Book Review: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

charlotte bronte

Vintage, 2017.

I always have a hard time answering the question, “What’s your favorite book?” It’s kind of like trying to figure out my favorite food—there are just so many good ones out there. There’s a favorite for every mood and for every season of the year. But Jane Eyre always rises up to near the top and, if I’ve recently read it, it is the top. Jane Eyre is, perhaps, a cliché-sounding answer given my literary interests and my personality. It’s rather like Joe Fox assuming that Kathleen Kelly digs Pride and Prejudice and how he bets she “just loves that Mr. Darcy.” Yet it is terribly easy to come up with ways in which Jane Eyre is one of the best of all novels (Pride and Prejudice is, too!). It never disappoints in its vividness, its intensity, and primarily in the way in which its words reach to the very heart of human thought and emotion.

It’s hard to imagine such a novel coming from an author with inner solitude. And, come to find out, Charlotte Brontë herself embodied that impassioned spirit of her novels. She was intense, socially awkward, and endowed with what William Thackeray called “an impetuous honesty.” Yet I never realized how much—and how brazenly—she poured her experience into her work until I read Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman, my first Brontë biography.

The Brontës (all of them) were undeniably an awkward and puzzling, if genius, bunch. I had a brief introduction to them in the BBC drama To Walk Invisible, but even that dark and unflattering portrait failed to display the full extent of the Brontë family’s hardships and—honestly—weirdness. After reading A Fiery Heart, it seems like the themes of their literary production were a natural outpouring of their great hardships and losses.

“Charlotte was essentially a poet of suffering; she understood every corner of it, dwelt both on it and in it. In life, this propensity was a chronic burden; in her art, she let it speak to and comfort millions of others.”

Charlotte

Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery

Jane Eyre, the greatest of Charlotte’s creations, is a fiercely independent woman. Most of Charlotte’s females are. This doesn’t mean they are ultra-feminists; rather, it’s as if they are fierce in their forced independence. Charlotte and her sisters had responsibility thrust upon them almost from their earliest consciousness. Charlotte lost her mother at age five, her older sisters three years later, and her father was never an emotionally-steadying influence. His clergyman’s income was insufficient support for all of the adults living in the home, and it naturally fell upon women in the Brontë’s class to earn income by teaching, whether in a boarding school or as a governess. For Charlotte, this forced employment, which she came to despise, led her into great mental and physical distress. It was as if she felt her soul stifling in the life she had to lead. This gave her an air of fierceness in her social interactions, the way she expressed opinions, and the way she pursued relationships. This comes through in Jane Eyre’s conversations with Mr. Rochester and in her determination not to abuse her morality.

Charlotte’s female characters also suffer through impossible love—love that is unrequited or morally forbidden. Lucy Snowe agonizes over Monsieur Emanuel in Villette. Villette, I learned from A Fiery Heart, could be Charlotte’s autobiography. While studying at a boarding school in Brussels, Charlotte developed a great passion for the school director’s husband, Constantin Heger. He recognized her talent and encouraged it, but that was not enough for her. She sought a level of mental and spiritual communion impossible between a married man and his pupil. I felt shame for Charlotte in her inappropriate and blundering pursuit of Heger, her letters to him awful to read. Yet I was brokenhearted for this young girl that just wanted to be loved and to have someone recognize the real person inside her. She repeated the process a second time when she assumed a relationship between herself and her publisher, George Smith. This relationship, however, does not seem to have left as many scars, for it was Heger that ended up in Villette.

I get the sense from a A Fiery Heart that several of the Brontë siblings, Charlotte included, must have suffered from mental illness, although Harman never calls it anything other than a vague sense of “depression.” Their personal losses were staggering, watching a mother and two siblings die while they were young. And then Charlotte endured the deaths of her other three siblings—first Branwell, then Emily and Anne—in rapid succession. I feel like Branwell never stood a chance of success between having a sense of entitlement and suffering from what must have been something like PTSD. Emily and Anne never wanted to leave home. Charlotte herself suffered extreme health anxiety for herself and her sisters in adulthood, and no wonder.

I believe, then, that Charlotte’s acute suffering drove her success as a writer. Undoubtedly good writing comes from great perception and an appreciation of beauty or psychology or whatever truth the writer wants to focus on. But for Charlotte her suffering became her art. She suffered “over how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings—whether of love for Heger, or her intellectual passions, or her anger at circumstances and feelings of thwarted destiny—in the life that life seemed to have in store for her, one of patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness and hard work.” Harman says of Villette that “all her life’s suffering” went into it, but I think that it could as easily be said of Jane Eyre, too. Her novels “travelled inward, not outward … [and] reached psychological depths never attempted in fiction before.” Here was Charlotte’s travail in the birth of the modern novel.

As a present-day reader, I have always assumed that Jane Eyre held a certain Victorian sensibility, an inevitable moral message. I assumed that by having a heroine with enough moral courage to refuse illicit love that Victorians would have loved and applauded it. I have never thought of it until now as “cutting-edge.” But contemporary readers were shocked by it—shocked by its raw passion and its rage against society as Jane found it.

Reading A Fiery Heart has changed the way I view Charlotte and will change the way I read her books. It’s time to revisit Villette and try The Professor. The story of her life—and death—is a haunting one. I am glad she lives on in her words.

★ ★ ★ ★/5