Charlotte Bronte – A Life – Claire Harman
This year, 2016, is the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte and we can expect a deluge of books about the authoress, best known for Jane Eyre. Harman’s Life of actually came out in 2015, and I read it last year, so to that extent she is ahead of the curve, following on a biographical tradition founded by Elizabeth Gaskell.
The Bronte sisters’ grim existence in their secluded parsonage in Haworth with their, at best, strange father and their opium-eating brother, Bramwell, is well-known but does not lose anything for the re-telling. The three surviving sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, spent their leisure time scribbling away, not showing each other what they had written. Indeed it was a defining moment in their relationship when Charlotte took a look at what Emily had been working on without her permission.
It is astonishing to think of the depth of imagination, the skill and artistic craft that went into their works, with little or no external influence. Harman suggests that they used laudanum and some of the vivid gothic scenes may well have been influenced by the drug. Be that as it may, it is as if three fully developed authoresses just landed in a remote part of Yorkshire from outer space.
But writing was one thing, getting published was another. Harman tells of the trials and tribulations of the girls in trying to get their initial collection of poetry published – they succeeded but only by adopting masculine noms de plume, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and by using vanity publishing. Their initial novels, which featured Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s Agnes Grey and Charlotte’s The Master failed to excite the publishers en masse, although the first two titles saw the light of day individually. Charlotte was only published with her second novel, Jane Eyre.
There is an all-pervading sense of doom and disaster through the book. All the Bronte children died early deaths, partly as a result of weak constitutions and partly because of the hardships they endured as children. But Charlotte, who outlived all her siblings, was also unlucky in love. The book opens with Charlotte fighting against all her anti-papist feelings and attending a confession, at her wit’s end and in despair because her feelings for her tutor in Brussels, Constantin Heger, were not reciprocated. The fact that she was living in his house and he was married doubtless made it difficult for Heger, particularly as his wife constantly saw a love-struck Charlotte, and whether the feelings were ever reciprocated is unclear. Still, it didn’t stop the Hegers making a few bob from Charlotte’s subsequent fame.
Charlotte also had an unrequited crush on her publisher, who admired her for her talent but not her looks. When she did marry – to Arthur Nicholls, her father’s curate – she only enjoyed eight months of wedlock. She died early into her pregnancy, from an extreme form of the Kate Middletons, hyperemesis gravidarum.
Charlotte took some delight in exploring London society when Jane Eyre received public acclaim – she was lionised by Thackeray – but was always uncomfortable in public with little in the way of small talk. She was a woman who escaped into her imagination and what an imagination it was.
Harman serves her subject well and there is little that is ground-breaking or sensational. It is a worthy biography and will doubtless set the standard for years to come.