There’s really only one thing you have to know, to judge a biography of Charlotte Brontë—and that’s the fact that we already know basically all we can know about her. No significant information is likely to be added to our store of knowledge; no important tidbit is waiting to be subtracted from our stock of ignorance. Short of willful puffery and deliberate perversity—like, maybe, Charlotte Brontë was her own brother’s secret lover! or Charlotte Brontë haunted opium dens with William Makepeace Thackeray!—the best a biography can manage is a reasonable ordering of the available information about the Victorian novelist who died in 1855, only 38 years old.
By that standard, the classic account—The Life of Charlotte Brontë, written by her friend and fellow novelist Mrs. Gaskell in 1857—is almost as puffy and perverse as more modern attempts to capture the shy oddity and angry talent of the woman. Mrs. Gaskell wanted to show Charlotte as a Christian martyr who suffered gallantly, even if that required her father and brother to be forever cast as archetypal Victorian male oppressors, surpassed only by Mr. Barrett of Wimpole Street. (“Why,” Thackeray once complained after reading the Brontë sisters, “do our lady novelists make the men bully the women so?”)
Lyndall Gordon’s 1994 biography attempted some rehabilitation of the father, at the cost of making Charlotte seem a sex-starved, boy-crazy wretch with a harridan’s tongue. In The Brontës, an account of the whole family, also published in 1994, Juliet Barker refurbishes the brother, at the price of reducing Charlotte to a head-case: nastily neurotic and self-deceiving.
With all that baggage in the history of her biographies, it’s an enormous relief to read Claire Harman’s new Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, the first serious life in more than twenty years, published to be available for next month’s bicentennial of the novelist’s birth on April 21, 1816. Harman has produced a great biography—which is to say, a book that is a little timid and dull. About almost every other literary figure, timidity and a lack of inflammatory claims would weaken a biography. But so much in the life of Charlotte Brontë was already wild, so much already on fire, that readers should welcome a book whose virtues are that it is complete, judicious, and sensible.
Even though she is determined to escape the over-psychologizing that has dogged the Brontës for a century, Harman understands that the story has to begin with the self-invention of the father, Patrick Brunty. Born in 1777, the child of a (possibly illiterate) farmhand in Ireland, he apprenticed as everything from a blacksmith to a weaver before moving to England, changing the spelling of his name to Brontë, and emerging from Cambridge with a theology degree in 1806. A series of church appointments followed, mostly in the Yorkshire settings that his daughters would make famous. He would long outlive his wife (outlive all of his six children, for that matter), and his grief would turn him into a distant, child-ignoring parent, devoted only to his parish duties.
The effect was to make his delicate, intelligent children somehow both anxiously insecure and bravely free. Upon their mother’s death, four of the five girls were sent off to the Cowan Bridge boarding school that Charlotte would fictionalize as Lowood in Jane Eyre—and bad as the school seems in the novel, it may have been worse in reality: The two oldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth, both died of the illnesses they contracted there.
And yet, in the midst of all this, the children somehow managed to create wonderfully inventive lives of imagination. Charlotte and her brother Branwell wrote stories and poems about a fantasy land of Angria, while her younger sisters Emily and Anne wrote about a world called Gondol. Noting the addictive quality of the fictions—and Charlotte’s worries, as a young woman, about her continuing to indulge the fantasy—Harman usefully asks readers to consider Angria and Gondol as “a sort of compulsive gaming, 200 years before the appropriate technology had been invented.” Like Branwell, who would end up an addict, Charlotte would even take laudanum to stimulate her visions of the make-believe adventures.
After an unhappy venture teaching English at a school in Belgium, Charlotte returned to her family at Haworth parish in 1844. The increasing descent of Branwell, the family’s great hope, into terminal alcoholism and opium-eating pushed the three surviving girls into an attempt to claim literature for their inheritance. In 1846, they published a joint collection of poems under assumed names. It was followed shortly by a publisher’s acceptance of Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights and Anne’s novel Agnes Grey—and rejection of Charlotte’s The Professor.
That rejection may have been the best thing that ever happened to her. The Professor is simply a bad book: badly written, badly paced, and badly plotted, as she attempted to express her anger and disappointment about her experiences in Brussels. But in the face of her sisters’ success, Charlotte finished at speed a second novel, accepted so quickly that it actually beat her sisters’ books into print. It was called Jane Eyre, of course, and the rest is history—with the thirty-year-old author suddenly crafting a literary instrument to express in a shockingly new way the titanic emotions of children and young women.
Except, as Harmon reminds us, it wasn’t straightforward history for Charlotte Brontë after Jane Eyre. The woman was like a ghost, in some ways, haunting her own life, and her work was always better when she had time to stand back and think about the autobiographical elements that she forced into all her stories. In the winter of 1848 and spring of 1849, her last three siblings all died: Branwell of bronchitis and inanition from his drinking, and Emily and Anne from tuberculosis. The anger and the grief that Charlotte poured out in Shirley, her second published novel, make it almost unbearable, a book read by no one but Brontë obsessives.
Afterward, however, she turned back to the isolation and social pressure she had felt in Brussels, reworking the themes of The Professor to publish Villette in 1853. It is, I think, her best novel. Certainly it is her most Protestant, as the heroine, Lucy Snowe, decides against the Catholicism of her love interest and announces, “God is not with Rome.” The book is a strange, powerful mix of ghosts, sexual hunger, and unexploded rage: a never-surpassed exploration of the feelings of a young woman who suffers from her loves, her hatreds, and her internal constrictions. Lucy is, in Harman’s words, “a disturbing, hyper-sensitive alter-ego, and a ticking bomb of emotions.”
In describing her subject’s “Fiery Heart,” Harman notices how Charlotte’s self-reflections continued to circle around Brussels and the love she felt for the literature professor there, Constantin Heger—a man who emerges from Harman’s account as something of coxcomb. Married to the school’s headmistress and probably faithful (or, at least, certainly not unfaithful with Charlotte), he nonetheless seems to have enjoyed and encouraged the young Englishwoman’s infatuation.
The emotions of that experience would produce, in their immediacy, the disaster of The Professor, and, in their maturation, the masterpiece of Villette. In a similar way, the strangeness of her family and her grief at the loss of her siblings created the failure of Shirley—and it might have also created her greatest work, as she returned to those themes in later life.
Later life, however, she didn’t have. After discussions about marriage with Mrs. Gaskell, she admitted her love for her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, and married him in 1854. A hard pregnancy followed, with a form of morning sickness so extreme that she essentially starved to death, dying with her unborn child in March of 1855.
All through her early life, Harman writes, Charlotte Brontë struggled with the question of “how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings” with what life seemed to have in store for her: “patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness, and hard work. What was someone like her, a plain, poor, clever, half-educated, dependent spinster daughter, to do with her own spiritual vitality and unfettered imagination?” It’s a question only the novels can answer, and part of the greatness of Harman’s complete, judicious, and sensible biography is that she only asks the question and leaves Charlotte’s writing to do the rest.