More than 150 years after the publication of Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre," popular culture is still fascinated with the novel's heroine. The plain yet passionate governess born of Brontë's imagination has spawned films, parodies, spinoffs, sequels, T-shirts, scented candles, jewelry and at least one board book. But how much is known about the author herself?
Biographer Claire Harman ("Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World") takes on the story of the multitalented and tragic Charlotte Brontë and her extended family in a meticulous history beginning with the early origins of the Brontë name and ending with the 20th-century dissolution of the Brontës' possessions.
Harman utilizes a chronological format, tracing the Brontë family's growth and, as they lost children and the Brontë mother, decline throughout Charlotte's early years. The remaining Brontë siblings mined their creativity in the isolation of their home. Throughout their adolescence the children were sent for formal schooling at different points as the need to earn an income became increasingly apparent. While the remaining sisters — Emily, Anne and Charlotte — took turns supporting their family, their brother Branwell's drug and alcohol addiction drained the household of their money and patience until his death at age 31.
Of course, Harman spends a large chunk of the book writing about the sisters' publishing career in detail. They were tireless champions of their own work, which took years to get out in public, and then it was under the cover of male names.
After Charlotte's success with "Jane Eyre," the other sisters' work, "Wuthering Heights" by Emily and "Agnes Grey" by Anne, also found an audience, although it was thought at the time that all three works were written by Charlotte (aka Currer Bell).
Tragedy struck the family again, with consumption claiming Emily's life and, shortly after that, Anne's. Charlotte was then forced out into society to find the companionship her family had provided, although she was never quite comfortable around groups or about her appearance. She married, but eight months later was dead from what is now believed to be an extreme reaction to pregnancy hormones.
"Do you … find it easy when you sit down to write," Brontë wrote to fellow author Elizabeth Gaskell, "to isolate yourself from all those ties and their sweet associations — [so] as to be quite your own woman — uninfluenced, unswayed by the consciousness of how your work may affect other minds?" While it may not be necessary for every fan of "Jane Eyre" to read Harman's biography of its famous author, it does bring a better understanding of the woman behind the girl who has captured so many hearts.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.