Thursday, April 14, 2016

Thursday, April 14, 2016 5:00 pm by Cristina in , ,    1 comment

Charlotte Brontë. A Life
Claire Harman
Viking
ISBN: 978-0670922260
29th October 2015
480 Pages 
200 years ago Charlotte Brontë, the 'tiny, delicate, little person, whose small hand nevertheless grasped a mighty lever which set all the literary world of that day vibrating' (as Anne Thackeray Ritchie once described her) was born. Much has been written about her ever since, and the bare facts remain the same, but the focus does change with the times and the different biographers. Elizabeth Gaskell portrayed her as she had portrayed her sisters herself: a wild creature shaped by her remote and world-forsaken circumstances, a misunderstood woman to be pitied. Over a century later, Charlotte was a genius for Winifred Gérin in her 1960s biography. Juliet Barker famously didn't like her very much and made it clear in her portrayal of her in her family biography The Brontës in the 1990s. Claire Harman's biography is the biography of the 2010s but also, importantly, of her bicentenary.

Harman is free to do what previous biographers couldn't do so easily: she knows that many readers will be familiar with the basics of Charlotte Brontë's life. It's a beaten path so she can skip rather than trod. And so, she opens her book with Charlotte in Brussels writing novelistically about what she seems to consider the central, key point in Charlotte's life: her lonely life in Brussels in 1843 and her all-consuming passion for Constantin Heger which led her even to confess at a Catholic church in 1843. Everything that would come afterwards was because of these circumstances.

Then we go back to the very beginning and to something that marks the tone of the biography. Harman provides the reader with Patrick Brontë's background and with an abhorrence of the man only previously seen in Elizabeth Gaskell's Life. In fact, she seems to base much of what she says on Gaskell's words, heedless to almost 200 years of research pointing to the contrary in many cases. Patrick Brontë is the bad man of the book and nothing can endear him to her. In circumstances in which he requires defending, such as when he was falsely accused of drinking too much, Harman does so half-heartedly and somewhat ambiguously. Patrick can do nothing right in her eyes: he doesn't protect Charlotte enough, he protects her too much. Harman never once wastes an opportunity of 'abusing' him, even if it really has nothing to do with whatsoever point she's trying to make. It's a sad state of things as other previous biographies have actually shown that, albeit a man of his time, he was also highly liberal (intransigent, proud and emotionally blind according to Harman), modern (he did 'irreparable harm' to Branwell because he homeschooled him according to Harman and she also complains about Patrick allowing Charlotte to read Byron in her teens) and affectionate (he's the 'most undemonstrative of fathers' according to Harman) in relation to his children. The way she writes about him, it seems as if she had some personal grudge against him, at one point even writing vindictively that 'one hopes he felt uncomfortable at the sight'. We view this as a worrying step backwards. A biography shouldn't have to rely on the background to make the biographee shine, and a biography of Charlotte Brontë least of all. No one has to like Patrick Brontë, but in this particular biography there are many times when the poor man could use a break(1).

Claire Harman likes her main subject, fortunately, though that doesn't blind her to the not-so-nice details of Charlotte's life, such as her hatred of working as a governess or her contempt for her pupils. Claire Harman wants the reader to really visualise Charlotte Brontë, teacher with a classroom full of students, writing rather madly on a scrap of paper with her eyes closed. Actually, that seems to be Claire Harman's way of bringing Charlotte to life. It's an interesting resource: she pauses for a moment to focus on what she's describing. In a way of speaking, she manages to create a 3D model of her subject at a given time. Charlotte's problem with her hairpiece (p. 296) when sitting for George Richmond's portrait is also a good example of this. And it also serves to highlight one of the darker aspects of Charlotte's personality: her intense wish for beauty, though we don't necessarily agree with Claire Harman in the inference that Charlotte's self-consciousness about her appearance necessarily indicates vanity.

Claire Harman may have lighted upon a doodle self-portrait of Charlotte never published before but she does make an effort to show the personality behind the drawing. We see her grow, not just when it comes to her personality but especially when it comes to her development as a writer - a key 19th-century writer. In order to achieve this, she seems to have based her research on as many first-hand documents as possible. While she uses others' findings for background details (the Parsonage, Brussels at the time, etc.) her depiction of Charlotte Brontë seems to have been uniquely modelled on Harman's own impressions and research, not previous biographies, which - whether you agree or not - is somewhat refreshing.

