Telling the life story of Charlotte Brontë through her own letters

Claire Harman tells Yvette Huddleston how she trawled the letters of Charlotte Brontë to put her passion centre stage in a new biography.

Author Claire Harman.
Author Claire Harman.

The life of Charlotte Brontë has been a source of endless fascination for biographers. The first portrait was famously penned by fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, writing in 1857 only two years after Charlotte’s death. Her portrayal of Charlotte was slightly compromised by the fact that she was a close friend of her subject and wrote mindful of the criticism that Jane Eyre received. With its quietly proactive central character, a young woman determined to be in control of her own destiny, it was considered by some an “unladylike” book that undermined the passive ideal of Victorian womanhood. Gaskell was determined to “rescue” Charlotte from charges of unwholesomeness.

Many other biographies have followed, most recently Claire Harman’s Charlotte Brontë: A Life, published last autumn to great critical acclaim, and now out in paperback in time for Charlotte’s bicentenary. While an accomplished and renowned literary biographer – her previous subjects include Robert Louis Stevenson, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Fanny Burney – Harman admits that tackling such an iconic figure was “slightly daunting”.

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“Writing about a very famous subject can be off-putting, but it also allows the opportunity to look at things afresh,” she says. “The last major biography was Lyndell Gordon’s Charlotte Brontë – A Passionate Life 20 years ago and a different age has a different way of looking at a subject. While I didn’t want to be sensationalist, I wanted to ask some pretty basic questions that haven’t been asked before.”

Harman was particularly interested in Charlotte’s letters which had been documented by Margaret Smith in a comprehensive three-volume edition and which she says “threw up various questions, mostly to do with Charlotte’s motivations. When she was writing to her friend Ellen Nussey what was it that she really trying to say? There is always some extra angle. I was looking at the letters like a detective looking for clues.” The letters which perhaps provide the most fascinating insight into Charlotte’s private thoughts are the extraordinary missives she wrote to Constantin Heger. In 1842 Charlotte travelled to Belgium with her sister Emily to study French at the Pensionnat Heger school where in return for board and lodging the sisters were employed as part-time teachers. While there, Charlotte fell passionately and inappropriately in love with her employer Monsieur Heger, a married man some years her senior.

Once Heger’s wife got wind, things became difficult and Charlotte returned home to Haworth in 1844. There she wrote a series of letters to Heger, exhorting him to reply, most of which went unanswered. It was, says Harman, a key turning point in Charlotte’s life.

“It has been very well documented in some respects, but when I went to look at her letters to him I could see different parts of the story,” says Harman. “He ceased writing to her in 1845 and in the subsequent 10 years she became famous. She wanted to prove herself and went on to write novels that were full of him.”

Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre and, in particular, Paul Emanuel in Villette are thinly veiled versions of Heger – and both novels also provide the heroines with happier endings than Charlotte experienced.

“She stopped writing about the imaginary worlds of her juvenilia and starting writing more autobiographical stories with gothic touches,” says Harman. “She never got to see him again but I think she suffered so much humiliation, it was a huge motivation. She wanted to write something that would make him think differently about her.”

It took Harman just over three years to write the biography which, she says, “for me was extremely fast”. There was a huge amount of reading to do as well as sifting through original documents and manuscripts and she spent a lot of time at the parsonage in Haworth.

“It is incredibly atmospheric there and the whole story is so rewarding – the characters are so strange yet sympathetic.”

Harman’s meticulous research paid off, particularly in some of the smallest details that emerge in the book – for example, the fact that when Charlotte arrived at Roe Head School as a 14-year-old “she spoke with a strong Irish accent” which hints both at the closeted nature of her existence up to that point and the powerful influence of her Irish father, a self-taught man from humble beginnings. Harman also takes a different view on Patrick Brontë from some earlier biographers – most notably Gaskell who depicted him as an overbearing bully.

“He was very odd but I don’t think he was anything like an ogre,” she says. “He was a very well-meaning man and he was doing the best he could for his family. He was very interested in his children’s welfare – he wanted his girls to do well. He didn’t oppress them in any way but he made it clear they would have to earn money. His neglect was benign and the fact that he was busy with his work in the parish and always dined alone leaving them with the servants meant they could create their own little imaginary worlds. There were worse paterfamilias in the Victorian era.”

Having spent so much time researching, reading and writing about Charlotte over the past few years, Harman found a complex, sometimes contradictory, character – and made some unexpected discoveries. “I was surprised when I looked through all the material chronologically that it looked as though she had a series of breakdowns or quasi-breakdowns,” she says. “She was very intense and often plunged into a negative state of mind.

“Obviously after her siblings died you wonder how she could possibly have carried on especially if she was that sensitive, but she survived it. She was actually quite a tough person, but she also appears to be incredibly vulnerable. I think she must have been depressive for much of her adult life, so it’s hard to see how she could have been happy but she was steely and ambitious. I think she was very confident – they were all confident that they had genius.”

This is emphasised by a quote from Charlotte writing in 1846 that Harman places at the front of the book – “talented people almost always know full well the excellence that is in them”. “Her options were being cut down all the time which must have been incredibly difficult,” says Harman. “She had to be a governess and that meant her genius might never be recognised. It was frustrating for her.”

This is reflected in some of the very harsh things she has to say about her pupils. “There was always anger in her letters too – that also surprised me, how much anger and sarcasm there was.”

Harman is putting together a proposal for a biography of another 19th century subject but admits it is difficult to get Charlotte out of her head.

“Part of the fascination of the Brontë story is that they were such an odd group of people who were not easy in society and yet were able to write books that appealed to millions of people,” she says. “The dining room in the parsonage was the place where three classic novels were written in one year. I find that hidden talent – and the fact that the Brontës very nearly didn’t come to public attention at all – completely fascinating. I do think it was Charlotte’s drive and inner self-belief, and her belief in them as a group, that made that happen.”

n Charlotte Brontë – A Life, published by Penguin, is out in paperback now, priced £9.99. Claire Harman will be delivering the Brontë Society Annual Lecture and taking part in the Great Charlotte Brontë Debate in Haworth on June 11.