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Review: Harman's 'A Fiery Heart' is a fierce Charlotte Bronte biography

One tipsy night long ago, when I was a graduate student in literature at the University of South Florida, several female friends and I came up with a deep theory of literature.

It went like this: If you read the novels of the Bronte sisters when you were a girl of 12 or 13, you'd yearn for bad boys all your life.

If you read Jane Austen, you'd marry a dentist.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't our most profound literary discussion. But it's held up pretty well as a predictor of romantic behavior. (I'm a Bronte girl myself.)

And it speaks to the very real and lasting literary influence of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte, three sisters raised in an intensely close family in a remote parsonage on the Yorkshire moors in the early 19th century.

April 21 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, one of the classic novels of English literature and a tremendous influence on everything from the modern idea of the individual self to the basic plot of the romance genre.

Charlotte's life is the subject of a new biography, Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harman, a British biographer who has also written books about Austen, Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson.

The title is taken from one of the book's epigraphs, a quotation from novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair) about Charlotte, whom he knew: "There's a fire and fury raging in that little woman a rage scorching her heart. ... She has had a story and a great grief that has gone badly with her."

Thackeray's keen powers of observation are borne out in A Fiery Heart, a deeply researched and highly readable look at an extraordinary life.

Several of them, actually — any biography of a Bronte must really be a biography of the entire family, so closely bound were they throughout their mostly brief lives. (Only the father, Patrick Bronte, lived past the age of 38.)

• • •

Patrick Bronte was born the son of a farm hand in County Down, Ireland, who spelled his name Brunty or Prunty. Patrick had an outsized self-confidence that led him to avidly pursue education, landing him, improbably enough, at Cambridge. He took holy orders in the Church of England and, changing his surname to the tonier-sounding Bronte along the way, became a curate and married Maria Branwell, a 29-year-old woman with an independent income, in 1812.

Charlotte was the third of six children Maria bore in eight years. Charlotte had almost no memory of her mother; Maria died, probably of cancer, in 1821, not long after the family had settled in the Yorkshire village of Haworth.

Patrick never remarried. Harman paints him as a prickly, distant parent who largely left the raising of his brood to servants and the children themselves, especially oldest daughters Maria and Elizabeth. He did pass along his passion for learning — although the Bronte children were mostly educated at home, they were prodigiously well read. From early childhood, Charlotte devoured everything from classical Latin poetry to current political news. (The Brontes were staunch Tories, and Charlotte was an avid fangirl of the Duke of Wellington.) They also adopted Patrick's inclination toward solitude, much preferring each other's company to that of outsiders.

When Charlotte was 8, Patrick sent four of his five daughters to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, a harsh institution that would serve as the model for the horrific Lowood School in Jane Eyre. The two oldest girls were already recuperating from whooping cough; when a typhus outbreak swept the school, they became so ill they were taken home. They had not typhus but tuberculosis. Within months, Maria, 11, and Elizabeth, 10, were dead.

That disaster drew the surviving siblings even closer. But within the parsonage walls they created their own worlds. Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother, Branwell, wrote an enormous amount of juvenilia, which Harman describes in fascinating detail: poetry, plays, magazines, novels of 50,000 words and more with accompanying maps and histories, much of it set in imaginary places like Glass Town and Angria, with interlocking casts of countless characters. Harman compares it aptly to computer gaming — although the Brontes created it all from scratch.

"In tiny writing," Harman tells us, "squared off to look as much as possible like print, and in booklets sometimes only an inch or two high, bound with thread inside old sugar wrappers and scraps of wallpaper, the children laboured over the years to produce a wild, weird literature of their own."

As much as they enjoyed that homebound creativity, the Bronte children had to think about how to earn a living. Patrick made little as a curate, and the girls were neither beautiful — Harman writes insightfully about Charlotte's lifelong self-criticism of her looks — nor rich in social graces, so could not count on marriage as a support. (Nor did they seem inclined to give up their independence.)

