Charlotte Bronte: A Life by Claire Harman

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I read and re-read the Bronte novels a lot. Look back at the past few months and there are at least three Bronte based posts. When this book came out at first I did not buy it simply because I found it hard to believe that it would really tell me anything I did not know already about the life of Charlotte Bronte and was unlikely to shed much insight onto her work. I am an official Bronte bore. Then my sister bought it for me so I thought I might as well read it just to inflate my head a little more.

I found it is a very readable biography. Harman is succinct in her writing about Charlotte’s life, she does not indulge in endless speculation or fabricate Charlotte’s actual life based on her novels. It is not the most scholarly book about Charlotte Bronte’s life I have read and I would still head to Juliet Barker’s work as a ‘fact checker’. However, though Barker’s books read like a thesis Harman’s reads like a novel. This is not a criticism. It makes the biography entertaining and it draws out Charlotte’s life both before and after she is known as the author of ‘Jane Eyre’. Harman also draws on Charlotte’s whole body of work to flesh out her story, drawing on her juvenilia as a reflection of her state of mind, her letters and poetry as well as her novels. As it is a biography the emphasis is on her life. Harman focuses on Charlotte Bronte’s unrequited loved for Constantine Heger as a catalyst behind all her novels and does speculate on what Heger’s  motives and desires were, highlighting his correspondence with other former students. Harman also delves into Charlotte’s life as a curate’s wife and how happy she was with Arthur Bell Nichols despite his lack of resemblance to either Mr. Rochester or Heger which is often overlooked by other biographers.

It is marketed by Penguin as the bicentennial biography. It is a good summative overview of what has been learned, explored and imagined about the life of Charlotte Bronte, her changing relationship with her brother Branwell and the intertwining of her life with her two writer sisters. For those who want to read the Bronte story it is a probably the best book to begin with, however, for Bronte scholars and PhD students is offers few new insights and Harman is a biographer deriving much of her source material from others rather than a researcher or literary critic seeking to be original. It is an entertaining and enjoyable read but may not be read in two hundred years time, unlike ‘Jane Eyre’.

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