Book Review: Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael

This next book is rather difficult to review without providing spoilers, but I will try to exercise restraint. The full meaning of title of the book is not immediately apparent until one steps back and takes a full accounting of the story in its entirety.

This is a lovely, sensitive book, a must for Brontë fans. I would describe it as a biopic first and foremost and a romance secondary, although it is most certainly a work of fiction, albeit one that is vested in research. This is the story of Charlotte Brontë and her humble country life in Yorkshire, altered forever by an intellect restrained by the demands of the time and a decision to write — to publish.

The book begins with the less-than-glamorous arrival of a new curate, Arthur Nicholls, and his unceremonious introduction to his new, spartan life helping the stern, hard-to-please father of three young women. As the story unfolds we see that we not only have one protagonist in the form of Charlotte Brontë, but another main character in the form of the steady, yet headstrong figure of Arthur in the remote country parish.

Almost at once the two strong personalities clash. Arthur, described simultaneously as a bigot and charitably as rigid in his views of the traditions of Catholicism and modern society, is dismissed by Charlotte, who does not find in him her intellectual equal, and rather a churlish bore. This is not the love story of her wildest imagination; Arthur is no Mr. Rochester. But regret is not to be the focus of their relationship, either. Spoilers lie in that territory, so I will demur.

This is instead largely a heartfelt, tender tale of Charlotte’s relationship with her sisters and their father, her alcoholic brother and all his wasted potential. Through vivid descriptions of the countryside moors in which the sisters loved to wander, and the apt details of sisterly affection and complexity, these characters are brought to life. Characters that could be seen as one-sided and flat (the ogre of the father, for example) gain complexity and layers as humans with wants, needs and flaws in challenging circumstances trying their best.

I don’t normally seek out romances. (Although I do love myself a good period drama and admit to a deep abiding love of Jane Austen and all Victorian-era glory.) I used to love Harlequin-style romances in my teens, but as I have grown older, I find I have less and less patience for these kinds of books, in which women are not complex characters beyond their role as a love interest for a man; while they may start out as strong personalities, in the end they remain subservient to a domesticated role, and become flat, shallow characters, idealized versions of the wife and the mother. These kinds of romances lose my interest, in the end. I’m just being brutally honest here; I know not all romances are like this, so don’t throw rocks at me.

What I appreciated about this book, on the other hand, was that the romances in it, some often one-sided and full of regret and longing, were subplots to developing the characters of Charlotte and who she was in relationship to her family and the tragedies they endured together. I appreciated that the author did a wonderful job of humanizing this famous, revered, legendary author. Charlotte Brontë was not merely a woman who loved and regretted and loved again. Charlotte Brontë was more than her Mr. Rochester.

Charlotte Brontë was real.

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