In Claire Harman's biography, Charlotte Brontë is a vivid, Technicolor image, while the rest, her background, is mostly black-and-white. Despite Harman's shocking treatment of Patrick, Branwell Brontë, though also needlessly maligned at some points, is treated somewhat better than his father and his final 'illness' and death are treated rather discreetly(2). Emily is the mysterious figure in the background - of course she sometimes is just that even in her own biographies; Harman seems to be quite in awe of her. This approach, however, makes it difficult to understand Charlotte's adoration for her sister. Harman doesn't seem to be much interested in Anne. Tabby is hardly there at all: she even once leaves the Parsonage and then, pages later, she is back with no explanation given, a small detail which seems unnecessarily confusing.

What we find that Harman lacks the most is some sort of empathy. We don't know whether this is due to the distance in time, or whether she's striving towards an objective approach (which doesn't seem to be the general approach) or whether she just doesn't want to/can't connect with her subjects. For instance, her callousness towards a dying Maria Brontë (mother) in reproaching her that she kept her children 'at arm's length' during her final days is rather shocking. Writing a biography doesn't mean you have to like everything and everyone you write about - you can of course be critical - but is it necessary to be brutally so? Branwell's Pillar Portrait may not be a technical masterpiece (but then again let's bear in mind that he can't have been over 17 when he painted it) but we flinched when we read it described as showing
little sense of perspective or the relation from one object to another--even of one limb to another--and it would be hard to find a worse depiction anywhere of a hand under a book on a table.
She also tends to take some things for granted which may or may not be true but can't be known at this point. If she's basing her opinion on some previous source, then she fails to mention this. Here are some examples of her seemingly base-less assumptions:
Charlotte therefore found herself somewhat lost in the middle of her sibling group--not the paragon, Maria, not the reliable lieutenant Elizabeth, not the son and heir Branwell, not the endearing individualist Emily, not the baby Anne, who was most to be pitied, most motherless. (p. 36)
Perhaps the Gun Group was destroyed because it featured Branwell, whom Nicholls only knew from 1845 onwards and for whom he had no feelings other than disgust. (p. 82)
Miss Wooler was not sorry to see Emily go: she had found her queer and non-compliant. (p. 89)
[Speaking of Jane Eyre] for, as not many people notice, the action of the book starts in the 1810s (p. 237)
Thus dismissing the many papers and essays and articles that have been written on the subject. Not many people 'notice' because there are many arguments for and against. And while on the subject of Jane Eyre, a book whose composition and writing are, in our humble opinion masterful, Harman considers that '[t]he Gateshead and Lowood episodes, for all their extraordinary power, certainly relate to the main narrative rather oddly'. We couldn't disagree more with this(3).

For Claire Harman, the main point of Charlotte Brontë's life - apart from her literary output - was her stay in Brussels and her experiences there, thus beginning her book there. Not simply, as others have concluded before, because Constantin Heger was such an inspiration for characters such as Edward Rochester or Paul Emanuel  (which owe a great debt to her juvenilia as well) but also because of the formative training she received and the intense emotional experience it was. Just like Charlotte, she goes back to it time and again, generally making good points about it, even at the very end of her Coda, which ends with an interesting anecdote and question about Constantin Heger. Related to his, she also makes a 'discovery' which we had personally overlooked: the fact that Charlotte at least claimed to have made 'a brief translation of some French verses sent anonymously to a Magazine'. At this point it seems almost impossible to track said poems, but just like she does with her possible self-portrait doodle, Claire Harman does a good job of bringing it to the foreground.

But despite the Brussels experience being at the heart of this biography and the beastly treatment of Patrick, we were pleasantly surprised to see Claire Harman actually likes Arthur Bell Nicholls, which to this day many biographers do not. She shows him a degree of understanding that is rare in this particular biography. That most maligned of good intentions (that Charlotte's letters were dangerous if in the wrong hands) is defended here. In spite of our deep gratefulness for Charlotte's letters having been preserved, history has proven Arthur Bell Nicholls was right in his fears. Harman tells compassionately about this final love story (except for the easy attacks on Patrick Brontë it offers, of course) and, again, brings to the foreground something easily missed: the fact that Charlotte also doodled a portrait of her future husband in 1845(4).

