sense of relief that the only Maley family damage done was a brief fire due to a spilled candle at the table where the boys were doing justice to big plates of cake.

We attempted a family photo but not all family members wanted to participate.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sixth Birthday Interview With Coo

What things would you like to do when you are big like Mummy?
Make pies

What do you love the most?
Listening to music and watching a ballet like Sylvia, or every single ballet in the world. [See Coo as Sylvia]

Which books are your favourites? 
Brambly Hedge stories, The Little Red Hen, Bob Books

What are your favourite colours? 
Pink, blue, red, black, green, yellow, white, chartreuse

Who are some of your favourite people?
You, the boys and Daddy, Hannah, James, More Hannahs, all my other friends in England, my friends in America. I like everyone.

What do you like to eat?
CAKE! Also cupcakes and bagels.

What makes you happy? 
Going to the cinema to see "Paddington"

What makes you sad?
When I don't have a bedtime snack and when someone dies.

What's your favourite thing to do with Righty?
Make blackberry and apple pie.

What's your favourite thing to do with Lefty?
Play with Playmobil.

What's your favourite thing to do with Mr J?
Play with Playmobil, hear his made-up stories about Mr Sacksul, play football with him.

What's your favourite thing to do with Daddy?
Play games like Uno, Hangman, Junior Monopoly, and Noughts & Crosses.

What's your favourite thing to do with me?
Hug and kiss you, and do Eskimo kisses.

Do you have a favourite toy?
One of them is my Tauriel figure, and the other is my baby doll called Baby Sunshine.

Where is your favourite place?
The park. Well, any park with a playground!

You can read Coo's fifth birthday interview here.

The birthday interviews I do with each of my kids are an idea from Lauren, who blogs at Sparkling Adventures.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Autumn Spice

One of my favourite essential oil blends... this creamy-lathered, long-lasting soap has a hint of cinnamon and cloves but also quite a strong earthy note. All my soaps are 100% vegan, scented only with essential oils, and contain no artificial colouring or fragrances.  

Birth Choices in Indiana

Until two years ago, the choice to give birth at home was virtually impossible for most women in the state of Indiana.  Of course, many families still went for this option, birthing illegally at home either with certified professional midwives [CPMs], lay midwives, or giving birth unassisted.

Home birth was not actually illegal; CNMs [certified nurse midwives] practiced in Indiana legally but the majority of CNMs work in hospitals and choose not to attend home births. In the United States, medical = big business.  Doctors are paid per head for delivering babies, instead of per hour for the time they put in.

Two years ago, after years of hard work by the Indiana Midwifery Taskforce, a large bill legalizing certified professional midwives [CPMs] was passed by Indiana government and signed into law by the governor. This legalisation has allowed women the freedom to easily choose home birth in the state of Indiana.

There has been a definitive amount of opposition to this bill, particularly from the Indiana State Medical Association.  If CPMs, working as highly qualified self-employed birth providers, were legalised with no holds barred, they immediately present a threat to obstetricians working unchallenged in a state that has a high infant mortality rate.  [Home births not included in these statistics.]

1548 is the "fix" needed for two unworkable parts of bill, necessary in order to implement the law the legislature already created two years ago. 

1548 is due to be voted on in the Senate Health Committee within the next 48 hours.  If you are at all concerned about the freedom of Indiana women to choose birth at home with a qualified provider, please call or e-mail members of the Senate Health Committee TODAY!!

Ryan Mishler -, 317-233-0930
Jean Breaux-, 800-382-9467
Frank Mrvan -, 800-382-9467
Mark Stoops -, 800-382-9467
Vaneta Becker -, 317-232-9494
Liz Brown -, 317-232-9807
Michael Crider -, 317-232-9493
Ed Charbonneau -, 317-232-9494
Ron Grooms -, 317-234-9425
Rick Niemeyer -, 317-232-9490

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Soap and Such

I've been soap-making again.  

The sights and smells of the soap process are my favourite part of this hobby-turned-pocketmoney-making venture.  Watching the saponifying cloud spread as I add the lye water to the hot oils and butters; then stirring, blending, seeing the completeness as the soap mixture arrives at the legendary, pudding-like "trace" is so satisfying.  I love the scents of cocoa and shea butters, and all the essential oils, but I also appreciate the tangy smell of the lye as it blends with the oils, and together they become "soap".

