Monday, April 19, 2010

Romancing Miss Brontë - A review

Our thanks to Ballantine Books for sending us a review copy of this novel.

Romancing Miss Brontë
A Novel
Written by Juliet Gael

Random House
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780345520043
On sale: April 27, 2010
The title of Juliet Gael's novel might sound strange to modern readers with little knowledge of the Brontës' lives. 'Romancing Miss Brontë'? They must think, picturing old maids, huge skirts, strange hairdos, dainty teacups and the like. Old things all of them not conducive to romance in their eyes. And yet that is the apt title of Juliet Gael's novel in which she tells the story of the adult Charlotte Brontë with special attention to her love life, which was more intense - though at times somewhat one-sided - than meets the eye. Highly varied too.

Juliet Gael begins her narrative with the arrival of the new Irish curate in Haworth, a Mr Nicholls, and interestingly enough allows the reader only a few glimpses into the most important - at least in literary terms - love story in Charlotte's life. M. Heger, Brussels, her letters to him, his (few) letters to her are all summed up quite briefly, though intensely, drowned as they were by Branwell's affair with a married woman and his subsequent all-absorbing despair. So rather than being told the Brussels story, it is sort of assimilated into Charlotte's character.

It is the Charlotte with this emotional baggage that reads Emily's 'rhymes' without permission and the one who becomes the driving force behind their first literary efforts. The turmoil outside matches the secret, shared turmoil inside, and Juliet Gael has done a great job of bringing to life the Parsonage during those hectic months. Tabby, Martha, John Brown and the curates, with Arthur Bell Nicholls among them, are given plausible voices and personalities that can only be the result of much reading and research on Ms Gael's part. The Brontë family is quite well re-created, with Patrick and Anne as perhaps the two most stereotypical. Patrick is not Mrs Gaskell's(1) Patrick, thank goodness, but neither is he the father reclaimed by modern biographies. And his limited income is a tad too exaggerated towards poverty.

Juliet Gael doesn't dwell on the past except for what's absolutely necessary and even then, the flashbacks - if flashbacks they can be called - are brief and factual. Their imaginary worlds, their mother, their aunt, their sisters Maria and Elizabeth, etc, are all explained away rapidly and hardly ever mentioned. These seemingly important pieces of the Brontë chess turn out to be quite expendable pawns here, which has a refreshing effect. Readers unfamiliar with the Brontë story won't notice anything is missing and readers well acquainted with Brontë biography will simply and effortlessly fill in the gaps. What's important is that Gael's threedimensional characters are infused with them, though the reader may not know it.

This concise way of putting characters on the stage means that hardly anyone needs to be left out: Charlotte's friends and their families, Charlotte's literary acquaintances, local people from Haworth (some of them created ad-hoc, though), etc., are all there because of Juliet Gael's offhand way of introducing them. The author herself admits in the Author's Note that, 'it was tempting to omit some of the characters who impacted her life [...] but it would have meant sacrificing a deeper and more complex portrayal'. And she does seem to have taken it to heart, given how well it works.

That's why we have sorely missed James Taylor in the narrative, particularly when the narrative pays special attention to details pertaining to Charlotte's love life with a particular focus on her relationship with Arthur Bell Nicholls and with her publisher, George Smith, but her relationship with this employee of Smith, Elder is totally omitted when it would have made for an interesting complication. Charlotte Brontë exchanged familiar letters with James Taylor but was repulsed by him (especially his nose) when face to face. James Taylor was sent to work in India for Smith, Elder but before he left he sort of proposed to Charlotte, asking her to wait for him until he returned five years later. What's surprising (or not(2)) is that Patrick Brontë - so set against her marrying Arthur - was totally in favour of this. In our opinion, Charlotte's refusal, Patrick's attitude, etc, would only have enhanced the story being told, rather than take from it.

Another unexploited mention would be Arthur's 'Irish fiction'(3). Nothing is known about what Charlotte meant there or if it had anything at all to do with a lover, but this being a fictional account, Arthur Bell Nicholls might have been given a sweetheart - or even his own cousin Mary Anna, whom he married after Charlotte's death and which Juliet Gael depicts as adoring Arthur - something to enliven things further. As it is, the letter is quoted and no explanation given, thus confusing the reader.

Instead of those two, we have a fictional Miss Dixon who doesn't really work as a character, and indeed all she seems to do is look tenderly at Arthur. While we understand that she is meant to make Arthur seem all the more constant and true and loyal, we would have much preferred either seeing this story a bit more developed or the above-mentioned reality-inspired detours.

But what's important about this novel is the way Juliet Gael depicts Arthur Bell Nicholls. Long time readers of this blog might have noticed that this half of BrontëBlog has a soft spot for Arthur Bell Nicholls and is always trying to vindicate him. That's why reading Juliet Gael confess in the Author's Note that she 'took enormous pleasure in bringing Arthur to life and giving him his due in the story' almost made us cheer. And while relatively little is known of Arthur's personality, Juliet Gael seems to have done pretty well fleshing him out and bringing him to life. This is not to say that we are given a decaffeinated or rosy version of the man because his well-known traits such as his religious intolerance or his stiffness with strangers are there, as are his goodness, his respect for Charlotte's work(4) and first and foremost his love for Charlotte. Juliet Gael doesn't make the mistake of turning him into a Brontë-novel character, which we know he wasn't, but she tries to be as accurate as possible and as coherent with the image she has of him.

