Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Charlotte Brontë / Claire Harman

4 out of 5 stars
A groundbreaking biography that places an obsessive, unrequited love at the heart of the writer's life story, transforming her from the tragic figure we have previously known into a smoldering Jane Eyre.

Famed for her beloved novels, Charlotte Brontë has been known as well for her insular, tragic family life. The genius of this biography is that it delves behind this image to reveal a life in which loss and heartache existed alongside rebellion and fierce ambition. Claire Harman seizes on a crucial moment in the 1840s when Charlotte worked at a girls' school in Brussels and fell hopelessly in love with the husband of the school's headmistress. Her torment spawned her first attempts at writing for publication, and the object of her obsession haunts the pages of every one of her novels--he is Rochester in Jane Eyre, Paul Emanuel in Villette. Another unrequited love--for her publisher--paved the way for Charlotte to enter a marriage that ultimately made her happier than she ever imagined. Drawing on correspondence unavailable to previous biographers, Harman establishes Brontë as the heroine of her own story, one as dramatic and triumphant as one of her own novels.

 What a strange, isolated and yet amazing life! The sheer volume of intense emotion simmering beneath the reserved, Victorian surface of Charlotte Brontë is simply staggering. It’s a wonder that she lived as long as she did while repressing that ocean of feeling.

And oh how the Brontës hated having to go to work and earn a living! They were a family of huge egos, every one of them convinced that they were geniuses and that such trivialities as going to work and dealing with regular people were far beneath them. If you were admitted into their magic circle, you were one of them for life (as several servants were) but everyone else was suspect (and stupid).

They were talented—they were right about that—but they let that talent turn them away from the world, leaving them awkward and inappropriate when they had to go out into regular society. Branwell, Charlotte’s brother, seems to have been the most at ease among non-family, but he managed to always screw up any opportunity that presented itself, either by drunkenness, opium consumption, or fooling around with the master’s wife. His casual entitledness consistently ruined his chances at recognition or advancement, things which Charlotte would have cheerfully murdered for. As children, Branwell had been her alter-ego and partner in the role-playing imaginative world that was the basis for their writing. As an adult, she seethed with resentment, knowing what use she could have made of his situations. When he returned home in disgrace after his disastrous affair with his employer’s wife, he simply refused to work any longer and basically killed himself through substance abuse. Harman points out that Charlotte was “secretly furious at the ease with which he had been able to indulge his passions, while she was almost killing herself with the suppression of her own.” She is still, at this point, obsessed with her Belgian school master, a married man who wisely won’t answer her letters.

The old saying goes that if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life. Once the Brontë women could support themselves through writing, their lives improve immeasurably simply because they can live the way they want to, i.e. isolated. Unfortunately, only Charlotte lived long enough to enjoy this state of affairs, and she is haunted by the loss of those siblings and servants who provided the snug, creative circle in which she wrote.

When Charlotte finally unbent enough to marry the parish curate, her life improves again. She discovered that the “grand passion” of love couldn’t compete with an ordinary guy who actually cared about her. One wonders what exactly her former obsession, her French instructor in Belgium, thought of the torrent of fiction which feature men who are obviously based on him. He and his wife were well aware of Charlotte’s books and must have spent some uneasy hours speculating on what she might do next.

We are the recipients of the glorious fiction produced by the Brontës, fiction that probably would never have existed if they had lived an untroubled, ordinary, comfortable life.

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