Skip to main content
book review

Nineteenth-century novelist Charlotte Bronte, seen in an engraving by William Jackman.

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre

Edited by Tracy Chevalier

William Morrow, 304 pages, $19.99

The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects

By Deborah Lutz

W.W. Norton & Company, 320 pages, $33

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart

By Claire Harman

Knopf Canada, 462 pages, $39.95

It takes drink to loosen up a hotel's worth of Victorianists. After a conference day of lectures and arguments about long-dead writers and their books, the academic I sat with in the bar announced tiredly, "Who are we kidding? We just like the clothes. That's why we got into this. The corsets."

The underwear is part of the 19th-century novel's enduring appeal, I'd agree (look up Bronte fan fiction if you're into that). You can see Charlotte Bronte's corset in the parsonage where she lived, now the centre of the literary lollapalooza her family unwittingly spawned. This April 21st is her 200th birthday, and since she became known as the author behind 1847's sensational Jane Eyre, thousands of readers have tried to get close, begging her father for a scrap of her dress or handwriting, buying her old bedroom window to somehow see what she saw, summoning her spirit at seances. A long queue of writers has tried to turn her into a story, too, this small parson's daughter from an isolated Yorkshire village who stormed the literary scene and changed it for good.

Fancy underclothes aside, why do we still want to look? The contrast of Charlotte Bronte's circumscribed life and the power of her mind continues to captivate, as does her tragedy: She lost all her siblings at young ages, including the equally powerful authors Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), and died herself in early pregnancy at 38. Bronte's novels, roaring portraits of the inner self, seem more and more ahead of their time. So, more to the point, what is left to see of Charlotte, after dozens of critical and biographical works trying to strip her down? Three new books try different ways to burrow under her skin.

On the fictional side, Tracy Chevalier has edited Reader, I Married Him, a collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre's most famous line. Writers still wrestle with Bronte's novel, a Gothic love story that fights its own genre. It's the foundation for contemporary fiction such as A Little Life or Fates and Furies, either of which could be Charlotte's titles, full of secrets and lies and big, bloody surprises.

These provocative stories, by authors from Emma Donoghue to Chevalier herself, make an eclectic lot. Set in various times and places (there's even a Canadian piece! With bears!), only a few spring directly from the original, such as Helen Dunmore's Grace Poole Her Testimony, in which Mr. Rochester's servant reveals her own private history. A surprising number are pretty tough on Jane's character, making her sneaky or pigheaded, emphasizing her as the "I" who did the marrying. Their overall link, though, is the way they ask, with Freud, what women want.

Nadifa Mohamed's Party Girl is one standout, a sparky and acrobatically written plunge into the council estates of contemporary London. Elizabeth McCracken's Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark swims even farther from Bronte's novel, depicting two gay men and their son on holiday in Texas, but subtly and beautifully echoes the plot line of Rochester's hidden first wife. Bronte herself is echoed in the voice of the half-requited love story in Esther Freud's Transference. As a whole, these pieces create a beguiling picture of women and men and desire, in which everyone is searching, like Jane, for happiness and wondering whether marriage is really an answer. The book acts as a prism spreading all kinds of literary and historical refractions, and it's a reminder that Charlotte Bronte, too, has many sides.

Deborah Lutz empties the closets in another book, The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects. I'm reminded of psychological experiments in which people are told they will get $20 if they try on the murderer Jeffrey Dahmer's cardigan, which virtually none of them does. Lutz has the opposite issue: Everyone still wants to touch the Bronte clothes, letters and other ephemera. She uses objects from the Parsonage Museum's collection to try to explain not only the lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, but also Victorian life generally. From dogs' brass collars to the sisters' sewing boxes, the things discussed are reverently treated as semi-mystical witnesses to the past. When she stays close to these objects, Lutz is an impassioned storyteller, but, as she jokes in the preface, she's sometimes overtaken by mystique herself, which is when the book drifts into broad spaces. The section on "Death Made Material," for instance, includes a bit of a sideshow on the history of things made from dead people's hair. Lutz is carefully sympathetic to 19th-century culture, but a closer appraisal of the Bronte effect on our understanding of it would have made for a sharper read. Still, the book is a thoughtful way to retell the family's tale, a pleasure for readers new to these lives and especially intriguing on the mechanics of the post, letter-writing and letter-sealing.

Claire Harman wants to get right under the ribs, taking on the difficult task of a bicentenary biography with Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart. (She has tough, last-word acts to follow in Lucasta Miller's The Bronte Myth and Juliet Barker's encyclopedic The Brontes.) With some newly available material, Harman cleverly chooses to dissect Charlotte through her major relationships, cutting a clear path for Brontemaniacs and new readers alike.

Harman frames her book with Constantin Heger, the model for Mr. Rochester and several other characters, and the crisis of Bronte's life. This charismatic, difficult – and married – man perceived his pupil's giant intellect when she studied French with him in Belgium, while she saw in him the possibility of the equal she deeply desired, someone who could look past her small, plain exterior to her core. Harman's cinematic preface depicts the young Bronte near breakdown over Heger, and her coda paints a startlingly fresh picture of what he might have thought about his student-turned-star after her death.

Harman leads us through Bronte's connections with family and friends and, most important, other potential counterparts, sticking crisply to her storyline in spite of many possible byways (Charlotte's brother Branwell's addiction, for instance, although Harman throws out a suggestion that Charlotte may have used opium herself). She clearly shows how Bronte mined her own life for material, often exacting revenge or fulfilling erotic wishes in her fiction. It's easy to fall into the abyss of psychoanalytic speculation here, as many life-writers have, but Harman is witty and precise, though she tiptoes to the edge at times with some "Charlotte must have felts." She's a strong explainer of the novels, especially good on Villette, for my money Bronte's best, arguing its inconsistencies as part of its modern, muscular appeal. Surgical in its clarity, Harman's book brilliantly maps out how Bronte built herself. Though this is a solo portrait of a heart, we see lovers – imaginary, unrequited, would-be and actual – through Charlotte's eyes, and her through theirs, giving us a new lens on this much scrutinized life, and ending with a bang.

Corsets turn up in all these books. Charlotte loved describing clothing, writing long descriptions of rich fashionistas as a child, and depicting purple silks and pink satins in Jane Eyre. But she was a plain dresser herself, often unsure of what to wear, uncomfortable being looked at. The artist Gwen Raverat remembered the constrictive fashions of her own Victorian childhood: "[T]he ladies never seemed quite at ease, or even quite as if they were wearing their own clothes." We're still dressing and undressing Charlotte Bronte, turning her this way and that, but layers remain, which is perhaps as it should be.

Interact with The Globe