Friday, October 01, 2010

Brontë in Love - A Review

We are very grateful to Great Northern Books for sending us a review copy of this book

Brontë in Love
by Sarah Freeman
published by Great Northern Books, September 2010.
Hardback, full colour, 192 pages, £14.99,
ISBN 9781905080700.
We have recently seen a rise in books dealing with Charlotte Brontë's love life, which help make her more Charlotte Brontë, the parson's daughter, than Currer Bell, the eminent author. (It's only fitting that in an age when celebrities have their love lives open to the public, other 'celebrities' should too.)

Up until now we had seen accounts of Charlotte's love life told fictionally, albeit largely based on fact: Syrie James's The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë and Juliet Gael's Romancing Miss Brontë. Sarah Freeman's Brontë in Love looks at Charlotte's love life from a factual point of view. Some key points are slightly fictionalised to give them a sprinkle of colour and reality, but nothing that adds to, or detracts from, what really happened.

After the foreword by Kay Mellor(1), Sarah Freeman takes a quick look at Charlotte's childhood and youth, highlighting those points that would later make up Charlotte's attitudes to love. Charlotte's love life begins, of course, in her juvenilia, with the dashing Duke of Zamorna. She is soon faced with Henry Nussey's proposal of marriage - which she turns down - and then with David Pryce's(2) proposal after only an afternoon together, which made Charlotte exclaim in a letter to Ellen Nussey, 'well thought I--I've heard of love at first sight but this beats all'. A few lines after that she writes, 'this is not like one of my adventures, is it?' To which many new readers will no doubt agree. And yet they are bound to be surprised at all that will come later on.

All this in the first chapter, which of course only goes to discredit any possible erroneous images of Charlotte as a boring spinster never looked at by a man in her life.

Brussels and London, as personified by Constantin Heger and George Smith respectively, are discussed more in depth as both are the objects of Charlotte's interest. The aftermath of her stays in Brussels, with her poignant letters to Heger is carefully examined as are the possible influences that this episode may have had on Charlotte Brontë, the author.

The ground under Charlotte's infatuation with George tends to be always more slippery, as Charlotte herself always insisted on deeming it nothing but a friendship. However, Sarah Freeman aptly quotes from those letters where Charlotte's language betrays her, culminating in the passive-aggressive message of congratulations she sent to George Smith when he announced his engagement to Elizabeth Blakeway.

In the meantime, Charlotte had also been discreetly wooed by an employee of George Smith's, James Taylor. Sarah Freeman tells this episode quite vividly, making clear Charlotte's doubts, how she was comfortable writing to him yet couldn't bear the sight of him. Sarah Freeman quotes from several letters where Charlotte explains this aversion and which are quite funny while at the same time showing the plight of a 19th century woman faced with the possibility of status vs. natural inclination.

Sarah Freeman devotes nearly half of her book to the account of Arthur Bell Nicholls's proposal of marriage and its unexpected aftermath. The highs and lows of this tortuous love story are told with care and precision: Arthur's feelings, Charlotte's response, Patrick's reaction and Ellen Nussey's jealousy are all players in what is sometimes stranger than fiction. Sarah Freeman likes to highlight the fact that Charlotte wasn't really sure about her marriage to Arthur and claims that Charlotte had 'spent all her adulthood denouncing those who married for anything but love', yet Charlotte had also written to Ellen Nussey as early as November 1840 saying,
I hope you will not have the romantic folly to wait for the awakening of what the French call "Une grande passion"--My good girl "une grande passion" is "une grande folie". [...] no young lady should fall in love till the offer has been made, accepted--the marriage ceremony performed and the first half year of wedded life has passed away--a woman may then begin to love, but with great precaution--very coolly--very moderately--very rationally.
Readers who still think of the author of Jane Eyre as a 'bluestocking' will be surprised, amused and heartbroken when they are brought face to face with the reality of Charlotte's (love) life and will hopefully want to know more about Charlotte's life (and works).

