Romancing Miss Bronte, by Juliet Gael.
When I first picked up Juliet Gael's Romancing Miss Bronte, I presumed two things: that it was a work of historical fiction, and that it was about author Charlotte Bronte's real life romance. (Possibly romances - aside from having read Jane Eyre about six billion times like a foaming fangirl, I knew very little about Charlotte Bronte.)
Halfway through Romancing Miss Bronte, I set the book down and spent some time glaring at the synopsis on the dust jacket and reading the Author's Note in the back. I was irritated with the book. There were a few obvious seeds of romance - place markers that said, "Wait for it, romance on the way." But at the halfway point there was still no romance. The book was focused on other things: the events of Charlotte's life, her family relationships, her sisters, their writing, their efforts to get published. Charlotte's brother, Branwell, with his blatherings over another man's wife and total disregard for his own family, made me absolutely angry. I was concerned that Juliet Gael knew little about mental health or religion, and even less about real love. Considering that Ms. Gael had named the book "Romancing Miss Bronte," I was even more concerned that Ms. Gael knew nothing about main points.
"In this astonishing novel, a brilliant melange of fact and fiction, Juliet Gael... imagines how love dramatically and most unexpectedly found Charlotte Bronte," said the dust jacket. The book was indeed supposed to be about her love life. "From the beginning, I was committed to as much historical accuracy as the narrative could bear," said Ms. Gael from her author's note.
"It would be better if it was named 'A Biography of Miss Bronte,' or 'Miss Bronte writes a book'," I grumbled to myself. Was this going to be another one of those works that looks good at the paragraph level, but stinks to high heaven for overall story execution? I had some time to kill, and it was a compelling view of life in the 1850's, so I kept reading.
I'm so very glad I did.
Romancing Miss Bronte reminds me of a bread-baking demonstration. Flour, yeast and water don't look much like bread to begin with, and if you haven't seen the process, you might wonder where the baker is going with all that rising and mixing. Through the first two-thirds of the book, Ms. Gael was kneading the elements into a dough and rolling out strips. When she was done, the story came together as swiftly as a baker braiding the strips into a loaf. Twist, twist, twist: bread. The story (never boring as much as casting doubts as to its direction) as well as Charlotte's real life romance both came together with incredible momentum. I read the last 150 pages without coming up for air, finished the last paragraph, and then burst into tears.
No more doubts about whether Juliet Gael knows what main points are, or how to handle the plot and pacing of a story, or whether she knows enough about real love to write it well. She did everything just right.
Of Charlotte's and Arthur's relationship, Ms. Gael writes, "Arthur Nicholls is an obscure figure about who very little is known, although Charlotte certainly wrote a good deal about him during the difficult months after his proposal. ... Thus it was this part of the story that allowed my imagination the most freedom - although I do not hesitate to add that the progression of their romance accurately follows Charlotte's account, and nearly all the scenes toward the end are rooted in authentic incidents, particularly the events that led her to view him in a new light and fall in love with him."
Like Jane Eyre, the characters in Romancing Miss Bronte are talented, flawed individuals trying to reconcile their selves, their morals, their passions and the lives they've been born into. (Even Branwell, whom Ms. Gael simply did too fine a job of depicting as a self-pitying toad.) The characters aren't shallow creatures who react like animals; they are people who wrestle with making the best decisions they can, who don't always get what they want, who sometimes want what they shouldn't have. And like Jane Eyre, the main characters in Romancing Miss Bronte find true love, though not without some effort, and not quite the way they expected to. In pacing, characters, and flavor, Romancing Miss Bronte reminded me very much of Charlotte's own books. More simply - if you loved Jane Eyre, you will love this version of Charlotte Bronte's life.
Ms. Gael shows flawless judgment by starting the novel with a quote from Charlotte Bronte's Villette:
Certainly, at some hour, though perhaps not your hour, the waiting waters will stir; in some shape, though perhaps not the shape you dreamed, which your heart loved, and for which it bled, the healing herald will descend.
Five out of five stars for Romancing Miss Bronte.
(Half a star out of five for Branwell.)
E-Book Bargain Safari!
(Remember, you don't have to have a Nook or Kindle to read e-books. You can read them from your computer.)
Romancing Miss Bronte by Juliet Gael is available for purchase as an e-book. As of August 2010, if you're going to cough up $13-14 bucks for an e-book, you could certainly do rather a lot worse than this one. But Livia Vorange does not spend that kind of money on entertainment unless it involves a full orchestra and ushers. (And maybe a live motorcycle stunt or two.)
Livia instead suggests you look for Romancing Miss Bronte in print, and satisfy any e-cravings with these works, which are available for free online, and all of which play roles in Ms. Gael's novel:
- The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell. Both Ms. Gaskell and this biography are mentioned in Romancing Miss Bronte. This is also one of Juliet Gael's sources, and a recommended read by Ms. Gael.
Charlotte Bronte's works themselves:
- Jane Eyre, her most famous work;
- Villette, which draws upon Charlotte's real life experience with her publisher - an almost-scandalous and definitely doomed love affair that both were too sensible to allow to actually happen - and her passionate, tragic, and somewhat unrequited love for her (married) college professor;
- Shirley, in which Charlotte seems to have drawn heavily from her sisters and father in her portrayals of the characters;
- and The professor, which one could view as a draft of Villette, but which certainly goes into more detail about Charlotte's feelings about the almost-affair that haunted her for years .
As well as:
- Charlotte's sister Emily's book, Wuthering Heights. In Romancing Miss Bronte, Charlotte's brother, Branwell, discovers that the three "Bells", Currer, Action and Ellis, are actually his sisters. He reads Wuthering Heights and reacts:
"The prose was new and fresh to him, but within a few pages he recognized the raw material's of his sister's imagination. This was certainly not Charlotte's writing: this was no tale of slavish submission, of yearing for the sophisticated and glamorous. Here was the creation of a wild, natural world populated by people of violent, raw emotions; he could easily see Emily living here - content, at peace, at home."Emily is portrayed in Romancing Miss Bronte as a strange, almost otherwordly soul, chafing around the company of others and only at peace roaming the moors like a wild thing. Critics condemned Wuthering Heights as being coarse, harsh and distasteful. I've never wanted to read it more!
- Charlotte's sister Anne's books, The tenant of Wildfell hall and Agnes Grey. Ms. Gael says that nearly all Charlotte's letters in Romancing Miss Bronte are Charlotte's own, with very little editing. One of the letters describes Agnes Grey thus:
"I'm sorry to say that no one even bothered to review Agnes Grey - I honestly don't know which is worse, to be ignored or reviled."Later on in Romancing Miss Bronte, Anne says,
"I have seen a good deal of shocking behavior in the great houses where I worked... really shocking things that are condoned in the upper classes, and yet no one seems to find the voice to speak out against them, or if you do, you're considered vulgar and coarse. I find that the harsher the critics are on Emily, the more resolute I am that my second novel be unfailingly true to life."
This was the first, the last and the only time Anne expressed herself so freely and fully on her own writing, specifically on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Charlotte, who had never approved of Anne's choice of subject, had the good sense to keep her opinions to herself."
Livia Vorange has never had the good sense to keep her opinions to herself. But she does hope to have set you on the trail of some good, inexpensive reading. Enjoy!