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 by Charles Dickens.
Back in 1857, just two years after her death, her first biographer, Edith Gaskell, wrote that Charlotte had always had a clear literary vision, one based on exposing the unjust, brutal conditions in which people lived and in which children were schooled. This could not be done by generating beautiful characters.
She told her sisters that they were wrong – even morally wrong – in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course.
For them it was impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. To Charlotte, it became a literary manifesto.
I will prove to you that you are wrong; I will show you a heroine as small and as plain as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours.
This challenge led Charlotte into the inflexible resolve of portraying the truth. She was “possessed with the feeling that she had described reality”.
This makes it all the more remarkable that in the majority of film adaptations of Jane Eyre the casting directors have paid little attention to her wishes. All the female leads have been played by women who are anything but plain ‑ Joan Fontaine, Susannah Yorke and Mia Wasikowska.
On the two-hundredth anniversary of Charlotte’s birth Claire Harman’s biography vividly describes the life of the author in way that make her every bit as dramatic as her fictional characters. Previous biographies have tended to pathologise the Brontë lives, either that or leaned over to make them look normal. The heartrending series of tragedies in the Brontë family is hard to transcend, but Harman sets out to show how it all led to a fierce ambition, an uncompromising feminism which drove Charlotte into seeking a way beyond the darkness in her own life.
Harman launches the book by relating the equally compelling life-story of Charlotte’s father, Patrick Brontë, an Irish Anglican clergyman who was born to semi-literate parents in Emdale in Co Down. The family lived in a humble two-roomed thatched cottage with an earthen floor and rough-cast walls. Patrick was given access to the library of a neighbouring clergyman who went on to encourage him to further his education. He applied to Cambridge to study for the priesthood and was finally admitted at the age of twenty-five.
Having few financial resources, he was admitted as a “sizar”, a student who supplements his education by domestic work, and this, as well as his strong northern Irish accent (which Charlotte was to inherit), placed him on a markedly different social level. This didn’t bother him however, and in later years he would relate with enthusiasm how he had strived to improve his situation. Very much a self-made man, it was at this time that Patrick Brunty made the decision to change his name from Brunty to the more genteel Brontë.
In 1812 he married Maria Branwell, who came from a cultured and prosperous family in Penzance. Claire Harman quotes from some of the nine extraordinarily candid and revealing letters that she wrote to her husband during their courtship. In one of them she artfully suggests a kind of motif which would later be taken up by her own writer-daughters, that she never aspired to the life of the conventional wife.
For some years now I have been perfectly my own mistress, subject to no control whatever – so far from it, that my sisters who are many years older than myself, and even my dear mother, used to consult me in every case of importance, and scarcely ever doubted the propriety of my opinions and actions.
Charlotte’s mother went on to say that she would be happy to have a little less of that freedom, – a natural deference from a bride-to-be – but she wanted to make it clear that she had a history of management and independence.
This wish for independence was the character trait picked up by Charlotte in particular. Her assertive ego was considered unfeminine by Victorians. There are many instances of her endless battles to assert autonomy and equality. The poet Robert Southey, in reply to a letter from Charlotte confiding her literary ambitions, advised her that
literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be.
In reply Charlotte wrote thanking the poet,
Allow me to thank you with sincere gratitude. I trust I shall never feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should rise, I’ll look at Southey’s letter and suppress it.
It is not known how Southey took this statement or whether he saw the bite in her comments but there is little doubt that Charlotte had no intention whatsoever of following his advice. A further comment by a reviewer of her novel Shirley on the responsibility of women in life equally enraged Charlotte when he wrote,
the grand function of woman is, and must ever be, Maternity.
It would be hard to claim that Charlotte’s strong will came directly from her mother’s influence. In 1821, in the out-of-the-way Haworth parsonage on a remote moor in the West Riding of Yorkshire, she died of cancer when Charlotte was five years old. The eldest in the family was seven and the youngest one. Patrick Brontë’s attempts to marry again never came to anything and Haworth was to become the motherless lifelong home for Charlotte and her siblings, Maria, Elizabeth, Emily, Anne and brother Branwell.
Charlotte’s memories of her mother were scant, the most vivid being a recollection of her playing in the evening light with her little brother, Branwell. Significantly, all the heroines in her novels are motherless women desperately seeking parental love. In Shirley, the orphan Caroline Helstone’s reuniting with her mother is described with great tenderness,
The offspring nestled to the parent: that parent, feeling the endearment and hearing the appeal, gathered her closer still. She covered her with noiseless kisses: she murmured love over her, like a cushcat fostering its young. There was silence in the room for a long while.
On the death of his wife, Patrick Brontë sent four of his daughters, including Charlotte, to a boarding school which Charlotte later fictionalised as the infamous Lowood in her autobiographical first book, Jane Eyre.
The Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge had appalling food and damp, inadequate conditions which had long-term effects on her health and physical development. She blamed the periodic outbreaks of scrofula, typhus and consumption on the school’s location, deep in the Lune Valley. In addition to the low quality of food, the standards of hygiene in the kitchen caused both malnutrition and sickness in the pupils. But the greatest disaster was the loss of Charlotte’s two elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth, who both died in 1825 of tuberculosis directly brought about by the dreadful environment of the school at the ages of eleven and ten.
The grief she felt at the loss of her sisters lasted a lifetime and became the main driving force of her literary output. Their suffering is portrayed with visceral energy in Jane Eyre. In a scene in where Jane is locked in a room as punishment for something she did not do, she knocks against the door shouting out “Unjust, Unjust!” She then describes the “strange sense of freedom” that she experiences after she has spoken out.
