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Answer in Paradox

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Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heartcharlottebronteafieryheart
By Claire Harman,
Knopf, 2016

That biographies speak to their times as much as they speak about their subjects could hardly be more neatly illustrated than by the difference between Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 Life of Charlotte Brontë and Claire Harman’s 2016 Charlotte Brontë. Though a compassionate portrait, Gaskell’s memoir is written with the sometimes explicit intention of excusing and softening the coarseness many mid-Victorian readers objected to in her friend Charlotte’s novels. The subtitle of Harman’s new biography, in contrast, is “A Fiery Heart”: the passion, anger, and independence that made Jane Eyre such a controversial heroine and her creator such a disconcerting figure in the 1840s are precisely the qualities that, today, we celebrate in them both. Today’s literary world, in particular, places a high value on female rage and rebellion, as shown by the near-unanimous praise for Elena Ferrante. It’s fire we want, and so we have a “fiery” new biography, with a striking red cover to match. This is not to say Harman’s portrait isn’t accurate: in fact, it may be the most accurate, or at least the most intimate, we’ve had yet, drawing as it does on materials only recently made available. It’s a matter of emphasis, and Harman’s biography is pitched to please its contemporaries, as Gaskell’s aimed to placate hers.

Harman gives an engaging account of the bleak story familiar, at least in outline, to most readers of the Brontës’ novels: the widowed father raising his six children in the gloomy parsonage with the help of their dour aunt; the sisters’ unhappy time at the Cowan Bridge School (made infamous in Jane Eyre as Lowood Institution); the early deaths of the two oldest, Maria and Elizabeth, of tuberculosis; the intimacy of the remaining siblings — Charlotte, now the eldest, the lone son Branwell, and the youngest sisters Emily and Anne — clustered together in their stone house on the margins of the desolate moors; the ferment of creativity that generated first the captivating volumes of their prolific juvenilia, then their modest output of occasionally remarkable poems, and finally the sisters’ brilliant novels, unprecedented and arguably still unmatched for their power and daring. “So the family at the Parsonage lived in isolation,” Harman says of their early years,

an odd household, certainly: at its head a solitary egoist, accustomed to being listened to but not seeking much by way of dialogue, with his somewhat agoraphobic maiden sister-in-law standing in as a pallid substitute for a wife and mother, and the four remaining children dependent on their own resources.

cowan bridgeHow three such masterpieces as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall could have emerged with such seeming suddenness from these conditions remains one of the most compelling mysteries of what Harman calls “the Brontë legend” — but, as her biography and others’ have shown, though the sisters’ greatest novels are indeed astonishing for their genius, their origins are not really so preternatural: they were the culmination of many years of of lively intellectual engagement and literary practice. The Brontë household took in all the leading periodicals and the children were deeply engaged in current events. “Nothing pleased them better,” Harman tells us, “than reports of a vigorous parliamentary debate”; she quotes Charlotte writing of their excitement at the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Bill in 1829:

I remember the day when the Intelligence Extraordinary came with Mr. Peel’s speech in it, containing the terms on which the Catholics were to be let in. With what eagerness Papa tore off the cover, & how we all gathered round him, & with what breathless anxiety we listened, as one by one they were disclosed & explained & argued upon so ably & so well . . .

Over time the Brontë siblings had varied lives outside Haworth Parsonage as well. Charlotte served as a school teacher and then as a governess, an occupation also undertaken by Anne; Branwell worked as a tutor as well as a portrait painter and a railway booking clerk. Their work experience was generally unhappy, however, and eventually a plan was hatched for the sisters to open their own school, in service of which ambition Charlotte and Emily traveled together to Brussels in 1842 to improve their language skills and general cultural polish at the pensionnat des demoiselles run by Constantin and Zoë Heger.

The_Brontë_Sisters_by_Patrick_Branwell_Brontë_restoredMonsieur Heger was “a short, dark, cigar-smoking man” who was later to inspire the character of the charmingly irascible M. Paul Emmanuel in Villette. In her earlier days in Brussels, Charlotte “had a special place in Heger’s affections,” Harman observes: she was “his perfect pupil, clever, subordinate, vulnerable.” Eventually, however, “Madame sensed trouble.” Harman reports that “Charlotte professed amazement later at the construal of her feelings towards Monsieur Heger being in any way romantic or erotic,” but there’s no question that Charlotte’s feelings became very deeply entangled, and after she returned home in 1844 she wrote many impassioned letters to Heger, a few of which remain. “These heartbreaking documents,” Harman says,

are possibly the most wrenching examples of unsolicited, unrequited love laments in our whole literature . . . Except that, of course, they were not written as literature. Charlotte Brontë transferred much of the passion and yearning and heartbreak mapped out here into her novels, but she lived it first.

