Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James

“Would you love me?” asked Jane Eyre at one point in her famous novel. “I am poor and little and plain.”

I quote that line a lot, but it’s not hard to imagine Charlotte Bronte saying the same thing about herself. She was never considered very attractive, and until Jane Eyre was published and became a huge success, her life didn’t account for much in the world. Words like, harsh and cruel, might be used to describe her life, with complete happiness arriving almost too late for her to truly enjoy it. Would we have had her great novels had her genius not been finely tuned by her grief and despair, if her life had been common and usual? Thankfully, the Bronte’s were far from usual in that sense. Their sorrow was our gain.

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte is a noble concept, for it ventures that Charlotte may have kept a diary of her thoughts; an account of her life, beginning long before Jane Eyre was published, but after her time in Brussels, until her death. We learn of her four marriage proposals, the last of which from a Mr. Arthur Nicholls, a poor curate who worked for her father for 8 years. A man so shy she never knew he was in love with her. Can you imagine if such a diary as this still existed? We are lucky enough to have her biography written by her close friend, Elizabeth Gaskell not long after her death, and we have her poetry and correspondence. It is through the latter that we know how she felt about Jane Austen and her novels:

What sees keenly, speaks softly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through…this Miss Austen ignores…if this is heresy – I can’t help it.
12 april 1850 to William Williams

But a diary, that would be something. James does a good job of including the known facts of the Bronte’s life. She leaves none of the dreaded details out here, and we all know how sad those details were, but at the same time she speculates that there was happiness in that household, as there only could have been between three kindred sisters who loved their wayward brother and their partially blind father.

My only complaints about this book would be that she borrowed lines from the Bronte’s novels, probably using them to mimic styles and patterns of speech familiar with Charlotte and her sisters. (For me, this is a common issue I have with books of this type. It feels like cheating.) Also, the whole Pride and Prejudice feel of the storyline. In the end, knowing her particular thoughts on Austen, I wondered if Charlotte Bronte was rolling over in her grave.

But that aside, my favorite part by far was the inclusion in the Appendix of some of Charlotte’s correspondence, a real treat to read, and some selected poetry by the Bronte sisters. Emily’s especially, were brilliant, passionate, and fascinating. How could anyone doubt she ever wrote one of my all time favorite novels, Wuthering Heights.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion –
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning with to hasten,
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

and -

“O mortal! mortal! let them die;
Let time and tears destroy,
That we may overflow the sky
With universal Joy!

“Let grief distract the sufferer’r breast,
And night obscure his way;
They hasten him to endless rest,
And everlasting day.

“To thee the world is like a tomb,
A desert’s lakes shore’
To us, in unimagined bloom,
To brightens more and more!

“And, could we lift the veil, and give
One brief glimpse to thine eye,
Thou wouldst rejoice for those that live,
Because they live to die.”

Reading those words alone made this book worth the reading.
3 stars.


Amanda said...

I can't bring myself to read these sorts of books. We've had a couple like this in our Jane Austen book club, too, but I can't get into them. Part of it just feels wrong, I guess. It feels fake (obviously, since it is). I don't know. I can't really explain it.

L said...

Like I said in the review, it does feel like they're cheating, and fake even, when they rehash these famous works, so to me that reaction is completely understandable. Some do it more than others. One I'm reading now, she does it all the time, having her main characters requote from Pride and Prejudice. It's really starting to get on my nerves.
If I'd wanted to read those exact words again, I would've read that book!

Mainly what redeemed this one for me was the stuff she included in the end. I loved reading Charlotte's letters. She had a biting sarcastic wit and a way with words that I just loved.

hamilcar barca said...

her poetry has rhyme and meter. which is better than most "modern" verse.

Unknown said...

Wow, Mr. Barca, don't hold back, or anything... ;).

Ms Lula - I REALLY enjoyed reading Emily's poems and Charlotte's biography earlier this year for that very reason. Someday, when I have lots of time, I think it would be wonderful to build a big web collection of all of the Bronte's work: novels, juvenilia, poetry, letters, etc. You could get it all cross-referenced, include the images of the original manuscripts, and link to scholarship on different aspects of their life etc, etc, etc... that sounds really geeky now that I say it out loud...

L said...

Doesn't sound geeky at all. Let us all embrace our inner nerdiness. Not enough people know about their poetry.

Julie said...

These books capture my attention but not enough that I've read any yet. I'd like to know the actual facts so it sounds like I may like the Appendix best. :)
Nice review!

Jason - I have to say that I hope you keep dreaming because I like your idea, 'geeky' or not, because it would be so interesting to read and very informative. I mean, wouldn't it be something to read a collection of Bronte literary material like that. :) Awesome!