A 21st-century biographer of Charlotte Brontë has the privilege of using editor's rights. Most people know the story or will be able to find out more about Charlotte Brontë if they feel so inclined, so Harman picks and chooses what she wants to tell, and how to tell it. This biography might be a good starting point for contemporary readers(5) who are hearing about her bicentenary. It's an easy read (for a Charlotte Brontë biography) and conveys what seems like a fair, just portrait of Charlotte Brontë. There doesn't seem to be a hidden agenda here when it comes to Charlotte's personality, which is a relief. And, excuse us for this, but it has a lovely cover (UK edition), too.

Notes

(1) That said, we freely admit to actually laughing out loud when she writes about Patrick Brontë trying to make inquiries in Belgium using his own phonetic guide to French.
(2) Though stating that his death was 'in effect a form of suicide from self-neglect' may be taking things a bit too far, even is we know what she means.
(3) She also claims that, 'we think nothing now of stories told from a child's point of view, but Charlotte Brontë was the first to do it, and Dickens the second'. Which is not so cut-and-dry either as it is actually grown-up Jane who is narrating it all.
(4) When writing about Charlotte's letters and their preservation, Claire Harman claims that,
[Arthur Bell Nicholls] preserved many of Charlotte's manuscripts and mementoes as an act of private homage to a woman he remained intensely devoted to, but very few personal letters survive that were written to Charlotte and only one of hers to him (the preservation of which seems accidental) (p. 344)
This one letter intrigued us as we had never before heard about it and couldn't trace it anywhere. We made some inquiries which eventually wound their way to Claire Harman herself. She replied that it was a mistake and that although it is too late to correct it in the paperback, it will be corrected in future editions.

(5) We will see how it stands the test of time. The explanation as to what hyperemesis gravidarum is by telling about how Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, suffered from it too, and one Sarah Button's account of the illness as she herself experienced it pulled from a 2014 article in The Guardian may prove to be a bit dated already.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review.

    The treatment of Rev Brontë is so ham fisted it becomes a cartoon from the Gaskell days and even Lily Gaskell came to call Patrick " a real brick" as he was the only one of her victims not to make serious trouble over his treatment in her book about CB.

    It's fascinating to learn Elizabeth Gaskell got all that tosh about Patrick Brontë from Lady Kay-Shuttleworth even before Mrs.Gaskell met Charlotte in 1850 at the Kay-Shuttleworth home. That's who Mrs. G's source was. Lord knows where Lady Kay-Shuttleworth heard the stories, but Mrs. G never spoke to "the good woman" who supposedly was the servant/ source of the slanders...unless she meant Lady Kay-Shuttleworth was nursing Mrs. Brontë herself! lol!

    Something about those stories greatly attracted Gaskell. Those stories about Patrick were honed in Mrs. G's gossipy letters to friends long before she came to write about Charlotte for publication. They seem one of the driving forces behind her wish to write the biography

    The way Patrick was convinced to agree to a book authored by Gaskell was in part, to refute those same awful stories about him that appeared in a magazine shortly after CBN's passing..stories, as it turned out,that came from Gaskell herself.

    So Gaskell was asked to refute stories from Gaskell.

    What must it been like for Patrick Brontë to then see the same slanders, just about word for word , in the long awaited book about his departed daughter? The forbearance of this man was amazing.

    These stories, based on little but Lady Kay-Shuttleworth's gossip and Lily's relish for them, dogged Patrick Brontë for over a 100 years...The mad Irish father was Brontë Scripture, endlessly repeated .... until the books of Winifred Gerin and most particularly Juliet Barker, refuted the lies for real. But in Harman's time machine of a bio, it's as if these vital Brontë books never appeared.

    What we find that Harman lacks the most is some sort of empathy

    Indeed, and heretofore Harman was way better than that. Her biographies of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Robert Louis Stevenson imo stand out because of her clear eyed empathy for all as well as her excellent writing. Her insightful treatment of Arthur Bell Nicholls seems from those earlier books. But for the most part, in this biography about Charlotte Brontë, Harman does not seem the same author as before.

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