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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Romancing Miss Bronte by Juliet Gael

Though Jane Eyre is my favorite book, I've always known precious little about Charlotte Brontë, other than the fact that she wrote the book under the pseudonym of Currer Bell. While this book is certainly a blend of fact and fiction and shouldn't be taken as gospel truth, it does provide a fascinating and engrossing glimpse of everyday life in the Brontë household.

This was a novel that I absolutely devoured, though I did it as slowly as possible so that I might also savor it. I was completely fascinated by it and absorbed by the author's deft depiction of not only the Brontës, but the times in which they lived. Every paragraph was like a revelation to me, helping me to gain some new insight. This was a novel that offered me everything I love best about reading, and that gave me a feeling of immense pleasure every time I opened its pages.

The tone is quite different from what I'm used to reading. Parts of it read as a novel but then, suddenly, a narrator breaks in and the book takes on a biographical tone. I found this a little strange at first, but then I became used to it and liked how it gave me an idea of where the author was using biographical facts and where she was taking some literary license. I thought she did a good job of imagining Charlotte's voice, and she painted distinct portraits of the personalities of each of the Brontë sisters, as well as those of Patrick, their father, and Branwell, their n'er-do-well brother.

What is truly astounding is how genius flourished in such circumstances. Branwell makes for an effective foil to his sisters. He was the man on whom everyone's hopes depended. He was the shining light, the chosen one, who seemed so graced with gifts that he could not possibly fail to light the world on fire. Naturally, his father's whole world revolved around Branwell, and Patrick scarcely noticed the three daughters who dwelt quietly under his roof and devoted their lives to caring for father and brother.

The genius, however, seems to have lived entirely within the three sisters. The wonder is that their brother, who was equipped with everything possible to help him succeed in life, squandered his gifts while the sisters, who were expected to simply settle for their lot in life, were the ones whose contribution to art ultimately endured. The sisters had very difficult, often bleak lives. Of all of them, only Charlotte enjoyed the pleasure of earning some of her own money, achieving fame, and seeing some of her work given its due. Yet, because she was a woman, she was not afforded the same status as the male authors of her time, and she fell victim to vicious critics who saw her through the lens of what they perceived to be her failed womanhood. They subjected her to savage attacks against her works, which were deemed inferior and improbable because she had dared to plumb the female psyche. Unlike most contemporary works, Charlotte's were peopled by female characters who had genuine feelings rather than merely serving as the vehicles for the moral lessons of the day.

Equally extraordinary is the relationship between Charlotte and Arthur Bell Nichols. Gael shows how Charlotte's prejudices against the man colored her perception of him. Unlike Jane Austen--who Charlotte is, at one point, advised to emulate--Charlotte found a man who loved her because of who she was and who was willing to wait a very long time to finally be with her, but his manners, which seemed very cold, rendered him unattractive to her. However, Arthur was a man of surprising depths, which the reader discovers along with Charlotte. What began as a reluctant marriage of convenience became exactly that for which Charlotte had spent her whole life searching.

It's heartening to know that this insightful, intelligent woman was able to find happiness in marriage, unlike the unfortunate Miss Austen. Far more heartening, though, is to know that the literary legacy of both of these extraordinary women not only lives on, but is very much alive and thriving, even today.

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