My recent discovery of the Brontë sisters through their poetry made me want to discover more. Before I read their novels, however, I wanted to learn who they were that I might better appreciate their work, as is my modus operandi when dealing with most authors before my own time, and especially for those whose works are hailed as classics. I have a couple of ebooks on the sisters that came highly recommended through some fellow bloggers, and I will read them down the road as I become more familiar with the novels. For now, I needed an audiobook because I have more time to listen than I do to physically read. Audible had this one available, and as it got high marks, I have to assume the devoted fans approved. That’s a good sign. As the sister who lived the longest and who appears to have been the driving force behind the entire family, a biography of Charlotte seemed like a logical starting point for me to get a grasp of the family unit and the world in which they lived. After all, to learn about her is to likewise learn about Emily and Anne. It’s a win-win-win.
The introductory sequence to this book reads like a novel, perfectly setting the stage for picturesque turbulence that is the life of Charlotte Brontë and her sisters. Charlotte comes across as a character drawn from one of her own novels right from the beginning — with a similar acumen to what I got from Charlotte’s letters — and it pulls the reader in to learn who this woman is. From there, the chapters unfold in a more or less chronological fashion, more in keeping with what one would expect from a biographical portrait, with the storytelling foundation having already embedded itself in the reader’s subconscious. That storytelling quality continues throughout as much of the source material for this biography comes from Charlotte’s own correspondence, written with an equally literary hand, as though she was incapable of anything less than poetic expression.
Such is the literary cult of Brontë, that the author seems to expect the reader to already be familiar with the literary accomplishments, to know the works rather than simply to know of them. It’s easy to assume why from a biographer’s standpoint, I suppose, especially when it becomes so obvious that virtually everything within her works are directly inspired by her own life. Most people read the novels long before they learn about the mind that brought them forth. And so, I spent the entire time wondering if perhaps I should have done likewise. What’s done is done. Besides, I come away from this with an even greater anticipation for the works I’m going to discover, even if there were a number of teasers / spoilers dropped in the course of this book. I think it’s a good problem to have. In fact, I’ll say that between this biography and the poems of all three sisters, I’ve already found a new literary love, or loves as the case may turn out to be, much as it was for me when I first discovered Edith Wharton. It does seem that I made one positive accidental step in finding the poetry first. These were the first works published, under pseudonyms no less, so the entire world first read them without benefit of knowing the poets. So my introduction to the Brontës is the same as the world’s at large. That’s rather cool to think about.
At this precipice it all feels as overwhelming as when I first discovered Tolkien had more material beyond The Hobbit, and then far beyond The Lord of the Rings. As near as I can tell from allusions in this biography, scholarship of all things Brontë is every bit as deep and complex as all things Tolkien, with over 600 letters from Charlotte surviving, plus heaven knows how many extant stories from the less famous brother, the self-destructive Branwell, and a whole bunch of other things I have yet to learn about. It’s more than a bit intimidating and terribly exciting from a literary perspective. And it means that after I’ve had the opportunity to take some more of it all in, this biography (and others like it, no doubt) will mean so much more on account. At the same time… after taking some time to come to know about the Brontë sisters, the intimidation factor is just as easily brushed aside. Emily seems a bit standoffish at times with respect to her constraints within family and society, which could be fun, and Anne seems more immediately approachable, even if her novels sound far more judgmental. Both seem to be excellent complements and foils for Charlotte as only sisters could be. I look forward to discovering more from each of them in turn. Charlotte herself is practically inviting her readers in. She wants to be known. She wants to be understood and appreciated. She has so much to say, and she craves a willing companion who will listen and perhaps share in turn. She wants friends of like mind. Hers is a story fraught with injustice, defiance, and tragedy, expressed with both honesty and elegance. It’s hard not to identify with and to adore one who bears her soul so openly. Combine this with the heroic romanticism that is often applied to those who are amazingly talented and die far too young, it’s no wonder her readers are so loyal.
Be still, my geeky, literary heart. ♥