I’ve never read a biography about any of the Brontës before so when the publisher offered me the chance to read Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman I said, sure! This year is the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth and that we are still reading her and talking about her books and her weird family really says something. Harman’s biography is advertised as “landmark” because it “transforms Charlotte Brontë from a tragic figure into a modern heroine.” I’ve never thought of Charlotte as being a tragic figure and I didn’t feel like the biography made her out to be a modern heroine. This is not a criticism of the biography itself, only of the book’s marketing.
Because the biography was pretty good. It didn’t spend much time at all analyzing the novels, which is good because while a little analysis is fine, I don’t read literary biographies hoping for a dose of lit crit. Of course the books are talked about, especially in relation to their autobiographical elements that somehow always seem to have much to do with Charlotte’s obsession with Monsieur Heger, her teacher and eventual employer in Belgium.
Let’s talk about that relationship a bit, shall we? Heger was married to the woman who ran the school. It appears that he really did like Charlotte more than he should. But it also seems like he managed to more or less skate along the border of propriety. He knew she liked him and he would write her notes or give her small gifts or “academic encouragement” to egg Charlotte on. But he never told her he loved her or made any overt overtures or promises. Madame Heger was too vigilant for one, and I get the impression that Charlotte was a teacher-student crush that got way out of hand because Heger did not expect Charlotte to crush on him so hard. Charlotte was borderline stalker and if she had been in modern times I could see her doing a Fatal Attraction kind of thing. Because Brontë.
You write about one Brontë you kind of have to write about them all. I knew they were not your normal sort of family but I didn’t realize just how crazy they all were. Anne I think was the most normal of them all and she was doing ok, had a good gig as a governess in a family she liked that also liked her. She even got her no good brother Branwell a job as a tutor for the boy in the family. Only Branwell had to go and have an affair with the lady of the house and Anne had to quit with the shame and humiliation.
Branwell was so full of himself and his entitlement because of Patrick his father who was also full of himself and his entitlement. Patrick is kind of like a male version of Mrs. Reed in Jane Eyre and Branwell is like John Reed through and through. And because of those two jerks, all the Brontë women were made to suffer.
Also, their closed little world at the Parsonage was not a mentally healthy situation. If Anne was the most normal, Charlotte was the second most normal. Sure she was a stalker, but she was at least functional and even had friends. Emily on the other hand, totally bananas. If you have ever wondered what sort of quiet retiring person could come up with the sick and twisted relationship that is Cathy and Heathcliff, I tell you this little story about Emily.
She was out walking one day and came upon a dog in the road. Emily liked animals and she stopped to talk to the dog. Only the dog bit her. Terrified she might have rabies but not wanting to tell anyone, she went home and cauterized the dog bite with a hot iron. Good thing women dressed so modestly back then otherwise can you imagine the dinnertime conversation when everyone got an eyeful of dog bite and iron burn? Not something one can easily explain away. Then again we are talking about the Brontës here so maybe they would have been like, Emily you are so badass! Or just made a collective whatever kind of shrug.
The biography details the trials and travails of the sisters trying to get published, goes into detail regarding Charlotte’s writing schedule and relationship with her publisher and her public. It seems she pretty much always refused to make any changes to her manuscripts. She was shy and socially awkward but her publisher treated her kindly, inviting her to London to meet the literati. In spite of his pleasantness, he paid Charlotte significantly less for her books than a man would have been paid. So what else is new, right?
Charlotte eventually did get married to Arthur Nicholls, her father’s curate. Her father was very unhappy about this because he was a mean, old selfish man who, instead of being happy for his only surviving child, was angry at her for not devoting her life to his care and feeding. But Charlotte smoothed it over by continuing to live at the Parsonage, much to her new husband’s displeasure. But that just goes to show how much Nicholls loved her, willing to live under the same roof as Patrick Brontë.
Unfortunately once Charlotte was married she pretty much stopped writing. She dedicated herself to the care of her husband and duties as a curate’s wife. And then she got pregnant and the pregnancy killed her. Her death certificate says she died from tuberculosis, but all evidence indicates that she had hyperemesis gravidarum. The cause is unknown but one theory suggests it to be an extreme reaction to pregnancy hormones resulting in a constantly upset stomach, nausea and other issues. These days she would have been able to go to the hospital like Kate Middleton did, but back then there was no help and Charlotte slowly wasted away and died. Given that she had stopped writing, I can’t help but wonder if, even had she lived, there ever would have been another book. It is too bad we never got to find out.
If you, like me, have never read a bio about Charlotte or the Brontës, this one was pretty good. Knowing a bit about their lives casts their books into a different light. But don’t just take my word for it, Jeanne and Jenny have both read and reviewed the book as well.