Charlotte Brontë: a life by Claire Harman

Reviewed by Barbara Howard

bronte cQuoted in this book is Charlotte Brontë’s great aim and ambition in life ‘to be forever known’ as a poet, which she confided in a letter to the Poet Laureate at the time, Robert Southey.

Surely, Charlotte Brontë needs no introduction here. Even in her own lifetime she achieved fame as an innovative female novelist and poet. Claire Harman’s biography was published last year in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth. Do we really need another biography of Charlotte Brontë? You may well ask. Haven’t enough words been written and published about this famous family? I might have asked that too before picking up A Life but now I say ‘Yes’. Here is an excellent, well-researched, honest and yet sympathetic, concisely written new biography that is worth everyone’s while reading whether they have the remotest interest in Charlotte, the wider Brontë family, 19th century literature, life in 19th century parsonages or the sociology of family relations during the Victorian period. And even if you have none of these you will enjoy a page-turner, for, as the accompanying blurb tells us ‘Charlotte Brontë’s life has all the drama and tragedy of the great Gothic novels it inspired’. You will discover what was so very special about this family, and Charlotte in particular, in context and illustrated both by descriptive passages and literally in the photographs inserted in this beautiful book.

Although connected in our minds with that bleak parsonage at Haworth in Pennine Yorkshire, Charlotte Brontë, and her sisters too, did travel within and out of Yorkshire. The places they visited influenced their writing as much, if not more, than did the bleak moors and the lonely parsonage.

I should say now that I am not aware that I have ever previously read a biography of Charlotte Brontë but, living in Yorkshire and less than an hour’s drive from the large South Pennine village of Haworth I have been lucky enough to make several visits to the Parsonage and certainly feel well acquainted with the family and the lives the sisters lived there. Long before moving to Yorkshire I’d read Charlotte and Anne’s major novels and I’m always intrigued to visit the locations that influenced novelists. Many of these are mentioned in the Life, such as The Red House (former home of Charlotte Brontë’s friend Mary Taylor), Oakwell Hall (used by Charlotte as Fieldhead in her novel Shirley), North Lees Hall in Derbyshire (the inspiration for Mr Rochester’s home in Jane Eyre and the source of that surname) and Wycoller (supposed Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre).

Claire Harman’s biography begins with a brief episode in Charlotte’s life that occurred during her stay in Brussels in 1843. She had gone to Brussels initially as a pupil, accompanied by her sister Emily, and later returned, alone, to the Pensionnat Héger as a teacher. She drew on her experiences there for her novels; in particular The Professor. Harman has picked out this brief episode – Brontë daring to enter a Roman Catholic Church in the city; listening to the mass and attending confession – an act so out of her strict protestant Church of England character and upbringing that we can hardly believe that it happened. But happen it did as Harman tells us and  she presents us with the evidence and places the episode in context later in this meticulously researched but very readable biography.

Putting aside the text, the book itself is a joy to behold and to hold with its beautiful embossed jacket, silk place marker, and endpapers illustrated with delightful reproductions from Brontë’s letters and drawings. And there’s more too – inside is a full and authoritative bibliography (Harman comments upon and quotes from previously published biographies of the Brontës); extensive acknowledgements; a selection of Charlotte’s and other letters reproduced in full where extracts have been quoted in the text.

For a few decades short of 200 years Charlotte Brontë has been and will be ‘forever known’ and I suspect that this authoritative biography will become the definitive ‘Life’ for decades to come.

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Barbara Howard blogs at Milady’s Boudoir.

Claire Harman, Charlotte Brontë: a life (Viking: 2015), 978-0670922260, 468pp., hardback

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