In January of last year, inspired by that wonderful TV movie, To Walk Invisible, I finally read Anne Brontë’s two novels – powerhouses both. Before moving onto Charlotte’s novels – Jane Eyre being the only one I’ve read previously – I decided that I would first read Jude Morgan’s A Taste of Sorrow, a book that has sat on my shelves since publication in 2009!
All I can say is that I have now convinced myself never to adopt the if-it-sits-unread-on-the-shelf-for-5-years-then-it-must-be-culled rule. More like if-it-has-survived-culling-for-so-long-then-it-must-be-read rule. I have some treasures in the old long-term TBR and I don’t want to miss out!
The Taste of Sorrow was my first book of 2018, and it made me cry. I wasn’t so much affected by the tragedies of the Anne, Emily, Charlotte and their brother Branwell, which are well-known, but the fate of their father, Patrick, shook me to the core.
Morgan’s novel opens with Patrick Brontë tending his wife Maria as she lies dying of uterine cancer. At this stage, he is stll a vigorous man of 44 with 6 children and a congregation to care for. In need of a second wife, but not a catch anyone desired. So he remained a widower for forty years, during which all six – yes, six, not just the famous four (if I may call them that) – die too. Can you imagine that kind of pain? More than just a taste of sorrow, and more it seems than even the author can stand, because he ends the novel on a ray of hope, with the marriage of Charlotte, by then the only surviving child. Is this this the start of a brighter, happier, future?
Turn the page to the author’s note.
Charlotte Brontë died at Haworth Parsonage in March 1855, less than a year after her marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls, of an illness possibly related to pregnancy. She was 38 years old.
The Rev Patrick Brontë lived until 1861.
Brief, to the point and a hammerblow. I can’t bear to think of the pain of Patrick Brontë’s final years …
… or of what could have been if this family hadn’t been living in the 19th century, in the unsanitary, cold, windy, depths of Yorkshire. Not that we think of Haworth and the parsonage in that way now. It’s decades since I was there (and I visited frequently as it was a favourite day-out destination in my teens.) The place will have been sanitised even more now, and to see Haworth as a festering pit, full of tuberculosis and typhus. Well, it’s hard to imagine.
Morgan’s novel shows and explains the realities and restrictions of the Brontë’s underprivileged background. Their escape into the world of passion and imagination is remarkable. So too the differences in temperament between the famous four: Anne, the quiet observer; Emily, the homelover, who sickened whenever she had to leave the moors; Branwell, the drunken reprobate, and Charlotte, the plain one, the quietly passionate one, the one who was desperate to leave home and experience a different kind of life, in a different place.
Which she did in Brussels at the age of 26, when she first enrolled as a pupil, and then taught English at Constantin Héger’s school in Brussels. At first Emily was with her, but following a visit home, Emily refused to return to Brussels, leaving Charlotte, alone, and with no one to distract her from her growing feelings for the married Monsieut Héger …
Now here is the mystery, Morgan’s book gives the impression that Charlotte’s passion was unreciprocated, while the picture presented by Jolien Janzing in Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love (translated from Dutch by Paul Vincent) suggests something entirely different. Not quite a full-blown sexual liaison but something not far off! With the question of Monsieur Héger’s intentions left open to debate.
What both authors agree on is Madame Héger’s canniness and her resolve to protect herself and her family from emotional and financial disaster. She was a model clever cookie, as we say here in Scotland.
What is just an episode in Morgan’s book gets much more extensive and intimate treatment in Janzing’s. Particularly with regard to Charlotte’s thoughts amd fantasies. You can at times feel the heat in her blood. Whether the man was worth it is another matter altogether. And I reserve the right to decide on that, when I’ve read The Professor and Villette, the two novels in which Charlotte fictionalised her beloved. Janzing ends her novel with a lovesick Charlotte picking up her pen to begin the tale about a poor young woman with modest charms, like herself. Not an Arcadie who dances on the beach in calf leather bootees. Jane Eyre will be her name, and her boots will be worn and dull. And she will triumph.
The Arcadie referred to here is the privileged beautiful young Arcadie Claret, not yet sixteen, who catches the eye of the married and much older Belgian King Leopold. Whose middle-class mother thinks that her daughter becoming the king’s mistress is an excellent career choice, although she must ration her favours à la Anne Boleyn. She grooms her daughter for the role and ensures that her path crosses the king’s from time to time. Janzing also ensures that Arcadie crosses Charlotte’s path from time to time, just fleeting glimpses, here and there, but enough to emphasise that Arcadie has and is everything that Charlotte has and is not. Arcadie’s story, juxtaposed with Charlotte’s, not only shows how the other half were living at that time, but, also emphasises the risks that Charlotte, in her loneliness and desperation, was taking. When Arcadie eventually became the king’s mistress at the age of 18, she was cut off by her father, who never ascribed to her mother’s social-climbing and immoral aspirations. But she had the support of the most powerful man in the country to cushion the blow. Had Charlotte succumbed entirely to her passion for Constantin Héger, her religious father would certainly have cut her off too, and she would have been abandoned in a foreign country, penniless and entirely dependant on a man, who proved himself to be anything other than dependable. (See footnote.)
Oh Charlotte, what a lucky escape you had! You have so much to thank Madame Héger for! Readers also it seems.
Footnote: That’s not how Patrick Brontë treated Branwell, but a fallen woman was an entirely different prospect to a prodigal son.