Yet Charlotte’s misery at the severed relationship with Heger was only a shadow of what she would suffer during the devastating procession of tragedies to come. “A year ago,” Charlotte wrote in June 1849,

had a prophet warned me how I should stand . . . — how stripped and bereaved — had he foretold the autumn — the winter, the spring of sickness and suffering to be gone through — I should have thought — this can never be endured. It is over. Branwell — Emily — Anne are gone like dreams — gone as Maria and Elizabeth were twenty years ago. One by one I have watched them fall asleep on my arm — and closed their glazed eyes — I have seen them buried one by one — and — thus far — God has upheld me. from my heart I thank Him.

The deaths seem somehow all the more catastrophic because they followed so abruptly on the family’s greatest triumphs: in 1847, Jane Eyre, Wuthering janeeyreHeights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey were all published, with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall following in June 1848. Collectively, the novels created a sensation: “no one had written novels like this before, with so much unaccountable power,” Harman rightly declares, and speculation about the identities of their authors, who had published pseudonymously as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, became so intense that Charlotte and Anne eventually made a trip to London to prove to their publishers that the Bells weren’t all one person.

The family had only a brief time to enjoy the sisters’ long-awaited literary success. Branwell — who had fallen into debt, drink, and addiction following a disastrous liaison with a married woman — became very ill, probably, Harman says, from pulmonary tuberculosis, though, she notes, it is hard not to interpret his death as “a form of suicide from self-neglect.” He died on September 24, 1848. Though he had been a source of much anxiety for his family, his loss was still a shock. “I do not weep from a sense of bereavement,” Charlotte wrote:

there is no prop withdrawn, no consolation torn away, no dear companion lost — but for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise, the untimely, dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and shining light. . . .There is such a bitterness of pity for his life and death — such a yearning for the emptiness of his whole existence as I cannot describe — I trust time will allay those feelings.

Instead, time brought still more death, and with it, more intense grief. First Emily went. During her fierce, rebellious illness, she refused all medical help and denied to the very end just how sick she was: the Brontës’ servant Martha reported to Gaskell, Harman relays in her turn, “that on her last morning, Emily got up,”

‘dying all the time — the rattle in her throat while she would dress herself; & neither Miss Brontë nor I dared offer to help her.’ Emily’s violent display of denial went as far as trying to take up her sewing, though the servants saw that her eyes had already begun to glaze over. This was the fight that Charlotte described later . . . and that Emily forced her to witness, ‘the conflict of the strangely strong spirit and the fragile frame . . . relentless conflict — once seen, never to be forgotten.’

She died in December. No sooner was she buried in the Haworth churchyard then Anne’s cough worsened, and though she “submitted to all the treatments that Emily would never countenance,” she got steadily weaker. “When we lost Emily,” Charlotte wrote to her publisher, “I thought we had drained the very dregs of our cup of trial, but now when I hear Anne cough as Emily coughed, I tremble lest there should be an exquisite bitterness yet to taste.” Anne died in Scarborough, where she and Charlotte had gone, along with Charlotte’s close friend and frequent correspondent Ellen Nussey, in the faint hope that the sea air would prove beneficial. Compared to Emily’s, hers was at least a peaceful death: “Anne’s last hours and actions were all exemplary,” Harman says, as she “prayed for blessings on her sister and friend, and tried to comfort them.”

by George Richmond,drawing,1850

by George Richmond,drawing,1850

There was little comfort for Charlotte once Anne was gone, and she returned to Haworth the lone one remaining of the six Brontë siblings. “The great trial is when evening closes and night approaches,” she wrote Ellen:

At that hour we used to assemble in the dining room — we used to talk — Now I sit by myself—necessarily I am silent.—I cannot help thinking of their last days—remembering their sufferings and what they said and did and how they looked in mortal affliction—perhaps all this will become less poignant in time.

But life went on, as it does, and Charlotte even found it possible to keep writing: Shirley was published later in 1849, and Villette in 1853.

It was during these years that she met Elizabeth Gaskell: their friendship, Harman notes, “was the most rewarding of all she made in the years following her sisters’ death.” She also became increasingly familiar with her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who proposed marriage in 1853. Largely due to opposition from Charlotte’s father, she did not accept him at first, but they overcame Patrick’s objections and were married in May 1854. Once again, however, happiness proved short-lived for Charlotte: they had not been returned from their wedding journey for long when she became very sick, probably, Harman concludes, from hyperemesis gravidarum, “an extreme reaction to the hormones of pregnancy” that leads to “a violent and ceaseless disruption of stomach and senses.” She lay ill and suffering for weeks and finally died on March 31, 1855.

ElizabethGaskellThis is, indeed, a grimly gripping story, and Harman’s retelling is engrossing, in large part because of the immediacy of the many letters she quotes extensively. But like all literary biographies, hers also inevitably raises questions about why we want to know a writer’s life story in the first place — about how we negotiate the entanglement of life and work.

This is an especially vexed question in Brontë’s case. Harman herself notes that Harriet Martineau’s 1855 obituary for “Currer Bell” highlighted

the biographical facts that already dominated public opinion about the writer: the isolation, emotional and physical hardships of her upbringing and the loss of her family one by one. It was Charlotte Brontë, as much as Currer Bell, who was on her way to becoming ‘forever known.’

