Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart
Like Jenny, whose review preceded mine, and Stefanie, whose review will follow, I got an advance copy of Claire Harmon’s new biography of Charlotte Bronte from Alfred A. Knopf. Having always been fascinated by the Brontes, I didn’t find much in this new biography that I didn’t already know, but it’s quite readable and covers all the most interesting points in the life of an extraordinarily interesting person.
One of the reasons this biography is so readable is for the images it presents, like of the behavior of the little Brontes when their mother was dying. Harmon shows them as they
“crept around the house, keeping their voices to a whisper and trying to be as unobstrusive as possible….Young Maria was in charge and read to her siblings or took them out on the moors in a straggling group of ‘toddling wee things,’ as the nurse remembered them. It is possible they were rather strangely turned out: Maria herself, always described as an untidy child, was only seven years old that summer and the others were six, five, four and three respectively, with year-old baby Anne having to be carried and tended all day long.”
Because I’ve been to Haworth, which is well worth the trip if you ever get the chance to go, I was already picturing many of the scenes that Harmon describes. Since 1928, as Harmon relates, the Bronte house has been open to the public as the Bronte Parsonage Museum, “one of the most hauntingly atmospheric writers’ house museums in the world,” with its dark little rooms overhanging the stones of the deeply shaded graveyard.
The story of Constantin Heger, married target of Charlotte’s unrequited love and the main character of her unpublished novel The Professor and her later novel Villette, is told at length, with some speculation on how Charlotte’s experiences might have influenced her portrait of Jane Eyre and how the portrait of Mr. Rochester might have been drawn from Heger. About one of Charlotte’s pencil drawings, Harmon asks “could this be a self-portrait, made in Charlotte’s long leisureless hours alone? In this season of miserable introspection, might she have done what Jane Eyre does as ‘wholesome discipline’: sit in front of a mirror and take her own likeness ‘faithfully; without softening one defect: omit no harsh line, smooth away no displeasing irregularity; write under it, ‘Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain’”? In the novel, the sketching of her own image is Jane’s way of convincing herself that she must not interpret Rochester’s behavior towards her favourably.”
Harmon also gives us the images of Charlotte’s visit to North Lees Hall:
“a small, battlemented stone house built in Elizabethan times. There the owner, a widow called Mary Eyre, told the young women of the ruined Catholic chapel nearby, showed them a tall cabinet decorated with heads of the twelve apostles and told them how a former mistress of the house had gone mad and been kept in a padded room on the top floor, where she died in a fire that had once damaged the house severely. In the parish church, they admired the ancient brasses of these Eyres, and the tomb of Damer de Rochester. Charlotte took it all in.”
This biography does show how “Emily’s violently suppressed feelings and her strong personality were a source of awe to Charlotte, who later described her nature as ‘standing alone’ from all others. From the devotion she inspired in her dog Keeper–she “used to agitate the dog on purpose to show off his ferocity” and was described in Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte as beating the dog savagely with her fists and then immediately soothing the injuries–to her own refusal to give in to the consumption that eventually killed her, it is oddly easy to see the creator of Heathcliff and Cathy in this strangest sister of a very strange lot.
The surprise in Harmon’s biography comes at the end, when she discusses Charlotte’s death. She begins by saying that
“the terrible symptoms that Charlotte suffered in the last three months of her life have led people, very naturally, to think that the cause of her death was the thing she had been fearing so long, consumption, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case. That Charlotte really was pregnant in the early months of 1855 is clear from letters such as hers to Ellen…and from the evidence of Mrs. Gaskell’s Life, which puts the matter politely but explicitly by giving the doctor’s opinion that there was a ‘natural cause’ for the sickness that time would cure, and later by mentioning ‘the baby that was coming.’ The severity of Charlotte’s physical distress, though, did not seem to match ‘morning sickness’ as it is normally understood, and so consumption has often crept back into people’s speculations about Charlotte Bronte’s death as an extra factor.”
In fact, Harmon reveals, “it is only very recently, with the publicity given to the condition called hyperemesis gravidarum by one famous contemporary sufferer, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton), that the cause of Charlotte Bronte’s death can be fully appreciated.” By the time Charlotte died, “three weeks short of her thirty-ninth birthday,” Harmon says that “phthisis,” the cause of death cited by the local doctor, “usually indicated the wasting caused by tuberculosis, but applied as accurately to the wasting that three months of dehydration and starvation had wreaked on Charlotte’s already feeble frame.”
Harmon does show that Charlotte had “a fiery heart,” but it seems that she could just as well have subtitled this biography “a life lived largely in imagination,” because that seems to have been at the heart of this small person, largely unaffected by anything around her until she turned her formidable powers of attention to it.