Charlotte Brontë A fiery heart

Claire Harman

Book - 2016

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BIOGRAPHY/Bronte, Charlotte
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New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2016.
Main Author
Claire Harman (-)
First United States edition
Item Description
"This is a Borzoi book."
Physical Description
462 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustration (some color) ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 441-444) and index.
  • Prologue, 1 September 1843
  • 1. Becoming Brontë, 1777-1820
  • 2. An Uncivilised Little Place, 1820-25
  • 3. The Genii of the Parsonage, 1825-31
  • 4. Among Schoolgirls, 1831-5
  • 5. The Double Life, 1835-7
  • 6. Labour in Vain, 1837-41
  • 7. In a Strange Land, 1842
  • 8. The Black Swan, 1843
  • 9. Long-looked-for Tidings, 1844-5
  • 10. Walking Invisible, 1845-6
  • 11. That Intensely Interesting Novel, 1846-8
  • 12. Across the Abyss, 1848-9
  • 13. Conquering the Big Babylon, 1849-51
  • 14. The Curate's Wife, 1851-5
  • Coda
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

Published in the bicentennial year of Charlotte Brontë's birth, this approachable and empathetic biography reads like an adventure tale. Harman assembles her historical framework around a classic question surrounding the author: was she a tragic figure? The answer, according to Harman, is both yes and no; Brontë's life was restricted and painful, but her responses to events were transformational, even heroic. For this thoroughly grounded, richly resourced narrative Harman draws on abundant precedents and relies heavily on recently published letters--especially Margaret Smith's three-volume The Letters of Charlotte Brontë (CH, Jul'96, 33-6130),(CH, Jan'01, 38-2587),(CH, Jan'05, 42-2642)--plunging the reader into the Haworth, Yorkshire, of Patrick Brontë and his children. The family drama is psychologically compelling, and the author makes Charlotte come alive. The picture that emerges is of a thwarted woman who turns adversity into arresting prose. Brontë's Jane Eyre captures her haunting ability to draw on personal facts and mesmerize readers with their implications. This wonderful biography joins (and updates) earlier masterworks, e.g., Winifred Gérin's Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of a Genius (CH, Jan'68). In addition to a selected bibliography, Harman includes invaluable page notes and photographs of key figures. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. --Sandra Ann Parker, Hiram College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review

NO SOONER HAS Jane Eyre discovered that her dear master is a married man than she gives him up. "I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man." She will not be Mr. Rochester's mistress; she nearly becomes a missionary. But the works of the Lord are great: The wife dies. Jane nurses Mr. Rochester back to health. More important, she saves his soul. All his life, he had been an "irreligious dog," but Jane's example has swelled his heart "with gratitude to the beneficent God of this earth." And so the novel ends with an acknowledgment that the couple's happiness falls short of the bliss they will know in heaven. The last sentence of "Jane Eyre" isn't "Reader, I married him" (I always forget this) but "Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus." What fault could the sternest Victorian moralists have found with any of that? But to the novel's first critics, Jane was too independent and assertive, "the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit." Her longing for Rochester was "coarse" (that is, sexual), and as the reviewer for The Christian Remembrancer averred, the book "burns with moral Jacobinism." Jane is always "murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor," and so - since God decides who is born a weaver and who a viscount - the novel was thought to be criticizing "God's appointment," a kind of blasphemy. Never mind that Queen Victoria stayed up late reading it to Prince Albert. "Jane Eyre" was an "immoral," even a "dangerous" book, and whoever was behind the authorial pseudonym "Currer Bell" was in possession of a sordid mind. Eight years after the novel's publication, Charlotte Brontë was dead, and the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell turned biographer in order to rescue her friend's reputation. "The Life of Charlotte Brontë," published in 1857, is a portrait of a paragon of Victorian womanhood: humble, passionless, pious, the dutiful daughter of a difficult father. Even as Brontë wrote her big books (about which Gaskell says little), she was still "too dainty a housekeeper" not to notice when an old, blind servant wasn't perfectly peeling the potatoes. She thought nothing of "breaking off in the full flow of interest and inspiration in her writing" in order to "steal into the kitchen," "carefully cut out the specks in the potatoes, and noiselessly carry them back to their place" - so as not to hurt the servant's feelings. For Gaskell, this "little proceeding" proves "how orderly and fully she accomplished her duties," much the most significant thing that could be said about her. As for Brontë's morbid imaginings, Gaskell begs us to consider them with "tender humility" because she had lived in the wilds of Yorkshire and known mostly suffering. This new biography by Claire Harman (whose previous subjects include Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson), timed to mark the bicentenary of Brontë's birth, is necessarily indebted to Gaskell, who had collected hundreds of Brontë's letters