Recommended Reading: Claire Harman’s Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

IMG_6543Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart is an excellent literary biography, and I’m so happy to have read it. The writing is assured and graceful, and the subject couldn’t be more interesting.

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.

What are your favorite first lines?

Yesterday, my friend Kori pointed me to a piece in the Atlantic in which authors choose their favorite opening lines, and write little paragraphs about their reasoning, or, in Margaret Atwood’s case, a tweet:

“Call me Ishmael.” 3 words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?

That’s my favorite of the lot. My own favorite first line, however, is a tossup between Hamlet and Jane Eyre.

Hamlet begins with Bernardo’s challenge, “Who’s there?” — and the interpretive possibilities are endless. Is he afraid? Full of bravado? Why is a soldier, on duty in his own kingdom, challenging someone else in uniform? Is it nighttime? Is he speaking to us, the audience? Who’s the “who”? How do we define ourselves? How do we answer?

Shakespeare offers at least as many questions in two words as Melville does in three.

Now, on to Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Why not? Who was planning on walking? What’s the significance of “that” day?

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

This line has more meaning as you progress through the novel (and if you haven’t, now’s the time to stop reading this post so I don’t ruin the experience for you. And seriously, go read Jane Eyre!).

Of course, “that” day is the day that John Reed throws a book at Jane’s head and Mrs. Reed sends Jane to the Red Room, which precipitates her move to Lowood, and, eventually, Thornfield Hall. And while Jane and her cousins remain inside on account of the rain, in a few short weeks, she and the other unfortunate girls at Lowood will be exposed to all manner of the elements. Jane often walks when others think she ought not to, or when she has no other choice. For instance, it’s on a long walk alone (despite the protestations of Mrs. Fairfax) that she meets Mr. Rochester, and it’s alone again that she makes her way through the fields to the Riverses’ cottage.

But where would Jane have ended up if she had been able to walk that day?

What are your favorite first lines?