I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Rebellious Spirit

Mary Rose Doorly
Charlotte Brontë: A Life, by Claire Harman, Viking, 446 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0670922260 Was it the drugs? Was it the poverty and the loneliness? Was it the longing for paternal love, the loss of her mother, the loss of her siblings, one after the other? Was it the eccentric clergyman father, who originally came from the north of Ireland and insisted on eating alone in his room? Was it the raw reality of Victorian England – the miserable conditions in schools, the low life expectancy, high child mortality, the cruelty, the cockfights, the bull-baiting, the women on the street screaming at their sons not to come home if they lost a bare knuckle fight? Were these the imaginative circumstances which conspired to create Charlotte Brontë’s extraordinary characters? Or was it the first gust of feminist independence blowing through her work that brought about one of the great discoveries of English literature – the celebration of plainness? Whenever Charlotte Brontë looked in the mirror she saw nothing but flaws; her prominent nose, her huge forehead, a mouth twisted to the side with decayed and missing teeth. In her own eyes, she looked impoverished, miserable, haunted. She was small in stature, she had poor appetite, very poor eyesight and a general demeanour of nervousness. At school she stood apart, watching, reading, not taking part in games. At the age of twelve, she had already declared herself doomed to be an old maid. She was haunted by her looks. Claire Harman’s new biography points to this sense of not being attractive as the key ingredient which goaded Brontë into seeking a ruthless sort of independence, not only in life but for her literary figures. Literature became the great consolation and the way out of a life of isolation and grief. She and her sisters would go the local shop to buy paper: the rooms at home were stacked with reams of it, covered in handwriting on both sides. They were distraught when it ran out. Out of this family obsession came Charlotte Brontë’s determination to devote her writing life to a view of the world which had been previously unthinkable, creating a literary sensation with a heroine like Jane Eyre, who was not beautiful, but plain, rebellious, standing up with fierce anger at brutality against children. She became the first writer to take on the voice of a child, a device soon copied…



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