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)


Taking My Time: The Count of Monte Cristo

Do you remember that time about 10 years ago that I asked you to choose a book for me to finish reading by the end of the year?

You probably don’t because it was AGES ago.

Well, I asked you to pick a book that had been languishing on my shelves unread for eons and you chose The Count of Monte Cristo. I started reading it near the end of October and…finished it the night before my birthday.

It took me nearly 5 months to read.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a classic for a reason and I’m always surprised by how accessible the language of Dumas’ work is. It was published in 1844 but it reads like it could have been written now. Obviously there are certain situation and technologies that are very much of the time, but I find the writing very digestible and when I was reading, I found that I was getting through pages rather quickly.

The story itself is one of vengeance and exciting and interesting, it takes a number of surprising turns. I liked Edmond Dantes and understood his quest. The language was beautiful, it had lighter moments that made me laugh. There was honestly nothing about this book that I can use to explain why it took me so long to read.

Except of course this is one long ass book. I’ve written before about not being intimidated by large books but this time, I did not live up to my own expectations. The size of the book left me itching to finish it and looking at other books piled up around my apartment longingly.

And eventually I gave in to that. The idea of only reading The Count of Monte Cristo for as long as it took me to read it (my copy weighed in at 1462 pages, realistically it would have taken at least a month) was one that I couldn’t reconcile myself to. Which meant that the poor Count became my bedtime read, relegated to second place, his story parcelled out in chapter pairs before I drifted off to sleep.

But I finished it and it was great. If I were to read it again (which I hope to one day) I will devote myself to it like the Count devotes himself to his quest.


#PersuasionReadalong – Chapters 9-16


Holly and Amanda from Gun in Act One decided to host a little Persuasion Readalong and asked me if I’d be into doing it with them and I was like “obviously” so here we are. If you missed the first post, go read it to catch up. We’ll wait.

Ok. Good?

If you haven’t ever read Persuasion, I feel like I should tell you that there will be lots of SPOILERS in this post. Yes, despite the fact that the book has been around for nearly 200 years, I’m warning about spoilers…

So after Captain Wentworth is back in the picture and so cold to Anne, things kind of find a new equilibrium. The Musgroves are really into Captain Wentworth, finding him everything that is gentlemanly and good (see also: rich) and soon he’s spending a lot of time at Uppercross. Henrietta and Louisa are fighting for Wentworth’s attention when their cousin, Charles Hayter, comes back on the scene and he’s all “um, what’s the deal with this Captain Wentworth fellow, Henrietta?” because she’s basically all but engaged to cousin Charles and he’s not so thrilled that she’s spending all this time with the Captain. Wentworth had no idea that there was another fellow on the scene and he just starts spending more time with Louisa instead (apparently sisters are completely interchangeable). This whole situation makes for some fantastic Austen-esque quotes on courtship like “Mr and Mrs Musgrove, either from seeing little or from an entire confidence in the discretion of both their daughters, and of all the young men who came near them, seemed to leave everything to take it’s chance.” They are totally fine to let it all work itself out – fairly laissez faire for parents of the time. Even better is Charles and Mary trying to work out how it’s going to shake out: “Charles gave it for Louisa, Mary for Henrietta, but quite agreeing that to have him [Wentworth] marry either would be extremely delightful.”

The fact that now everyone is all for Captain Wentworth left Holly feeling pretty outraged: How about Mary going on about how cousin Charles is a poor catch for her sister, in comparison to the esteemed Capt. Wentworth: “She has no right to throw herself away. I do not think that any young woman has a right to make a choice that may be disagreeable and inconvenient to the principal part of her family, and be giving bad connections to those who have not been used to them.” Well, that seems to have come full circle from seven (is it seven?) years ago?

It was eight, but the point stands.

So now that the whole Henrietta/Wentworth/Louisa thing seems to have been sorted, Captain Wentworth decides that it’s time for him to head to Lyme and visit with some old Navy friends. And all the young Musgroves are like “oooooh let’s all go, we’re dying to go to Lyme!” They all decide to head out which made Holly point out that this really marks it as a book of it’s time:  I feel like a modern author writing about this group of family/friends taking an overnight excursion would have included 100 details about the logistics of how to make that trip happen without cars or phones, but Jane was just all ‘this is how we roll’ and off they went. 

