When Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her famous book The Life of Charlotte Brontë, she had to tread very carefully because a lot of the people who played a part in the story were still living and their feelings and reputations had to be protected. Mrs Gaskell, apart from being Charlotte Bronte’s biographer was also her friend and champion so the biography is hardly an unbiased account. This is what Margaret Lane tries to correct and improve upon with her retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s biography The Bronte Story.
I must say the title misled me. I assumed the book was about all the Brontes, particularly Emily, Anne and Charlotte. We are given a brief sketch of each Bronte but the attention paid to them is cursory. The spotlight stays firmly on Charlotte. Mrs Gaskell herself is an important character in this story. As Margaret Lane says in the introduction, “This book is offered as a sort of footnote to Mrs Gaskell, bringing the reader back at every point to her incomparable text, and at the same time putting him in possession of everything that has come to light in the century since she wrote.”
There are a few chapters to Charlotte Bronte’s life which were intentionally suppressed by Mrs Gaskell. The most controversial of these being Charlotte’s unrequited love for Constantin Heger, a married man and her teacher. Margaret Lane tells the whole story, quoting from Charlotte’s own letter to Heger. The letters are pretty tragic and lovelorn and I can see why Mrs Gaskell did not want their contents to be public. Lane also touches on Charlotte’s relationship with her husband which was placid at best. The stormy passion of Jane Eyre seems even more intense in contrast to the lukewarm love life of its author. Where did she dredge up all that intensity when she had never experienced it herself? A triumph of imagination over reality.
I wish the author had focused on telling the Bronte story as she saw it, in her own voice. The book seems to have two and sometimes three narrative threads which can get confusing. There are letters from Charlotte, the writings of Mrs Gaskell and Lane’s own surmises all making a bit of a hodgepodge. In fact Lane quotes Mrs Gaskell’s book so extensively that almost half of it seems to be reproduced here. The Bronte Story is not an easy book to read. The writing seems unnecessarily complex and in some parts it is so dry that it reads more like a research paper.
Overall I don’t think the book does justice to its subject. The story really comes alive only when it is directly quoting Charlotte Bronte. Her letters are the most interesting and touching part of this book. I loved the letter she writes to her friend after the death of Anne, the last of her siblings. In it she talks of her writing as her solace, “The faculty of imagination lifted me when I was sinking, three months ago; its active exercise has kept my head above water since; its results cheer me now.” All those of us who have sought refuge in books can relate to this.
It wouldn’t take much skill or effort to tell a fascinating story of the Bronte sisters. Their lives were filled with so much tragedy and creativity, the book would practically write itself. Unfortunately Margaret Lane gives us facts and opinions but entirely leaves out the soul. I would only recommend this to die-hard fans of Charlotte Bronte. If you haven’t already Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte, read that instead.