Mrs Bronte died of cancer when her children were still tiny and the two eldest daughters die shortly afterwards at a school which would later be immortalised in infamy through Lowood School in Jane Eyre. The ‘surviving’ four children do indeed grow up under the shadow of this overwhelming sorrow. The sisters find success and recognition (albeit anonymous) through their writing but their brother never amounts to anything and becomes an alcoholic and drug addict. He succumbs to tuberculosis, managing to generously share it with his two younger sisters before his death. So then Emily dies and then Anne. Charlotte is left all alone and in steps Mr Arthur Bell Nicholls who has loved her for a long time and facing her Papa’s disapproval, she marries him. After six months of marriage, Charlotte dies too of an allergic reaction to pregnancy. So Patrick lives on despite long-term ill health, cared for by his previously despised son-in-law and then dies in his eighties and the Bronte family finishes. It interests me that Jude Morgan chooses to stop his novel with Charlotte’s marriage because after all, after that then the sorrow becomes a little too cruel.
There have been many, many attempts to novelise, fictionalise and otherwise make a story out of the Bronte family’s life. The iconic Bronte sister portrait is pretty symbolic of their story with the ghostly image of Branwell emerging from behind the pillar as time goes on and indeed it is because of what we do not know as much as what we do that people have been motivated to make up their own versions of these short and often painful lives.
Bronte-mania started with Mrs Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte, where Charlotte is the martyred heroine and her father and husband and even her younger siblings do nothing but give her further woes. Then there was Daphne Du Maurier who made up stuff about Branwell because she didn’t like the fact that he’d had an affair with an older woman. Even ten years ago, there was The Crimes of Charlotte Bronte which decided that the high rate of deaths in the family had been because Charlotte was a dab hand with the arsenic. Then apparently Arthur Bell Nicholls bumped her off before dispatching Patrick too. So yes, there’s been a lot of chat about what really happened. The Taste of Sorrow by contrast is a nice breath of fresh air – Jude Morgan has researched very carefully and has managed to write a work of fiction which has Juliet Barker, the grand dame of Bronteana and author of the definitive biography, saying that this is the best book about the Brontes that she has ever read. Nice work, Mr Morgan!
In all seriousness, this is a wonderful and very poignant novel that manages pace and pathos without the melodrama that all too often comes from a novel set in the howling moors of Yorkshire. It starts off with the bad death of Maria Bronte Sr., cursing and crying on her deathbed from cancer, not at all as her husband would have it. Later, the inspiration for Lowood School and Helen Burns is shown through the ghastly hypocrisy of Carus Wilson at Cowan Bridge School. I think it’s quite funny that I remember his name for school-masterly ghastliness yet I can’t remember the name of the headmaster in Jane Eyre – kudos to Charlotte Bronte on a very effective revenge. Indeed, Morgan captures very sharply Charlotte’s early trauma at being thrust from the comfort of being in the middle of the family after her elder sisters’ death and it makes sense of how Charlotte could seem like such an overbearing older sister later in life – she was trying to do it properly and going overboard. Charlotte does end up being the main protagonist of the novel but the others are by no means left out.
Anne Bronte is often forgotten as the quiet one because her life is too often remembered via the words of her sister Charlotte, but here she is allowed a rich interior life, she ploughs the anger borne out of her treatment as a governess into Agnes Grey and her further dismay at her brother’s affair with their employer into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Her enigmatic relationship with William Weightman is further given breath but I really liked that Morgan worked only with what he had and never embellished. Where there was uncertainty in historical terms, he let it be uncertain within the novel. Sentences are sometimes fragmented, allowing for an impressionistic style – you get the general idea of them in a far more complete sense than if he had tried to fill in the gaps himself. It’s an odd compliment but he uses his silences brilliantly.
I also liked the way that Morgan treated the way they wrote their books – he left well alone. As children, all four of them have their lands of make believe Angria and Gondal and indeed given their cloistered existence in the Parsonage and it does become clear how totally this alters their lives. The tragedy of Branwell also seems much more realistic here, despite his early promise, he never ever managed to get any direction in his life and lurched from one disastrous project to the next. The onus was on him as the only boy in an impoverished family to provide for his sisters’ after his father’s death and Patrick Bronte, who had pulled himself out of rural Ireland, had no doubt in his son’s success. These sky-high parental expectations and lack of any clear guidance about which way to go create the problem of Branwell, who never does get it together.
The other Bronte enigma, Emily Bronte, is captured here as much as she ever can be. She does seem to have been ‘the weird one’ of the family and I don’t think that someone who was particularly healthy could have written Wuthering Heights even if I do love it. Morgan portrays her perfectly, she is just someone who completely unaffected by what is expected of her socially. It is not a question of not caring, she is just unaware on an autistic level. Yet at the same time, she is very perceptive concerning those she loves and is the first to note that Charlotte will never notice Arthur Bell Nicholls’ affection for her because he is ‘too close’. Furthermore, Emily also sees through their brother early on and is less affected by his spiralling decline – there is a little bit of the clairvoyant about her.
Still, both Emily and Anne are allowed to die without being cast as martyrs – they fight it, they try not to let it take them but ultimately they cannot escape it. In the beginning of the novel, the local doctor notes that the mortality rate in Haworth is equal to that of a London slum and ‘if pressed’ he would have allowed that the village itself was little more than a slum. It is not surprising that none of them made old bones but that does not stop it from being tragic. Morgan creates flesh and blood deaths of real people who did not want to die and then shows very convincingly the way this affects those around them who loved them – it is heartbreaking.
After all that Morgan shines new light on Arthur Bell Nicholls which I thought was wonderful because Arthur Bell Nicholls is too often a forgotten footnote in Bronte tradition and I think that he is awesome. People forget that Charlotte died as Mrs Charlotte Nicholls; I am a feminist and as a feminist, I respect her choice to marry. People dismiss him because supposedly he was not her great love, not compared to the Duke of Wellington or Zamorna or the flesh-and-blood Monsieur Heger. Arthur Bell Nicholls was a good man who loved his wife. It is tragic that it took losing all her siblings to make Charlotte see his qualities but see them she did and he was the man for her. The book ends shortly after their marriage which was the right decision but it is fitting to remember that Charlotte’s last words were to her husband, praying that God would not separate them because they had been ‘so happy’.
This is a great book which does a lot to dial down the melodrama and put the story of the parsonage family of Haworth on a human level that we can all understand. The Bronte girls were literary geniuses but they were also women in the 19th century trying to carve a place for themselves in an extremely unforgiving world. It is important that they be remembered for who they were.
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Published by Headline Review on April 29th 2010
Genres: 19th Century, Fiction, General, Historical
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