She is also very accurate when it comes to historical details. While the book is easily readable and not heavy on unnecessary descriptions, Juliet Gael seems quite at home with the rituals, conventions, etiquette and daily life of the 19th-century. All, no doubt, due to much research and used not to overwhelm the reader with it but to help him understand the context. The scenes with the conventional Smith family are a joy to read because of their richness and their - paradoxically enough - simplicity. Haworth and the surrounding and all-important moors are just as well described and we laughed out loud at the following tale-telling description of Ellen Nussey's arrival in Haworth for a visit:
'She carried a new parasol the shade of pale mint, although she knew the wind might well ravage it on the walk back to Haworth.'
An effort seems to have been made in order to let the Brontës do the talking. Parts of the dialogue are taken straight out of letters, prefaces, novels, etc. carefully so that they don't contrast too much with the rest of the dialogue. And while we appreciate this for obvious reasons, we also feel it's somewhat awkward, particularly for the Brontëite able to spot these quotations. It's as if the Brontës tended to repeat themselves. At other times, though the message is correct, the way of speaking is too unnatural. Timid Charlotte blurting out , 'perhaps you confuse virtue and convention, gentlemen. Conventionality is not morality, and self-righteousness is not religion' (from the preface to Jane Eyre) in a dinner full of literary critics after the publication of Shirley is strange both because it sounds like written language and because the critics would have already read that in the second edition of Jane Eyre.

The letters quoted - with the exception of those from Arthur Bell Nicholls, which are made up, as Juliet Gael clarifies in the Author's Note - are quite true to the originals; edited and added to minimally, with sadly one disastrous instance(5).

The book is told in the third person by an all-seeing narrator that initially seems to belong to the same time as the story being told but at times sounds too much like an oracle from the future. We could have done without the - fortunately scarce - instructive commentaries such as these:
But we mustn't judge Charlotte and Branwell too harshly for their fantasies. They lived in a time of straitjacket morality when the slightest quiver of the flesh gave cause for outrage. A time when the most lauded novels of the day portrayed repentant heroes who, in moments of deep remorse, vowed to never again watch a game of billiards! Denial of human desire was the battle cry of the day.
With characteristic determination and insight far ahead of his time, [Patrick Brontë] spent hours poring over medical journals. . .
It's like a voiceover coming from somewhere else and it belittles the reader a bit to be spoken to thus.

In spite of that - or even because of that - Romancing Miss Brontë is the perfect middle ground between more fictional retellings of the Brontës and fact-full biographies. It tells the Brontë story with a profound respect for reality but makes it lively enough that it can be read curled up on the sofa with a good cup of tea at hand.

Notes
(1) Elizabeth Gaskell is mostly referred to both in the main story and the epilogue as 'Lily' or 'Lily Gaskell', which we found somewhat ennervating. As far as we know, only her husband and - at a stretch - very intimate friends addressed her that. She is often referred to as 'Mrs Gaskell' even today, so the term of endearment at this point wasn't really to our taste.
(2) Much has been said and written about Patrick's favourable attitude to James Taylor's proposal, especially as opposed to his furious attitude towards Arthur Bell Nicholls's. His pride and social class awareness may have come into it, but also Charlotte's age and the fact that five years later she would have had fewer chances of bearing children, which Patrick was (correctly) afraid her constitution wouldn't stand.
(3) Charlotte to Ellen Nussey, 18 December 1852:
You must understand that a good share of Papa's anger arises from the idea--not altogether groundless-- that Mr. N. has behaved with disingeniousness in so long concealing his aims--forging that Irish fiction &c.
(4) While it is impossible to tell and while it is known that Arthur was highly respectful (and proud) of his wife's literary achievements, the attitude and dialogues seem at times a little forced. But that is fine by us, since this is Juliet Gael's perception of Arthur. What surprised us, then, is the fact that the epilogue says,
When George [Smith] expressed an interest in publishing The Professor--which he had resolutely refused to publish in Charlotte's lifetime--Arthur and Patrick rejected the idea on the grounds that the same story had been sucessfully told in Villette. But forces conspired against them, and Sir James [Kay-Shuttleworth] swept down on the parsonage one day and in his determined, insensitive manner managed to wrest the manuscript from Arthur's hands.
It is true that Sir James took the manuscript when on a visit with Mrs Gaskell (who had invited him along in the first place for his 'determined, insensitive manner') but it was Arthur who gladly edited The Professor for publication, neither he, Mrs Gaskell or George Smith wanting to allow Sir James to edit it in keeping with Charlotte's opinion of the man. Arthur only edited out a few things and Mrs Gaskell - who was trying to wash Charlotte's image - privately complained to George Smith that he could/should have edited it more.
So when Arthur's attitude to his wife's literary status is so highlighted we wonder why this is told so misleadingly.
(5) Charlotte's letter to Robert Southey of 16 March 1837 says,
My Father is a clergyman of limited, though competent, income, and I am the eldest of his children. He expended quite as much in my education as he could afford in justice to the rest.
Juliet Gael as edited the letter to say,
I am the eldest daughter of a clergyman who has sacrificed his small means so that I might be educated in Brussels.
Which is a bit of a blunder given that Charlotte and Emily wouldn't leave for Brussels until 1842.