The risk of this 'slanted' version of the story is that, when throwing light on some parts of the story, other important bits are unavoidably plunged into darkness. It's sad to see Charlotte's relationship to her siblings and her reaction to their deaths be quickly glossed over. We understand the purpose of the book does not lie there, but one runs the risk of finding Charlotte quite shallow, more interested in her own personal affairs than in her brother and sisters' lives. That is not so, of course, but at times it looks like it.

We also know the book is not intended particularly for Brontë scholars, but is addressed to a more general audience. However, we do think that both the book and its potential readers would have profited from a more exhaustive research(3) and a further revision of the text(4). There is a helpful timeline at the end which puts events in perspective.

Sarah Freeman, however, is quite perceptive at some points(5) and knows how the small things do count. She winces at the thought of Charlotte finding out that M. Heger had scribbled the address of his shoemaker on the edge of one of her letters and she poignantly comments on the fact in the wedding certificate in the column under 'profession', 'next to Charlotte's name a line had been drawn. On the morning of June 29, 1854, her lifetime's achievements had been cancelled in a single stroke'.

All in all, it is a good initiation book, colourfully illustrated with many high-quality pictures and with good-quality paper. The cover and title are bound to be intriguing to readers not familiar with the Brontë story and give them the satisfaction of knowing that everything they are reading is actually fact. When they reach the final page they will nod in agreement to what the cover says, 'the most tragic story Charlotte never told was her own'.


Notes:
(1) The name will do much in the way of attracting some readers, but the foreword could have been better. She seems to be confusing the preconceived ideas people tend to have of Charlotte with those people tend to have of Emily. And she claims Charlotte is 'one of English Literature's greatest female novelists'. We are somewhat disappointed at the fact that Charlotte is only among the best 'female' novelists, and not just novelists in general.
(2) Sarah Freeman has clearly based her spelling of the name on old sources and calls him David Bryce throughout the book. New sources like Margaret Smith's Letters and Juliet Barker's The Brontës call him David Pryce.
(3) Some episodes, such as the run-up to the publication of Emily and Anne's novels are a bit confused and confusing. The same thing happens with the events taking place prior to Branwell's dismissal from Thorp Green (Anne is said to have given notice 'when the scandal about Branwell's affair had broken' and she had actually left her post before that, clearly foreseeing what was about to happen). Elizabeth Gaskell is said to have 'warned her that if she did marry Arthur, she might as well put Currer Bell into retirement', when Mrs Gaskell herself was a clear example that a woman could be a wife, a mother and a professional writer and had actively encouraged Charlotte to marry Arthur and tried to help towards making the marriage financially possible. Arthur is said to have gone to livewith his uncle 'when [his] own parents had died' when actually he had been given to his care long before their death. Martha and Tabby are said to be 'both old' in the 1850s, when in fact Martha was 12 years younger than Charlotte. And so on. They are tiny details, but even if the book is not scholar, it would have helped to get things right.
(4) There are quite a few typos and spelling mistakes such as 'every since', 'Anne and Elizabeth formed their own fictional world' (meaning Anne and Emily), 'cateracts', etc. Charlotte's letters are rather carelessly copied, with wrong punctuation and sometimes spelling mistakes. Charlotte is quoted as having written 'the principle object' when according to Margaret Smith's transcription she wrote correctly 'the principal object'. She is quoted (twice) later on as writing, 'If I must make a fool of myself it shall be on an economical plain', when Margaret Smith transcribes, 'If I must make a fool of myself--it shall be on an economical plan'.
(5) Not so much sometimes, when her comments are rather 21st-century, such as when she states that, 'Other mothers-to-be look forward to the time when passers-by look at their swelling stomachs and tell them how well they are looking or how much they suit pregnancy'. Pregnancy in Charlotte's time was still quite taboo and most certainly mere passers-by wouldn't have commented on any 'swelling stomachs'.

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