After the death of her sisters, Patrick Brontë brought daughters Charlotte and Emily back to live in Haworth again. Charlotte, now the eldest in the family, was a motherly presence to her siblings. Their father remained aloof, keeping a constant distance from his children, eating alone in his room (for his digestion). Their maternal aunt Elizabeth Branwell came to care for the children and although not particularly affectionate (she also took her meals alone in her room) was a lively and clever conversationalist. Independent in spirit like her dead sister, Aunt Branwell gave as good as she got when it came to dealing with her eccentric and often forceful brother-in-law, which must have been a valuable example to her nieces.
The Brontë children spent every spare moment creating and writing fantastical, secret stories, mostly in small notebooks in tiny handwriting. Charlotte and Branwell wrote tales about the inhabitants of the imaginary empire of Angria, describing their lives and struggles in intricate and complex episodes. Emily and Anne wrote poems and articles about Gondal, a make-believe kingdom. These sagas became an obsessive pastime for the children right up until their adolescence when they gave up the juvenilia, which Charlotte described as “Scribblemania”, and started to compose literature for adults.
Harman adds further texture to the possibility – tentatively put forward by Elizabeth Gaskell in her Life of Charlotte Brontë – that the teenage Charlotte took opium to inspire these Byronic tales of rakish men and their mistresses. In other Angrian tales the altered state of mind was described in great detail.
How did Charlotte know about the reveries induced by opium? The sisters had taken great enjoyment in the phantasms described in Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, a book which inspired her brother Branwell to experiment with the drug. Harman makes the case that because she and Branwell were so close and so caught up in their fantastical writing, it is likely Charlotte joined him in testing the drug.
Charlotte, questioned by her first biographer, Gaskell, about the use of opium, denied the practice and then cleverly blocked the subject. It would be astonishing to find any new material about the lives of the Brontë family, yet Harman’s adds sparkle to the original speculations about opium use. The drug at the time was readily available over the counter in the form of laudanum and Charlotte’s brother, the shining beacon of the family, went on to become an opium addict, dying of its effects at thirty-one. Harman seems to rest her case by making reference to the brilliantly vivid account of a drug-induced walk through Brussels in the novel Villette (1853).
Charlotte ultimately became concerned about the obsessive visions that gripped her. Harman describes her sense of shame:
Feelings of guilt as well as deep pleasure attached to the ecstatic release of her visions, fantasies that made her pant and that were painful to have interrupted. Everything about Charlotte’s willed removal into the ‘bright dream’ seems to have a sexual semblance.
These sexual or mystical experiences, whether brought on by the use of opium or not, prompted Charlotte to write to a friend that:
I keep trying to do right, checking wrong feelings, repressing wrong thoughts. But still ‑ every instant I find – myself going astray … I abhor myself, I despise myself.
In 1839 Charlotte was forced to support the family by taking up work as governess, a job she hated and which contrasted greatly with the life of her brother Branwell, who was given a classical education and encouraged to become an artist. In the novel Shirley, the main character expresses her anger at this unfairness,
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.
Exasperated by this inequality, she began to place all her hope in securing a publisher for her work. The marriage market, she felt, was “piteously degrading” and given that she regarded herself as plain and unattractive she did not anyway have a high opinion of her chances in it. In 1842, in return for board and tuition in French, Charlotte began to teach English, while Emily taught music, in Brussels, a period that forms an enthralling part of Harman’s account. It was here in her second term that she developed a strong romantic attachment to the married owner of the school, Constantin Heger. However, he treated her as “nothing special to him at all” and this torment, in addition to terrible homesickness ‑ Emily was not with her on the second stage of her posting ‑ was the cause of a new and ongoing crisis in her life. As with all other distressing events, the only solution for Charlotte was to write, and this she did on her return to Haworth in 1844 in The Professor and Villette.
A time of torture began for Charlotte on her return when her letters to Heger received scant or no replies. At one stage he asks her to stop writing because her tone is becoming “irrational”. Harman includes a number of these letters and points to a section from Villette in which this “peculiar form of love-agony is expressed”.
My hour of torment was the post-hour. Unfortunately, I knew it too well, and tried as vainly, as assiduously to cheat myself of that knowledge; dreading the rack of expectation, and the sick collapse of disappointment which daily preceded and followed upon that well-recognised ring.
I suppose animals kept in cages, and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter … The well-beloved letter – would not come; and it was all of sweetness in life I had to look for.
Charlotte poured this anguish into her first novel, The Professor, but it was only with Jane Eyre, under a pseudonym, that she eventually found publication in 1847. The book was a sensation, with its fresh and melodramatic approach to storytelling. But the joy was shortlived: in the following year Charlotte’s remaining three siblings died within eight months, Branwell of opium addiction and heavy drinking, Emily and Anne of tuberculosis. Heartbroken, Charlotte wrote:
one by one I have watched them fall asleep on my arm – and closed their glazed eyes …
Charlotte’s life of heartache had a joyous but brief respite in 1854 when she married Arthur Bell, her father’s curate, who had long been in love with her. She became pregnant soon after their wedding but then became ill with severe morning sickness, although there is evidence that she had also contracted typhus. She died with her unborn child in March 1855, aged thirty-eight, and was buried in the family vault in Haworth.
Harman’s biography does not impart any startling new information about the life of Charlotte Brontë. Instead she dispenses with the sensationalist Brontë myths and gives us a thrilling book which sets the tragic elements of Charlotte Brontë’s life in the context of her rebellious and ferociously independent energy.
Mary Rose Doorly is a journalist and author.