The Five Bronte-est Things That Happened in Claire Harman’s Biography of Charlotte Brontë

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

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.

(Poor Emily.)

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.

  1. 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.
  • Chrisbookarama

    Tenant is excellent! Anne seems much more level headed than all the Brontes combined.

    Who is worse: Patrick or Branwell? Probably Patrick simply because the Lord in his kindness gave him more time- to be a dick. I read Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte and what I go from it was that Patrick was always guilting his daughters into staying home and taking care of him because he was “*cough* dying.” Then he went on to outlive them all, which is terrible and sucks for him but probably sucked for them more.

    THEN, Charlotte met a nice, normal, UNMARRIED guy. She kinda liked him. Patrick put the kibosh on that because his job wasn’t fancy enough for the Bronte family. Maybe this is a bit mean, but it’s not like lords were breaking down the doors to get next to the Bronte sisters. Take a lesson from Austen, Patrick. Mrs Bennett would not look a gift horse in the mouth. If you have daughters, you fling them at every available bachelor!

    I got the feeling that Gaskell wasn’t very impressed with Patrick. She seemed more sympathetic towards Branwell.

    Anyway, this post is awesome! I love talking Bronte.

    • The impression this biography gave was more that the girls wanted to stay home because they hated all non-home places, so they did stay home. So it was still Patrick’s fault, in that he unfit them for regular life, but more in an internalized-by-them way than a manipulated-by-him way. I suppose I’d have to read some more Bronte books to figure out which it is (or both!).

      A+ Hamilton reference, also.

      • Chrisbookarama

        It has been awhile since I read it and I may be projecting a bit of my hate of Patrick into to my memories of it. Emily definitely wanted to stay home. Gaskell was bffs with Charlotte so she had a bias that was probably there too. I still vote for Patrick.

  • Jeane Nevarez

    That is way more about the Brontes than I ever knew! I have not read much about them, really- just attempted to read Wuthering Heights in highschool and did not get on well with it.

    • No, neither did I. I do love Jane Eyre though! Have you read Jane Eyre?

      • Jeane Nevarez

        I’m not sure. If I did it was more than a decade ago and I’ve forgotten most of it, or didn’t comprehend much to begin with… another must-try someday.

  • Simon T (StuckinaBook.com)

    *rounds of applause*
    This is glorious. Please make a book.

  • MumsyNK

    I always have to go with Branwell as The Absolute Nadir, but l think it’s because of Stephen Fry’s Mr. Mybug rather than Branwell’s own personal Bronteness.

    • Hahahaha, well, the reason I decided Patrick was the worst was he did all that Bronte stuff AND was a terrible parent to his children. Like at least Branwell didn’t have any heirs to inflict his terribleness on.

  • Meaghan Walsh Gerard

    I’m nearly finished with this one. I’m enjoying as I really didn’t know much about them as a family. I also got obsessed with the idea of the bog slide / explosion! mwgerard.com

  • Citizen Reader

    Wow, the Most Bronte Ever Trophy. There’s an award you DON’T want to win.
    I’m sorry. Was that sarcasm I might have spared? Suck it, Patrick.
    Of course I now must read this book. Thanks for the heads-up.
    I’ve not read “Tenant,” when I’m in a Bronte mood, sadly, I do head for the melodramatic high of Wuthering Heights, but the film adaptation (starring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and a pre-Sherlock Rupert Graves as a right bastard) is excellent.

    • Nah, Patrick’s dead, he can take a bit of sarcasm.

      Was Toby Stephens honestly in a Wuthering Heights movie too? Because he was in an (excellent) BBC miniseries of Jane Eyre a few years ago as well. It makes sense! He has a very Bronte-hero sort of face!

  • OK, I am putting this on the ol’ TBR, but what I *really* want is for *you* to write an entire, beautifully sarcastic and fun book about the Brontës in the form of lists like this one. Or just, like, whoever you think needs a book written about them. But only if your book can also include silly tags. How would that even work? #footnotes?

    • Footnotes, yes! I actually really feel I don’t make enough use of my existing footnotes plug-in. I could have that AND tags if I really wished.

  • Kristen M.

    Okay, so you totally need to read The Madwoman Upstairs which came out yesterday. It’s the fictional “last descendant of the Brontës” and she totally hates them. (She’s also a freshman in college so her drama level is high.) I learned many of your lovely Brontë facts from that book, in much the same tone. I think sometimes we’re better off not knowing about the lives of the authors.

    • Yeah? Okay. I’ll try it — I am usually not so into books that jump off of classic Victorian literature, but I TRUST YOU.

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  • Jeanne

    Anne was pretty weird too. I like the way you pick out the high points in this review. Mine (also appearing today, and so linked to yours) is tamer, but I think it’s because I lapped this stuff up with my adolescent oatmeal and so it all seems less remarkable, more like well, that’s the way it was in the past when women had no outlets but to make up imaginary worlds with their siblings and then be left alone in them when the siblings died young.

    • Hahahaha, when you describe it that way, it sounds even sadder. Ugh, these poor chickadees.

