I’ve tried several times to read biographies of the Brontë family, but they’ve always seemed so dull, morose and really didn’t hold my attention. When I got a pre-pub copy of Claire Harman’s new biography of Charlotte Brontë I didn’t have very high expectations of it and had plans to merely flip through and skim. But as soon as I started reading I was hooked.
Harman’s style is novelistic, smooth and compelling. She starts the book off by exploring the summer of Charlotte’s unhappiness in Brussels after Emily left the school where they had both been studying French. Charlotte was desperately infatuated with Monsieur Heger, the husband of the school’s mistress. I think Monsieur Heger would be what we now term ‘a player’; a manipulative flirt who courted women’s affection with no care for the emotional consequences. Harman shows how this relationship and Charlotte’s feelings about Heger colored her whole existence, including her writing, for the rest of her life.
Though the novel is centered on Charlotte, we learn much about her parents and siblings as they were all so close and creatively connected. I was fascinated by the story of how the Brontë sisters came to be published and intrigued by public reaction to their novels. Harman really focuses on Charlotte as a writer and an artist and on her development as a novelist. I think this approach illuminated Charlotte’s life and her character in a way which previous biographies I’ve tried to read didn’t and it worked for me.
If you have an interest in the Brontës this is a must read. But you don’t have to be a Brontë fan to enjoy this biography – it’s also fascinating if you’re interested in how someone develops as a writer.
What other books about the Brontës would you recommend? Since it’s the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth next month I’m in the mood to read more about the family. I’m currently reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne for my book club next week and am kicking myself that I didn’t read it before now – what a captivating book!