Claire Harman’s engrossing “Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart” draws on correspondence released in recent decades to examine the mysterious and tragic life of the author of “Jane Eyre.”
‘Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart’
by Claire Harman
Knopf, 462 pages, $30
Literary biographies are, at heart, mystery stories: The best try to show us, through meticulous tiptoeing through clues, the secret of where a writer’s genius came from. Claire Harman’s “Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart” is the latest in a line of books about the reclusive and, yes, mysterious author of “Jane Eyre,” whose short, quiet life spent mostly in a North Country parsonage has always seemed at odds with her uncannily bold narrative voice.
But, just as “Jane Eyre” happily survives multiple readings (I’ve lost count on how many afternoons I’ve spent revisiting Thornfield Hall), so does the story of Charlotte Brontë — particularly when in the hands of a gifted teller. Just in time for the bicentennial anniversary of Brontë’s birth (April 21, 1816), “A Fiery Heart” is an engrossing, almost novelistic tale of a woman who since childhood embraced an uncanny ability “to enter trance-like into her own imaginary world” and find everlasting stories there.
Harman, author of several biographies, acknowledges her debt to previous Brontë research, particularly the groundbreaking 1994 “The Brontës” by Juliet Barker. The recent publication of Brontë’s letters, over the time period of 1994-2004, greatly informs Harman’s book. Throughout it, we hear Brontë’s voice, with Harman’s chiming in alongside. Quite rightly for a work on Charlotte Brontë, one gets the sense of a sisterly collaboration.
Brontë’s life was one of frequent tragedy: the loss of her mother and two siblings in childhood, and three adult siblings — Branwell, Emily and Anne — dying of consumption (tuberculosis) during one terrible nine-month period. It’s painful to picture Charlotte at that time, alone in a cold, dark parlor once lively with chatter. Her letters are heartbreaking: “A year ago — had a prophet warned me how I should stand in June 1849 — how stripped and bereaved — had he foretold the autumn — the winter, the spring of sickness and suffering to gone through — I should have thought — this can never be endured.”
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But Brontë’s life was more than just that parlor table: In France as a young woman (studying, hoping to one day open her own school), she fell in love with her married professor. Only a few letters from this passionate and apparently unrequited relationship (shades of which linger in several of Brontë’s novels) survive. “I pine away,” she wrote to him, in one. “[D]ay after day I await a letter and day after day disappointment flings me down again into overwhelming misery.”
And, in her late 30s, a near-miracle happened: Brontë married the local curate and was astonished to discover that she loved him. Sadly, her contentment with “my dear husband” was brief; Brontë died in pregnancy, a few weeks before her 39th birthday.
I found myself quite happily lost in “A Fiery Heart,” though little of it was unfamiliar; the details of life at Haworth (particularly strange, brooding Emily, whose wild shadow falls enticingly across the pages) are told with an almost cinematic vividness. And a touching anecdote lingered, after the book was done: Brontë, first seeing her famous portrait drawn by the artist George Richmond, was reduced to tears, explaining that the image looked so like her sister. “When one stands in front of Richmond’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery today,” writes Harman, “ it is strange to think of the subject seeing dead Emily or dead Anne there, rather than herself.”