If you are a fan of the Brontes, as I am, Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontes by Jude Morgan published 2009 is a must read. The only qualification I would make is that this book is not available on kindle. You can only read it in paperback but it is very much worth the effort.
What makes this novel so good? Well, it starts with the fact that Jude Morgan is an excellent writer who specializes in historical novels centering around literary figures. Another one of Morgan's books Passion is about the lives of the Romantic Poets, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats and has been described by Publisher's Weekly as "well researched, deeply imagined and gorgeously written"
The same applies to Charlotte and Emily which is also a deeply imagined novel and though the title implies that the focus will be on the two famous sisters, this is very much a novel of a family and that's really the only way the Bronte story can be told. Their lives were intertwined by their passion for writing, imagining and learning. But it is also a story of grief and lives cut way too short.
The novel begins for example with the father, Patrick Bronte, at the bedside of his dying wife Maria who is beside herself worrying about what will happen to her children, the oldest of which being only seven. After Maria passes it is left to Patrick Bronte to raise their six children on his own. Fortunately, his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell, moves in and she was a great help providing motherly attention and what money she could spare towards the children's education. But tragedy was never far from the Brontes and after the two eldest daughters Maria and Elizabeth age eleven and ten died from TB at the Dickensian boarding school they attended (a school made infamous in Jane Eyre), Patrick decided to teach his children at home.
Home was Haworth West Yorkshire and Patrick was the town's parson. He was not wealthy by any means but what Patrick was able to give his children was a love of reading and learning. One day he brought home a box of wooden toy soldiers and his children's imaginations took off. Charlotte and Branwell chose two of the soldiers and created the imaginary world of Angria. Emily and Ann created the world of Gondol. For the next eleven years Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Ann wrote poems and little handmade books about their magical kingdoms filled with lords and ladies, battles and adventures for their fictional characters.
But childhood doesn't last and siblings are expected to grow up and venture out into the world. As the book shows, Emily could never do this. If she was away from home for any length of time she began to weaken and so any thought of being a governess was out of the question. Charlotte and Ann did spend a good part of their twenties as governesses. It was not an easy life but what could they do? Branwell upon whom his father, and to a certain extent his sisters, had placed so much hope was floundering.
So there you have it in 1846, Branwell in serious decline. Patrick elderly and almost blind. Charlotte sees the handwriting on the wall since Patrick doesn't even own the house they are living in which belongs to the church. Charlotte reminds Emily and Ann how much they have always loved writing. Why not submit their poems to a publisher and more important why not see if they can each write a novel and of course the rest is literary history.
I enjoyed Charlotte and Emily a great deal and Jude Morgan does a good job of imagining what Patrick, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Ann were like. The dialogue and their internal thoughts ring true as does their interaction with each other. It's harder of course to get inside the head of Emily who will forever remain a mystery and Morgan is careful not to assume too much about what Emily was thinking. Charlotte who was the sister who ventured out into the world is much easier to write about and she left letters as well.
We learn about Ann, a sweet sensitive young woman who had a great deal of self doubt and yet in her novels was bold and ahead of her time. And Branwell who has come down to us through history as a burden on the family who destroyed himself through drink and drugs. But as with Anne who is finally getting the respect she deserves might it be time for a second look at Branwell? He had talent as a poet and painter but is it possible too much pressure was put on him as the only son? Patrick was counting on Branwell from a very early age to be a brilliant success and to be able to support his three sisters in their later years.
But of course the Bronte children never reached their later years but we have their poetry and their novels Jane Eyre, Villette, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which will live on for as long as great literature continues to be read