Now that I’ve read all seven novels by the Brontë sisters, I am proceeding to books about them. First up is Jude Morgan’s wonderful novel about their lives. As far as I can tell, not having read any biographies of the sisters, Morgan hews closely to the known facts about the Brontës, but this book feels like a novel, not a biography. (I’ve seen it called a “fictional biography,” a term that seems like a contradiction, yet fits this book perfectly.)
Morgan begins with the death of Maria Branwell Brontë, mother of six children and wife of Patrick, an Anglican clergyman from Ireland who is now left with a family he can’t quite figure out how to manage:
Six motherless children to be educated and provided for; five of them girls, with no money to entice husbands. A dark lake of future, and sailing we cannot see the banks.
The three eldest daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte, are sent to a charity school for clergyman’s daughters at Cowan Bridge, later to be followed by Emily. Those who’ve read Jane Eyre will recognize the place immediately. Later, Charlotte will remark that the girls at Cowan Bridge had no voice, but years later, she could speak for them in her depiction of Lowood. Only at Lowood, we watch only one child die. Charlotte lost both her older sisters through a typhus outbreak at the school.
Other echoes from the novels appear throughout Morgan’s book, but Morgan wisely does not attempt to manufacture real-life models for all of the people and events in the novels. The echoes here are known pieces of the sisters’ biographies. We recognize Constantin Héger as Charlotte’s Professor and one of Anne’s charges as Agnes Grey’s Tom Broomfield. But there’s no obvious Edward Rochester or Heathcliff analogue. Neither is Charlotte a precise copy of Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe or Emily of Catherine Earnshaw. Readers who know the novels well may spot a reference to a tree split down the middle or a mention of madness being like an attic, but these moments are treated as asides, as mere Easter eggs for those in the know to see and smile at. The focus instead is on the minds that created Jane and Catherine and Shirley and Helen Graham of Wildfell Hall.
And these are great minds, each one different from the other. That is something else Morgan does well. The three sisters—and their brother Branwell—are all individuals, and Morgan’s imagining of their personalities fits the works they produce. Charlotte worries over doing the right thing and fears for all their futures. Emily wants nothing other than to be alone. And Anne just does the right thing, even when it’s painful, without putting up a fuss. Charlotte’s view dominates, perhaps because she lived the longest and was more open about her story, but each sister is significant. Anne and Emily get roughly equal attention, and Branwell nearly as much. (The U.S. publishers made the mistake of renaming the novel Charlotte and Emily, sidelining Anne in a way that Morgan does not. I’m glad I got my copy in England, so I can have a copy with the more appropriate title.)
The sisters are individuals, but they influenced each other, as anyone who’s read their books could see. This is not a story of three individuals but of a family of writers. Watching their writing develop from fantasy play to a vague idea in the back of Charlotte’s mind to a genuine secret plan was a great pleasure. Morgan takes his time getting to this point, and there are years of separation between those early tales of Angria and Gondal and their first steps toward publication. As they gather around the table, sharing poems with an eye toward possibly making a collection, they have no idea how momentous the moment is:
At first, an incredible shyness—as if they are thrown back to being children and seeing each other undressed or bathing. They say nothing, or they say nothings; that’s a pretty line, that’s a sad one. And then they truly begin to talk, because they have to, because they have always had to since the days of the Twelves and the Genii, whenever words and images and dreams are at stake.
Emily’s so powerful. Almost oppressively so sometimes: you seem to feel the weight of the thought like a slab across you. Well: Emily not displeased. (Emily almost forgiving Charlotte but still determined that this sharing is the end of sharing, that they take this exposure no further. Charlotte tacitly acquiescing, but still prodding and shepherding along.) In Anne’s, such melancholy. It disturbs, knowing her quietness, her straightness of regard, all the time, this, unsuspected—but why didn’t one feel the shudder, hear the sigh? Well, sometimes in writing one takes oneself off like a garment, says Anne. Not so Charlotte. She knows it. Her work is bulbous and misshapen with self, as she sees it. Sometimes it shines, but sometimes the shine is the scaly glimmer of decay.
Of course, Charlotte does manage to convince Emily to take their writing public, but with the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. At each step, future success seems near impossible, but they persevere, and so some of the greatest novels in the English language were written. I admit to tearing up a bit when Charlotte, after seeing her first novel rejected, sits by her father’s bedside after surgery and comes up with the idea for Jane Eyre: “Time to make a noise,” she thinks. And what a noise they made!