Hungry for Love - Charlotte Brontë

This is the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, and to celebrate it comes a biography by the British writer Claire Harman. Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart isn't the first literary life she has penned: Her biographies of Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson appeared to critical acclaim in 2001 and 2005, respectively. And of course this isn't the first Brontë biography to be published. In 1857, two years after Brontë's death, Elizabeth Gaskell produced The Life of Charlotte Brontë, a seminal work but one whose biases and flaws have since been revealed, chief among them Gaskell's toning-down of Brontë's love for a married man. In the mid-1990s, Juliet Barker's monumental The Brontës took the form of a kind of grand literary salvage operation by debunking the many myths and prejudices that had hardened around the family and replacing previous biographers' spurious supposition with hard fact.

While Harman draws on letters that were unavailable to her predecessors, we don't come away with a fresh understanding of her subject. Unlike Barker's book at double the length, Harman provides more of a neat retelling and distilling rather than a radical overhaul. However, for readers looking for a comprehensive study of the most successful Brontë​—​as opposed to an exhaustive history of the whole beleaguered family​—​Harman's book will prove deeply rewarding.

Many will already be familiar with at least the bare bones of this tragic saga. At least half of Harman's book serves as both an illuminating recap for the initiated and a fact-filled tale for the Brontë beginner. In the opening chapters we learn, or are reacquainted with, Brontë's childhood. She was raised in a windswept stone parsonage in the village of Haworth​—​"a strange uncivilized little place," according to Brontë​—​which offered views of graves on one side and the bleak Yorkshire moors on the other. Her mother died when she was 5, leaving her and five siblings in the care of their eccentric and melancholic clergyman-father.

Disaster strikes again when Brontë's oldest sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, die aged 10 and 11, partly as a result of their school's unhygienic conditions and neglectful staff. The four remaining children​—​Charlotte, Anne, Emily, and brother Branwell​—​are brought home and educated by their erudite father. Away from lessons, each member of the household spends considerable time alone: The patriarch is a "solitary egotist," the children make no friends from the village and lose themselves in books. Eventually, though, the children also come to lose themselves in writing, concocting imaginary otherworlds and chronicling fantastical adventures in booklet form—​"little works of fiction, they call'd miniature novels," their father explained to Gaskell.

When Brontë attends a new school in 1831, she shoots to the top of the class and makes a friend for life in Ellen Nussey and, in doing so, finds "for the first and last time, happiness similar to that of home." (One of the reasons we know so much about Brontë's life is due to Nussey's preservation of more than 600 letters from her, written over 24 years.) In 1835, Brontë starts work at the school but quickly loathes it. The once-polite and compliant pupil transforms into an impatient and uncooperative teacher. An extract from her journal attests to a newborn inner turbulence but also an ingrained sadness:
[A]m I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage, forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness, the apathy and the hyperbolical & most asinine stupidity of those fat-headed oafs?
After a later stint as a governess proves equally unfulfilling, Brontë leaves Haworth for Brussels, again to study and then teach at a boarding school. There she falls hopelessly in love with the charismatic (and married) owner, Constantin Héger. Harman rightly treats this episode as the single most important experience of Brontë's life. She describes the letters Brontë wrote to Héger back at Haworth between 1844-45 as "heartbreaking documents," possibly "the most wrenching examples of unsolicited, unrequited love laments in our whole literature." In some of the most lyrical flourishes in the book, Harman notes how Brontë desperately craved a union that "was one of souls; a possession, a haunting, a living-through, a sharing of ideas, intensely verbal, profoundly silent, an enveloping warmth of love and shared awareness of power." However, in her obsession, she behaves "more like an incubus than a friend" and waits in vain for Héger's replies.

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