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Comments :

7 comments to “ Romancing Miss Brontë - A review ”
ksotikoula said...
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I haven't read this book yet and I was wondering whether I should do so. I recently read "The taste of sorrow" which was really very good (I though I wouldn't like it because I have read several biographies and I am quite a purist) and then I read "The secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte" which had its good moments but I was disappointed seeing Charlotte applying Jane Eyre sections to her life (for me CB' s voice was always distinguished from her heroines) and sometimes felt more modern than it should. However, now that I saw your weekly quote of this particular book: "...Charlotte concealed an acerbic mind and ruthlessly harsh opinions on the weaknesses of the human species..." I am quite sure I won't like it. Charlotte Bronte may have been tart and abrupt sometimes, but she was known of being generally kind and honest as a person and her Jane Eyre always surprises me with its tenderness. I can see the sentence "ruthlessly harsh opinions on the weaknesses of the human species" better applied to Emily and still with great reservation as we don't know if she approved the example of her heroes in Wuthering Heights or was just depicting a state of mind.

Cristina said...
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First of all, I'm glad you liked The Taste of Sorrow, which I found amazingly good.

And secondly, we chose the weekly quote precisely because it doesn't depict Charlotte as one of her heroines. The way she is described was - to me anyway - just right. Charlotte's letters and her opinions on people in them show this very clearly. She was harsh and sometimes judged people (whether rightly or wrongly) too fast. This is particularly true of the letters belonging to the period in which Romancing Miss Brontë takes place.

That doesn't negate the fact that she was honest and kind or means that she said in public the things she wrote in private letters to intimate friends or acted upon them.

Do take a longer look at the book if you can, you may like it even if the quote clashes with your idea of Charlotte.

Cristina said...
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Which is also why I think that the verb 'concealed' (in the weekly quote) is quite appropriate too, by the way.

Even if it's years before Romancing Miss Brontë begins, her words on her pupils at Roe Head come to mind now, for instance. Those, to me, were certainly 'acerbic and ruthlessly harsh'.

ksotikoula said...
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I have a difficulty trying to explain what I mean. I know Charlotte was not one of her heroines (or she would be closer to Lucy Snowe than Jane Eyre who would perhaps be an ideal self for her) and I also admit that at times she was prejudiced against some people, but "ruthlessly harsh" is too much. For me a great deal of what she felt was natural/justified especially at the Roe Head period. She was a talented woman (a special needs person in a way - because charismatic people enter that category when they are too far ahead in intelligence for their age and tend to get bored and impatient when not occupied properly) plus a very determined to succeed person and her options were very very limited. She possessed the gift of a great use of language and she had to pass two hours trying to explain the difference between a verb and an article to young ladies who were not motivated at all (while knowledge for her was always very important). It was like forcing Picasso to draw only colorless squares. This was frustrating especially as she saw her best years pass and no way out of that situation. This also explains her behavior towards Branwell. Because he had the opportunities she was never offered and he took it all and threw it out of the window, while she was desperate of finding some action to surpass her frustrated love. What I am trying to say is that she was no more cruel to others than she was to herself (and she tended to criticize and expose/accept her own weaknesses) and that if sometimes it seemed so it wasn't willful as "ruthless" makes me understand.

Cristina said...
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Well, we will have to conclude that as Karen Joy Fowler wrote in The Jane Austen Book Club, "each of us has a private Austen", only in this case it's a private Charlotte Brontë.

As I said, reading her letters (particularly those written after Anne's death and before her engagemente to Arthur) I don't see that description is wrong at all, but as with living people, not all of us form the same impressions.

I do agree, however, with what you say about Charlotte being hard on herself and seeing her own faults only too clearly (her drawing of herself in that letter to Ellen Nussey written from Brussels is enough to see that).

ksotikoula said...
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Yes I had the same thought today, that there are many ways to comment and interpret the actions and words of a person you know, let alone for someone you have never met. I guess we all tend to project things from our personality to understand others and fill the gaps.
I forgot to say that I like Arthur too :) .

Anonymous said...
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As someone who knew nothing about the lives of the Bronte sisters before reading this, I was surprised at how bleak the story was. I sympathize a lot with Charlotte. Arthur Bell Nichols was endearing in the beginning, but after he proposed he got steadily more infuriating. He had his heart in the right place, but was a bit of a control freak and couldn't quite comprehend that Charlotte was essentially settling for him. But I felt the most for her father, and thought it was incredibly disrespectful for Arthur to marry his cousin, of all people, after Charlotte died. I'm aware that it is a true story, which only makes it more heartbreaking. I suppose this kind of relationship was normal for its time, but nevertheless was a terribly bleak and sad story to read about.

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