Book review: digging deep into the burning heart of Charlotte Brontë
A new biography shows how Brontë, in her short and troubled life, used her experience of frustration and unhappiness to fuel her creativity
Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart
by Claire Harman
Alfred A. Knopf
Two hundred years after her birth, Charlotte Brontë’s rage over social expectations for women and thwarted ambitions are as relevant as ever. This new biography by Claire Harman makes the author of Jane Eyre fresh and relatable to readers who might only think of the Brontës as figures long buried in tragic myth.
Brontë and her sisters Emily and Anne published their poems and novels – including Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – under pseudonyms in mid-19th century England. The works were written from the perspectives of orphaned children and overlooked governesses detailing unrequited love, financial hardships and the tedium of life for “proper” women, and they caused a sensation that only the confirmation of their true identities could overshadow.
The daughters of an obscure parson, living over a graveyard, they seemed stalked by death. Their mother and two older sisters died while they were young children, and they suffered from ill health all their lives, until only Charlotte Brontë remained to bear the burdens of their fame.
In A Fiery Heart, Harman argues Brontë was shaped as a writer by the tension created by her father’s parental neglect and her imaginary games with her siblings. Harman spends less time in this imaginary world than Brontë’s previous biographers and critics – not dismissing its importance to the creative development of Brontë and her sisters, but giving equal weight to the real world around them.
Where the Brontë mystique traps the sisters in cold isolation on the moors, Harman rescues their energy and shows how busy they were as they sought to secure livings for themselves, while also making time to write.
Their remote parsonage was a house full of life and people – eccentric, troubled, socially awkward people, to be sure, but not the ghosts and silence of the standard Brontë myth.
In Harman’s analysis, the Brontë sisters were living the stories they eventually published, through observations they made while working away from home and their fearless emotional explorations. In Charlotte’s case, these explorations were made both in the letters she sent and in the fictions she wrote in response to the replies she did not receive.
Re-examining the symptoms of Brontë’s death, Harman also casts new light on the end of her short life. Harman’s Brontë is a fighter, with so much still to say.