Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman - review by Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis

Squeezing the Scorpion

Charlotte Brontë: A Life


Viking 480pp £25

Why did the sheltered daughter of a Church of England minister, brought up to be deeply suspicious of Catholics, take the drastic step of walking into a Brussels church, finding a confessional and opening her heart? And what did she tell the priest? Claire Harman opens her biography, written in time for Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary in 2016, with her protagonist in crisis. It’s not just that the 27-year-old student is in love with her married professor, Constantin Heger, but also that she is, Harman perceptively notes,

struggling with the larger issue of how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings – whether of love … or her intellectual passions, or her anger at circumstances and feelings of thwarted destiny – in the life that life seemed to have in store for her, one of patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness and hard work. What was someone like her, a plain, poor, clever, half-educated, dependent spinster daughter, to do with her own spiritual vitality and unfettered imagination?

Harman suggests the relief of confessing ‘gave her an idea not just of how to survive or override her most powerful feelings, but of how to transmute them into art. Within a year she was writing her first novel.’ For Harman, Brontë’s novels are ‘revolutionary’ because they express feelings we usually suppress. In other words, she lets us all into the confessional.

At fourteen, Brontë imagined one of her characters panicking that he might not be real, that someone had dreamed him up. She thrilled, Harman reveals, at ‘having this adult man in her mind muse on her when he senses the distant power or influence that has brought him into being, but that he can’t imagine is simply a fourteen-year-old girl bending over a tiny scrap of paper in a cold room in Yorkshire’. At other times, writing unnerved and disorientated Brontë; Harman astutely calls the wild writing she did in her late teens ‘greedy’ and ‘desperate’, and argues that it was only after her experience in Brussels that she found a way to stop dwelling on her suffering and instead ‘let it speak to and comfort millions of others’.

This is why Brontë still fascinates. She makes us understand that the feelings we have been pushing down have value, and that if we speak out they might even save us. Some biographers take Brontë at her word. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) reads like a novel: partisan, passionate, and often libellous and wrong. The mighty Shakespeare Head edition of the Brontë sisters’ works included it alongside the novels, as though it were fiction. The Brontës have been irresistible to novelists and dramatists – there is a whole groaning cabinet in the Brontë Parsonage library devoted to fiction about them. Harman is very interesting on this blurring of fact and fiction. She reveals that Heger invited a favoured pupil to communicate telepathically. It sounds like something out of one of the novels, which are full of voices travelling across the gulf of time and space. Did Brontë write about telepathy because Heger suggested they communicate telepathically too, or did she make it up out of longing for him? And did he, years later, read her novels and try to make them come true? These are intriguing questions that send us back to the books, as all good biographies should.

Even now, Brontë’s voice is the most compelling thing about her work: a voice as full of anger, violence and gall as passion. Harman has a lot more time for Brontë’s first novel, The Professor, than most (certainly she has more time for it than me) and she suggests that its annoying and repressed heroine, Frances Henri, gains power by staying silent: ‘This convention of not answering back allows able women a scornful superiority, flashing out in looks, in suppression of comment, withheld speech; quellingly disdainful, devastatingly critical, but always held in check.’ She concludes that ‘This pent-up power, secretly triumphant because unrealised, is the incendiary device at the heart of Jane Eyre and all Charlotte Brontë’s works.’ I’m not sure. I prefer Brontë and her heroines when they are realising their power – and even Harman later finds that Jane Eyre’s vividness and energy come from Jane’s ‘articulation of long-pent-up sorrows’.

Brontë’s stunning literary control deserted her in Shirley, which she wrote in unimaginable circumstances, beginning it before her brother and sisters died, one after another, and finishing it in the throes of grief. Throughout the novel, using the fig leaf of an androgynous narrator, Brontë interrupts the story to tell us what it means and what she thinks. At one point, dazed and bitter, she advises disappointed women to stay silent: ‘You held out your hand for an egg, and fate put into it a scorpion. Show no consternation: close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your palm. Never mind; in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob.’ Harman finds interjections like these ‘extremely disorientating’ and she may be right that another digression, where Brontë inserts a vicious vignette of a woman who seems to be Madame Heger for no apparent reason, is unintentional, a ‘bog burst from Charlotte’s seething substratum’. But while these moments mar Shirley, they do allow Brontë to say things she urgently wanted to say – about feminism, literature, disappointment – in a way even her most liberated heroines couldn’t and didn’t.

