Beginning with a scene from Charlotte Bronte’s time as a student-teacher in Brussels, Harman explores how it is possible that a “plain, poor, clever, half-educated, dependent spinster daughter” found a moment of freedom in a Catholic confessional that taught her how to survive her most powerful feelings by transmuting them into art.
Harman is the author of five major literary biographies and has taught at English universities in Manchester and Oxford. Unlike Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte, which is often criticized for its bias, Harman’s protagonist is no tragic heroine but a fiercely independent woman with extraordinary talent facing a remote life on the English moors.
As well as being a literary genius, Bronte was a truly self-conscious woman. She was quite small, missing many teeth, so unpleasing in her appearance that even her friends would comment on her unkempt and frizzy hair. As a young woman among schoolgirls, she stood out for her academic abilities as well as her physical feebleness. Her eyesight was terrible, but her humility and expansive knowledge endeared her to her classmates.
Bronte, being a girl, with her family on the brink of poverty and coping with an alcoholic brother, felt the stab of responsibility to go out and equip herself for the best career open to her. She made an attempt to become a governess; however, she did not care for small children, finding herself bored and unappreciated by her employers. The best reasonable escape route was to set up a school, and this would require a knowledge of languages. After an appeal to Aunt Branwell for funds, in 1842 she and Emily departed for Brussels to attend the highly recommended Pensionnat run by Madame Zoe Heger and her husband.
She was obsessed with her teacher at the Pensionnat, Constantin Heger, who would serve as inspiration for characters in her novels. The most striking passage in
Jane Eyre, when Jane hears Rochester’s voice calling out to her at the time of great crisis in her life, he being many miles away, seems to recall Charlotte’s longing for her Master. Harman writes, “The wavering line between fact and fiction seems to disappear here, as does the distinction between what inspires a novel and how novels in turn affect life."
The Bronte sisters were aware that critics often displayed a bias when commenting on women’s attempt to publish. They were either unfairly chastised or merely flattered, leading the sisters to conclude using pseudonyms would be advisable. The pen names Currier, Acton, and Ellis Bell allowed them to publish poems and novels without being subjected to the prejudice and misogyny of the print culture of their day.
Harman writes with great empathy for the suffering inflicted on Bronte both as a woman writer and survivor of so many family tragedies. Chapter headings evoke a pilgrim seeking refuge. The
chapter on the The Professor is titled “Long-looked-for Tidings,” The one on Emily’s death is called “Across the Abyss.”
When writing about Bronte’s feelings for her teacher, Harman writes with poetic insight, “the union she craved with Heger was one of souls; a possession, a haunting, a living-through, a sharing of ideas, intensely verbal, profoundly silent, an enveloping warmth of love and shared awareness of power.”
A Fiery Heart provides us with a troubling account of what it must have been like to live under formidable conditions: the frustration of being a woman writer, the unfairness, the constant scrutiny, and at the same time a sense of excitement—We are being published! The sisters felt they were becoming both visible and their talents appreciated. This is a riveting book about a gifted and driven subject who defied convention to become the iconic author we know today.