Hoping to prepare themselves for work as teachers or governesses, Charlotte and Emily in 1842 enrolled at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, a school run by Madame Zoe Heger. The two years Charlotte spent there had such an impact on her life that Harman opens the book with a prologue about her involvement with Madame Heger's husband:

"The object of Charlotte's unrequited love, Constantin Heger, was a difficult, mercurial character who haunted each of her later novels (as Rochester in Jane Eyre, Louis Moore in Shirley, Paul Emanuel in Villette), and he cost her two years of intense heartache, humiliation and futile hope."

Harman assembles all the painful details and illustrates how Charlotte eventually turned her heartbreak into powerful fiction, and how the relationship with Heger echoed for years, long after Charlotte's death.

In 1845, after various stabs at employment, all four siblings were back in Haworth and writing, although Branwell was already on his long slide into opium addiction and alcoholism. (Though he was his father's favorite and considered brilliant by his sisters, he tried everything from portrait painting to railroad clerking and flopped at all of them.)

Emily, whose "violently suppressed feelings and ... strong personality were a source of awe to Charlotte," was writing that strange, singular, powerful tale of obsessive love, Wuthering Heights. Quiet Anne, the youngest, was writing Agnes Grey, about a young woman's experiences as a governess, and Charlotte was working on The Master, a thinly veiled account of her relationship with Heger. That last would not be published in her lifetime, but Emily's and Anne's books would. And once Charlotte turned her attention to Jane Eyre, it was soon "clear and bright before her," a masterpiece in the making.

• • •

The sisters first published a collection of poetry under the masculine pen names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. In 1847, they used those same names to publish Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, both as a cloak of anonymity and as a counter to the rampant sexism among the publishing industry and readers. Harman's account of the successes — and in some cases savage criticisms — of the Brontes' novels is illuminating.

But their moment of shared literary glory was brief. In a staggering eight months in 1848-49, Branwell died, probably of a combination of tuberculosis and the effects of his addictions, followed by Emily and then Anne, both agonizingly taken by tuberculosis as well.

Charlotte's grief was immense, but once again she would find the strength to go on and indeed to publish two more novels. She would enjoy considerable literary fame and some controversy — one critic called Jane Eyre an "anti-Christian book" with "a pervading tone of ungodly discontent," while Queen Victoria judged it "intensely interesting." (But then Victoria, like Jane, was making her way in a man's world.) Charlotte would reveal her own identity and her sisters' identities as the authors of their novels, a subject that had inspired much public debate. She became friends with the writer Elizabeth Gaskell, who would be her first biographer (if not the most reliable).

And, in spite of Patrick Bronte's attempts to prevent it, Charlotte found love, marrying her father's former assistant, Arthur Nicholls, in 1854. She was pregnant a few months later and, in tragic Bronte fashion, dead a few months after that, at age 38.

Harman begins her biography with Charlotte's unrequited love for Heger, and of course Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights are the ur-romances that spawned an entire genre of novels about love that conquers daunting obstacles. (Interesting that both were written by women who, at the time of writing, had never had any real romantic relationships. Emily, who was formidably odd and private, seems to have had her warmest bond with her fierce mastiff, Keeper.)

But as the title of this biography suggests, Thackeray put his finger on Charlotte's essence. Jane Eyre is a romance, yes, but it is more than that. It is a book that is defined by a woman's voice — a woman who refuses to defer.

Jane Eyre was among the first novels to use direct first-person narrative, not couched as letters or memoir but expressed by the speaker as events take place. That grants it an immediacy and emotional resonance that are still effective today — and that make Jane strikingly individual.

And Jane, make no mistake, is angry. Virginia Woolf wrote that she is an example of "an overpowering personality, so that, as we say in real life, they have only to open the door to make themselves felt. There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things."

Jane Eyre is plain, she is poor, she is powerless, but she never surrenders. Like her creator, that unlikely genius who spent a life fighting to be read, Jane demands that her voice be heard and her worth be measured. Charlotte Bronte may be turning 200, but she's a woman for this century as well.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Charlotte Bronte:

A Fiery Heart

By Claire Harman

Knopf, 480 pages, $30

Review: Harman's 'A Fiery Heart' is a fierce Charlotte Bronte biography 03/31/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2016 10:54am]
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