  • JeanPing

    Fabulous post! You MUST read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s my favorite Bronte after Jane Eyre. I don’t like WH either. Everybody is so awful. But I love Tenant, even though it’s written kind of weird.

    • I know, I want to! My sister says Tenant is really, really good.

      • Simon T (StuckinaBook.com)

        Oh, meant to say – Anne is the bestest.

  • Words for Worms

    THIS POST IS EVERYTHING. Seriously. I cannot even. Part of me wants to read this book, but a bigger part of me wants you to write cliff notes versions of all the things. Can we work on that, Jenny?

    • NAME A TOPIC AND I SHALL CLIFF-NOTE IT. Well, I mean. You know. If I feel like it and I have time. :p

  • Jenny

    Holy crap! Are we sure this whole family wasn’t bipolar? It sounds like they had issues. Maybe that’s why I don’t like their books. Sad that they had to live the way they did. You’re right, maybe if they’d lived now they wouldn’t have been the way they were. Or maybe they would. Freaky!

  • Laila

    This is the greatest review of a biography ever!

  • I agree with Laila. This had my husband asking me what I was laughing at (and I so badly wanted to read it to him, but he wouldn’t get it).

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Oh this was fantastic! I’m currently reading the book and when I finish and am ready to post on it I might just say everyone should come read this! I think Patrick is worse because he created the monster that was Branwell.

    • Aw, thanks! I think Patrick is worse too, but that may just be because this book didn’t go super into depth about Branwell’s terribleness, and I am always very judgey of BAD PARENTING.

  • This post is so good — didn’t know many of these facts. I have to read this!

  • It’s been years since I’ve read a Bronte biography, but I now realize I don’t need to read another. I can be depressed enough with the current state of the world without borrowing Bronte family despair!

    • Hahahaha, I sympathize with this! I know there are other excellent Bronte biographies, but I’m not super inclined to look them up.

  • Okay, you get the award of best post on the interwebs today. Oh man, I am not even interested in the Brontes and I absolutely hearted this post!

  • kim

    you are a horrid unimaginative writer.

    • Alice

      Your FACE is unimaginative

  • Alice

    Tenant of Wildfell Hall has a good beginning and end. The middle is garbage. Agnes Grey is ADORABLE though.

  • Sigh, IF ONLY they had tumblr. Also, I lol’d at “They never, ever, ever got back together.”

    • I KNOW! They’d have been helped so much by the presence of Tumblr. Any social media, really.

  • I AM DEAD OF LAUGHTER, MADAME.

  • Heather

    So much love for this. Are we sure the Bronte’s didn’t just script their own lives?

  • This is totally delightful. I can’t wait to get into this this biography… it’s in my purse now and I am just one chapter in which is mostly history and not much Bronte daughters.

  • Christy

    This is a hugely entertaining post. What a weird family.

  • Alley

    “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.” Well this is my favorite sentence in this post, among many other just terrific sentences. Also I keep reading the “ë” as the trademark symbol for all the Brontëness

    • Hahahaha, I thought about omitting it because it’s a hassle to type (I have not used it in my comments), but I felt like I should be a responsible blogger and spell their name correctly. EVEN THOUGH, it seems like Patrick just one day decided he was going to toss the diaeresis on the name because why not.

  • Kailana

    I saw a list of my grandmother’s siblings once and most of them died from Tuberculosis or something lung related… They should have been the Bronte clan!

    • Oh gosh, that’s awful! Your poor grandmother! (But yeah, they’d fit right in with the Brontes.)

  • They wrote it like they lived it, I guess. LOL #onlythebrontës

    • Oh, they SURE did. Reading this and remembering Villette — damn. It was straight out of Charlotte’s insane life.

  • Sharon

    Brontë count: 38.
    I am DYING. This is the best review. That letter from Patrick is the original Crap Email from a Dude. I want you and Kate Beaton to write a book together about the Brontës.

    And I *really* want you to read Jane Steele, because it a delightful confection of Jane Eyre with extra panache and a heart straight out of Tumblr.

    • YES. Seconding the demand for a Kate – Jenny collab on the Brontës.

    • Ahahahaha, if Kate Beaton consented to collaborate with me on anything, I’d die of joy. :p And also, sure! I’ll look into this Jane Steele business!

  • Charlie (The Worm Hole)

    Love it!

    When I was younger I had the misguided sense that Branwell was good – someone told me he washed himself out of that painting because he thought he wasn’t talented enough to stand with his sisters, I don’t know where they got that from, so I liked reading all you wrote here, added to my re-education.

    • Oh gosh, no, Branwell was terrible. Everyone hates Branwell! I’m surprised someone told you that!

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  • Care

    Beautiful. I don’t know much abt the Brontes or I didn’t until this. Fun reading. More, please.

  • Fab review! I learned and I laughed, and I wouldn’t have ever dreamed that something about the Brontës could be so fun!

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  • tharpo

    You need to use spell check and not capitalize Terrible if you want to be taken seriously.

    • Can I ask what element of this totally absurd post made you think that I was making a bid to be taken seriously?