Monday 19 February 2018

Books: The woman behind Jane

Biography: Charlotte Brontë: A Life, Claire Harman, Viking, hdbk, 480 pages, €37.50

Big screen: Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in the 2001 adaptation of Jane Eyre.
Big screen: Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in the 2001 adaptation of Jane Eyre.
Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte - A Life.

Sophie Gorman on a fascinating new biography to mark the 200th anniversary of writer Charlotte Brontë's birth next year.

'In fact, dear Ellen, I am engaged." It doesn't pack quite the punch of her classic Jane Eyre line, "Reader, I married him", but this is how novelist Charlotte Brontë announced her upcoming marriage to Irish curate Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854. They honeymooned in Ireland, but less than a year later, Charlotte was dead. This, her first and only experience of contented stable life, was all too brief.

So many biographies have been written about Charlotte that it is hard to imagine there is anything new to discover. But it is how the facts are constructed and construed that make all the difference. Now, to mark the 200th anniversary of Charlotte's birth, literary biographer Claire Harman brings this most enduring writer more completely to life than ever before.

Going far beyond the novels, Harman has been forensic in her research and draws on little-known material to explore the origins of Charlotte's writing and the key figures in her life all from the perspective of Charlotte.

Harman brings new understanding to the two central males in Charlotte's life: her father Patrick and Monsieur Constantin Heger, the professor husband of the headmistress of the Belgian school Charlotte attended as a student, and then as a teacher. Charlotte was utterly smitten, Heger was not. But he proved a huge inspiration, haunting each of Charlotte's later novels, as Rochester in Jane Eyre, Paul Emanuel in Villette and Louis Moore in Shirley. His failure to respond to her also drove her determination to get her own and her sisters' work published.

Charlotte Brontë was born on April 21, 1816, but the book's first proper chapter opens in 1777, when her Co Down father Patrick was born, and details his move to England where he became an Anglican priest and crucially renamed the family Brontë.

Patrick married Maria Branwell and they quickly had six children, five girls and one boy, Patrick (though always called Branwell). Charlotte was their third daughter, born in the "strange uncivilised little place" of her father's new parish of Haworth, where the family remained eccentric and isolated. Charlotte never did learn how to become part of a group but she did keep loyal friends.

How was Patrick as father and husband? This is a question that has been asked in all of the Brontë biographies with various answers. Here, rather than demonise him, Harman humanises Patrick as a man with a surprising amount of wit but far from light-hearted; he had aspirations to become a poet and would be at lengths to prove how learned he was, even if that meant boring everyone.

He was also a man who would outlive all of his family. His wife Maria took to her bed in 1821 with what doctors later described as internal cancer and she died before the year was out. Patrick was distraught and unravelling without her. He struggled to keep the household going; when the children, too, got a bout of scarlet fever, he became incapacitated by grief. This was just the beginning. The two eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Maria, both died at the end of 1824.

This is a truly fascinating read for a book so dense with information and detail. It does not try to influence us, at least not more than any biography must. It presents a flawed and human Charlotte, who is somehow all the more credible and empathetic for it. She was someone who had moments of success, yes, and someone who briefly enjoyed flirting with success and being out in the world.

She was a woman who experienced longing and painfully unrequited love. But, for the most part, she was someone whose short life was filled with unthinkable amounts of grief and loss and endurance.

And Charlotte Brontë did not simply live this hard life, she poured every emotion and many experiences from it directly into her writing.

Read this book and then read Jane Eyre's raw passionate speeches again and they are brimming with new meaning.

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