Lyndall Gordon's spectacular biography is a splendid celebration of the Brontes. Charlotte is shown in her true colors, not the rather drab little creature who nevertheless wrote divinely in spite of her sufferings. Charlotte emerges here as a girl and woman possessed with inner fires that fuelled her relentlessly towards her mission in life: writing.
Perhaps the most revealing chapter in the biography concerns Charlotte's experiences in Brussels where she taught at the Pensionnat Heger. Fate brought M. Constantin Heger and Charlotte Bronte together. As master of the pensionnat, a school for girls, Heger asides from being an absolutely superb teacher was highly unusual in pouring his talent into the teaching of GIRLS. Heger was very well aware of Charlotte's potential, and that of Emily, too, who was at the pensionnat with Charlotte. The experience of the two young women was totally different. Emily hated Brussels, sullenly oblivious to the impression she gave of a gauche, unfriendly person: Heger cut no ice with her. But Heger appreciated her gifts and said she would have made a fine navigator.
Charlotte, of course, fell deeply in love with Heger. Author Gordon includes in her narrative a note Heger wrote to a student long after Charlotte's death. The subtedly carressing tone of the letter, like a feather moving across her face, shows how seductive he was- not physically seductive, but mentally so. Although no letters remain of his correspondence with Charlotte after she left his employ one can imagine how Heger took possession of her heart.
Did Heger realize he was playing with fire when he charmed Charlotte? author Gordon wonders. He probably did. But he played a vital role in Charlotte's life. He turned on the tap that released Charlotte's talent in a wild gush. One of Charlotte's school book essays for Heger is thankfully translated from the original French in which she thinly disguised herself as an artist who went to Rome to witness the greatest art, fully knowleadgable of his own genius. GENIUS, not talent. Charlotte was quite aware of her unique ability but there was until then no way for her to cultivate the talent and let it grow.
Author Gordon fills in many cracks in the life of the Brontes, and Branwell, Emily and Anne are sharply revealed in fascinating vignettes. Anne said she felt "flat" after enduring four horrid years as governess to the Robinson girls and witnessing her brother's despicable behavior as tutor to young Edmund Robinson. Branwell, the favorite of Mr. Bronte, and indulged by him, "wallowed in the graveyardism of his own legend." Branwell's dissolution was dramatically played out as he curdled the peaceful parsonage social endeavors, being drunk or drugged and highly visible and vocal.
"I have not seen her parallel in anything" said Charlotte of Emily, the fierce creator of the fiece Heathcliff. Emily wasted away under the throes of tuberculosis. Author Gordon remarks that Emily's coffin was five feet seven in length (Emily was a great deal taller than Charlotte and Branwell) but only seventeen inches in width, the smallest width casket the carpenter had ever made for an adult. Emily died virtually a skeleton and it is fearful and painful to imagine her thus. Anne's death was very different. At the seaside in Scarborough where Charlotte and Ellen Nussey had taken her, she was facing the majesty and warmth of the setting sun and quietly passed on, bathed in its glow. Anne passed away like a lamb, Emily like a lion.
The story of Charlotte's relationship with George Smith, her publisher, is complete and wonderful in itself within this biography. Perhaps George was a bit in love with Charlotte and vice versa. Perhaps. But this urbane, cheerful man gave Charlotte a leg up, a taste of the outside world. He was immortalized as John Graham Bretton in "Villette." Lucy Snowe knew that Graham was not for her in the novel, even though she loved him, and Charlotte knew George was not for her either. However, she let him go with much less pain than she suffered during her enthrallment of Constantin Heger- but by then she was wiser, more sophisticated emotionally, more experienced in human relationships, especially with men.
Charlotte achieved great happiness in her marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls. Arthur was a handsome man and he adored Charlotte. If he was not an intelellectual, it was probably just as well as very few persons had the mental capacity of Charlotte. It can be said, rather like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in the end she had it all.