Sunday 25 February 2018

Books: Assured portrait of Charlotte Bronte's complex web

Romantic intrigue: Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre
Romantic intrigue: Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre

Justine Carbery

My fascination with the Brontës began the day my father arrived home from Greene's Bookshop with a faded copy of Jane Eyre. Having finally made the leap from Mallory Towers and St Claire's, I was blown away by the exquisite writing, the intensity of emotion and the captivating story of Jane's plight as an orphan at Gateshead and Lowood and her transition to governess at Thornfield. And with every subsequent reading I find something new, an extra layer, a deeper understanding of the pain and heartbreak she experienced. I knew then, that I wanted to find out everything there was to know about the "three weird sisters", as Ted Hughes once called them. The Brontës were on my radar.

I am not alone though. Our fascination with the Brontë sisters is seemingly inexhaustible. In 1857, a mere 2 years after Charlotte's death, Elizabeth Gaskell's hugely influential Life of Charlotte Brontë was published, in which she demonises the father, Patrick Brontë, relating how he burned his children's boots because he found the colours unsuitably gay, destroyed his wife's silk dress to preserve her propriety, and fired guns out the back door. And every twenty years or so comes something new, a continuous stream of speculation about these three shy, precocious children living in the strange, Haworth Parsonage on the edge of the desolate Yorkshire moors, up to Juliet Barker's 1995 debunking of the Brontë myth in The Brontës. And yet, there is still room for fresh perspectives, which Claire Harman provides in her unshowy, unbiased Charlotte Brontë: A Life. This substantial, very readable retelling of Charlotte's life, published in advance of her bicentennial next year, brings a fresh eye to this complex character through snippets of letters, diary entries, with particular attention given to her extensive juvenilia.

Harman's biography starts with a pivotal moment in Charlotte's life. It is September 1843 and the 27-year-old is close to a nervous breakdown, having been left alone during the long summer holidays at the Brussels boarding school where she has been working as a student teacher for the past two years. Charlotte, miserable with longing for Constantin Héger, the charismatic, married 'Master' at the Pensionnat in the Rue d'Isabelle with whom she is desperately in love, finds herself in a Catholic church, confessing her overwhelming desire for a married man to the priest. Harman shows how this and many other real life events were worked on creatively and used in Charlotte's subsequent novels to great effect. In Villette, Lucy Snowe, the heroine of her final novel floats in anguish through the dull city streets before stumbling into "an old solemn church" where she finds herself making a confession to a kind but puzzled priest.

This biography then returns to the Brontë childhood and traces how all their experiences found later expression in the novels. Charlotte's time at Cowan Bridge is richly rendered in Jane Eyre, complete with disgusting food, barbaric cruelty and inhumane conditions. It points to Charlotte's overwhelming grief following the death of her two beloved sisters Elizabeth aged 10 and Maria 11. Harman pays particular attention to the creative activity of all the Brontës in that odd, isolated household. They sketched. They told one another stories, pacing about the rooms excitedly as they did so. Harman highlights the contrast between their secluded lives and the wildness of their imaginations. From an early age, Charlotte, like her siblings, wanted to be a writer. Her early tales and romances, composed, sometimes in conjunction with brother Branwell, in tiny script, display her taste for the surreal and the exotic. But the drudgery of poverty frustrated the girls and in order to supplement her father's meagre income, Charlotte was forced to teach at Roe Head, a job she came to loathe, as the fashionable young 'oafish' students irritated her. She fulfilled her duties with bad grace, perhaps even taking solace in opium, Harman suggests. But during this time she was also writing feverishly, succumbing to the lure of her imaginary otherworld. Writing to the poet Southey she claims she wants nothing more than 'to be forever known' and describes to him the state of heightened imagination she habitually lived in, with Southey replying that 'Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life and it ought not to be.' How wrong she proved him. Within a few years the three sisters had published a collection of poetry under the pseudonyms Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, followed in 1847 by Jane Eyre, an immediate success. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey appeared later that year, fuelling spiralling interest in the true identities of the Currer 'Brothers'. Harman charts Charlotte's paradoxical desire for both privacy and recognition, the grief over the deaths of her remaining siblings, and throws light on her romantic attachments and marriage to Arthur Nicholls. In this assured and engaging biography Harman offers a common-sense insight into how Charlotte's years of sorrow and frustration are vented on the page, and we are left with as clear a picture as possible of this complex creature.


Charlotte Brontë: A Life Claire Harman Penguin €23.80

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