And yet Charlotte had adopted a pseudonym precisely to insulate her work from herself: “without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine,’” she wrote, “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” She and her sisters chose their androgynous pen names to “protect that freedom” from conventional gendered strictures, and in so doing also protected their work from being read as autobiographical rather than creative writing, as was a common fate for women’s writing in the period. How, then, should we feel about a biography that not only, inevitably, disregards this distinction but also makes numerous connections between Brontë’s life and her art?

Of course, Brontë’s novels do contain autobiographical elements — in this, they are not extraordinary, though perhaps the intensity with which Brontë tells her stories makes them feel more personal than other novels that (though similarly connected to their authors’ life stories) are less prone to being read as unmediated authorial revelations — Dickens’s David Copperfield, for instance, or George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. The question always is how or whether knowing the life illuminates the novels themselves — or, to reverse the emphasis, whether the novels provide reliable revelations about the author’s personal experience. The answer in both case is surely some form of “yes, but”: suggestive as the connections may be, to insist on too literal or exact a correspondence is to deny the author her artistic autonomy, her freedom to get outside herself and to invent meaning.

VilletteHarman actually begins her biography with a scene from Charlotte’s life that closely resembles an episode in Villette: one lonely evening in Brussels, awash in gloomy feelings, Charlotte — a staunch Protestant — answered the call of the Cathedral bells and went in, not just to hear the service, but to kneel and offer her confession to the priest. “Her moment of freedom in the confessional was a pivotal one,” Harman says, and then quotes Lucy Snowe in Villette on its effects:

the mere relief of communication in an ear which was human and sentient, yet consecrated — the mere pouring out of some portion of long accumulating, long pent-up pain into a vessel whence it could not be again diffused — had done me good. I was already solaced.

Charlotte’s experience, Harman concludes, “gave her an idea not just of how to survive or override her most powerful feelings, but of how to transmute them into art. Within the year she was writing her first novel… The ‘relief of communication’ was in telling the truth: not to a stranger in the darkness in a whispered foreign tongue, but to readers, through her works.” The novel, in other words, becomes just one more biographical source — which seems at once reasonable (the parallels in scenario are too specific to dismiss) and presumptuous: Lucy is not Charlotte, and to move from association to assertion of identity closes a gap critics are rightly trained to respect between author and speaker.

In describing the genesis of Jane Eyre, Harman similarly elides the truth of life and the truth of fiction: in devising the novel, Harman says, Charlotte “went to the best source of strong feeling — her own — and in her story of an orphaned and unprotected girl made a return to her own childhood and its tragic losses, tapping into a vein of extraordinary power.” She stresses the autobiographical components of Villette, “the most explicitly personal of all her works,” even more, reading both from the life to the novel and also from the novel into Brontë’s life, as when she takes Lucy’s burial of Dr. John’s letters as “heavily suggestive of what Charlotte Brontë herself might have done” with Heger’s. It seems perfectly fair to say, as Harman does, that the parallels with Brontë’s life “would be instantly recognisable to anyone of her acquaintance,” but her further remark that “the degree of artificiality in [Villette] would be truly evident only to the novelist — her friends would of course mostly see a peculiarly thorough form of self-exposure” complicates rather than clarifies how we, Brontë’s subsequent readers, should proceed. Doesn’t acknowledging the OxfordJaneEyre“artificiality” — or, we might better say, the art — of the novels mean we should not rely on her life to illuminate them or on them to interpret her life?

This is a difficulty without an obvious solution, and it’s certainly not a problem unique to Brontë’s biographers, though it is perhaps harder in her case since her two greatest novels affect us so strongly precisely because their narrators speak with such ringing authenticity. “So much in Charlotte’s novels,” Harman says, “ is confessed or exposed under the veil of fiction” — but we mustn’t forget that they are works of fiction, even as we cannot help seeing them as expressions of a life. The hazards of reading them as simple “self-exposure” are perfectly illustrated in Harman’s own example of Thackeray’s response to Villette, which he read as “straight autobiography,” with lamentably condescending results:

The poor little woman of genius! the fiery little eager brave tremulous homely-faced creature! I can read a great deal of her life as I fancy in her book, and see that rather than have fame rather than any other earthly good or mayhap heavenly one she wants some Tomkins or another to love her and be in love with her.

Harman is far from committing such reductive sins herself: overall she navigates the work-life connections thoughtfully, allowing them to be suggestive more than she insists on them as definitive. As she is not writing a critical biography but a straight memoir, also, the balance in her book is on Brontë’s life story — on the woman who wrote the novels, not on the novels themselves. And yet ultimately what she wants most to explain is how this particular long-ago woman was able to write words that still resonate so powerfully with so many readers. Harman finds her answer in a paradox. Brontë’s tragic life shaped her into “a poet of suffering,” she concludes; her experience of and thus insight into pain was “a chronic burden” in her life, but “in her art, she let it speak to and comfort millions of others.” Brontë’s own heart may have been fiery, but from the flames rose both inspiration and consolation.

Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings; she also created the website Middlemarch for Book Clubs.