Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman
4th Nov 2015
Claire Harman’s wonderful biography opens with lovesick Charlotte, an Anglican parson’s daughter, making a confession at a Catholic church in Belgium. The pivotal moment shows a passionate woman reining in her feelings for her married teacher, Constantin Heger – though they would resurface in her depictions of Mr Rochester and Paul Emmanuel (Villette).
It never ceases to amaze that not one but three world-class novelists came out of Haworth parsonage. Yet the Brontë story begins with the patriarch, Patrick, who downplayed his Irish origins when he moved to Cambridge and trained as a clergyman.
Charlotte was the third daughter born to Patrick and his wife, Maria Branwell of Cornwall. Harman paints Patrick as mercurial, even irrational. Stories have come down of him burning things and shredding one of his wife’s dresses. Charlotte was just five when her mother died; four years later, both of her older sisters succumbed to tuberculosis.
One of the things Harman does best is to trace how the Brontës’ childhood experiences found later expression in their fiction. The dress-cutting incident, for instance, might explain why they “returned obsessively to … scenes of questionable authority and exposed every nuance of injustice in them mercilessly.”
Likewise, all of Charlotte’s heroines are “motherless, adrift and starving for parental love,” Harman observes. Even before she was suddenly thrust into the role of eldest child, Charlotte exhibited an “essential solitude of being and of mind.”
Anger over her sisters’ poor treatment at Cowan Bridge boarding school inspired the bitter portrait of Lowood in Jane Eyre, but Charlotte had a positive experience at Roe Head, where she met lifelong friend Ellen Nussey. She returned as a teacher before her first governess posting and the departure for Belgium.
Charlotte’s surviving letters to Heger are pleas for scraps of attention, attesting to her unrequited love. Back in Yorkshire, she plunged into her work: the parsonage was like a “book factory” as she and her sisters published their pseudonymous poetry collection and each worked on a novel.
One of the things Harman does best is to trace how the Brontës’ childhood experiences found later expression in their fiction. The chapter on the publication of Jane Eyre (1847) is a special highlight. The novel instantly garnered good reviews and sales, while Wuthering Heights and Agnes Gray, published as a set, largely met with indifference. Harman helpfully points out that child narrators, though common nowadays, were unknown in the mid-nineteenth century; Jane Eyre’s was the first.
The sisters soon outed themselves to their publishers as women, but within a year sorrow replaced any sense of triumph. The Brontës’ black sheep brother, Branwell, died in 1848, and within eight months Emily and Anne were gone, too. You certainly get a sense of how overwhelming these rapid-fire losses were, and the enormity of Charlotte’s resulting grief.
It is hard to imagine going on after multiple bereavement, but once again writing was a refuge. Shirley’s main character resembles Emily, and Villette fictionalizes the Belgium experience. Happiness came unexpectedly: in 1854 she wed Patrick’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Though she called herself plain and small, it was her fourth marriage proposal.
Diehard fans might not encounter lots of new material here, but Harman does make a revelation concerning Charlotte’s cause of death – not tuberculosis, as previously believed, but hyperemesis gravidarum, the extreme form of morning sickness Kate Middleton suffered. Indeed, Charlotte was pregnant at her death, and vomiting up blood led to dehydration.
With her bicentennial approaching, it is the perfect time to revisit Charlotte Brontë’s timeless stories. This biography will help you appreciate afresh the work of a “poet of suffering” whose novels were “all the more subversive because of [their] surface conventionality.”