They go to Lyme and are having the best time ever, Captain Wentworth’s friends the Harvilles and poor Captain Benwick (poor because his fiancee died right before he was  about to get leave to go and marry her – she was related to the Harvilles and they have taken him in to nurse him through his broken heart) are the loveliest people ever. Captain Benwick has taken a shine to our heroine because she is a great listener, is smart, and the cold wind in Lyme has totally brought the bloom back to her cheeks so she’s looking pretty great. While Anne and Mary are out for an early morning walk, they meet a good looking guy in mourning and he looks Anne over and obviously likes what he sees. Later the group thinks that the gentleman may be the Elliot relation that is set to inherit Sir Walter’s title. But they can’t know for sure because his servants didn’t tell the hotel servants anything. It’s their last morning in Lyme but everyone wants to go back one more time to the hills overlooking the ocean and then they will head back. The group is kind of paired up and Captain Wentworth is walking with Louisa who has the Captain jump her down this particularly tricky, steep part of the walk. She does it once and loves it so she makes him do it again. He’s like no, that doesn’t seem like a good idea, let’s not but she makes him do it anyway and she falls and hits her head! “There was no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death.”

I think Amanda shares your surprise at the violence of this Jane Austen book: the action! The drama of the head injury! So different than escaping to Gretna Green. 

Knowing what we know about the group it should come as no surprise that no one is able to do anything right – Anne comes to the rescue with her pragmatism and her practicality and soon has things sorted. They bring Louisa back to the Harvilles who will not hear of anything but nursing Louisa themselves. Wentworth feels that someone should stay with her and since Henrietta can’t even be in the same room as her and Mary is an idiot, he thinks it should be Anne – “if Anne will stay, no one so proper,so capable as Anne”. WELL Mary hears about this and she loses it: “When the plan was made known to Mary, however, there was an end to all peace in it. She was so wretched and so vehement, complained so much of the injustice in being expected to go away, instead of Anne; – Anne who was nothing to Louisa while she was her sister and had the best right to stay in Henrietta’s stead!” And Mary, of course, gets her way.

Louisa ends up being fine, just needs to rest and eventually she returns home, still kind of weak but mostly OK. But that’s for the last section and post…(see also: foreshadowing!)

Can we just take a second to talk about the fact that when a crisis hits, Wentworth feels like the only person that can handle things, the only person that he trusts enough is Anne? I think things are thawing a bit.

And that marks the end of Anne’s stay with Mary. Lady Russell is thankfully returned home and Anne prepares to go to her. She stays a short amount of time before she heads to Bath, hated Bath. There she finds her father and sister completely unchanged (still jerks) and Mrs Clay worryingly closer to the family. She actually overhears Elizabeth tell Mrs Clay the morning of her arrival that there is no need for Mrs Clay to leave now that Anne has arrived because no one cares that Anne has arrived and things will basically be just as they were. For Amanda, trading Mary for Elizabeth bodes well: I’m looking forward to Elizabeth’s outright nastiness more than Mary’s whining.

Guess who else turns out to be in Bath? The Mr Elliot who is set to inherit the baronetcy. He was the man that they saw in Lyme and Mr Elliot soon marks Anne out as his favourite, sitting with her and sharing her opinions, especially as to the dangers of Mrs Clay.

And that’s kind of where we leave things. Amanda and Holly both agree that Persuasion is different in tone to JA’s other work – the excitement of the head injury for one but also Anne as a heroine compared to say Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse. She’s definitely more reserved than either of them but she’s also a good five to seven years older. She’s been disappointed once and has spent the intervening years at the mercy of family that are almost cruel. I definitely have the advantage of knowing what happens in the end so I was curious how Wentworth was stacking up as a romantic JA hero. Holly is a fan of Captain Benwick’s while Amanda isn’t sure about Wentworth. She doesn’t think that his having been disappointed eight years ago is a good enough excuse for his behaviour now.

We all agree that Mr Elliot is up to no good.

If you’re still reading this, well done! That was lengthy. Next week’s the last post – still time to join us. Persuasion isn’t long. Amanda is writing the final post and it will be posted on Gun in Act One!


Not What I Thought: My Life in Middlemarch

I have kind of a bad habit of skimming some of the things I read online. It starts when I’m reading about the news of the world – I can only read so much about all the terrible things that happen in the world on a daily basis. But then I make my rounds of Bookriot and Bookish.com and The Huffington Post book section. Often on these sites there will be articles called “Books We’re Talking About” and this is when I read the headline, click on an article and read the first 2 paragraphs and skim the rest.

I think this is where I first heard about Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.

