The Taste of Sorrow
by Jude Morgan
Headline Publisher Group
Published 14th May 2009
Hardback ISBN: 9780755338894
Paperback ISBN: 9780755338993
From an obscure country parsonage came the most extraordinary family of the nineteenth century. The Bronte sisters created a world in which we still live - the intense, passionate world of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights; and the phenomenon of this strange explosion of genius remains as baffling now as it was to their Victorian contemporaries. In this panoramic novel we see with new insight the members of a uniquely close-knit family whose tight bonds are the instruments of both triumph and tragedy. Emily, the solitary who turns from the world to the greater temptations of the imagination: Anne, gentle and loyal, under whose quietude lies the harshest perception of the stifling life forced upon her: Branwell, the mercurial and self-destructive brother, meant to be king, unable to be a prince: and the brilliant, uncompromising, tormented Charlotte, longing for both love and independence, who establishes the family's name and learns its price.
It is not everyday that Juliet Barker is quoted as saying that The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan is 'quite simply the best novel about the Brontës I have ever read'. And when we closed the book ourselves we couldn't help but echo her words. In fact, we would go as far as saying that, fictionalised account as it is, it is much better than a good many serious, brimming-with-data, feet-on-the-ground biographies.
The story of the Brontës is, in many ways, a real-life fairytale. It certainly doesn't have too many rose-coloured moments, but it does have a sort of magic, a sad kind of magic if you will, which is reflected in their novels to the point of sending most of their readers straight to some biography. However, up until now the Brontë story was mostly told in a very aseptic way, which is not necessarily bad, of course. But there was nothing that really captured the afore-mentioned sad magic. And here's when Jude Morgan - a pseudonym as ambiguous as Currer, Ellis or Acton Bell - enters the scene and astounds us with his wonderful prose, his amazing take on the story and his tremendous gift for story-telling.
Jude Morgan doesn't try to copy the Brontës' style, neither does he even try to use a 19th-century style. In fact, his prose is highly modern in many aspects, which then makes the fact that it fits in so well with the story all the more surprising. Morgan's is not a style the Brontës would have used back in their day but we are now convinced that it is the style they deserve in our day. This well-known story, made up of key scenes, breath-taking remarks and things left unsaid (Jude Morgan is able to write silences even) takes such a turn in Jude Morgan's hand that you find yourself reading on and on, wondering what is going to happen next even if you do know what is - so absorbing is the story. But the writing makes all the difference: the stage is all lit up and what up until now was a rigid painting, much like the famous Pillar portrait, where you both saw and couldn't see the Brontës, is now full of life, and unexpectedly moving in all senses of the word.
Most of those scenes are key to the Brontë story: well-known events such as the dramatic death of Maria Brontë, née Branwell, the gift of the toy-soldiers or the journey to Brussels are both told faithfully and added to with a dose of highly believable fiction. This dose of fiction also supplies us with moments which are of course out and out fiction but which help explain situations, depict personalities and weave the story so well that it's very hard to dismiss them as 'just fiction, not real', even though they are. Maria and Elizabeth, Tabby or even Aunt Branwell, of whom so little is known, are so alive, so three-dimensional that it's simply not possible to dismiss them as accurate or inaccurate because in a way that's tantamount to saying that of your brother or sister. Thus, Jude Morgan helps us to savour moments and meet people that may not be true in the strict sense of the word but are extremely real.
And as for those people/characters we 'know' best they are extremely well depicted as well, even though in all probability each reader who is a little acquainted with the Brontës will have their very own Patrick/Charlotte/Branwell/Emily/Anne. However, they all seem quite consistent with their real-life selves, with Patrick being slightly colder and more distant than we have been led to believe in recent years. Charlotte and Branwell as well as their relationship are stunningly real and Anne is not forgotten in the shadows of her siblings but right at the forefront with a remarkable personality. However, complex as they all were, we believe Mr Morgan deserves even more praise for his particular work on Emily, as he seems to have steered well clear of putting her away in one of the wide-ranging, ready-made categories that have been created for her over the years and has taken her for what we actually know of her.
That old philosophy of fiction being able to tell the story in a more real light than the actual facts was never truer than in this book, which makes the aptly-told illusion of the fictional worlds of Gondal and Angria even better. Reading The Taste of Sorrow nothing is easier than to see the border between fact and fiction become a blurred, often unnecessary line.
The Brontë story is not exempt of its contradictions and differing versions, which, we believe, must make it all the more difficult to write a fictional account where you can't justify this theory or explain that decision; things have to happen, one after the other, and happen plausibly too. In The Taste of Sorrow this is all seems plain sailing, as Jude Morgan naturally and effortlessly weaves one event after the other, sealing them so well that not a crack is left for doubt. He also navigates firmly between fact and legend. He doesn't dismiss all legends but most scenes do touch on well-known facts, which he then makes his and gives carefully back to the reader, much as a magician who turns a plain white handkerchief into a soaring pigeon.
The Taste of Sorrow is not the first - and nor will it be the last, particularly this and next year - fictional approach to Brontë biography. In recent years, we had Emily's Journal by Sarah Fermi, which focused on Emily and her perhaps-real love story. Here it is mainly Charlotte who bears the brunt of the spotlight but that is not to say that the rest of the 'cast' are mere 'supporting actors'. On the contrary. Another recent approach to the Brontës was Polly Teale's drama Brontë, which read and retold the story from a symbolical, psychological approach. Jude Morgan's tale doesn't really go in that direction, although Morgan perceptively picks up at knots here and there and traces several subtle parallels.
Many modern readers (the kind that run from rather than run to stories dressed in a full Victorian outfit) will appreciate the timelessness of the story. The chronology of the novel is its own and all other measures of time are left out of it which works surprisinly well, especially in terms of getting rid of all that is superfluous.
Jude Morgan's is a unique approach to a unique family, but it is also respectful, delicate and subtle. An instant favourite that will appeal to those already trapped in the Brontë web and those who can't even begin to enumerate their first names. And one of those reads where you both look forward to and dread reaching the last page. But fortunately in this particular case there are quite a few remedies for those withdrawal symptoms.
Categories: Biography, Fiction, Review