Writing biography is an immersive experience: you read, write, live and breathe the subject for several years, to the exclusion of all others. Writing about Charlotte Brontë has been totally preoccupying for me, both because of the wealth of material that she left behind – lovingly preserved at Haworth and in libraries across the world - and because of the power of character, the spiritual presence, that pervades both her public and private works. She intended to haunt her readers, and does.
Brontë poured everything into her books, but lived it first. That’s what makes Jane Eyre’s impassioned speeches so electrifying, Lucy Snowe’s despair so all-pervasive, Caroline Helstone’s mental fragility so alarming. Even at her most Gothic, she wanted to express true emotions, true behaviour, and created a new kind of heroine to express it; someone whose heroic qualities are scarcely visible to the world at large, but who burns with inner passion and longings.
Brontë’s unimpeded imagination remains a force to be reckoned with today: Jane Eyre is a great love story, but it is also bracing and shocking and bold in its spirit. Charlotte Brontë’s was ‘a force of strong fiery life’, as Matthew Arnold’s sister once remarked, ‘which nothing has been able to freeze or extinguish.’ Her life was incredibly sad, and the tragedies of her siblings’ deaths all but killed her, but that fiery force went undimmed into her books and into her heartbreakingly eloquent letters. Of all the subjects I have written about, hers is the most unquiet ghost.
Charlotte Brontë: A Life was published by Viking Penguin in the UK on 29 October 2015 and by Alfred A. Knopf on 1 March 2016, with the title Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart. The paperback edition was published in April 2016 to tie in with the bicentenary of Bronte's birth. It is also available as an e-book and unabridged audiobook and was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week adaptation, read by Hattie Morahan.
Chris Riddell's cover for Literary Review, October 2015, featuring Charlotte Brontë:
From the reviews of Charlotte Brontë: A Life:
'Three rounds of applause…for Claire Harman’s superb retelling of Charlotte’s story.' (Mark Bostridge, The Spectator)
'There’s a fire and a fury raging in that little woman,’ Thackeray observed of Charlotte Brontë. ‘She has a story and a great grief that has gone badly with her.’ Harman tells the story with quick wit, a sharp sympathy, and a fire and fury of her own.' (Frances Wilson, Evening Standard)
'elegant, sensitive, beautifully paced and moving. [Claire Harman] has… produced a work that is affirmative, edifying, inspiring and humane.' (Matthew Adams, Sunday Express)
'[An] excellent new bicentennial biography….Ms. Harman writes with warmth and a fine understanding of Ms. Brontë’s literary significance. Above all, she is a storyteller, with a sense of pace and timing, relish for a good scene and a wry sense of humour.' (The Economist)
'Elegantly written, consistently perceptive…[Harman] succeeds in bringing Charlotte back to life in all her spiky vulnerability.' (Daily Mail Book of the Week)
'Revelatory (...) [Harman] adds freshness and texture to her account with original speculations.As someone who once wrote a book about the Brontës’ afterlives, few people can have read as many biographies of them as I have. I thought I was Brontë-ed out, but reading this book—which will be equally accessible to someone coming to Charlotte for the first time—has drawn me back in.' (Lucasta Miller, The Independent)
'Finely judged and authoritative.' John Carey, Sunday Times Book of the Week
'Harman... portrays Bronte's complexity and dark genius in elegant prose with deep human sympathy' (The Lady)
'Full of pleasing and piquant detail, scraps of passing recollection assembled from the various lives and letters in which the Brontes featured and from which we might reconstruct their world' (Financial Times)
'A retooled classic biographical narrative, shipshape and serviceable for the next 200 years.' (Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian)
* * * * Chosen as BOOK OF THE YEAR by the following critics * * * *
Claire Lowden in the Sunday Times: ‘Prepare to suffer similar time-loss at the hands of Harman, Brontë’s most recent biographer and a master storyteller in her own right. Level-headed, highly readable and always intelligent, Harman’s account of Brontë’s life and work is a delight from start to finish.’
Lucy Worsley in the Mail on Sunday: ‘[Claire Harman is] a wise and reliable guide. Charlotte Brontë is the nerd’s novelist of choice, and as Harman is the biographer’s biographer, it’s a dream team. Sensational.’
Helen Dunmore in the Observer: ‘A subtle , measured biography, full of insight into Bronte’s fiery intellect as well as the tragic intensity of her experience.'
Marcus Field in the Independent: ‘Harman brings a fresh eye to many of the same papers studied by Gaskell to compile her Charlotte Brontë: A Life. The Gothic atmosphere and heart-breaking details remain, but Harman achieves a great feat by making the story seem new again.’
Robbie Millen in the Times: ‘It’s the bicentenary of her birth next April, and this is a fitting testimony of her talents and life’
US edition, published by Alfred A. Knopf on 1 March 2016: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart
For more information about the embroideries commissioned for the beautiful UK cover of Charlotte Bronte: A Life , go to the website of the artist Chloe Giordano: click here
MURDER BY THE BOOK: A SENSATIONAL CHAPTER IN VICTORIAN CRIME
I first became aware of the murder of Lord William Russell while researching the life of Charlotte Brontë, as it was one of the most sensational news stories of 1840 and kept cropping up in the letters and journalism of her contemporaries, especially Thackeray and Dickens. It was a brutal crime: the elderly Lord William was killed in his bed, his throat cut so deeply that his head was almost severed. Thackeray and Dickens followed the investigation of the murder with intense interest and both men attended and wrote about the execution of the murderer, which in itself seemed to me a rather surprising fact. What was the story behind the death of this Mayfair aristocrat, and why were writers particularly interested in it?
Looking for answers to these questions took me on an exciting voyage of discovery and an investigation of my own: looking back at police records, newspapers and legal archives was like opening up a 178 year old cold case. I found a remarkable number of fascinating leads (and a few red herrings) along the way, and connections with a host of famous contemporary figures, including Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Barrett, Edgar Allen Poe and a raven called Grip. The resulting book is a mixture of true crime and literary history, and I hope that readers enjoy reading it half as much I enjoyed bringing this gory but fascinating chapter of Victorian life to light.
* * * Chosen as one of The Guardian's '50 Biggest Books of Autumn 2018': click to read * * *
Murder by the Book is published in the UK by Penguin Books on 25 October 2018 and by Alfred A. Knopf in the US in March 2019.
'a brilliant piece of literary detective work' (Evening Standard)
'This beautifully produced and impressively researched historical account of a celebrated Victorian murder with a literary twist reads like a thriller. I devoured it in one sitting, and was at once enthralled and chilled. Highly recommended!' (Alison Weir)
'A fascinating portrait of Victorian London amid the rising popularity of the novel' (The Observer)
'[A] riveting investigation into a transgression that scandalised the literati of Victorian London in 1840. An engrossing fireside festive treat' (The Bookseller)
'A riveting investigation into a true and vicious murder that shocked Victorian London' (Woman & Home)
'A fascinating account.... As Harman skilfully reveals, the real story behind the famous murder is the complex one about the harmful influence of fiction on the mind of the reader.' (The Times)
26 September - The Farnham Society, St Thomas on the Bourne, Farnham
13 October - Durham Book Festival
1 November - University Women’s Club, 2 Audley Square, Mayfair