Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

That biographies speak to their times as much as they speak about their subjects could hardly be more neatly illustrated than by the difference between Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 Life of Charlotte Brontë and Claire Harman’s 2016 Charlotte Brontë. Though a compassionate portrait, Gaskell’s memoir is written with the sometimes explicit intention of excusing and softening the coarseness many mid-Victorian readers objected to in her friend Charlotte’s novels. The subtitle of Harman’s new biography, in contrast, is “A Fiery Heart”: the passion, anger, and independence that made Jane Eyre such a controversial heroine and her creator such a disconcerting figure in the 1840s are precisely the qualities that, today, we celebrate in them both. Today’s literary world, in particular, places a high value on female rage and rebellion, as shown by the near-unanimous praise for Elena Ferrante. It’s fire we want, and so we have a “fiery” new biography, with a striking red cover to match. This is not to say Harman’s portrait isn’t accurate: in fact, it may be the most accurate, or at least the most intimate, we’ve had yet, drawing as it does on materials only recently made available. It’s a matter of emphasis, and Harman’s biography is pitched to please its contemporaries, as Gaskell’s aimed to placate hers.

Harman gives an engaging account of the bleak story familiar, at least in outline, to most readers of the Brontës’ novels: the widowed father raising his six children in the gloomy parsonage with the help of their dour aunt; the sisters’ unhappy time at the Cowan Bridge School (made infamous in Jane Eyre as Lowood Institution); the early deaths of the two oldest, Maria and Elizabeth, of tuberculosis; the intimacy of the remaining siblings — Charlotte, now the eldest, the lone son Branwell, and the youngest sisters Emily and Anne — clustered together in their stone house on the margins of the desolate moors; the ferment of creativity that generated first the captivating volumes of their prolific juvenilia, then their modest output of occasionally remarkable poems, and finally the sisters’ brilliant novels, unprecedented and arguably still unmatched for their power and daring. “So the family at the Parsonage lived in isolation,” Harman says of their early years,
an odd household, certainly: at its head a solitary egoist, accustomed to being listened to but not seeking much by way of dialogue, with his somewhat agoraphobic maiden sister-in-law standing in as a pallid substitute for a wife and mother, and the four remaining children dependent on their own resources.
How three such masterpieces as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall could have emerged with such seeming suddenness from these conditions remains one of the most compelling mysteries of what Harman calls “the Brontë legend” — but, as her biography and others’ have shown, though the sisters’ greatest novels are indeed astonishing for their genius, their origins are not really so preternatural: they were the culmination of many years of of lively intellectual engagement and literary practice. The Brontë household took in all the leading periodicals and the children were deeply engaged in current events. “Nothing pleased them better,” Harman tells us, “than reports of a vigorous parliamentary debate”; she quotes Charlotte writing of their excitement at the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Bill in 1829:
I remember the day when the Intelligence Extraordinary came with Mr. Peel’s speech in it, containing the terms on which the Catholics were to be let in. With what eagerness Papa tore off the cover, & how we all gathered round him, & with what breathless anxiety we listened, as one by one they were disclosed & explained & argued upon so ably & so well . . .
Over time the Brontë siblings had varied lives outside Haworth Parsonage as well. Charlotte served as a school teacher and then as a governess, an occupation also undertaken by Anne; Branwell worked as a tutor as well as a portrait painter and a railway booking clerk. Their work experience was generally unhappy, however, and eventually a plan was hatched for the sisters to open their own school, in service of which ambition Charlotte and Emily traveled together to Brussels in 1842 to improve their language skills and general cultural polish at the pensionnat des demoiselles run by Constantin and Zoë Heger.

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