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.