Review: Charlotte Brontë: A Life, Claire Harman

Charlotte is certainly getting a lot of love this year – but then she has always been the sister in the spotlight.  More than Emily (the weird one) or Anne (the quiet one), Charlotte has always been the Brontë thrust front and centre.  In this new biography, Claire Harman sheds fresh light on this often frustrating and yet unhappy woman.  People have been trying (and failing) to understand Charlotte since she first sauntered on to the page as Currer Bell and although Harman never suggests that her material is new, one senses a more sympathetic and humane attempt to understand the woman who truly has become a myth.  Certainly I found it a softer and more forgiving depiction of Charlotte than various more recent interpretations. She may not be the selfless martyr of Mrs Gaskell’s imaginings, but in rendering her more human, the tragedy of her short life is only all the more poignant.

claire harman
Claire Harman via Topping & Company

The book opens with an account of Charlotte’s visit to a Catholic church, during which she, apparently on a whim, decides to seek confession.  She described the experience in detail the following day in a letter to her sister Emily, and indeed much of this then reappeared almost verbatim in Villette when her heroine Lucy Snowe does the same thing.  Yet Charlotte account is far more secretive since she never discloses to Emily what she told the priest in her confession – although by context it must have had something to do with her agonising and unrequited love for her teacher and employer, Monsieur Heger.  For Harman, this is as a key moment in Charlotte’s life, the moment where she first discovered that she could transform her feelings into art, to put her confessions to the page – it was within a year of this moment that Charlotte began her first novel.  Harman is an evident and fervent admirer of Charlotte’s novels, which she describes as celebrating emotions which we usually suppress and her biography focuses less on the day to day detail and far more on the over-arching emotions of Charlotte’s short life.

This is a stark contrast to Juliet Barker’s far sterner view of Charlotte in her 1994 biography.  Barker was clearly attempting to unpick much of the myth-making and florid tales which had swirled around, largely due to Mrs Gaskell’s highly interpretative biography (a book now generally shelved in the fiction section) and as a result Charlotte became less of a tragic ill-used maiden and more of a cold fish spinster.  Via Harman, she appears more socially awkward and insecure, allowing herself to be defined by her losses in life.  Another big change in this biography is its depiction of Charlotte’s father Patrick; Juliet Barker did much to dispel Gaskell’s version of him as a parental ogre but Harman is much less sympathetic.  She is particularly critical of his hasty proposal after his wife’s death to his erstwhile sweetheart Mary Burder, who sent a rather stinging rejection.  Patrick’s second response is almost breath-takingly arrogant in its affront and indignation (she was rejecting him?!) but … he was in the midst of grief, a circumstance which showcases few of us at our very best.  Harman is quick to criticise Patrick throughout the biography, pointing out that some of Gaskell’s criticism of him is likely to have originated with Charlotte herself during one of Gaskell’s first meetings with her.

Reading the biography, I was struck by Charlotte’s obvious battles with depression.  She tried to shut out her loathed pupils at Roe Head and disappear within her fantasy world of Angria – Harman even manages to plausibly posit that Charlotte participated in some of Branwell’s earlier experiments with opium.  Her fantasies seem furtive, over-heated – even masturbatory as she and Branwell send their heroes out to wilder and stranger climes, turn up mistresses and illegitimate children, resulting in books far longer than any of the material which actually made it to publication.  Outside of this imaginary land though, Charlotte struggled, going into a full mental collapse towards the end of her time at Roe Head and having to be brought back to Haworth to recover.  It was a pattern that would recur.

The Heger family

Harman paints the defining period of Charlotte’s life as the time she spent in Brussels, detached from her fellow pupils by her age and faith. She and Emily ate separately so not to participate in the Catholic grace and also worshipped at a different church.  The only point of solace was her teacher Monsieur Heger who respected and recognised her intellect, even setting her up as a tutor for him and a friend to have English lessons.  Charlotte’s ‘devoirs’ or essays were a clear point of pride to her, but particularly due to this evidence of Heger’s praise.  Harman suggests that Monsieur Heger may have just been an affectionate and demonstrative man and that the reserved young woman fresh out of Yorkshire was powerless to prevent herself falling for him.  Certainly her subsequent anguish via post makes for uncomfortable reading – it reminds one that the written word held perils long before the indelibility of the Internet. I always feel for Charlotte that her celebrity meant that a moment of obvious mental fragility has had to be laid bare for all to see.  Charlotte longs for Heger’s approval, his attention – any kind of acknowledgment.  Harman recalls how one of her novels describes what torture the postal hour could be, something she learnt all too well.  Heger was understandably unnerved by the passion of her correspondence and ordered her to write no more than every six months and over time, Charlotte’s passion faded into sullen fury over being ignored.  Various savage observations against various of the middle-aged women in her fiction reveal her ongoing resentment against Madame Heger, one of which in particular is a complete non-sequitur, giving the impression of a woman haunted by her recollections.

Charlotte’s inertia following this episode is obvious – the plan to form a school in Haworth came to nothing and although her sister Anne mentions in her diary papers that she spoke of going to Paris, she never did.  Her friend Mary Taylor attempted to persuade her to emigrate with her to New Zealand but Charlotte could not conceive of leaving her father . Yet while Patrick may have been a demanding man, Charlotte was most definitely willing to cling to him as an excuse.  Harman’s Charlotte is a contradictory creature. When happy, she was so vivacious that a visiting curate proposed to her directly after their first meeting, yet she managed to absolutely kill a dinner party held in her honour due to her crippling awkwardness and social anxiety.  She had low self-esteem and yet made her editor very uncomfortable when she appeared to form a crush on him and wrote a character closely resembling him into Villette.  She was emotionally demanding but then seems to have been slightly in awe of her younger sister Emily.  Even at the end of the book, I did not feel that I knew the woman, but I had a far better understanding of what had influenced her.  Harman sets Charlotte’s work in the context of her life, linking events she put in fiction with their real life inspiration, she asserts her theories in a very compelling way – she made me want to branch out further in the Brontë back catalogue.

What I caught most from this biography though was just how full of grief Charlotte’s life was.  One of her novels, Shirley, features a heroine (who Harman hypothesises Charlotte based on idealised version of herself) who rediscovers her much longed-for mother after decades of separation.  It is tragic that such a reunion was never possible for the motherless Charlotte who does seem to have been something of a little girl lost.  Her friends remarked on how surprised they were that she would still cry as she described the deaths of her elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth, one of whom she immortalised as Helen Burns in Jane Eyre.  As an adult, she seems to have reacted negatively to a member of her editorial team because he reminded her of her alcoholic brother Branwell. But then Charlotte was caught by the famously ugly George Henry Lewes for how much he resembled Emily and on another occasion, she also burst into tears when George Richmond unveiled her completed portrait because it looked so like her sister – although which sister was left unspecified.  Charlotte Brontë was a woman pursued by ghosts, who found it difficult to dwell in the here and now. I finished the biography wishing her nothing but peace.

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Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman
Published by Viking on October 29th 2015
Pages: 464
ISBN: 0670922269

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