Just finished The Brontë Sisters: the Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne by Catherine Reef. It was recommended by a fellow children's picture book writer, but, for the life of me, I can't remember whom. But, thank you. It was a good read. Although it is a YA book, the content is meaty enough to get a glimpse of the cloistered and dark lives of these three authors, and sense the similarity of their environment to their best-selling books as follows: "Jane Eyre", "Wuthering Heights" and "Agnes Grey" respectively.
I could feel the wind blowing across the moors, and sense the weight of their depressing lives. Since writing was not the proper vocation for women in those days, these girls took on pen names. Charlotte was Currier, Emily chose Ellis, and Anne, Acton. . . and all with the surname of Bell. Escaping their mundane existence, the three invented and imagined a host of characters and kingdoms. They lived and breathed life into them as they put pen to paper.
I have been re-watching Jane Eyre (the 2006 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre version, of course!) in light of this book. It is fascinating to see the correlation between their gloomy lives and the novels they wrote. All three girls were governesses. None of the three, except for Charlotte later in life, married. They all died early, due to disease. Charlotte lived the longest, leaving this world at 39.
The book interested me for another reason: the look into an editor-author's relationship. The following quotes are from Catherine Reef's biographical account of the Brontë sisters.
George Smith, editor of Smith, Elder and Company in London had this reaction to Currier's novel, "Jane Eyre" as he read it for the first time:
". . . The novel intrigued him so much that he cancelled plans to go horseback riding. He gulped down his dinner so he could return to Jane Eyre's story, and he stayed up late that night, unwilling to sleep until he had read every word. The next day, Smith wrote to Currier Bell again, to offer one hundred pounds for the right to publish Jane Eyre. . . "
Isn't that what we wish our books would be? Un-put-downable. Intriguing. Well written. Engaging.
How did Currier (Charlotte) respond to her own work?
"The author explained that while writing she had immersed herself in the spirit of the work. She had lived every sorrow and joy along with her main character. She was Jane Eyre (italics mine). She urged Smith to have confidence in his fellow Victorians. Jane Eyre "might suit the public taste better than you anticipate--for it is true and Truth has a severe charm of its own," she stated."
It's often been said that an author should live and breathe her characters and story to be believable. Sometimes, characters take you in a different direction, as tho' they had a life of their own.
And what did the readers think of Jane Eyre?
"On October 19, 1847, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography ("edited by Currier Bell") became the first novel by a Brontë to be published. Its pages introduced the world to a new kind of female character. Society easily overlooked women like Jane Eyre, drably dressed and lacking beauty and wealth. Yet, as they followed Jane from childhood to maturity, readers found her to be a person of deep feeling and the equal of any man. Outspoken and courageous, she stood in contrast to the passive woman who was the Victorian ideal."
I must say, as a young woman, Jane reacted with truth and humility in all situations, which is more than I could say about myself!
And last, but not least, what did other authors say about Currier's masterpiece?
"The published book thrilled its first readers. Among them was the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, who almost wished that he had never read Jane Eyre: "It interested me so much that I have lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it at the busiest period." Thackeray admitted, "Some of the love passages made me cry."
The critic George Henry Lewes was quick to recognize the greatness of Jane Eyre. "It is soul speaking to soul," he wrote excitedly; "it is an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much endured spirit." He found in it "perception of character and power of delineating it; picturesqueness; passion; and knowledge of life."
I covet that response for my own writing. Does it have depth? Is it memorable?