“Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart” by Claire Harman, Knopf, $30, 480 pages, hardcover
April marks the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, and Claire Harman’s new biography offers a compelling look at the famed novelist.
One of six children of a Methodist minister and his wife, Brontë’s life was one of hardship. In childhood, she suffered the loss of her mother and two sisters and experienced an adolescence and adulthood plagued by nervous fits and poor health. She and her surviving siblings were happiest when they were together at the parsonage, lost in their own world of reveries and writing. Harman talks in great detail about a series of miniature books on which Brontë collaborated with her family, bonding her especially with younger brother Branwell.
Drawing on previously unavailable correspondence that paints a vivid portrait of the author’s character and personality, Harman presents a definitive look at Brontë’s personal life and the influential love story that colored her writing. “Villette” is the most autobiographical of her novels, retelling her unrequited passion for the Belgian schoolmaster with whom she fell in love during her years as a teacher in Brussels.
Brontë is, of course, best known for her Gothic novel “Jane Eyre.” Those of you who may have glossed over it in high school should definitely revisit it — the story is well worth it. We may remember the basics of the story — the plain-Jane protagonist, the ultimate bad boy Rochester, the madwoman hidden away — but what you may not realize is just how groundbreaking the novel was.
Never before had there been such an unlikely heroine as Jane, what with her deep wells of anger and resentment liable to erupt at any moment, her outspokenness about the Church (criticizing the hypocrisy of some church leaders), and, of course, her decided homeliness. But her unusual attributes make her a stand-out: her deeply rooted integrity, a defiant sense of self-worth (“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me”), extraordinary moral courage in the face of adversity and resentment at injustice.
All of that, combined with the conviction that even “plain” women deserved love, produced what Harman aptly labels a novel that “could not have been more insurrectionary if it tried.”
When “Jane Eyre” appeared in 1847, it was an immediate success. Queen Victoria herself praised it as “intensely interesting.”
Remarkably, her sisters Emily and Anne also published novels that year, “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey,” respectively. Because of the prevailing bias against female authors, all three women used male pseudonyms — Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell — and the public was in a tizzy to discover more about the Bell brothers.
Harman’s description of the sisters’ working feverishly on their novels, pacing around the dining room table, reading excerpts aloud, reviewing one another’s work, is fascinating. What an extraordinary achievement for three members of the same family to have produced works that are still widely read today.
To learn that these enduring novels were created in a household beset by unhappiness and despair — living as they did with the specter of Branwell’s drug addiction looming over them (he also was living at home during this period) — makes the sisters’ accomplishments even more exceptional.
Branwell’s death, followed closely by the deaths of Emily and Anne, almost broke Brontë, but she went on to find love and comfort at the end of her young life, dying pregnant at age 38 after less than a year of marriage to her father’s curate.
Though her life was tragic in many ways, Brontë succeeded in making an indelible contribution to the world canon, creating one of literature’s most memorable heroines, Jane Eyre. Harman tells that story well in her authoritative biography.