Note: I received an electronic galley of Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart from the publisher for review consideration.
Sometimes when you read books about the olden days, you feel nostalgic and affectionate like maybe you would have liked to live back in those days and make your own butter and play whist with the other families in the neighborhood. Books by and about the Brontës do not have this effect.
Claire Harman’s Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart primarily made me feel fortunate for living in an age and area that offer me a near-infinitude of life choices. It’s hard to read about the Brontës without feeling irritated with them — they are so exceptionally dogmatic and needy and weird — but, on the other hand, these were three brilliant, angry women who could count the opportunities available to them on the fingers of one hand. As romantic and mysterious as it is to think of them all alone in their moorish parsonage, scribbling away at their Gothic stories, I want to snatch them all up and carry them away to a modern world where they could be socialized with outsiders and, like, go on Tumblr to talk out their feelings.
As it was, of course, they were stuck in a closed loop of weird Brontëishness, feeding on each other’s Brontëhood and becoming ever-more-concentratedly Brontës. I have therefore taken the liberty of reporting to you the five most Brontëish things that happened in this book, in ascending order of Brontëness.
5. The death by tuberculosis of a supermajority of Brontë siblings. Charlotte’s older sisters Maria and Elizabeth died when they were eleven and ten, respectively. Emily and Anne incubated it a while longer, but died within six months of each other when Charlotte was in her early thirties. We don’t, of course, know what Maria and Elizabeth would have done with their lives, but Emily and Anne were both gifted writers.1 Given a greater length of days they might have gone on to write any number of amazing novels. It’s all pretty tragic. Also — if I may be callous — incredibly on brand for the Brontë family. Dying young of tuberculosis was kinda their jam.
And yes, they all four contracted this tuberculosis at a hideous and brutal school for young Victorian ladies. Of course they did. God. Like it wasn’t already at peak Brontë. Will nothing satisfy you?
4. You may have heard rumors that Branwell Brontë was Terrible, and those rumors are accurate. He had all of the bad Brontë qualities, particularly the Brontë entitlement and Brontë sense of exceptionalism, but none of the (sorry, Branwell!) Brontë talent. Because of this, he couldn’t hold down a job, until finally Anne — bless her heart, she sounds like a dear — got him a position as a tutor to the family where she was governessing.
GUESS WHAT BRANWELL DID THEN.
If you guessed “had an affair with the lady of the house that was bound to end in disaster,” you have divined pretty well what Branwell Brontë was like as a person. Anne resigned, and shortly afterward, the gardener walked in on Branwell and Mrs. Robinson (THAT WAS REALLY HER NAME) having sex in the boathouse, so Branwell got fired too.
(Because Brontës were always falling in unrequited love with someone, Branwell kept pining after Mrs. Robinson and hoping they would get back together. They never, ever, ever got back together. Mrs. Robinson tried to get Branwell to be cool about that, and Branwell could absolutely not be cool about it. #Brontës)
3. Charlotte hated everyone in Belgium. Actually, let me emend that: Emily hated everyone in Belgium. Charlotte hated everyone in Belgium minus one: the husband of the woman she worked for, a man called M. Heger with whom she fell in passionate and (you guessed it!) unrequited love. After she and Emily moved back to England (it’s not like they were going to stay in Belgium. They hated everyone in Belgium.), Charlotte wrote a vast quantity of needy letters to M. Heger, reproaching him for not being attentive enough to her, until he had to ask her only to write him once every six months. Eventually they stopped corresponding. I would too. Charlotte Brontë sounds like the most irritating correspondent ever.
This was neither the first nor the last time someone had to ask a Brontë sibling to stop sending them so many letters (see Mrs. Robinson, above, for another example). Because of the aforementioned isolation, the Brontës had very few social outlets and were prone to becoming a strain on those they did have. If they had had access to Tumblr, things might have been different.
2. It was Emily Brontë’s wont to go out walking on the moor every day, even when she was sick unto dying. (That’s not hyperbole — one reason she died so quickly when tuberculosis hit is that she refused to go to bed early or skip her long walks on the moors or see a doctor.) One day she was out on the moors, and she saw a poor dog looking rather forlorn. An animal lover, she went to go give it a drink of water and got bitten for her trouble.
She was worried that the dog had bitten her because it had rabies maybe, so she went home, said nothing to anyone, took an iron out of the fire, and cauterized her own wound with it. (The second most Brontëish thing about this story is that nobody noticed Emily had a great big burn wound. I mean cause why would they.)
1. The absolute most Brontë-est thing of all, the most Brontë thing to ever Brontë, was done by Papa Brontë (the ur-Brontë) following his wife’s death. As a young man, before he met Maria Branwell, Patrick Brontë had been in sort-of-love with a woman called Mary Burder. He unceremoniously dumped her because of her father’s religious affiliations and did not speak to her again for the next fifteen years.
(This story is already pretty Brontëish, no?)
So after Maria died, and Patrick was left with six small children, he wrote to Mary Burder all saying how he needed a “dearly Beloved Friend” to help raise his “small but sweet little family.” Mary Burder wrote back in “a decided negative” (good for you madam), and Patrick Brontë, I guess because he was vying for the Number One Maximum Brontë trophy, got his feelings hurt and wrote back to her all offended like he’s that guy on OKCupid whose message you never answered.
I must candidly tell you that many things in [your] letter surprised and grieved me. . . . You added many keen sarcasms, which I think might well have been spared.
We get it, Patrick. The trophy is yours. Writing entitled, aggrieved letters to people you want something from seems to have been an favorite Brontë pastime, and this is the entitledest and aggrievedest letter of them all.
You may think and write as you please, but I have not the least doubt that if you had been mine you would have been happier than you now are or can be as one in single life.
OKAY SHUT UP NOW PATRICK.
- I mean, allegedly. I didn’t like Wuthering Heights, and I haven’t yet read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I hear it’s good. ↩