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)


The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte

Two Bronte related posts in a row! I’m in a Bronte state of mind.

About three or four years ago I read Syrie James’ The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen and was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. I’ve mentioned before that typically I do not read those books that trade on the Austen name but this was one of those exceptions. I found that James did an excellent job of channeling Austen’s voice and I learned a lot about the woman that has had such an impact on my reading life.

A year or more ago I found James’ The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte in a pile of discounted books and took it home where it sat on my bedside table for months and months and months, always passed over for something else. I guess I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed the other book. I finally decided to give it a try this week. I’m not quite finished it but I am confident saying that I love it.

I can’t get enough of it.

James’ genius lies in her ability to channel the voice of these women, making it seem believeable so that you almost forget that it’s not actually Charlotte Bronte writing the story. As per the author’s note, the story is true, with some of the shady bits filled in. I found that I’ve gotten to know Charlotte, Emily and Anne as people rather than knowing them as being responsible for having written some of my favourite books.

charlotte bronte

Charlotte Bronte writes this diary as a way to make sense of the past few years of her life in order to make a big life decision. She takes us back to the eve of her 29th birthday as a point in time where all that she is now faced with really started. She and her sister Emily are living at home, helping to care for the aged father. Their father hires on a curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, to take on a lot of the work of running the parish as his site is failing quickly. Shortly thereafter, Anne Bronte returns home, having left her post as a governess at a large estate nearby. They are quickly joined by their heartbroken and shamed brother, Branwell.

Branwell is an alcoholic who also has a problem with opiates. He is completely unmanageable, raging at his sisters and father at all hours of the day and night. Realizing that he will never be in a position to look after them in the event of their father’s death (as unmarried women, they would have been looked after by their male relatives), Charlotte, Emily and Anne decide to see if they can’t make some money by having their poems and , later, their novels, published.

All this time Charlotte reminisces about her time in Belgium where she had fallen in love with a married professor, looks back on her time at various educational institutes and finally describes her ever changing relationship with her father’s curate, Mr. Nicholls.

I don’t mind saying that I got very attached to the Bronte sisters. Emily, shy and reserved with strangers but outspoken and blunt in person, the owner of a massive dog ill-suited to the life of a woman, I especially liked. Although I don’t know how anyone reading this book wouldn’t be a fan of Anne’s either, as sweet and positive as she always is. And Charlotte, practical in all things, her family’s rock – come on. The best.

But you know the whole time what’s coming. Although I’ve never been very familiar with Charlotte Bronte’s romantic life, I did know that Branwell, Emily and Anne died within a few months of each other. They all went so quickly and Syrie James made me feel so many feelings!

I’m just waiting now to see how this whole thing with Mr. Nicholls plays out. I will also add that, like The House of Mirth, this book made me so very glad to live in a time when I’m able to earn my own living without being dependent on a man. I know that that’s still not the way the world over but at least we’ve made some progress!

This book has made me care about the Brontes on a whole other level and I guarantee that I will be reading some of their work again in the near future.


Austen vs. Bronte

I’m working my way through Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. I’m not sure that I’m completely invested, truth be told. I read somewhere that upon reading Villette, George Eliot wrote to a friend that it was better than Jane Eyre. I was pretty excited by this because a) I think highly of George Eliot and b) I love Jane Eyre.

So far I think I am underwhelmed. But you never know what will happen with these Brontes. They are sneaky like that.

Earlier this year, on the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice’s being published, the old Austen vs. Bronte feud seemed to flare up again. Given the chance to reread Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre, I honestly don’t know what I would choose. I don’t want to be painted with that brush – Austen or Bronte. All their books are terrific!

I don’t know why we can’t all get along and enjoy Austen and Bronte side by side?

I don’t really know why Jane Austen’s work has to compete with the work of Anne, Charlotte and Emily actually. They didn’t live at the same time – in fact only Charlotte had been born (in 1816) before Jane Austen died (in 1817). They don’t have particularly similar styles – Austen tends more to satire while the Brontes are really very dark. Like really dark. There really isn’t that much humour to be found in the work of the Brontes (though I did laugh at the explanation of a line that women shouldn’t think too much as it would make them lightheaded since thinking would take the blood away from the reproductive organs, thereby making a woman barren).

That said, I always find myself surprised at how insightful and modern the Bronte books can be. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has a woman fleeing an abusive, alcoholic husband; Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights tackle extreme forms of mental illness; and Villette’s Lucy Snowe is pretty clearly depressed.

Then there are those that disparage Jane Austen’s work as little more than chick lit (which also? Is awesome). People actually exist that think Austen’s work is fluffy and silly.

Is their work compared because none of them ever married? Is that it? It’s said that Austen refused marriage and apparently Charlotte Bronte did the same. Did she eventually marry? No idea.

Or is it that in the end, most of their characters get married? It can’t be that their stories centre around women because that’s way too broad a framework on which to base any comparison.

Then again, I only read them for the fun of it. I have virtually no background in literature and I’m probably missing the point.

I just like to read them. Bronte or Austen. They are equal in my world.