There’s a moment halfway through Claire Harman’s superb new biography of Charlotte Brontë when it hits you just how quickly the whole Brontë phenomenon erupted and was over.
In 1844, sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne — rather than working on the novels that would make them famous — were trying to start a school in their home to generate some income to supplement that of their clergyman father.
“Everyone wishes us well,” Charlotte noted, “but there are no pupils to be had.”
A dozen years later, all the great novels had been written and published – Emily’s “Wuthering Heights,” Anne’s “Agnes Grey” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre,” “Shirley,” and “Villette” — and their authors were in their graves.
Charlotte, happily married in 1854, was the last to go. Her likely cause of death was recently identified as hyperemesis gravidarum, “an extreme reaction to the hormones of pregnancy.”
The Brontë saga remains an astonishing chapter in literary history. But even its most ardent devotees may wonder why a new biography of Charlotte is in order.
There are two reasons. Between 1994 and 2004, a new three-volume edition of Charlotte’s letters was brought out by scholar Margaret Smith. “Smith published many items for the first time, corrected attributions, dates, and readings, and set all of the letters in a context of impeccably researched annotation and commentary,” Harman writes. “Her edition [provides] . . . the fullest and most suggestive source to date of Charlotte Brontë’s behavior and private opinions.”
The second reason is Harman’s extraordinary knack for evoking the triumphs, frustrations, and prickly contradictions of Charlotte’s character. Her portrait of the Brontë family, in all its dysfunction, is both pointed and poignant. The perversely stoic figure of Emily, about whom the least is known, makes an especially indelible impression.
Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816, and moved with her family to Haworth — a remote parish on the Yorkshire moors — in 1820. Within five years, her mother and two older sisters had died. She, Emily, Anne, and their brother Branwell were precocious readers and writers from the start. Charlotte was relishing Byron’s work by age 10. All four siblings collaborated on speculative fictions that sometimes reflected the political and class struggles of their day.
Come adulthood, however, they were in a bind.
Harman stresses the “outer fatalism and inner disbelief” the sisters faced at the prospect of having to earn their own keep as teachers or governesses, the only respectable career options for middle-class women at the time. Any hope that Branwell might provide for them was swiftly derailed by his lapse into alcoholism and opium addiction.
Charlotte was best suited to take the lead, and it was at her urging that she and, later, Emily ventured out into the world — specifically, to a school in Brussels where, first as a student, then as a teacher, Charlotte had the lovelorn experiences she later poured into “Villette.”
The Brussels episode, along with Anne’s and Branwell’s attempts to hire themselves out as governess and tutor, didn’t last long. By 1844, all four adult children were “back at home, not earning a penny.” When their school plans failed, they returned to their favorite pastime: writing.
By 1847, amazingly, all three sisters had placed their manuscripts. “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey” were the first accepted, but “Jane Eyre” was the first published — and it caused a sensation. Harman gives clear notions why. It was innovative, she says, in using a child’s point of view in its first-person narrative. It was uncanny in creating “filmic” scenes that went “straight to the reader’s inner eye.” It also had scandal value, with some readers deeming it “anti-Christian.” (“Wuthering Heights,” one-upping it, was denounced as “odiously and abominably pagan.”)
This heady moment didn’t last long. Within two years, Branwell, Emily, and Anne had all died of tuberculosis. Charlotte was left alone with her father. She had some relief in her occasional trips to London to meet her publisher and fellow writers. But Haworth kept its grip on her.
Harman, to my mind, doesn’t quite do justice to Charlotte’s second published novel, “Shirley,” set against a backdrop of labor rebellion in northern England in the 1810s — a book that, in its satirical treatment of the clergy, made Charlotte’s future husband, a clergyman himself, laugh out loud.
The gender-bending swagger of the novel’s title character — a “fantasy version” of Emily as an independent woman of means — gives it an unexpected 21st-century appeal, too. (Shirley was primarily a man’s name until the book came along.)
Harman rightly sees Charlotte’s final novel, “Villette,” as reaching “psychological depths never attempted in fiction.” She finds something “peculiarly and disturbingly Modernist” in its rendering of troubled states of mood and mind. “It travelled inward,” she writes, “not outward.”
“Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart” likewise travels both inward and outward, plumbing every aspect of its subject’s character while bringing the world around her to remarkable life.
CHARLOTTE BRONTË: A Fiery Heart
By Claire Harman
Knopf, 462 pp., illustrated, $30
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.