Thursday, May 12, 2016

Claire Harman – ‘Charlotte Brontë: A Life’

Claire Harman’s new biography of Charlotte Brontë, published to coincide with its subject’s bicentenary, is unblinking and concise. It accentuates the awkward and the painful, making for a gripping but harrowing read that has the relentless downward trajectory of a Tess of the D’Urbervilles or a Breaking the Waves. Her version of Charlotte is small and plain, with missing teeth and an unconvincing hair-piece. She’s painfully shy, socially inept, and absolutely aware of it:
I flee the world because I do not have the qualities needed to shine in it. Vivacity, grace and liveliness I lack. The taciturn man is always a burden on society… hence he loves solitude because he is at ease in it, a base and contemptible motive that comes from selfishness and indolence. (p. 172, from an ‘essay – or story – called “Le But de la Vie” (“The Aim of Life”)’, written in Brussels in 1843)
She fights against this taciturnity as best she can with the written word, but an unbridgeable gap remains. She can’t achieve the closeness she wants with Constantine Heger or George Smith, so moulds their characters into those of M. Paul Emanuel and Dr John in Villette, her masterpiece, a book that shows the damage unrequited love can do like no other. In writing it, you’d have thought she’d have earned peace on earth, especially when she recognised in her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, feelings for her just as strong as hers had been for Heger:
one ordinarily so statue-like – thus trembling, stirred and overcome […] Mr. N is one of those who attach themselves to very few, whose sensations are close and deep – like an underground stream, running strong but in a narrow channel. (pp. 319-20)
As though in a particularly cruel fairy tale, Charlotte’s comeuppance for expressing her yearning so powerfully, was to die as a result of hyperemesis gravidarum, an ‘extreme reaction to the hormones of pregnancy’ (p. 346), within a year of their marriage.

Harman sees Brontë as ‘essentially a poet of suffering’ (p. 227), which is true, but it is not the whole truth. The book divides into two around the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë in 1848-9, events which robbed the world of a sequel to Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte of her first and best context. I’d thought there was a glimpse of this in Villette with the interplay between Polly, a young girl, and Graham (as Dr John is known early on), an older boy who teases her mercilessly and charmingly; but it turns out that the young Polly is modelled on one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughters. That interplay is one of my favourite parts of the novel: it seems as true and affectionate as anything Brontë wrote, and is nothing to do with pain at all – or even awkwardness. There is a perfect understanding between Graham and Polly which is outside society: they flee the world together and shine in their own little bubble. The Brontë siblings did the same – Branwell included until his addictions to opium and alcohol overtook him. Harman speculates about whether Charlotte too took opium, pointing to texts she composed while ostensibly teaching at Roe Head school, which were written with her eyes shut, as she tried to blot out her pupils and return to the ‘world beneath’ (p. 95) – the fantasy world of Angria. It sounds as though she wasn’t much of a teacher at that point.

Her father, Patrick, comes across a little like Josiah Crawley from Framley Parsonage and The Last Chronicle of Barset:
On one side, Patrick Brontë’s experience had encouraged him to think that anything was possible when natural abilities, hard work and the will of God combined; on the other, his meteoric rise had left him with many social anxieties intact and much of his innate conservatism strengthened. (p. 78)
A man with, if anything, fewer social skills than Crawley (who at least gets on with the poor), Patrick is a curious figure, mostly unsympathetic because of his lack of engagement with the outside world, and his tendency to neediness. One mustn’t be too hard on a man who survived his entire family (a wife and six children), but his attempts to re-marry and later to prevent Charlotte from doing so for fear of losing his carer were crass in the extreme. There is something of this naïvety in Charlotte’s inability to hold back in her letters to Constantine Heger, the married teacher with whom she fell in love in Brussels: her tone is abject, and heartbreaking, but how can she not have known that she was driving him away? Later, a much smaller demand for constancy likewise pushes George Smith, her publisher, towards indifference. You want to reach in and shake her: ‘Charlotte! Be cool!’ Easier said than done, though.

Harman is good on Brontë’s achievements, for instance the innovation of telling the first part of Jane Eyre from a child’s perspective, apparently the first novel to do so, and an influence on the second, David Copperfield (Dickens didn’t read Jane Eyre, but had an account of it from John Forster). Here, from a discussion of The Professor, she extrapolates a kind of general law of her fiction:
The convention of not answering back allows able women a scornful superiority, flashing out in looks, in suppression of comment, withheld speed; quellingly disdainful, devastatingly critical, but always held in check. This pent-up power, secretly triumphant because unrealised, is the incendiary device at the heart of Jane Eyre, and of all Charlotte Brontë’s works. And through its identification and her precise observation of it, she presented something completely revolutionary. (p. 202)
Villette innovated too:
Villette, forged from such personal and painful material, reached psychological depths never attempted in fiction before and became, unwittingly, a landmark in the depiction of states of mind and self-perception, a thoroughly, peculiarly and disturbingly Modernist novel. (p. 314)

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