How did Charlotte Brontë create the character of Jane Eyre? Was Villette really based on a doomed love affair in Brussels? How much of the real author is in these novels? If you have read Charlotte Brontë’s books, you will have asked yourself these questions. The biography Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman provides some fascinating answers.
This is the first biography of Brontë I have read and I wish I had read it sooner. Harman tells the enthralling story of the family whose losses, grief, hardship, isolation and disappointments populate the novels of the three sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne. It is impossible to write about Charlotte without writing about the family, and particularly about Emily, Anne and brother Branwell. Everyone knows the headline facts about the Brontës – Haworth parsonage, mother and siblings dying, Branwell’s addiction, and the imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Dondal in which the children lose themselves. But Harman makes the history accessible, telling the life of Charlotte in chronological order starting briefly with her father Patrick.
There are clear references to real life appearing in the novels and Harman casts light on the writing process of Charlotte and her sisters. For a novelist, this is required reading. Some of Charlotte’s experiences written about in letters appear directly in her novels, along with paragraphs lifted from journals and lines and passages lifted from works earlier abandoned. Harman extensively quotes Elizabeth Gaskell – who wrote the first biography of Charlotte Brontë published in 1857, based largely on Charlotte’ letters sent to her friend Ellen Nussey – and Charlotte’s correspondence with friends and her London publisher.
It is a tragic story but Harman is never over-sentimental. She is excellent at pairing characters, incidents and emotions in the novels with Charlotte’s real life.
A must read for any novelist who is a fan of the Brontë novels.
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