- - Thursday, May 5, 2016



By Claire Harman

Knopf, $30, 480 pages

In the bleak and cold passages of an English parsonage the sisters wrote, marching around a dining room table until they were exhausted. They could not use their own names and their work was rejected, yet ultimately they blossomed into literary figures that a remote world cherished. Even Queen Victoria was entranced by the poignant story of a sad and shabby governess called “Jane Eyre.”

Charlotte Bronte who wrote as Currer Bell, was the creator of Jane Eyre whose miniature melodrama of a life captured the imagination of a monarch. Emily Bronte, that remote creature of the moors who wrote under the name Ellis Bell, told the haunting ghost story of Cathy and Heathcliff. It was her lonely mind that brought to life and death the dark emotions that flourished on the windswept crags and in the grim farmhouse.

“A strange uncivilized little place” was how Charlotte described where she grew up — in Yorkshire in the 1840s. Other writers denounced it as a place of harsh passions and brutal tendencies. Her father, pastor Patrick Bronte, had a “volcanic temper” and after his wife died he was left to bring up three fragile sisters all of whom were prone to tubercular problems. Branwell, the only son, was a filial disaster who ultimately succumbed to alcohol and drugs.

Yet within that strange house talent bloomed. The young women and their brother read what newspapers they could reach and wrote pieces for a series of tiny magazines which they read to each other. Emily, the most haunted of all, wrote poetry and devoted herself to her mastiff Keeper while she fought off consumption. And Charlotte became perhaps the most unhappy governess who ever lived. Her pupils used to watch her writing in tiny letters with her eyes closed. Yet they all reached out to prominent figures like Robert Southey, the poet laureate who corresponded with Charlotte.

There was a surreal quality to the Brontes and Claire Harmon captures it in a book that is so long that some of its literary quality is lost. These were strange and brilliant young women, but there was nothing charming or endearing about their personalities. When Charlotte and Emily made a trip to Brussels to a school there, Emily was miserably homesick for her moors and Charlotte became enamored of the director and furious that he did not respond to her letters when she returned to England. They were not popular, perhaps because they were so often ill and unhappy. The author tracks the development of the character of Jane Eyre to Charlotte’s own life.

The book ultimately was a success and it was revelatory in its description of Jane Eyre’s relationship with the dramatic Mr. Rochester, not to mention his mad wife in the attic. Emily’s “Wuthering Heights” with its depth of tragedy was probably a better book than “Jane Eyre” yet was bitterly criticized for its dark violence. Perhaps what Ms. Harman does not capture is that Emily was the most interesting of the sisters. They all wrote and they all had trouble being published, including the milder Anne who was also criticized for her book about an abused wife.

One of their admirers was William Thackeray whose “Vanity Fair” was scoring literary success and who admitted he “lost a day” with that book because he could not stop reading “Jane Eyre.” But nothing would stop them writing, these sad, sick women who wore themselves out walking around a table as they wrote. And who had to cope with the difficulties of their father Patrick Bronte as well as the degradation of their brother Branwell. Charlotte’s marriage came after the deaths of her sisters and her brother and coincided with her own frailty. There surely was no question that Charlotte had a “fiery heart” as her biographer asserts. Yet the questions raised by the book relate to her humanity. Like her creation, Jane Eyre, Charlotte was angry much of her life. She deeply loved her sisters, but they all existed in their own world of wild winds and storms and Emily especially was unreachable. Which is what makes her characterizations in “Wuthering Heights” so poignant. As her sisters realized, in the ruined romance of Heathcliff and Cathy, Emily was writing about herself.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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