Charlotte and Emily

Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the BrontësJude Morgan’s Charlotte and Emily is mistitled. It is actually the story of Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë, as well as their parents. In the UK, the book was titled The Taste of Sorrow, a title much more apt, though one could argue again that the Brontës endured much more than a taste of sorrow. I imagine the reason for the change stems from the notion that Americans will be more interested in Charlotte and Emily, as though we aren’t as likely to buy a book the book with Morgan’s title. I grow tired of this sort of retitling.

Morgan’s novel begins on the deathbed of Maria Branwell Brontë and traces the familiar family story from the coming of Aunt Branwell to help care for the children, to the loss of Maria and Elizabeth, casualties of the harsh conditions at the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge. Branwell is given the gift of toy soldiers, and he and his sisters create imaginative stories. As they grow, they find it difficult to leave behind their created worlds of Angria and Gondal. As adults, the sisters try their hand at teaching and governessing, but they are ultimately unhappy. Their brother Branwell succumbs to drinking and dissolution; meanwhile, they write.

Morgan’s writing style draws you in. He doesn’t attempt to mimic the style of the Brontës, and some expressions (Tabby’s “What’s up?”, for instance) seem jarring, but the overall effect is an admirable piece of work that brings the Brontë family alive. Patrick Brontë, the family patriarch, suffers a little under Morgan’s characterization, but as I don’t know much about the man, I can’t say that the characterization is unfair. Once again, I walk away from a book about the Brontës with the notion that no matter their unhappiness in life, I would really like to have sat at the table with all of them for tea and conversation. Branwell is the great unrealized genius, fiery and passionate. Anne, the dutiful, honest thinker. Emily, the blunt, private dreamer. Charlotte, much like her heroine Jane Eyre, a person whose passions run deep beneath the surface.

I highly recommend this novel to fans of the Brontës. It’s highly readable historical fiction that brings the reader into the world of the Brontës. Don’t take my word for it, however. The BrontëBlog has a glowing review of the book.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book concludes the All About the Brontës Challenge for me and is my fifth book in the Bibliophilic Books Challenge (one more will bring me to Litlover status). This book is also my sixth selection for the Typically British Reading Challenge, bringing me to the “Bob’s Your Uncle” level. I’ll keep going.

Maria Brontë

Maria Brontë

Maria Brontë
Photo by Gary Myers, via Find a Grave

I’m currently reading Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan. I am new to the Brontës, having only read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the last three years. Upon reading Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë earlier this year, I became much more interested in the Brontës themselves. I highly recommend BrontëBlog if you want to keep up with Brontë references in both pop culture and academia. I haven’t read any Brontë biographies yet. Syrie James’s novel begins just as Charlotte Brontë has returned from Belgium. All of the surviving Brontës are adults, and their sisters Maria and Elizabeth, who died as children, are logically not a part of the story. Jude Morgan begins his novel with the death of Maria Branwell Brontë, wife of Patrick Brontë and mother of the six Brontë children. After a flash forward of a few years, Patrick Brontë seizes an opportunity to educate his daughters inexpensively and sends first Maria and Elizabeth, then later Charlotte and finally Emily to the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge, some forty miles away from Haworth, the Brontës’ home. Because Morgan chose to begin his story of the Brontës at an earlier time, his novel provides a glimpse not only of the Brontës’ mother, but also Maria and Elizabeth.

My first thought upon reading about Maria’s abiding patience and endurance in the face of outright child abuse at the school was that she sounded just like Helen Burns in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. Eager to learn whether or not this was true or conjecture on behalf of Morgan, I searched for references to Maria as the inspiration for Helen, and I discovered some quotes from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. Indeed, Charlotte did claim, in the face of criticism that Helen was “too good to be true” (and I admit I felt the same way when I read Jane Eyre), that “she was real enough.  I have exaggerated nothing there.” Mrs. Gaskell described an incident that Morgan works into his narrative in which Maria, not well enough to get up, was urged to stay in bed by the other girls, only to be abused by their teacher, Mrs. Andrews. Maria struggled to dress herself, urged the other girls to have patience, and was subsequently punished for being late (presumably to breakfast or class—Gaskell did not say).

After reading about Maria and learning that her story as presented by Jude Morgan was true, the first thing I wanted to do was go back in time and rescue her from that awful place and take care of her, which I’m sure her father and siblings wished they could have done. Her story is heartbreaking, moving, and sad. Given Patrick describes talking with eleven-year-old Maria  “on any of the leading topics of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person,” one cannot help but wonder what books Maria might have written had she lived.