and traveled to Belgium for interviews - and, of course, because she had actually known her subject. Harman has made much use of more recent biographies, particularly Lyndall Gordon's and Juliet Barker's, but it is Gaskell's Brontë who seems most vital to her, whom she never stops comparing with her own. Harman's Brontë is just as shy as Gaskell's, just as lonely and frequently as unhappy, but there is nothing resigned or sweetly decorous, nothing Helen Burnsish, about her. Harman's subtitle is "A Fiery Heart" : Her Brontë is full of rage. When Brontë's two older sisters died after becoming ill at a grossly mismanaged school for poor clergymen's daughters - recreated as the sinister Lowood Institution in "Jane Eyre" - Harman thinks she forever lost trust in her betters, whoever they were supposed to be: the clergy, the aristocracy, her employers, her publishers. The Victorian critics hadn't been wrong to see Jane's decidedly unChristian response to unfairness or cruelty as a reflection of the author's own: "When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should - so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again." Although Gaskell's depiction of Brontë's father, Patrick, as a pistol-toting Irishman with a "volcanic" temper (or, as Harman puts it, a "half-crazed domestic tyrant"), may have been exaggerated to increase sympathy for Charlotte, it probably wasn't wide of the mark. Harman sees him as another of Brontë's failed authority figures, another reason for her to turn rebel. Harman shows a widower unable to cope with his surviving four children, but if he had been more attentive, his three daughters might not have had such a free run of his large library, which included works by Byron, whose "Turkish Tales" Charlotte began imitating before she was 10. Harman does little more than list the authors who mattered most to Brontë, which seems a missed opportunity, particularly when it comes to Byron and Walter Scott. (Brontë worried that there was no point writing fiction after Scott, since "all novels after his are worthless.") When Brontë becomes a teacher, Harman doesn't look away from her "rage against her occupation, and the lifetime of drudgery it symbolized" - but she also has some sympathy for the family that later employed Brontë as a governess and didn't realize that by asking her to tutor their children they were committing an outrage against literature. Harman points to the remembrances of a nephew of the Sidgwicks, who found her impossible to please: Invite her to church, and "she thought she was being ordered about like a slave; if she was not invited, she imagined she was excluded from the family cycle." But why should she have been pleased? Above all, she craved "mental liberty," to be left alone. Harman shows how Brontë's anger could give way to depression: "One wearies from day to day of caring nothing, fearing nothing, liking nothing, hating nothing - being nothing, doing nothing." She suffered most when she went to Brussels to improve her French and became infatuated with her teacher, Constantin Heger, who had encouraged her writing and flirted with her, but remained devoted to his wife. Gaskell tried to conceal Brontë's letters about him, and left it to future biographies to point out how much Mme. Heger resembles the sly, interfering Mme. Beck of "Villette," how much Constantin the dark, vain, mercurial Paul Emanuel, who dazzles Lucy Snowe with his erudition and energy. This biography is careful, well-judged, nicely written - perfect if you've never read a biography of Charlotte Brontë published after 1857, not quite necessary if you have. Unlike other newish books about the Brontës, which have experimented with form - Deborah Lutz's "The Brontë Cabinet" tries to recover the sisters' history through their objects; Lucasta Miller's phenomenal "The Brontë Myth" is presented as a "metabiography" - Harman's narrative is strictly chronological with the exception of a prologue in which Charlotte, miserable over Heger and missing her sisters, sought comfort (as she wrote in a letter to Emily) in a confessional at the Brussels cathedral, despite her horror of "Romanism." When Lucy, another good Protestant, goes to confession in "Villette," she is calmed by "the mere relief of communication,... the mere pouring out of some portion of long accumulating, long pent-up pain." Harman thinks it was the same for Charlotte, who realized that "relief of communication" could be achieved outside a church, by writing about other young women, neither rich nor beautiful, who must make their own way. DEBORAH FRIEDELL is an editor at The London Review of Books.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [February 28, 2016]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* While many writers treat the talented and intriguing Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) as a unit, award-winning literary biographer Harman (Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, 2010) extracts the fiery, feisty Charlotte, perhaps the most well-known of the talented trio, out of the family cocoon and straight into the hearts and minds of readers who cut their literary teeth on Jane Eyre. According to Harman, who has unearthed a treasure trove of correspondence, Charlotte's remarkable fiction was grounded in her own fervent passions. Harman reveals two episodes of unrequited love which she argues fueled Charlotte's writing, experiences that now serve to humanize a lionized literary figure who has too often been set in stone and trapped in a narrowly held view of her time, place, and circumstances. Timed to coincide with the two-hundredth anniversary of Brontë's birth, Harman's knowledgeable and refreshing new look at a familiar yet largely unknown and routinely trivialized life is a welcome tribute to a worthy subject.