I’ve just finished Claire Harman’s biography of my most favourite and idolized author, Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, and I am almost stunned into silence by just how beautiful, tragic and haunting Charlotte’s life was.
Harman’s biography is not altogether touching and memorable because of its articulation of facts and details about Charlotte’s life – that sort of information can be easily found on the internet, and I was aware of most of it from my extensive reading about Charlotte’s life in Haworth (including Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë) and from my trip three summers ago to the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Any interested reader and fan of the Brontë sisters can gather a lot of information about their secluded, solitary existences by picking up a book from the local library or visiting the number of websites that speculate and provide reliable insight into their lifestyles.
But what Harman’s biography does that I hadn’t encountered previously in a detailing of Charlotte Brontë’s life is explore Charlotte’s insecurities, her sense of inadequacy and her fear of loneliness as a (young by modern standards, but of spinster status in her own Victorian estimation) woman. Charlotte Brontë was, after all, just that: a woman with strong, complicated and powerful emotions that she used with such eloquence in her fiction but that also plagued her in her own, every day life. Harman explores Charlotte’s greatest weakness: the fact that she does not believe herself to be pretty or physically appealing, and her lamentation of the fact that she will never be beautiful. Harman is able to quote several men who knew Charlotte well on this point, and their opinions of her social anxieties and her discontent with her own appearance are fascinating to behold:
“‘But I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful.’” – George Smith, Charlotte’s publisher
“‘rather than have fame rather than any other earthly good or mayhap heavenly one she wants some Tomkins or another to love her and be in love with.’”
– William Makepeace Thackeray
As Harman puts forth in her careful analysis of these quotes by male contemporaries of Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte desired nothing more ardently in her life (not even renown as an authoress) than reciprocated love and affection. Harman relates how Charlotte sought this sort of union with her former Belgian professor, Monsieur Constantin Héger, as well as, years later, with her publisher George Smith. Sadly, these men never returned her sentiments, and although Charlotte wed Arthur Bell Nicholls (curate of the parsonage at Haworth) after publishing her final completed novel, Villette, according to Harman, she often lamented the fact that she did not look as she wished to and was not pleasing to the eye. She even expressed these emotions in the words of her character Lucy Snowe of Villette:
“‘Was it weak to lay so much stress on an opinion about appearance?’”
– Villette, Charlotte Brontë
I find this line absolutely heartbreaking, but strangely reassuring. Although it represents just how sad Charlotte was and just how hard she was on herself, it also grounds her relevance much more soundly in our modern society. Charlotte’s anxieties are, in my opinion, very contemporary; her obsession with her own appearance almost places her in the 21st century, an era in which young women (and undoubtedly, young men as well) are encouraged to compare themselves to glossy and airbrushed magazine ads, to carefully constructed and filtered Instagram posts. There is no doubt that modern individuals are obsessed with looking “good”, but not only that, with looking a particular way. Whether or not Charlotte Brontë was a handsome woman is almost impossible to say, not because very few photos of her exist (in fact, only one drawn from life exists), but because this assessment is highly subjective. Unfortunately, the subjective and opinion-based nature of judgments of physical attractiveness did not stop Charlotte, a woman quite confident in her skills and talents, from doubting herself, from feeling unlovable and repulsive. I think this is absolutely tragic, and as I read Harman’s biography, especially in the final chapters that treated her writing of Villette and her lifelong struggle with self-consciousness, I almost grieved for Charlotte’s unrequited love and for the fact that she gave so much of herself to a dream of romantic fulfillment that she was never able to fully realize.
“the purest gem – and to me far the most precious – life can give – genuine attachment”
– Charlotte Brontë
What Harman’s biography explores, better than any other text about Charlotte’s life that I’ve encountered, is just what it promises to investigate in its title: Charlotte Brontë’s fiery and untamable heart. Charlotte jumps out of the pages of the book as a woman whose feelings cannot and will not be stifled, and despite her misgivings and her lack of confidence in her own charms, she is hopeful and she gives herself over to her love for Héger and her budding affection for Smith without reluctance. She may feel deep down that she can never win them and that she will never be worthy of love in their eyes (and even in her own), but like her most famous heroine Jane Eyre, she cannot control her emotions and she cannot stop herself from giving love, although she believes herself to be too plain to receive the same in return.
“‘Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.”
– Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
I have long adored Charlotte Brontë’s writing, and I have admired her as an artist. But after reading Harman’s biography, I can now say that I sympathize with her on a whole new level, as a woman. Charlotte Brontë is the young girl who is bullied in school because her hair is too curly or because she wears glasses or because her outfits just aren’t right. Charlotte Brontë is the teenage adolescent who fears that her high school crush will never like her back and who is pained every time she sees him flirting with the “popular” girls in her classes. Charlotte Brontë is the twenty-something woman who is single and terrified that she may never have a husband and a family, who watches make up tutorials every night on Youtube, who desperately tries to make herself look like the celebrities she follows on Instagram. Charlotte Brontë is all of us, she is each one of us in our most sensitive moments of self-doubt, and it is wonderful to behold that a woman so defiant and powerful in her fiction was not always so confident in real-life. It makes me, at least, reassured to think that a woman that I idolize and respect so greatly was not always so strong, that she too stumbled and had to find her way among the opinions and critical eyes of others.
And yet, Charlotte found her happiness, her marital bliss with Mr. Nicholls, her esteem and success as an author. She may not have thought herself much to look at, but now she is revered by millions of scholars and readers who feel a connection to her stories, her characters and, in perhaps a less obvious manner, to the very emotional woman that she was.
“‘I have at last my nameless bliss.
As I love—loved am I!’” – Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Girl with a Green Heart