Thursday 21 April 2016

Charlotte Brontë: A Life, Claire Harman

The story of the Brontë siblings is well known and has been portrayed in many forms since Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte in 1857. They have been variously cast off as unstable, overly emotional recluses, and praised as some of the greatest female novelists the country has produced. Harman’s level, well-researched biography released late last year ready for this year’s bicentenary is a welcome addition to the plethora of writings that have been produced on this most intriguing family.
Charlotte naturally takes centre stage but her story is inextricably linked with those of her siblings and so we gain an insight into their behaviours along the way. The devastating loss of their mother and two older sisters naturally had a huge impact on the young family and led to an ingrained distrust of the outside world, evidenced through their seeming inability to thrive outside of Haworth. Charlotte’s time in Brussels caused an enduring heartache over the unrequited love of her teacher and then employer, Monsier Heger, which pushed her toward possible depressive spells. Harman’s use of Charlotte’s letters as source material allow the reader to experience some of the tormenting longing that was inflicted on her. One can’t help but feel she would have been mortified to know these letters are now available for public consumption yet Harman deals with the content sensitively and her rendering of the episode is one of the most emotive I’ve come across.
Charlotte’s use of characters and scenarios from her life in her novels has been widely written on and it seems clear to many that she often played out her fantasies through her fiction. Her work, as well as that of her sisters, was often considered scandalous and immoral by contemporary readers. There is a sense that all three used their writing as an opportunity to express themselves in ways made otherwise impossible by the restrictive age they lived in.
Their habit of writing together and discussing their work is naturally discussed and Charlotte emerges as a determined, enterprising young woman. Her focus in the face of rejection when both her sisters’ novels were accepted for publication is testament to her strong will and belief in her talent. There is something of a paradox evident in her character however in her desire to be known and wish to return to obscurity following the wide spread of Jane Eyre. Again Harman delicately unweaves her complex personality and leaves the reader feeling for her as she struggles with the challenges of following such a well-known novel.
A story that seems to hold endless fascination is masterfully woven together by Harman, avoiding the sensationalism that has come into play in previous renditions. Charlotte’s troubled, all too short life is brought alive once more in the pages of this beautiful book. Whether you feel you know all there is to know about the Brontës or are coming to it with fresh eyes this biography is bound to hold you enthralled by the tragic story of Charlotte Brontë whose passion and brilliance lives on through her novels.

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