The Bronte sisters are well-biographised (if that is a word); the outlines of their stories are a part of the cultural consciousness, and there are a number of biographical works available on them, of which I have read a few (most memorably Juliet Barker’s The Brontes and Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte). Yet Claire Harman’s in-depth biography somehow fills a gap; it takes account of the most recent scholarship on Charlotte Bronte’s life and work, and traces where some of the more misleading myths came from. Harman acknowledges her debt to previous biographers, especially Gaskell, but also identifies Gaskell as the source of some of the myths. Significantly, for me at least, Harman is not one of those biographers given to undue speculation of the “she must have thought…” school, instead providing context and source for any speculations, and unpicking the Bronte myth which sprung up so quickly after Charlotte’s death.
Few writers seem to have enjoyed quite such remarkable posthumous fame. Haworth became a site of pilgrimage not long after Charlotte’s death, with its popularity as a tourist destination being one of the reasons cited for the introduction of the railway into the area (I’ve never been, but am excitedly planning a visit). The Bronte Society formed in 1893, not quite 40 years after Charlotte’s death. The sisters – or brothers, as they were presumed to be, using the pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – were quite the talk of London and literary society during their lifetime, but the details of their lives, discussed by Mrs Gaskell and others, have caused their stars to rise even further since their deaths. And there is something fascinating about the insistent tragedy of their lives. The world of the Haworth parsonage, in its bleak and wuthering position on the edge of the moors, is described so vividly that on finishing the book I feel as if I have been in another world. The lives of the children – six in total, suffering the death of their mother at a young age – is one of imagination, famously explored in their juvenilia (which in fact continued well into adulthood) of the Gondal and Angrian sagas. But the bereavements they repeatedly suffered, with the two eldest girls dying whilst at school, and the deaths of Emily, Anne and Branwell at a young age, not to mention the deaths of friends and relatives, makes one wonder how Charlotte and her father Patrick could bear the constant sadness. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments described here is how Anne, Emily and Charlotte used to walk round and round the dining table after finishing writing for the evening; after their deaths, Charlotte did so alone.
Charlotte appears here as a very real woman: religious, but constantly aware of her lack of beauty, desirous of love but reluctant to marry the wrong man, protective of her writing and her literary reputation, especially after the runaway success of Jane Eyre, a novel which surprised and shocked the literary establishment as much as it delighted it. She was a highly complex woman – that much is obvious from her novels – and Harman is aware that to speculate too much about her psychological depths is unnecessary. In fact, her novels say it all. I’m usually rather reluctant to link fiction to biography, but particularly in the case of Villette it is hard not to do so. I teach this novel on a module on Victorian literature and psychology, and as Harman points out, it is a novel of remarkable psychological depths, reflecting both Bronte’s and the Victorians’ growing interest in the new discipline of psychology. Like Bronte, the protagonist Lucy Snowe has a phrenological reading done; like Bronte (and indeed Jane Eyre), she is an intelligent woman who stands up to the prevailing norms of society which wish women to be beautiful, coquettish, childish. More than that, Villette depicts the experiences of an English woman teaching at a school in Brussels, a woman who falls in love with one of the other teachers. To align this with Bronte’s experience is not mere speculation; her letters indicate it happened, and Harman demonstrates the ways in which Bronte often uses her fiction to tell the truth about her own feelings. It was pleasing, too, to see the prominence Harman gives to the sisters’ poetry and its significance in their growing confidence in their ability to express themselves on the page.
Eventually, at the age of 38, Charlotte Bronte married. Initially reluctant when her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls,proposed to her, she is surprised by how happy marriage makes her. It is the final tragedy of her life that her death comes only 8 months after their marriage, due to complications of pregnancy (the same suffered by the Duchess of Cambridge, as Harman points out). She was planning another, more realist work prior to this, having visited prisons, lunatic asylums and other grim places of hardship in Victorian London, and who can say what else she might have written? However, despite all this, I’m left with a feeling of admiration for this woman who chose her own way in life against the odds, standing up to publishers, resisting attempts to make her conform, writing unexpected novels, and finding a way to be a woman writer at a time when Robert Southey could write to Bronte that ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be’. Less wilful than wild Emily, less meek than pious Anne, Charlotte was very much her own woman, demonstrating an interest in how women writers could work: she saw Harriet Martineau’s solitary life, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s busy family home, and adapted her own writing life to her changing circumstances. Though I teach several Bronte novels and am very familiar with them, I want to return to them now with fresh eyes, keeping in mind the remarkable woman who wrote them.