I learned more about Maria Brontë at these websites:

On an unrelated note, I am appreciating Morgan’s writing style a great deal. His use of stylistic fragments and run-ons to evoke events whirling out of control as well as occasional adjectives shifted out of order popped off the page because I have recently been teaching students these techniques using Image Grammar by Harry Noden. Though Noden gives examples from prominent writers in his book, it’s fascinating as a lover of the craft of writing and and avid reader to catch these interesting techniques in action.

Wuthering Heights: Audio Book

Wuthering HeightsI became a member of Audible last month. To me, $14.95 a month for an audio book each month seemed like a fairly good deal. I know that Audible uses DRM, and some folks have a problem with that, but if I am just going to listen to the book on my iPhone or computer, it shouldn’t be a problem. When you join Audible, they give you a free audio book, and I did not hesitate a bit in choosing my first book: Wuthering Heights. My only hesitation was in wondering which version to choose. I decided on a version read by David Timson and Janet McTeer. If you have any interest in an audio version of Wuthering Heights, I cannot recommend this version highly enough. Timson takes on the role of Mr. Lockwood to McTeer’s Nelly Dean, and both of them capture their respective characters beautifully. Janet McTeer does a masterful reading of the Yorkshire dialects of Joseph and Hareton; she manages to make each character distinct. Her rendering of Linton Heathcliff is dead on.

I was struck anew by my original sentiment. The characters are on one level easy to dislike, but strangely sympathetic. I said after originally reading the book, “one thing I think Brontë did quite well is paint characters who while flawed and perhaps even reprehensible, still manage to evoke the reader’s sympathy.” Heathcliff is such a person. How to reconcile his great love for Catherine (and the pure poetry Brontë places in his mouth upon her death) with his wickedness to others. He lashes out like a wounded animal, effectively alienating anyone who might have been a friend to him. Yet he is strangely charismatic. Hareton, for instance, is drawn to that side of him, as is Isabella Linton (at least at first). I really liked Hareton much more in this reading.

I will mention that the background on my computer is a photograph taken of Top Withens, believed to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights, with the great cloudy sky and moors stretched out below. A solitary tree stands sentinel over the ruins. It’s how I imagine Wuthering Heights would look today: abandoned by Hareton and Cathy for Thrushcross Grange and left to decay as Joseph passed on.

I think Wuthering Heights is one of those books that is under my skin. I think about it a lot. I can’t explain very well to anyone why I like it so much. The characters are not those plucky good sorts of people. You don’t really root for them. No, they provoke you and make you feel for them in spite of it. I don’t rightly know what to make of my fascination with this book.

Typically British Book Challenge Brontë Challenge

This book is my second selection for the  All About the Brontës Challenge and the first for the Typically British Reading Challenge. I need to read at least one more Brontë-related book for the first challenge, and I need to read three more British novels to meet the level of the British Challenge to which I’ve committed. I am currently working on Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, but aside from this book, I’m not sure what other books will comprise my the challenges. However, my next audio book will be The Help, as I have had it recommended by two colleagues.

Wow. Wuthering Heights. Just brilliant. What a genius Emily Brontë was. Thank goodness she left something of it behind.

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte BrontëI have just completed Syrie James’s novel The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë. Depending on your knowledge of the Brontës’ biographies, this review may be a bit spoilery. As an English teacher, I knew a fair amount, but I learned a great deal more than I previously knew about the Brontës from this book.

First and foremost, Syrie James has carefully and lovingly researched the Brontës in order to write this book: a fact which shines from every page. I have often said I wished I could sit and eat dinner with the Brontës just once, just to hear what they might talk about. To be around just a great collection of literary genius all gathered in one household would truly be a delight. While that wish can never come true, reading James’s novel is a close approximation. The conversations that James conjures among Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as they write their novels, discussing the merits (and deficiencies) of each other’s work capture what it must have been like to be a writer in that family. Their closeness and love for each other is beautifully rendered. Knowing the pain that Charlotte would endure as her siblings all passed away within a short span of time, I was more or less prepared for it, but I admit I teared up a little with each loss.

