Famed for her beloved novels, Charlotte Bronte has been known as well for her insular, tragic family life. Read more...
Famed for her beloved novels, Charlotte Bronte has been known as well for her insular, tragic family life. The genius of this biography is that it delves behind this image to reveal a life in which loss and heartache existed alongside rebellion and fierce ambition. Claire Harman seizes on a crucial moment in the 1840s when Charlotte worked at a girls' school in Brussels and fell hopelessly in love with the husband of the school's headmistress. Her torment spawned her first attempts at writing for publication, and the object of her obsession haunts the pages of every one of her novels--he is Rochester in"Jane Eyre," Paul Emanuel in"Villette." Another unrequited love--for her publisher--paved the way for Charlotte to enter a marriage that ultimately made her happier than she ever imagined. Drawing on correspondence unavailable to previous biographers, Harman establishes Bronte as the heroine of her own story, one as dramatic and triumphant as one of her own novels."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-01-18
- Reviewer: Staff
The story of the Brontës may be well-trod, but in the hands of skilled biographer Harman (Jane’s Fame), their personalities come to life in a fresh, vigorous, and very readable fashion. Drawing on prodigious research, both old and new, Harman creates an expert portrait of life at Haworth Parsonage and of its eccentric inhabitants. At the center is Charlotte, whose Jane Eyre became a literary sensation, and who would outlive all of her siblings. It is impossible to speak of Charlotte without also telling the story of her complicated family members, especially her stern, self-absorbed father, Patrick; her talented but dissolute brother, Branwell; and, of course, her sisters and fellow novelists: strong-willed Emily (Wuthering Heights); and patient, introverted Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). But Charlotte and her remarkable writings remain the focus, as Harman leads her from secluded girlhood and the imaginary world she created with her siblings to her celebrity upon the thunderclap publication of Jane Eyre (“that intensely interesting novel,” as Queen Victoria called it). In telling Charlotte’s story anew, Harman has created a work that will appeal both to readers meeting the Brontë clan for the first time and to those already steeped in their lore. Illus. Agent: Zoe Waldie, Rogers, Coleridge & White. (Mar.)
Well Read: Charlotte's Passion
Does the world need another biography of Charlotte Brontë? The life stories of the genius behind Jane Eyre and her eccentric siblings have been told many times before, most recently in Juliet Barker’s massive The Brontës. In the case of Claire Harman’s Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, which arrives in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth, the answer is a resounding yes. Harman has written a lively, compulsively readable biography that illuminates the eldest surviving Brontë sister in a new light. Humanizing Brontë by exploring her rich inner life, as well as her interactions with her family and the world, this welcome book recasts the writer not as “poor Charlotte” but as an intelligent, passionate woman.
Charlotte’s story is inseparable from her singular family’s, so it is inevitable that her father, Patrick, her brother, Branwell, and her younger sisters, Emily and Anne, share much of the narrative (her mother died when Charlotte was 5, and her two older sisters a few years after that, leaving Charlotte the sometimes unenviable role of eldest). Indeed, Harman suggests that it was the intensely close relationship between the four children, played out in near isolation, which spurred their imaginative storytelling abilities. Their father, a parson, indulged his children’s peculiarities, and none of them was particularly suited to functioning in the wider world beyond the parsonage. Charlotte would prove the most adept at making a living, although she seems to have despised every moment spent working as a teacher or a governess. This disenchantment, of course, would provide much of the narrative fuel for Jane Eyre.
Not unexpectedly, Brontë’s greatest and most beloved novel, autobiographical in many ways, permeates the life story that Harman reconstructs here, and she also offers sharp insights into the real-life origins of Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s Agnes Grey and Charlotte’s three other novels as well. Harman celebrates the eldest Brontë’s achievement as a writer, pointing out that she was the first novelist to use a first-person child narrator and to dramatize the injustices of childhood. Contemporary readers were bowled over by this innovation, Harman says. Readers almost two centuries later are no less enraptured. The love story at the heart of Jane Eyre has its parallel in Charlotte’s own life. While teaching at a girl’s school in Brussels, the 26-year-old avowed spinster fell in love with a married professor. It was unrequited, and certainly nothing on the grand scale of passion that would simmer between the fictional Jane and Rochester, but Charlotte transformed this raw material into one of the most enduring, complicated love stories of all time, because that is what geniuses do.
In researching and writing Charlotte Brontë, Harman had access to letters never before available, and she has drawn on previous scholarship with a fresh eye. Harman is herself a gifted story-teller, writing with a congenial flair and eschewing the syntactical convolutions that many literary biographers employ. The result is a sparkling biography that reads with the ease of a novel and will compel the reader to return not only to Charlotte’s masterwork, but to those singular works of genius the other Brontës left us, too.