I mention this because I think it’s important to understand that what I thought I was going to read and what I ended up reading were two very different things. I thought I was reading a fictional story about a woman whose life somehow is affected by/mirrors George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I started reading and thought I was going to read a memoir about a woman whose life was affected by/mirrored George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

My Life in Middlemarch is neither of these things.


Instead it is more of a briefly outlined biography of George Eliot and how her life experiences formed her writing of Middlemarch. It is a critical discussion of Eliot’s best known (and arguably her greatest) work. I found myself wishing that this book had been around when I was reading Middlemarch in university; this book would have been excellent bibliography material.

Don’t get me wrong – this book was well written, thoroughly researched and shone original light on George Eliot’s life. But it wasn’t what I thought I was going to be reading and it was so not the right kind of reading for the holiday season.

That said, it is exquisitely written. In the first pages, Mead writes the most perfect description of books and reading:

“Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.”

I liked the passage so much, I took a picture of the full text and tweeted it.

Even reading the introduction I thought I was getting this memoir of her life and how much she had been affected by Middlemarch, how she returned to this book time again to find pieces of herself she didn’t know were there. Early in the book, there are tastes of this but then it drops off altogether, in favour of biographical details of Eliot herself and how her life formed her work.

I’m just glad I didn’t re-read Middlemarch in preparation for this. I want to re-read it now but as a reaction to this book. If I had re-read Middlemarch only to read a nearly 300 page critical essay of it, I think I’d be kind of put out.


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.


More Thug Notes: Wuthering Heights

I’ve been a smidge neglectful and since I don’t have a full post for you, I thought it might be time for another installment of Thug Notes.

I’m reading The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte right now and it’s pretty great. I’m especially enjoying Syrie James’ characterization of Emily which has given me a hankering to re-read Wuthering Heights. Emily has never been my favourite Bronte – her work is so tortured! But this episode of Thug Notes has me thinking it might be time for a visit.



The (Temporary) End of My Library Run

For the first time in months, I have no library books in my possession.

This isn’t because I’ve fallen out of love with the library or anything like that. No, no. It’s because I’ve been so caught up in the library and all of the reading treasures housed within that I’ve been neglecting all of the beautiful books awaiting my attention in my own library!

As some of you may know, I’m currently under a self-imposed (and flexible) book ban. It’s not a permanent thing. I haven’t lost my mind and decided not to buy books ever again. I haven’t decided to categorize books as clutter. Nothing like that; I have a wedding to pay for and books ain’t cheap. So I started going to the library to save money. And instead of exercising anything remotely resembling bookish self restraint, I started taking home 7 or 8 books every few weeks.

But they have to be back at the library in a few weeks. So even though I could renew them (and occasionally I have), more often than not I just neglect all other books and read the library books.

Result: my own books are screaming for my attention.

I’m taking a hiatus from the library until I make a dent in some of my own book piles.

So what is awaiting my attention? Read on!

For Christmas I got four beautiful books and I’ve only read one of them so far (Burial Rites). Night Film by Marisha Pessl, The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial That Shocked A Country by Charlotte Gray and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt are all still waiting to be read (and hopefully loved). And yes, I realize that all the books I asked for for Christmas had to do with death. I’m probably less disturbed by that than I should be.

I buy classics because I love them and usually they are on some kind of sale. Mostly love but if I can get more books for the same amount of money, so much the better. But reading classics can be a commitment and I get distracted by shiny new reads a lot. War and Peace is still sitting on my shelf, waiting for round two. I’ve made an attempt at Nicholas Nickleby once as well (but as travel reading when it was so not appropriate travel reading) so that needs another go. And The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I loved The Age of Innocence and I know I will likely enjoy this one too but again – new and shiny.

Last year I read quite a lot of non-fiction. And yet? I didn’t get to all the non- fiction books that I bought. After I saw Lincoln last year, I meant to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals but I have yet to do so. I also have a book about Amsterdam that I impulsively bought because I always buy books about Amsterdam or the Netherlands when I see them as they are so rare. I’m in the middle of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel so that’s progress (so far it’s also insanely interesting and horrifying) but I have yet to crack From Splendor to Revolution, Julia P. Gelardi’s account of the Romanov women from 1847-1928. By all accounts, I will love this book. One of my very favourite biographies was Gelardi’s Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria.

So for now, although the library calls out to me with the promise of all kinds of undiscovered riches, I’m going to try and resist so that I can make my way through my own books.

But like I say, I’m pretty flexible with these things.