Preparations for next year’s bicentennial celebrations of the birth of Charlotte Brontë haven’t exactly got off to a flying start. At Haworth Parsonage the Brontë Society is in disarray after Bonnie Greer, its resigning president, used one of her Jimmy Choo shoes as a gavel to try to bring the membership to order, and subsequently castigated some members as ‘malevolent lamebrains’.
Three rounds of applause then for Claire Harman’s superb retelling of Charlotte’s story, which focuses anniversary attention where it should be: on the extraordinary creativity of the three sisters who spent most of their short lives in Haworth, that strange, windswept moorland village, and whose tragic destinies possessed all the drama of the plotlines of one of their famous gothic novels. ‘Fiction,’ as G.H. Lewes wrote of the first life of Charlotte, by her friend Mrs Gaskell, ‘has nothing more wild, touching and heart-strengthening to place above it.’
The time is ripe for reassessment. It is 20 years and more since Charlotte’s last major biographers, Rebecca Fraser and Lyndall Gordon, reclaimed the eldest surviving Brontë sister as a feminist heroine, fierce in her defence not only of her art, but also of the right of women to choose independent lives of their own. In the intervening period, the publication of all Charlotte’s extant letters by Margaret Smith — truly one of the glories among modern editions of Victorian writers — has enabled Brontë scholars to dispose of the final accretions of myth, a residue of the purple-heather school of Brontë biography, and Harman has taken full advantage of this.
Her book, which is admirably concise, takes as one of its major themes the contrast between the restricted lives of the Brontës and the wide-ranging scope of their imaginations. From an early age, Charlotte, like her siblings (and their father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, before them) determined on being professional writers. Charlotte’s early tales and romances, composed, sometimes in conjunction with brother Branwell, in tiny script indecipherable to the naked eye, give an impression, as Mrs Gaskell said, of creative power carried to the verge of insanity.
Increasingly, as she grew to adulthood, Charlotte retreated into this imaginative world, or superior reality, as an escape from the harshness of life outside the parsonage — whether as a moody governess to an unsympathetic family (Harman has traced the recollections from the 1920s of one of Charlotte’s former charges, who admitted having thrown a stone at her) or as the author of the sensational Jane Eyre, quailing at any thought of literary celebrity even in the company of her hero, Thackeray.
Harman opens her account in the confessional box at Ste-Gudule, the cathedral in Brussels where Charlotte, a vehement anti-Catholic, had gone to confess her unrequited love for Constantin Heger, her ‘Master’ at the pensionnat in the rue d’Isabelle, who recognised and encouraged her genius. Harman doubts that in the end Charlotte did admit to feelings of illicit love, but she leaves us in no doubt that Charlotte’s time in Brussels was the single most important experience of her life. It is evident of course in Charlotte’s still underappreciated masterpiece Villette, in Lucy Snowe’s relationship with Paul Emanuel, and in The Professor, that novel’s prototype. Memories of Heger haunt Charlotte’s depiction of Rochester in Jane Eyre and her portrayal of the weirdly unconvincing Belgian Moore brothers in Shirley. But more arresting is Harman’s reference to an arbitrary digression in Shirley in which Charlotte viciously attacks Heger’s wife as the ‘deepest, subtlest schemer in Europe’.
If the first part of Charlotte’s life reads like the ultimate tale of a literary Cinderella, who are the villains in the story? Patrick Brontë certainly, seen here as the family’s ‘solitary egotist’, putting self-preservation above much else. Perhaps George Smith, Charlotte’s publisher, who seems never to have missed an opportunity to tell posterity about how plain and lacking in feminine charm Charlotte was (Harman has uncovered a self-portrait of Charlotte, doodled on the back of a map, in which she appears the very image of Jane Eyre staring at her reflection in the mirror). And what of Constantin Heger? Was he ever overly demonstrative towards the hypersensitive youngEnglishwoman? He undoubtedly earned her rebuke when she wrote, in Shirley, that ‘a lover feminine’ cannot seek an explanation when a man goes cold on a woman whose love he has carelessly engaged.
‘A year ago,’ Charlotte wrote after the deaths in quick succession of Branwell, Emily and Anne, ‘had a prophet warned me how I should stand… how stripped and bereaved… I should have thought — this can never be endured.’ No wonder she opted in the end for marriage to Arthur Nicholls, her father’s curate, a good, if limited, man, devoid of romance. Claire Harman misses nothing of the unbearable poignancy of Charlotte’s premature death during pregnancy. As Charlotte had written in her epitaph for Lucy Snowe: ‘The orb of your life is not to be so rounded; for you the crescent-phase must suffice.’
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Mark Bostridge’s books include Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend and Vera Brittain and the First World War.