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Claire Harman: Charlotte Brontë- A Life reviewed by Patrick McGuckin

This review was written by a member of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team. The Review Team take part in a special reviewing workshop at the start of the Festival before attending Festival events.

For the second time in this Literature Festival (the first was at the lecture about Sylvia Plath), I found myself being told that an iconic female literary figure probably wasn’t all that pleasant to be around. This time the subject was Charlotte Brontë. Claire Harman told the audience, which was around 95% female, that this small, undernourished woman was particularly aggressive towards small children. She admitted despising them − not the greatest attribute for a teacher to have. She apparently wrote that her pupils were ‘fat headed oafs’ and that she found them disgusting. Instead of actually teaching, she would set her pupils tasks and then lose herself in an imaginary world.

Upon finding fame, she was also particularly difficult in literary social circles. She once went to a dinner party held by Thackeray, and spoke to no-one but the governess all evening. Thackeray found her such hard work that he actually left his own dinner party. However, this Yorkshire woman may have been just cripplingly shy in such situations.

It’s not often that one hears the word ‘masturbatory’ on stage at the Ilkley Playhouse. This however is how Harman described the physicality that Charlotte Brontë evokes in her passionate writing. We learnt that Charlotte Brontë had an unrequited crush upon her tutor when she lived in Brussels. She wrote him passionate letters once back in Yorkshire, most of which were destroyed, but four of which survive in the British library. The novel Villette, often overlooked and overshadowed in favour of Jane Eyre, is very much based on these unreciprocated passions, Harman speculated. She also put forward the notion that elements of the book may have been written whilst under the influence of opium; her brother Branwell having also used the drug.

We left the playhouse with the notion that Charlotte Brontë was certainly a complex woman. Harman said her initial thoughts upon starting to write the book (to coincide with the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth in 2016), was to imagine herself as being Charlotte Brontë unpublished − to imagine the frustrations and ambition that that must have entailed. Charlotte was fiercely protective of Emily Brontë. Emily, we learnt, may have had an Aspergers type of condition. Charlotte, Harman speculated, was in awe of Emily, but Charlotte remained the creative force of the three sisters − the drive and the ambition of the trio. Once again I left an Ilkley Literature Festival event thinking about the complexity of personality that often accompanies the really great writers.

Patrick McGuckin has lived in Ilkley for 18 years and attended Ilkley Literature Festival for most of those years. Since attending the Review Writing Workshop a few years ago on a whi his has regularly reviewed events for the Festival. Patrick also reviews performances at Ilkley Playhouse for Ilkley Gazette.

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