Charlotte’s own life story is equal to any of her novels and those of her sisters as well. It was with pleasure that I read of her happiness with her husband, but with sadness, too, especially for him, as I knew she did not live long after her marriage. If you like the Brontës, Victorian literature, or just books about books, my suggestion would be to read this book without delay. I found it a pleasure from start to finish and can hardly wait to read more of Syrie James’s writing.

Brontë Challenge Bibliophilic Books Challenge

This book is my first selection for both the All About the Brontës Challenge and the Bibliophilic Books Challenge, and if you are participating in either challenge, I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

I have a fun poll for Brontë fans:

What is your favorite Brontë novel?

View Results

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Feel free to discuss further in the comments.

Shelfari and Reading Updates

Before I curl up with my books, I wanted to mention two things. First, I joined Shelfari today. I resisted joining another network because I am very happy at Goodreads. I am a member of LibraryThing, but unless you agree to pay for a membership, you are limited to only 200 books, so I am not at all active at LibraryThing. You might not remember this, but back in 2007 a controversy erupted over the fact that Shelfari did not used to allow users to easily uncheck the names of contacts they did not want to invite to use Shelfari. Tim Spalding, CEO of LibraryThing, also caught Shelfari astroturfing. However, I’ve not heard any criticism of Shelfari for two years, now, so I joined up. The interface is beautiful, and the community is more in charge. At Goodreads, you can apply to become a “Librarian” and edit book information, but Shelfari allows all community members to do so, which is both more risky and more open. Goodreads easily allows users to connect their accounts to Twitter, and it also allows me to share blog posts, but that may be because I’m a Goodreads author. As far as I can tell, Shelfari doesn’t allow you to do either of those things. So anyway, I’ve joined up, and we’ll see how it works out. Considering the time investment today, I hope it will be worthwhile. You can see my bookshelf in the sidebar to the right, and feel free to be my friend on Shelfari (and Goodreads, for that matter, but don’t expect too much if you become my friend on LibraryThing).

Second, I have begun two reading challenges: the Bibliophilic Books Challenge and the All About the Brontës Challenge. with my first selection, Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë. It should be obvious how the book meets the Brontë challenge, but in case you were wondering how it meets the Bibliophilic Challenge, it is the fictionalized diary of Charlotte Brontë, and at only about 50 pages in, James has already mentioned Rochester and Jane and discussed the juvenile writing of the Brontës, as well as Branwell Brontë’s poetry, so I decided it met the criteria for the challenge.

I’m also in the midst of re-reading the Outlander series. I have not read the last three books, and it has been so long that I think I had better re-read the first four before I try to pick up the most recent books. I am currently working on the second (and my favorite) book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. I am continuing to read Crime and Punishment through DailyLit, and when I have to turn out the lights, I’m reading Mansfield Park on the iPhone with Stanza.

Related posts:

Bibliophilic Book Challenge

2010 Reading Challenges

I finally had an opportunity to peek at my feed reader and discovered two interesting book challenges for 2010. I plan to participate in both challenges, given I have the time. I have just discovered I will be teaching a fifth class (and yes, five different preps) next semester, and I will be taking a difficult grad school course. I must find time to read, however, even if it’s just listening to audiobooks in the car because I need it to feed my soul.

Bibliophilic Book Challenge

The first book challenge I’ll be participating in is the 2010 Bibliophilic Book Challenge. This challenge involves reading books about reading, and from what I gather, what I call “derivative fiction,” such as Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, can count. I have not decided with certainty what I will read, but I know one book will be Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor. I thoroughly enjoyed his other book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I can’t stop recommending it to folks. The challenge consists of three levels:

  • Bookworm: Read three books
  • Litlover: Read six books
  • Bibliomaniac: Read twelve books

I know I can’t complete the Bibliomaniac level, and Litlover is possible, but unlikely, so I will only commit to Bookworm at this point. I just need to choose two more books. I will update once I have figured out what I’ll read.

Brontë ChallengeThe other challenge is the All About the Brontës challenge. In order to complete this challenge, I need to read or watch three to six Brontë-related books or films by the June 30 deadline. The flexibility of the challenge means that I will probably complete it, but aside from reading Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, I’m not sure what I will do. I am thinking at least one audiobook, probably Wuthering Heights, which I’ve already read, but which I will be teaching this year, so it would be worth it to revisit. Again, once I figure out exactly what I plan to do for the challenge, I’ll update, but I will commit to three items at this point.

If you have a reading suggestion that would be appropriate for either challenge, I would surely appreciate it. Just leave a comment.