--Flanagan, Margaret Copyright 2016 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The story of the Brontës may be well-trod, but in the hands of skilled biographer Harman (Jane's Fame), their personalities come to life in a fresh, vigorous, and very readable fashion. Drawing on prodigious research, both old and new, Harman creates an expert portrait of life at Haworth Parsonage and of its eccentric inhabitants. At the center is Charlotte, whose Jane Eyre became a literary sensation, and who would outlive all of her siblings. It is impossible to speak of Charlotte without also telling the story of her complicated family members, especially her stern, self-absorbed father, Patrick; her talented but dissolute brother, Branwell; and, of course, her sisters and fellow novelists: strong-willed Emily (Wuthering Heights); and patient, introverted Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). But Charlotte and her remarkable writings remain the focus, as Harman leads her from secluded girlhood and the imaginary world she created with her siblings to her celebrity upon the thunderclap publication of Jane Eyre ("that intensely interesting novel," as Queen Victoria called it). In telling Charlotte's story anew, Harman has created a work that will appeal both to readers meeting the Brontë clan for the first time and to those already steeped in their lore. Illus. Agent: Zoe Waldie, Rogers, Coleridge & White. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

In 2016 several events will celebrate the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë's birth, including exhibitions hosted by the Brontë Society. With this biography, Harman (Jane's Fame) contributes to the celebration. Many Brontëan memoirs exist, including one written shortly after the novelist's death by her friend Elizabeth Gaskell. Harman cites a number of these accounts in her comprehensive notes and bibliographic sections. The author draws heavily on recently published correspondence that had not been available to earlier biographers. These letters provide a new perspective on the renowned author of Jane Eyre, especially when Harman depicts her struggles as a teacher/governess, her unrequited passion for a Belgian professor (experiences that inspired Villette), and her heartrending descriptions of her siblings' last days. This work spans more than the 38 years of the writer's brief life, also tracing her parents' beginnings. It concludes with a passage of the increasing literary celebrity that followed Brontë's difficult death from hyperemesis gravidarum (a complication of pregnancy). Her father witnessed this fame, having outlived all six of his children. VERDICT This excellent biography makes a significant contribution to Brontëan studies and will attract readers interested in Brontë as well as British literature in general. [See Prepub Alert, 9/14/15.]-Erica Swenson Danowitz, Delaware Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Media, PA © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Accomplished biographer Harman (Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, 2010, etc.) returns with a lively account of the life of Charlotte Bront (1816-1855). After the deaths of her two older sisters in 1825, Charlotte, at age 9, was the eldest of the four surviving Bront children. Isolated in the parsonage at Haworth on the Yorkshire moors, they built for themselves a fantasy world centered on an imaginary African kingdom; their sojourns there over the years resulted in a torrent of related prose and poetry, written solely for each other in matchbox-sized books. As they matured, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne directed their literary talents to the depictions of more realistic topics, resulting in Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and the other novels for which each ultimately became famous. Groundbreaking in many ways, their works were driven by fury at the constraints on occupational and social choices available to Victorian women and, upon their pseudonymous publications, aroused reactions ranging from astonished enthusiasm to disgust. Neither deferential nor awestruck, Harman clearly feels strong affection for these reclusive, dysfunctional siblings. She confidently makes sympathetic characters of Charlotte and her sisters, even while conceding that they were by all accounts difficult and generally unpleasant company. The author remains focused on her subject's life story, expending little space on general information about the historical setting and explaining just enough of the content of Bront's novels that readers unfamiliar with them can understand their significance, the public's reactions to them, and the extent to which Charlotte drew upon her own experiences in their production. She vividly portrays a life of loneliness, anguish, tragedy, and suppressed rage in serene and elegant prose with frequent flashes of ironic humor; the underlying scholarship is extensive but never obtrusive. A delightfully engaging biography of a highly talented but deeply troubled prodigy of English literature. