Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael

February 25, 2011

Plot summary (with spoilers): Before rising to literary fame, Charlotte Brontë lived the life of a poor curate’s daughter in the English countryside. She had seen some of the world thanks to a few years spent studying abroad in Belgium, but she returned to Haworth after a failed love affair with one of her professors. At Haworth, she and sisters Anne and Emily took care of both brother Branwell, an alcoholic and opium addict, and aging father Patrick.

Money was a constant source of concern for the Brontë family, particularly since Branwell was such a layabout. He was supposed to be the brains of the family, and at one time had a bright future as a writer or whatever else he wanted to be. But, after falling in love with a married woman who couldn’t/wouldn’t leave her husband for him, Branwell turned to drink and drugs. Thus, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne decided that their best chance at gaining financial security would be to try to earn their living from writing.

Towards that end, the women self-published a volume of poetry under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Unfortunately, only two copies sold, which practically devastated Emily. But Charlotte was not one to give up so easily. She encouraged her sisters to try fiction next. The young women did, resulting in Jane Eyre from Charlotte, Wuthering Heights from Emily, and Agnes Gray from Anne. Jane Eyre became an instant sensation in London, with everyone scrambling to find out who this Currer Bell fellow was.

The Brontë sisters were unwilling to come forward to claim the success. Emily was especially stubborn about this point, insisting that they should never be able to write freely if people knew who they were. The other two acquiesced to her wishes. But after Emily and Anne died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis, Charlotte soon began embracing her literary fame. She followed Jane Eyre with Shirley and Villette.

The “romancing” part of the title doesn’t come until towards the end of the book when Arthur Bell Nicholls, Patrick Brontë’s curate, proposed to Charlotte. This wasn’t a typical romance in that Arthur didn’t purchase chocolate covered strawberries or flowers for Charlotte, nor did he write passionate poems expressing his feelings. Indeed, Charlotte didn’t particularly love Arthur, but wasn’t quite sold on remaining a spinster, either. Thus, they married in 1854. Charlotte died in 9 months later due to complications during her pregnancy. She was 38.

Liked:

  • I thought this was a rather fascinating look at Charlotte Brontë’s life. I didn’t know anything about Brontë prior to reading this book, so I can’t really separate fact from fiction. But from a reader’s standpoint, I thought Gael did a marvelous job of storytelling.
  • I enjoyed Charlotte’s strange relationship with her publisher George Smith. I actually hoped that they would get together, as Smith seemed much more interesting than Arthur. Too bad it didn’t work out that way.
  • This book sounded like it could have come from Charlotte Brontë’s time period. The language, mood, and setting all struck me as true, and added a lot of authenticity to the work.

Disliked:

  • I thought Gael spent entirely too much time on Branwell in the early part of the book. He was a tiresome, dull character, and whenever he appeared on the page, the narrative slowed to a crawl.
  • Arthur was such a letdown. I mean, I guess if Charlotte married an ugly, unremarkable bore, then there’s nothing the author can do to change that fact. But it just felt so wrong for those two to be together. (And the descriptions of their sex scenes? Um, ewww!!!)

Rating:
On the whole, I was very impressed with Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael. This was a fabulous piece of historical fiction, and should definitely be read by anyone interested in the life of Charlotte Brontë. Yes, I said the life of Charlotte Brontë. Don’t let the title of this book fool you. It’s not about her (practically nonexistent) love life; it’s more about her publishing adventures and rise to literary fame. I give the book 4 stars out of 5.

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