Claire Harman on Charlotte Bronte

Posted by Sue Leonard on Wednesday 2nd March 2016

WHEN Claire Harman was a teenager she saw a film of Wuthering Heights, and was blown away by the romance of it all.

Later, reading Emily Brontë’s book, she was disappointed.

“I was obsessed with the film, but the book didn’t have the same emblematic power,” she says.

 “I wondered why the book didn’t stop where the film stopped.”

It did, however, start Claire’s lifelong fascination with the Brontë family.

And, reading the biography of Charlotte Brontë that Claire is in Dublin to promote, it’s clear that she still has an abiding fascination for Charlotte’s younger, and less prolific sister.

“Emily was a genius really,” she says. “She was a woman of quite extraordinary ability, but she was much more weird than wonderful to be around. There was an episode where she brutally attacks her beloved dog who was devoted to her. I think she was a frightening person with a volatile temper and a desire to domineer.

“Emily could be totally quelling with her silences and her withholding, and I see that as a manipulative psychological trick.

“Rather than being friendly with strangers, or even quietly affable, she was going to make her presence firmly felt.”

All this makes sense of the brutality and high passions detailed in Emily’s only published novel, Wuthering Heights.

“Charlotte and Anne objected to some of the horror in it, but Emily refused to change anything. Her attitude was, ‘what is your problem with it? Why would anyone object to the scene where Heathcliffe bullies and incarcerates. It’s normal, isn’t it?’

“Defending Emily after her death, in the second edition of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte described Emily not as rude or vulgar, but as a retired young woman, a great artist, and as stronger than a man, simpler than a child, and a nature stood alone. In effect a gender-free ageless genius.”

Not many of Emily’s papers or letters remain; there’s a much better archive for Charlotte, and there are rich pickings in the biography.

Claire clearly adored the research for the book as much as the writing. Biography, she says, suits her character.

“I’ve always been a reader, but I’m not a fast reader. I am deliberate and a bit dogged. I love words and the unusual use of them, and I want to go back and read paragraphs simply because they are beautiful.

“I’ll think, wow! That was meant to be read aloud, there’s such a wonderful cadence to it.

“I like to recall books privately too. I’ll be on the bus and I’ll try to remember certain phrases.”

The author fell into biography by accident. Having read English at Manchester University, she worked in poetry publishing, working on poetry magazines and editing poetry books.

She came across Sylvia Townsend-Walker, who died, and had willed a bundle of unpublished poems to her publisher.

“The poems were amazing,” says Claire. “Her work didn’t fit in at all with the English I had been studying. She was a complete oddball. I found reading her challenging, but extremely interesting.”

Fascinated with the woman, as well as her work, Claire wrote a biography of Townsend Warner in 1989, and has since published biographies of Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as a book on Jane Austen, but this isn’t the only writing the author has concentrated on; she reviews books, as well as writing short stories and poetry.

“I’ve done some teaching too,” she says. “But it’s the biography that I’m known for.”

Claire married young, had three children, and became a single parent, so although she’s worked consistently, her jobs have been freelance rather than conventional.

And, needing to write for money has, perhaps, given her a greater understanding of the Brontë sisters, who taught and wrote to help support themselves as well as their father, Patrick, and their opium-addicted brother, Branwell.

There have been a good few biographies of Charlotte Brontë since the famous one by Charlotte’s friend, Mrs Gaskell. Was Claire nervous that she wouldn’t find anything new to say?

“I did worry and feel intimidated at the start of the project, but I’ve learned to have the confidence that if I go back to first sources, even of the most famous writers, some new ideas or angles can be found.

“I like to look at the material all the other biographers have looked at and ask questions about it. Would this be a reasonable line to follow, and does that add up? Sometimes it does, but often it throws up extra edges.”

There was a lot of joy in the process. “It’s affecting to be in a library or archive with the actual objects Charlotte owned, or the letters she had written.

“Seeing originals of the work you know so well gives you a connection with the person. Even turning the page reminds you that, when you write a letter, you bring a different tone to the second page.

“It enlivens your subject from the bottom up.”

It’s interesting to realise how much the famous Brontë novels reflected the lives of the sisters.

The loneliness of their existence on the Yorkshire moors; the early loss, to consumption, of the two elder sisters; the sojourn at boarding school, and their struggles, and homesickness working as governesses are all detailed here.

So although the deluge of books — four in nine months — by the Brontës, using the pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, took the literary world by storm, the three had been writing about imaginary worlds since childhood, and had suffered numerous rejections on the road to publication.

It was Charlotte who galvanised Emily and Anne, acting as a kind of agent. Charlotte’s first manuscript, an early version of The Professor failed to find a publisher, but Jane Eyre was published to immediate acclaim. Thackeray proclaimed he has lost, or won, a whole day in reading it.

Wuthering Heights and Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, were not well served by their publisher.

The reviews were harsh, and tragically, both sisters died shortly afterwards, without any acclaim.

Her identity now revealed, Charlotte went on to publish Shirley, and then her masterpiece, Villette, which was based on Charlotte’s time in Brussels, and is an imagining of her obsessional love for the married professor, Constantin Heger’s being returned.

Avoiding the consumption that had carted off all her siblings, Charlotte eventually married her father’s curate, Arthur Nicholls, who she had previously disliked. She became pregnant, but died of hyperemesis gravidarum, the extreme morning sickness suffered, recently, by Kate Middleton.

“This condition was not known then, or certainly not to the doctor in Howarth,” says Claire. “Everyone said, ‘it will pass,’ and she died of starvation and dehydration.”

If they were alive today, what would Claire, as biographer, most like to ask the Brontë sisters?

“They would be the worst possible interviewees, because they were so incredibly taciturn. But if they were magically transformed into charming, social people, I would ask Charlotte what she really thought about romantic love. And if she really believed that there was a chance for romantic love, because she says so many contradictory things about it.

“She advised a friend to be cautious in love, that you should be expedient, and fall in love six months after marriage, then she totally exposes her own unrequited love to Constantin Heger. She invents Mr Rochester, but marries Mr Nicholls.”

How would she fare as an author in today’s world? “Charlotte at literary festivals?” Claire laughs at the thought. “And I can’t quite see Charlotte Brontë on Twitter. She’d tweet, ‘I’ve nothing much to say today.’

“And I think she would be totally fed up with me for talking about her!”

Charlotte Brontë: A Life. Claire Harman.Viking, €35.62; Kindle, €18.50

Published in The Irish Examiner on Saturday, February 13, 2016

© Sue Leonard. 2016

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