This is not your typical moneymaking craft project, something you can sell and make a small profit from easily.  I use good quality oils, butters, and essential oils, and they're not inexpensive! I'm hoping to at least recompense myself for what I've spent on soaping supplies this year at a semi-local craft fair in December. 

Because, of course, we use the soap I make.  Every once in a while a few bars go away as a gift, but usually every single bar is eventually put into use in this household.  

I've never sold soap on any measurable scale before, and I'm a bit daunted by all the insurance discussions on my online cold process soap-makers group. Should I word some type of disclaimer for the less discerning, or trust customers to make their own decisions about the soap they buy?  Every recipe has been in effect tested by us, as it's the soap we use daily.  Recipes that dry our skin or go soft too quickly are in my "tried but not our favourite" notes.

The craft fair will take place in four weeks, so my last few batches will be underway this week as they'll have time to cure properly before they're ready to sell.  And hopefully, I'll catch the time I need online to blog more about this latest venture.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Just a few short weeks ago, I was nearly halfway through my fourth pregnancy.  At eighteen weeks, my midwife visited and was concerned when she couldn't find a heartbeat for the baby.  Days later, Dan and I sat in a darkened room for an ultrasound scan and saw our fifth child curled up peacefully inside, perfect but for his silence.  No heartbeat.

It's true that this was not a terrible shock.  I had felt something was wrong, for so many weeks.  As days of pregnancy had crawled by, the sickening nausea I experienced from the beginning was almost unbearable. I'd never had such stomach cramping and pain with the other three, even during the twins' pregnancy.  The kids and I had experienced symptoms of food poisoning in June after eating fruit that was part of a nationwide recall, and my "morning sickness" seemed to be entwined with normal "flu" symptoms until I couldn't tell the difference anymore.

The doctor was clear: this was not a miscarriage, and at nearly nineteen weeks, was not far enough along to be considered a stillbirth.  It was simply "fetal death", and as my body was choosing not to deal with it, labour would have to be induced.

Dan and I went to the local hospital Sunday evening after a day spent with friends, family, and our children.  We sat in quiet and near-darkness for hours.  Dan played his guitar and we spoke in hushed tones to each other and with nurses as they periodically came in to check on me.  In the end, I was only in proper labour for an hour, and gave birth to our tiny baby boy around 7am yesterday.  He was still in the amniotic sac, placenta fully attached --no complications or need for any other interventions-- it was a complete birth.

Not quite six inches long, weighing about 1 1/2 ounces, this little boy was small but clearly one of ours.  His long legs, big torso, and scrawny arms were an exact replica of his two oldest brothers!  Though I will never see him as they are now I can easily imagine him with auburn hair, freckled faces, and big grins, just like theirs'.

We called him Solomon simply because it means "peaceful", which perfectly describes how we've felt during this time.

My father built a box using cedar wood that Dan found in the woods last autumn.  Solomon, wrapped in blue flannel, rested in the box, and the kids placed treasures inside: a bird drawing from Righty, a long letter from Lefty, and a card from Coo.  Mr J wrote a note and shared some of his special things with his little brother: an English penny, a plastic ring, and three crystal "jewels".  

We buried baby Solomon in his little box, halfway between a white oak and a cedar tree.  Dan played the guitar and some of us spoke out our thankfulness to God for Solomon, in spite of his short life.  Wildflowers are everywhere at this time of year and we gathered handfuls of them to cover his box. The children decorated the mound that remained with chestnuts, acorns, sticks, and more flowers.

We sat outside on the ground nearby as the sun dropped down in the evening sky.  Golden sunshine  scattered ribbons of light around us and the quiet was peaceful.

Sadness is close, always nearby when we think about the unexpected death of our baby.  But a deep peace is near, too, always there.  The life of God inside us is the same breath that gave life to Solomon, and we are at peace knowing that Solomon is now with Him.

Dan and I are so thankful for our parents, who've been so helpful and supportive, and for our friends far and near.  Even though many of you are faraway, we've felt so much love from all of you. :)

All photos for this post were taken by Tracey Stanton.