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


  1. Oh very interesting, (an unquiet ghost), I think I read her first biography last year and we talked about it, so the same author wrote another book about Charlotte Bronte? I'll have to find it at the library. I have the picture postcard you sent from Haworth in my bedside draw...a reminder to create! Maybe you will write the books Charlotte never did. Reading Thomas Hardy at the moment : it's a lot of tantalizing drama under a cold, plain English sky. I enjoyed reading your review this morning with a cup of Alaskan coffee and a rain storm swirling outside. Perfect. :)

    1. I'd like to read her other books! :) Loved Haworth and after reading this biography would love to go back someday! Mmmm... coffee and rain --the best combination if you have an absorbing book and a few hours to spare.


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