When it comes to the life, while Harman harks back (wistfully perhaps?) to the ‘glory days of Brontë myth-making’, she sticks to the facts. The trouble is that because the Brontës’ lives have been so worked over, it’s hard to be rigorous without splitting hairs. When Harman speculates that Brontë’s wilder writing was inspired by experiments with opium, she carefully gives the evidence for and against, but never quite says what she thinks. Instead, she retreats into wrestling inconclusively with Gaskell. All Brontë biographers have to get in the ring with Gaskell, but on questions like this, it would be nice to know who wins.

At first, when it comes to Brontë’s father, Patrick, Harman doesn’t pull her punches. He has undergone a renaissance recently, but he doesn’t come over well here. When Harman writes about how, after his wife died and he was desperate to find a stepmother for his children, he made advances to his old flame Mary Burder and wouldn’t take no for an answer, she slams his ‘intransigence, pride and emotional blindness’. Admittedly, he should have let her go. But he was poleaxed by grief, anxious about his children’s future and hurt by Burder’s astonishingly insensitive rejection. It seems a bit harsh to say his persistence ‘gives some idea of what all of the women and some of the men in his life had to deal with’.

Harman also states that, after their two sisters had got so ill with tuberculosis there that they came home to die, Patrick sent Charlotte and Emily back to the Clergy Daughters’ School (which Brontë turned into Lowood School in Jane Eyre). This is contested. Harman, admittedly, finds his behaviour surprising, and wonders if conditions at the school were really so terrible. Certainly, the school left Brontë scarred and inspired her best writing, writing that left Jane Eyre’s first readers, as Harman says, ‘understandably, bowled over … In 1847 nothing like it had been seen before. No one had ever dramatized the injustices of childhood so vividly … Jane’s anger and bewilderment and pain therefore were like dispatches from a new frontier, a territory that everyone knew about but that until then had no maps or coordinates.’ Reading passages like this, I wish Harman had written as confidently about the life as she does about the work.

She does capture the way Brontë sometimes felt almost as if she was haunting her own life. Brontë is described scaring her fellow schoolgirls with ghost stories, but then later, rejected by Heger, she wrote a poem about another rejected woman who drowns and then appears at her lover’s door as a dripping ghost, driving him to suicide. Later still, visiting London after she has lost all her siblings, Brontë constantly saw people who looked like her dead relatives. George Henry Lewes (famously not an attractive man) was, apparently, the spit of Emily. When the fashionable painter George Richmond showed Brontë his portrait of her, she cried, not because the picture was so good (or because it was so flattering) but because it looked exactly like one of her sisters. Harman makes a touching leap from this to the experience of visiting Richmond’s painting in the National Portrait Gallery and feeling ‘it is strange to think of the subject seeing dead Emily or dead Anne there, rather than herself.’

Harman is good, too, on Brontë’s last days, spent starving and dehydrated in the grip of what was almost certainly hyperemesis gravidarum – a rare form of extreme morning sickness that, Harman points out, is now better known because Kate Middleton suffered from it too. If Brontë, like some sufferers, was vomiting up to fifty times a day, it’s no wonder she wrote painfully of her ‘greater weakness – the skeleton emaciation … I cannot talk’.

In the end, I’m not sure who Harman’s Brontë really is. She’s not Gaskell’s sad, sweet martyr, she’s not the caustic, love-hungry heroine of Lyndall Gordon’s 1994 biography and she’s not the neurotic, hypocritical woman who stalks the pages of Juliet Barker’s group biography, The Brontës (published in 1994 and updated in 2010). Harman unforgettably conjures up Lucy Snowe, the protagonist of Villette, as ‘a disturbing, hyper-sensitive alter-ego, a ticking bomb of emotions’, but she never uses such language when describing Brontë directly. So, although this book is clear and shrewd, plainly and crisply written, it makes me wish for more of the expression of the powerful feelings Claire Harman admires in Brontë’s writing.

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