When Brontë scholar Margaret Smith organized and published The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, Brontë scholars and lay readers were afforded fresh insights into one of literature’s most creative and idiosyncratic families. Now, with Charlotte Brontë : A Fiery Heart, Claire Harman draws on the correspondence to craft a biography by turns compelling and utterly heartbreaking. As Brontë was an avid, even florid correspondent, her letters reveal a passionate, headstrong, often enraged woman at times not far from her most famous character. For all Brontë’s extraordinary gifts, her life was a short one, wracked by ill health, loss, and loneliness.
Charlotte Brontë was born 21 April 1816 to curate Patrick Brontë, who married Maria Branwell, unfortunately best known for her early death from tuberculosis. Maria left behind five small children and a spouse ill-equipped to cope. Patrick Brontë retreated to his study, leaving his children in the care of an maiden aunt, various servants, and above all, themselves.
Much of what happened next is documented in Jane Eyre. Eldest sibling Maria, immortalized as Helen Burns, acted as mother to her younger siblings. When Maria, second sibling Elizabeth, and Charlotte were sent to study at the Cowan School, tragedy struck. Conditions at Cowan were foul. The minimal food was so poor a former student later recalled: “the paucity of edible food at school ruined her health for years.” Students lived in unheated rooms; it was freezing cold.
Maria and Elizabeth, already suffering the effects of whooping cough, rapidly declined at Cowan. Maria died in May 1825, Elizabeth shortly afterward.
The surviving Brontës — Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell — turned inward, cultivating an enormously creative life. The siblings famously wrote and illustrated their own complex stories, complete with histories, poetry, illustrations, and advertisements. These were written in minuscule booklets no larger than an American quarter, in a deliberately illegible penmanship intended to repulse unwanted readers.
When Charlotte was 14, she was sent to the Roe Head School. Conditions were far better than at Cowan. Despite homesickness, Charlotte distinguished herself academically and met lifelong friends Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. Upon graduation, she returned home, where the problem of Branwell began asserting itself.
The Brontë family had high hopes for Branwell, who was little inclined to achieve them. After a failed venture in portrait painting, Branwell accepted a tutoring position. He lasted six months. A downward spiral of drinking and opium use begun.
Money was scarce. When Roe Head schoolmistress Margaret Wooler offered Charlotte a teaching position including board and tuition for the unschooled Emily, the family reluctantly accepted. In 1835, Charlotte returned to Roe Head, 17-year-old Emily in tow.
The Brontë girls are described as undersized, underweight, and undistinguished. Morbidly shy, deeply religious Anne suffered an incapacitating stutter. The adult Charlotte was child-sized, nearsighted, and missing several teeth. Her public persona was often deeply censorious, capable of deeply discomfiting her companions.
In 1850, at the height of her fame, W.M. Thackeray held a dinner in her honor. His daughters, having read Jane Eyre, were eager to meet her. Yet Charlotte proved a dismal guest, barely speaking or eating. Attempts at conversation failed. The evening finally became so strained that Thackeray fled his hosting duties for his gentleman’s club. As for Charlotte, “She certainly began to get a reputation, though, from occasions such as this, for being possibly difficult and judgmental.”
Yet Charlotte had another side. Her publisher, George Smith, said: “For my own part, I found her conversation most interesting; her quick and clear intelligence was delightful. When she became excited on any subject she was really eloquent, and it was a pleasure to listen to her.”
Emily was the most difficult Brontë, scaring even those closest to her. Charlotte, who understood her best, wrote Emily “stood alone”.
Stories of Emily and her dog, Keeper, have survived the ages. Keeper was an enormous, menacing animal, thought to be a bulldog/mastiff mix. Charlotte’s school friend Ellen Nussey, an occasional visitor to Haworth Parsonage, remembers Emily: “making him frantic in action and roaring in the voice of a lion.”
Worse is the infamous story of the dog dirtying the bedspreads with his paws. On hearing this, an enraged Emily attacked Keeper with her fists, beating the animal around the eyes. She then cleaned the dog’s wounds herself.
Emily didn’t last long at Roe Head School. Anne, sent as her replacement, fell ill within a few months.
Charlotte was little more successful. She found her students vapid and resented the time they took from writing. Charlotte left teaching to try governessing, an experience which proved disastrous: she neither liked small children nor being bossed around by their parents. Like her Jane Eyre, Charlotte raged at being perceived a lesser being, a servant, at her intelligence going unrecognized. In a letter to Emily, she wrote:
A private governess has no existence, is not considered a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil. While she is teaching the children, working for them, amusing them, it is all right. If she steals a moment for herself, she is a nuisance.
In 1842, Charlotte and Emily, who had vague hopes of opening a school, went to study in Brussels. At the Pensionnat Heger classmate Frances Wheelwright recalled Charlotte as “A diminutive, shortsighted, retiring personage, of remarkable talents and studious disposition, very neat in appearance.”
Emily made a lesser impression: “An unsociable, unattractive, unsympathetic disposition; lanky and untidy in person.”
Pensionnat Heger, a co-educational Catholic school, was run by married couple Zoë and Constantin Heger. Charismatic Monsieur Heger, five years younger than his wife, was enormously popular with the female students. As Charlotte and Emily were significantly older than their classmates, Heger’s decision to instruct them separately in French aroused great jealousy. Emily was indifferent, but Charlotte, an exacting and dedicated student, fell passionately in love with the happily married Heger, whose wife was expecting her fourth child.
Initially Heger neither repulsed nor encouraged Charlotte’s feelings. But Madame Heger had a school to run and a reputation to maintain. She took discreet action. Charlotte’s private French lessons came to an inexplicable halt. Anti-social Emily was already back home.
