Work, work, work: a biography

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman had been sitting on my shelves for ages. I think I actually bought it in March, as part of my birthday book haul. But it had been on my theoretical shelf since it was published.

I finally read it!

Amanda @ Gun in Act One read it before me. She told me that it had been difficult to get into and yeah, she nailed it.


This biography is not for those of you that think non-fiction is hard to read. This will absolutely solidify your opinion in that direction. This is one of those biographies that takes all of you to read. Partly, I think it’s that Charlotte and her siblings lived so much of their lives in their own heads. All of their imaginary worlds, the characters they created and wrote about throughout their childhood and adolescence.

And of course, in the end, they all died before their lives were truly lived. Emily, Anne and Charlotte all left their mark on the world, more so than they probably ever would have guessed. But Branwell (and you can’t talk about the Bronte sisters without talking about Branwell since the direction his life was taking inspired them to try to make their own living) – he flamed out quickly.

Mostly, reading about the Brontes makes me sad. It made me sad when I read the fictionalized account from Syrie James and reading the real life version from Harman was no different. Like Amanda, I wonder what they could have achieved had they been more robust, or even just more out in the world. All of them railed against the constrictions of women at the time, in their own quiet ways. Reading about how bereft Charlotte was after the deaths of her siblings, how she would just sit in the quiet house all by herself in the evenings, when they used to all sit together and work on their stories at that time – heartbreaking. I had a hard time reading Shirley but knowing now that she worked on it when she was working through her grief, it almost makes me want to go back and try it again.

One of the things that really surprised me was how obsessed Charlotte became with her Belgian professor, Constantin Heger. It doesn’t surprise me that the title of this book is A Fiery Heart because Charlotte Bronte really did feel things excessively. I think she very much wanted to scream her passions across oceans but of course, being a woman of her time, she couldn’t. She settled for writing him a lot of letters – so many that he had to ask her to please limit herself to two letters a year.

I would recommend this book to those of you who regularly flex your non-fiction muscle; those of you who enjoy reading about the internal life of those who write your favourite books. If non-fiction isn’t your thing, I suspect this one would be a long slog but if you still wanted to read about the Brontes, go with the Syrie James.

It did really make me want to re-read some of their books though. Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in particular. (Anne never does get the credit she deserves)

17 thoughts on “Work, work, work: a biography

  1. This sounds worthwhile if a bit challenging. Have you read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of her? It’s a little old-fashioned of course, and I was expecting it to feel like quite a slog, but I actually quite enjoyed it!

  2. Reading about the Brontes always makes me a little bit sad, too; and also wishing that they could have had happier endings. (And I agree with you that Anne never gets the credit she deserves.)

  3. A different insight on the Brontes is Shaggy Muses, which features Emily’s relationship with het dog and it sheds more light on the quiet passion of the Bronte siblings.

  4. Oh this book. I really need to read more all of the books you mentioned above. It will be so much richer I think knowing about how they worked together. I hope you have a happy book to read after.

  5. Oh, yes, it would be sad. So sad. Maybe that’s a good excuse to cross this one off my list. I think the part about beating her dog would make me cry. And the part when she sits all alone after her siblings are dead. And the part…

    • The part where she sits alone after all her siblings are gone KILLED ME. It was hard work to get through this book, not just because of the sadness. She just didn’t have a very eventful life so her biography is based a lot on her internal life. It’s *almost* a blessing that she died young (although they think she died of super intense morning sickness which is just so damn tragic)

      • I agree about the morning sickness thing – how awful. It seems like more of a waste/shame than an illness, for some reason.

  6. Pingback: Nonfiction November: Be The Expert | The Paperback Princess

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