Their names have the ring of poetry, as their father well knew when he was in the process of re-inventing himself. No Patrick Brunty for him. It had to be that unique Shakespearean lilt — half English, half some other language. And Charlotte, Emily, and Anne are timeless names; two, three, one syllable. But it wasn’t just their names that held me in thrall, nor the spell of their novels, nor the reproduction of their portrait by their brother Branwell (another name to conjure with) in which they peer out weirdly from a murk which only half conceals that he has scrubbed himself out; it was the story of their lives which hooked directly into my romantic inner self.
Mine was a myopic childhood. The outdoor world was sharply defined only when I wore the hideous NHS glasses kept resolutely in the bottom of my satchel. But my reading life was rich and detailed, fed by my mother’s own obsessions. I gobbled up her cloth-bound childhood reading: Little Women, Heidi and What Katy Did, segueing from the Dimsie Omnibus and Daddy-Long-Legs to Emma and Jane Eyre without making any judgment as regards quality. My head was stuffed with tales of wayward or oppressed heroines who are tamed by experience and the love of a good man. I couldn’t stand fairy tales or fantasy; I wanted real life to be transformed, and all those heroines were surely only a skirt-length away from being me. When I broke into Wuthering Heights I came a cropper, spooked by the nightmarish image of Lockwood rubbing a phantom child’s icy hand on a broken pane of glass until the blood ran. The book had to go out on the landing while I slept, in case its words transmogrified into nightmares.
My mother and I read every biography we could lay our hands on in the local library, though we never discussed Charlotte’s romantic infatuation with Monsieur Heger in Belgium. My mother, brought up a Methodist, a convert to Catholicism, was very shy and spoke to me of love and sex only through literature. I found the Brontë biographies as romantic, dark and tragic as anything they ever wrote. I knew every detail: how Emily had half-blinded her dog when he insisted on sleeping on one of the beds; how she had refused to see a doctor until the last hour of her life when she finally allowed her emaciated body to rest and die on the sofa — the very sofa we had seen in the dining room on our pilgrimage to Haworth, which had also contained the very table around which the three sisters had paraded, discussing their fiction. I knew how Charlotte had appeared in her publisher’s London office to reveal that she was the writer Currer Bell, and of the painful letters she had written to Heger.
I identified with all three Brontë sisters: the myopic, bookish me was Charlotte; the religious soul yearning for something richer and more mysterious than a childhood in a suburban semi was Emily; the good-girl, play-it-safe, was Anne. And I half understood that their conflicts were elemental; anxiety about money coupled with the needs of their pitiful brother and reclusive father, the isolated parsonage and wild moorland, their half-buried, internal strivings, for love, for glory, for escape.
In short I was enthralled, as Charlotte Brontë had perhaps intended when she composed her extraordinary 1850 preface to Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Of Emily she writes: ‘Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on her with an anguish of wonder and love… ’ Suffering, anguish, wonder, love: four dangerous, high-octane words. No wonder I was hooked. No wonder I saw being a novelist as the pinnacle of achievement, giving one permission to delve into the human condition with the simplest of tools: pen and paper.
This vein of passionate being, so at odds with the prosaic external life of ordinary mortals, is brilliantly and painfully defined in Villette, a book I disliked at first and still find too brutally explicit to enjoy wholeheartedly. But it is the book that most graphically explains the Chinese box fascination of the Brontës. First there is the story itself, of plain and reclusive Lucy Snowe who becomes a teacher in Belgium, then there is her elusive narrative voice, then the violence of emotion beneath the minutiae and tedium of her daily life. Next there is the well-documented background to the novel, Charlotte’s own sojourn in Brussels where she is sucked into a passionately intellectual and probably one-sided romantic engagement with her teacher. Finally, there is my own response, from girlhood obsession to adult reinterpretation.
Like all the best art, the Brontë story alters with the generations. In her new biography, Charlotte Brontë: a life, Claire Harman casts a fresh light on Charlotte as business-woman, traveller, and sociable luminary of literary London. In the very last pages she presents the intriguing possibility that Heger was a serial manipulator of vulnerable young ladies — a concept all too believable to a twenty-first-century reader.
The Brontës were part of my adolescent emotional fabric. The same heartbeat that responded to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’, or Paul Simon’s ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’, quickened to them. I identified absolutely with the pulse behind Emily Brontë’s ‘No coward soul is mine/No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere…’ , although I was somewhat repulsed by the fantastical context of Gondal. The fact that Emily Brontë first created an alternative world, then invented the emotions of the creatures within was frustrating. It made everything seem too remote and Emily herself seem cold.
In my own fiction, there are three themes that I return to again and again — confinement, sisterhood, and a yearning desire for fulfilment. Time and again in my novels, I have rescued women from historical obscurity and thrust them into the limelight. My version of Gondal is the past, whether it is mid-nineteenth-century Crimea, rural England in the eighteenth century, or legal London in the nineteen twenties. If asked why I’ve chosen to be an historical novelist, I always say that it’s easier to get a perspective on the past; history gives me a context and a shape. Like the young Brontës, I need a filter. Real life is just too tricky to negotiate — best to create another world.
I have been a cautious novelist. My heroines have been restrained. They have never dared cry, like Cathy: ‘My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff!’ Perhaps that’s because my youthful world was hemmed in by the pavements of Rayners Lane and the Metropolitan Line rather than a wind-rocked Yorkshire parsonage; instead of stomping across the moors I was sent to play on our local recreation ground. Thankfully, I didn’t have a drunken brother or a dead mother and older siblings. Or perhaps I simply lack the Brontë courage (not to say genius).
Reading a new biography after years of not thinking much about the Brontës was a vivid reconnection with my younger self. And ironically what’s happened is that I’ve discovered yet one more secret box. There she is, that short-sighted little bookworm, soaking up the drama and romance of other worlds, only half-understanding that given her particular combination of childhood circumstances, she will never be satisfied by engaging solely with the external world, but will spend innumerable hours of her life creating fictional contexts in which to explore the conflicts and yearnings which fuel us all.