In 1844, a devastated Charlotte returned to Haworth to assist Patrick Brontë, who was suffering from cataracts. Safely home, she pelted Heger with numerous letters — letters that even now read as accusatory, demanding, verging on stalking — until he demanded she not write more than twice yearly. Part of a surviving letter to Heger reads:
Your last letter has sustained me — has nourished me for six months — now I need another and you will give it to me — not because you have any friendship for me — you cannot have much –“
All was not obsessive love: in 1846, Charlotte, Emily and Anne self-published Poems By Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The book received minimal notice.
On 25 August, 1846, Charlotte Brontë accompanied Patrick to Manchester, where he underwent successful cataract surgery. Recuperation required days of sitting quietly in darkened rooms. Father and daughter waited. Charlotte took up a pencil and one of her handmade notebooks, writing: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
Jane Eyre did not need to be self-published. William Smith Williams, an employee of publisher Smith, read the manuscript first, then pressed it urgently on his supervisor, who sat down with the book just after Sunday breakfast. By bedtime he had finished Jane Eyre. The next morning he accepted it for publication.
The book shot to immediate fame, its impact difficult to understand in today’s media-saturated society. Who was Currer Bell? Who, indeed, were Acton and Ellis Bell? Many suspected these three, naturally male, were one person. In distant Haworth, Charlotte remained silent for as long as possible. When unscrupulous publisher Thomas Newby attempted to profit from Jane Eyre, Currer Bell traveled to London, where she introduced herself to Smith. Thus began a great friendship, and both the best and worst time of Charlotte Brontë’s life.
Branwell had continued his downward slide. By 1841 he was working at a rail station. There, Emily sarcastically wrote, he had “little to do but read or write alone in his office, or go to the inn for society.” In 1843, he joined Anne, who was governessing, to teach the family’s son. In 1845, Anne inexplicably gave notice and returned home. Soon Branwell was also back home, drinking heavily.
The family was horrified to learn Branwell had an affair with Lydia Robinson, the lady of the house. His return to Haworth Parsonage commenced a period of intense domestic upheaval: Branwell lied, stole, and traumatized the entire family with his addictions. Anne, writing in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall vividly described the tyrannical hold Branwell’s drug problems had over the Brontë household. Charlotte, although disturbed by the book, later wrote of her sister:
She had, in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply in her mind; it did her harm.
Branwell died in 1848. He was 31.
Were this not bad enough, Emily fell ill, possibly at Branwell’s funeral. Even as her cough worsened, most certainly from tuberculosis, Emily denied her illness, refusing medical treatment. Throughout the freezing winter of 1848, she rose, dressed, and performed household chores until finally collapsing in the hallway. Emily Brontë died 19 December, 1848. Her coffin measured 5′ 7″ tall by only 16 inches wide. The coffin builder said it was the narrowest adult coffin he had ever built.
Incredibly, Anne was also ill. Unlike Emily, she willingly sought treatment. Sadly, little was known of tuberculosis at the time. Anne died on 28 May, 1849, with Charlotte at her side.
The remaining six years of Charlotte Brontë’s life were not totally bereft. Smith squired his author around London, taking her to plays, exhibitions, and concerts. Charlotte met contemporaries like Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, and George Lewes. She advocated for her sisters’ legacies, seeing that their manuscripts to publication.
In 1852, Arthur Bell Nicholls, longtime curate at the Parsonage, declared his passionate love for Charlotte and proposed. Stunned, she refused. In any event, Patrick Brontë’s selfish overreaction forestalled any ideas of accepting, as Charlotte wrote to a friend: “Agitation and Anger disproportionate to the occasion ensued…”
Nicholls resigned his position at Howarth, moving 12 miles distant. He occasionally wrote Charlotte who, with time to reconsider, changed her mind. Although she confessed to a friend “I cannot conceal from myself that he is not intellectual”, she was certain of Arthur’s basic goodness. Marriage bore this out: Charlotte liked her in-laws. Her letters make frequent reference to her “dear Arthur”.
Cruelly, marital happiness was brief. Charlotte Brontë died from hyperemesis gravidarum (HG). Women with HG experience horrifically amplified morning sickness symptoms, including prolonged bouts of vomiting and the inability to eat or drink. If untreated, HG sufferers can die from dehydration, malnutrition, and bleeding from the stomach. Brontë, having no access to modern medical treatments, died three weeks shy of her 39th birthday.
The reader closes Charlotte Brontë : A Fiery Heart terribly saddened and a little breathless, wondering at the unfairness of it all.
Harman does a marvelous job handling potentially fraught material. Anyone writing about the Brontës is dealing with an overhandled subject, revelatory letters or no. A writer of lesser abilities might be tempted to dip into the more sensational aspects of the Brontës’ lives: the illnesses, the unrequited love for M. Heger, Branwell’s liasion with Lydia Robinson (one imagines, shuddering, the “fictionalized” accounts of Charlotte’s love, coming soon to a bookstore near you). Reading about the deaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne in such close sequence led to me tears. To objectively write of them likely felt little better.
That the reader never notices herself transported 200 years back in time is further to Harman’s credit. To read Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart is to inhabit Haworth Parsonage, chill, damp, and poorly lit, to walk wet and windy moors, to forget oneself reading in sunny, springtime California.
Readers whose experience of the Brontës is limited to a single book, or whose school memories are dim should not think Charlotte Brontë : A Fiery Heart strictly for experts. It is immensely readable, demanding no specialized knowledge beyond a love for literature and a curiosity about the woman who midwifed Jane Eyre, that most beloved of characters.