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Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart

March 2, 2016

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The story of Constantin Heger, married target of Charlotte’s unrequited love and the main character of her unpublished novel The Professor and her later novel Villette, is told at length, with some speculation on how Charlotte’s experiences might have influenced her portrait of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.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2016 3:50 pm

    You and Jenny put me to shame being all timely with finishing the book! I’m making progress and fingers crossed, next week will have something to show for it. Do you have any photos of Haworth?

    • March 2, 2016 3:54 pm

      I had to get a lot of my reading done because of all the traveling I’ll be doing in March (this weekend to Missouri, the middle of the month to a SF conference in Orlando, and the week before Easter visiting Tucson just for pleasure).
      There is a photo of the Bronte house from the graveyard, in my post about our literary travels (I linked it here), and one of us out on the moor. I have a few more of the moor, but the house was so dark it seemed better to buy the postcards.

  2. March 2, 2016 9:20 pm

    I have to admit that while the Bronte clan sounds interesting, I know little about them… I am so bad at reading classics.

    • March 3, 2016 8:26 am

      This isn’t a bad introduction, although most people would just read Jane Eyre.

  3. March 3, 2016 2:38 pm

    You know what l loooove about medical terminology? I love how it sounds super technical and complex, but translates super banal, and “hyperemesis gravidarum” (or, as l like to call it, “lots of pregnant vomiting”) is my current fave.

    • March 3, 2016 2:41 pm

      but…this is super-serious vomiting. Grave vomiting, even.

  4. March 4, 2016 4:15 am

    Wow to that paragraph on Emily, it does sound suited to a writer of such a book (though I don’t have much knowledge of her beyond the well-known facts). I’m fascinated but at the same time want to forget I read it and instead concentrate on all the rest you’ve written. It sounds a good book.

    • March 4, 2016 7:45 am

      I think Emily continues to be a source of awe (and shock) to everyone…It is a good book.

  5. March 5, 2016 12:21 pm

    I did wish the book had talked more about Anne! I didn’t have a sense of her at all, compared to the others, although she seemed at least slightly more sensible than Emily or Charlotte or Branwell. But maybe that was just a function of her limited presence in the book.

    • March 7, 2016 10:01 pm

      I do not think we can use the words “sensible” and “Bronte” in the same sentence, even modified by “slightly.” Anne was bonkers like the rest and younger–which might mean that she saw the world in an even more skewed way, considering she’d never known any other way to live than what her older sibs showed her–and if she’d lived longer she might have demonstrated that she was the oddest oddball of a very odd lot.

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