First, a caveat:
While Jane Eyre is my favorite novel, before I read Ms. Harman’s biography, I knew only the bare outline of Charlotte Brontë’s life. I knew that she was one of four (surviving) writer siblings, all of whom died very young. I knew that they lived on the moors, in a parsonage, and that at least a few of them died of tuberculosis (more on that in a bit). I knew Charlotte had attended a school she didn’t like (the basis for Lowood in Jane Eyre). I knew that she, Emily, and Anne published their first novels under pseudonyms.
That’s not much to go on, but in general I’m pretty comfortable loving books without knowing much about authors behind them (and in some cases, I imagine that’s a very good thing).
My point is that I came to this book as a beginner, not a Brontë fanatic (I’ve also read Wuthering Heights and Anne Carson’s amazing essay/poem regarding Emily in Glass, Irony, and God), so your mileage may vary if you’re already well versed in Brontëana.
I’d also point out that unlike some literary biographies, this one doesn’t offer a big dose of literary criticism (though the novels are discussed, of course), which I appreciate.
Ms. Harman frames the book with an account of Charlotte’s time as a student in Belgium, where her principal teacher—and the object of her unrequited affection–was the very Mr. Rochester-like Constantin Heger. This turned my perception of Charlotte as always parsonage-bound on its head, and I was intrigued to read Ms. Harman’s demonstration of the ways in which Jane Eyre was shaped by Charlotte’s lonely months in Belgium and the unsatisfying correspondence that followed, and by just how despondent Charlotte was:
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 identity—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?
Aside from this frame, the book’s content appears in chronological order, beginning with background on Charlotte’s parents and then moving forward into her childhood (when she suffered the loss of her mother and two elder sisters, one of whom was a model for Helen Burns), adolescence, and adulthood. The Brontë household was an odd one; after his wife’s death Patrick Brontë dined alone, as did the stern aunt who came to raise Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, and the children did not make friends in the village. They did create elaborate fictional worlds in secret (this secrecy would carry over into the daughters’ adult ventures) some set down in minuscule books (about two inches high) that still survive (and this may help to explain Charlotte’s woefully bad eyesight).
All four understood that their limited means necessitated that they make plans for useful employment as adults, and so the girls studied hard at various schools, expecting to become teachers or governesses. All of them hated leaving home, Emily most of all, but were all exceedingly bright pupils. (Branwell was similarly intelligent, but conceited, and his sisters ended up supporting him as he made a series of bad choices that culminated in opium addiction.)
The publication of the three sisters’ novels was a source of delight, but their felicity was short lived; Charlotte’s three siblings died, one after the other, in less than a year. The chapter about this terrible season in her life is simply gut-wrenching. I was in tears.
Charlotte herself died just a few years later, less than a month shy of her thirty-ninth birthday—not of tuberculosis, as was long supposed, but of hyperemesis gravidarum (essentially, extreme nausea and vomiting during pregnancy that can lead to dehydration and malnutrition—its most famous sufferer is Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge), as Ms. Harman conclusively proves. Though now treatable, it wasn’t in the 1850s, and so Charlotte essentially starved to death, in near-constant agony for the first and only months of her pregnancy.
This was the end of a lifetime of suffering, which included the loss of five siblings, her mother, and beloved friends. She was ill rather often, for many years had few outlets for her intelligence outside of her home, and loathed her work as a governess and teacher. Charlotte was also tormented by her own lack of beauty, which made socializing very difficult even when her publishing success meant that she was introduced to writers she admired, like Thackeray and Harriet Martineau.
And yet this brilliant, difficult, imaginative woman channeled her ambition, secret passions, and fierce sense of justice into books that have long outlived her—through almost sheer force of will.
Claire Harman’s book, which seamlessly incorporates letters and other archival material is a through portrait of this indomitable author. Reading this biography led me to admire Charlotte Brontë as a person just as much as I have admired her as an author.