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Prologue 1 September 1843 It is 1 September 1843 and a 27-year-old Englishwoman is alone at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, a girls' school where she is an unpaid student-teacher. It is halfway through the long vacation and everyone else who has a home or family to go to left weeks ago: the proprietress, Madame Heger, is at the seaside with her husband and children; the other teachers are on holiday or travelling. Miss Brontë's home is too far away to warrant a return for a mere two months. She can't afford the cost of the journey back to her father's Yorkshire parsonage, and, besides, arrangements should be kept to: Charlotte is a scrupulously dutiful person. But she is finding the empty dormitory oppressive, with all the beds covered in white cloths like a morgue; every meal is eaten alone, and the Pensionnat's beautiful garden, with its old fruit trees and allée défendue of limes, seems more of a prison than a refuge when the rest of the school is abandoned. To escape the heavy solitude, it is Miss Brontë's habit to go out and walk the city and the surrounding countryside for hours at a time. "I should inevitably fall into the gulf of low spirits if I stayed always by myself here without a human being to speak to," she writes to her sister Emily, who was her companion at the school the previous year and knows the place well. The truth is, although she doesn't tell Emily this, she is already in that gulf. She is desperately unhappy. Her return to Brussels for a second year at the Pensionnat Heger Charlotte sees with hindsight to have been a terrible mistake, for she has fallen in love with someone who, it is painfully clear, will never see her in a romantic light. It is the headmistress's husband, Monsieur Constantin Heger, a man of impressive intellect and spirit, the first person outside her immediate family to take her seriously, the first man to treat her as a potential equal. But the thrill of having his attention in her first year, as a pupil, has been followed by misery in the second, as his junior colleague. The Hegers have become wary of Charlotte's ardour and eccentricities, and much more formal in their dealings with her. And now the man she considered her soul-mate is pretending that she is nothing special to him at all. She looks in the mirror and sees, with ruthless clarity, a catalogue of defects; a huge brow, sallow complexion, prominent nose and a mouth that twists up slightly to the right, hiding missing and decayed teeth. She looks poor and ill-dressed, haunted and miserable, with none of the brilliant light from her "great honest eyes" that other people sometimes saw, and marvelled at. "[I]t is an imbecility which I reject with contempt--for women who have neither fortune nor beauty . . . not to be able to convince themselves that they are unattractive." That's what she had written six months earlier, when her friend Ellen, back home in Yorkshire, had ventured to suggest that there was some romantic motive for Charlotte's return abroad. The pain of staying indoors is too much: she sets off along the length of the parc Royal to the porte de Louvain, through the gate and up the long hill heading eastwards away from the city. "No inhabitant of Brussels need wander far to search for solitude," she wrote later; "let him but move half a league from his own city and he will find her brooding still and blank over the wide fields, so drear though so fertile, spread out treeless and trackless round the capital of Brabant." Her destination is the Protestant Cemetery in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, two miles beyond the walls of this predominantly Catholic city, a walk down into the hamlet of Evere, then up to the crest of a hill beyond. There is no church here, just a few dozen graves in a walled garden, heavily overgrown with cypress and yew, with inscriptions in English, French and German: the foreign tongues of alienated people dying far from home. Charlotte has come to visit a particular grave, that of Martha Taylor, one of the West Riding family who had encouraged her to come out to Brussels in the first place and whose elder sister Mary had been Charlotte's most admired friend since girlhood. Charming, quirky Martha--a flirt and chatterbox--had been swept away by cholera: the last time Charlotte had been out to visit her grave was just two weeks after the funeral the previous October. Emily had been with her then, and Mary, and all three young women had gone back and spent a strange evening at the lodgings of another English family, the Dixons, in the rue Royale. But even that gloomy day seemed better than this utterly solitary one. The Dixons had all left Brussels now, as had Mary Taylor, and Emily was back home in Haworth. From the cemetery Charlotte keeps walking away from the city, through valleys, farms and hamlets, to a hill where there is nothing but treeless fields as far as the eye can see. The furthest reach. She has to turn back, but coming into the city in the fading light she finds herself so desperately trying to put off returning to the Pensionnat that she ends up weaving around the surrounding streets to avoid it. This unassuming-looking woman, tiny, unfashionable, darting out a look but not liking to hold one's eye, was in extremis . Passing by the towering west front of the city's great cathedral, SS-Michel-et-Gudule, and hearing the bell calling the faithful to the evening service, Charlotte Brontë did something strange, unpredictable and entirely uncharacteristic: she followed the worshippers in. The prejudices that she had to overcome even to step inside the door of a Roman Catholic church were considerable; Charlotte, the daughter of an Irish Protestant minister, was, like all her family, ferociously anti-papist. She had been brought up to pity Catholics and to fear them--one of her great sources of discomfort in Belgium was the mere fact of being in a Catholic country, surrounded by a "Romanism" that "pervaded every arrangement." Her letters from Brussels are full of remarks about the superstitious nature of her Catholic pupils and colleagues, their "sensual indulgence" and the childishness of minds "reared in slavery." But, on that lonely September evening, she found herself wandering up and down the aisles of the venerable Gothic church and staying to hear the service. When it was over, she was still reluctant to leave and, gravitating towards a part of the cathedral where six or seven people were kneeling, she let herself be directed into a confessional. Explaining this queer whim to her sister the next day, she said, "I felt as if I did not care what I did, provided it was not absolutely wrong, and that it served to vary my life and yield a moment's interest. I took a fancy to change myself into a Catholic and go and make a real confession to see what it was like." The ornate confessionals of Ste-Gudule are still there, guarded by massive wooden angels, with a central box for the priest and kneelers for penitents on either side. Charlotte had to wait at the grating for ten minutes while another confession proceeded in a barely audible whisper just a few feet away. It was a long interval for second and third thoughts to take hold, for the voice of her bigoted upbringing to shout down this strange "fancy"--but she stayed put and eventually heard the communicating grille open and in the half-light saw the priest leaning her way--her cue to begin. What did she say? In the letter she wrote about the episode to Emily the next day, Charlotte described everything but the substance of her confession: she described the difficulty she had explaining to the priest (in French, of course) what she, a Protestant, was doing in his church at all; she described the priest's surprise and alarm, and the news that her religion precluded her from enjoying "le bonheur du sacrement." "[B]ut I was determined to confess," Charlotte said, and the priest eventually agreed to hear her, reasoning that it might be the first step towards a conversion. Freed by this act of kindness, "I actually did confess--a real confession." Her sense of relief is palpable. The object of Charlotte's unrequited love, Constantin Heger, was a difficult, mercurial character who haunted each of her later novels (as Rochester in Jane Eyre , Louis Moore in Shirley , Paul Emanuel in Villette ), and he cost her two years of intense heartache, humiliation and futile hope. But Charlotte was also struggling with the larger issue of how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings--whether of love for Heger, or her intellectual passions, or her anger at circumstances and feelings of thwarted destiny--in the life that life seemed to have in store for her, one of patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness and hard work. What was someone like her, a plain, poor, clever, half-educated, dependent spinster daughter, to do with her own spiritual vitality and unfettered imagination? How could she live with the painful "consciousness of faculties unexercised" that had moved her to go abroad in the first place, and that she recognised, from the example of her equally brilliant siblings, not as some sort of freakishness, but as an intimation of the sublime? Coming away from the huge cathedral in the dark, Charlotte was already calculating how she would evade any consequences of the priest's interest in her situation, and she had no intention of ever repeating her experiment. But her moment of freedom in the confessional was a pivotal one. Far from home, speaking in a whisper in a foreign language to a priest of an utterly alien faith, she was able to express what had been an intolerable burden to contain. As Lucy Snowe in Villette says of her own confession, "the mere relief of communication in an ear which was human and sentient, yet consecrated--the mere pouring out of some portion of long accumulating, long pent-up pain into a vessel whence it could not be again diffused--had done me good. I was already solaced." Charlotte Brontë's solace went further than the immediate comfort of confessional release. Her experience in Ste-Gudule gave her an idea not just of how to survive or override her most powerful feelings, but of how to transmute them into art. Within the year she was writing her first novel, The Professor , and, soon after that, sending out her poems to publishers with those of her sisters, under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The "relief of communication" was in telling the truth: not to a stranger in the darkness in a whispered foreign tongue, but to readers, through her works. Two weeks after Charlotte's visit to Ste-Gudule, the young Queen of England was in Brussels, on an official visit to her uncle Leopold, who, in 1831, had been made the first monarch of the new kingdom of Belgium. Victoria was an object of wonder across the globe--so young, so powerful, so female--and the sisters in Haworth had been fascinated by her ever since she came to the throne in 1837, a newly minted monarch of their own age and gender, ushering in a new age. Charlotte went out to see the royal party pass, and reported back to Emily, eager for any impressions. "I saw her for an instant flashing through the Rue Royale in a carriage and six, surrounded by soldiers," she wrote. "She was laughing and talking, very gaily." Five years later, the insignificant little Englishwoman in the cheering crowd who had watched Victoria flash by would be keeping that queen and half the nation awake with the novel she had written. Excerpted from Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.