Day 890: Charlotte and Emily

Cover for Charlotte and EmilyI have read two of Jude Morgan’s literary biographical novels but never felt I was really seeing the true character of the subjects. However, with Charlotte and Emily, Morgan seems to have found his subject.

Charlotte and Emily covers most of the Brontës’ lives, from the time they were children until Charlotte marries Arthur Bell Nicholls. By that time, all the other Brontë siblings have died.

Charlotte is the main character of the novel, although it is occasionally told from the point of view of Anne. Emily remains distant from the reader, harder to know.

Much of the novel is concerned with the focus of the entire family on the future of brilliant Branwell, the only son. The girls are sent for schooling so that they can be teachers and earn money to help educate Branwell. Although Charlotte wonders if she can become a writer and even tries sending poetry to Southey, the poet laureate, she is discouraged by both Southey and her father.

Of course, Branwell never finds a vocation and instead becomes a wastrel. Charlotte and Anne work doggedly as teachers, although they hate it. Emily gets herself sent home both from school and work.

I have read biographies of the Brontës, but this novel is the first I’ve read that gave me a sense of what their lives may have been like. I found it completely absorbing. If you are a Brontë lover, this is a book for you.

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Day 814: Passion

Cover for PassionPassion tells the stories of the Romantic poets from the points of view of their women. It begins with each as a young girl, starting before Romanticism with the broad strokes of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin Shelley’s mother, a famous early feminist, writer, and philosopher.

Mary Wollstonecraft dies shortly after childbirth. Her daughter, Mary Godwin, grows up worshipping her mother and taking seriously the ideals of her father, William Godwin. However, he compromises his principles (he doesn’t believe in marriage) by marrying Mrs. Clairmont, a woman Mary detests. Her ideals and the poisonous atmosphere at home make her open to the advances of Percy Byssche Shelley, even though he is already married. She runs off with him at the age of sixteen, unfortunately accompanied by her stepsister Jane (who later calls herself Claire).

Lady Caroline Lamb loves her husband, but she is prone to a certain instability that her husband’s family deplores. When she sets eyes upon the famous Lord Byron, she is entranced and is soon engaged in a flagrant affair. When he breaks with her, she stalks him, sneaking into his rooms, following him around dressed as a boy. Her behavior is a scandal.

The only woman George Byron really loves is his half-sister Augusta. Even she succumbs to his charms. After he makes the mistake of marrying a self-righteous and vengeful woman, his worst secrets come out and he must leave the country.

Fanny Brawne comes late to the novel. She falls in love with a neighbor, John Keats, but he is a victim to a family weakness, consumption.

This material could be sensationally or romantically told, but it remains at a distance from us, more like biographical writing. We do feel sympathy for some of these women, especially for Mary Shelley, but I was not drawn right in. Although the book is named Passion and we know that this emotion was an important force for the Romantics, we don’t really see much of it in the novel, nor truly understand just what the attraction is to this group of neurotic young men. Sometimes I could catch a glimmer of the attractions of Byron, the only one who did not seem permanently deluded about the virtues of humanity. Still, for firmly setting a background for bits and pieces of information I picked up over time, I mildly enjoyed this novel. Although I admire the intent of Morgan’s more serious depictions of figures from literature, I have so far enjoyed most his romance novel, Indiscretion.

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Miss Emily

Day 635: The Secret Life of William Shakespeare

Cover for The Secret Life of William ShakespeareAs I am interested in Shakespeare and recently enjoyed a Regency romance by Jude Morgan, I wanted to enjoy this novel a lot more than I did. There is of course a risk in making a historical figure a main character in a novel, and that is that no author truly knows the mind of the real person. The truly successful novel of this type bravely forges a persona. Morgan’s solution, however, is to make Shakespeare, about whom little is known, truly amorphous in character.

The novel centers mostly on the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, an interesting choice, since we know they lived apart for much of their marriage. Morgan explains the marriage between Shakespeare and his bride, almost ten years older, as a love match, which is perhaps more unlikely than many different explanations for it (although of course not impossible). He has Anne reluctantly agree to Will’s eventual decision to join a group of players only on the condition that he is never unfaithful to her. Anne does not understand Will’s fascination with the theatre and views it with jealousy.

To go along with the amorphous nature of Will’s character, the details of his London life are murky. Morgan hardly ever shows him at his work or refers to any of the events of his life. Instead, he has him in conversation with various players and writers, particularly Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. The introduction of Jonson into the novel is particularly confusing, as often we side track to examine his life and career as a playwright. In fact, he is a much more definite character than Shakespeare is.

It felt to me as though, in being perhaps reluctant to misinterpret Shakespeare’s personality, Morgan just doesn’t interpret it at all. Wife and friends find him equally unknowable. I had a hard time reconciling my knowledge of the plays with this reticent character. In particular, it seemed as though a man who was so fascinated with language would play with it more in his speech, as he does in Anthony Burgess’s much more adventuresome book Nothing Like the Sun. I did not buy Morgan’s idea of Shakespeare’s personality at all.

Day 576: Indiscretion

Cover for IndiscretionIn Regency London, Caroline Fortune and her ex-soldier father have been surviving at the edge of poverty for a long time. When her father reports that he has lost all his money in a bad investment, Caroline decides to look for work as a governess.

Soon, her father tells her he has found her a better situation, as companion to Mrs. Catling, the widow of her father’s former colonel. In his ebulliant way, he assumes Caroline could easily be left Mrs. Catling’s fortune. Caroline is not pleased with the situation, nor does she have any hopes of Mrs. Catling’s generosity, but seeing no other option, she takes the position. With no relatives other than her father to fall back on, as her mother’s relatives disowned her mother after her marriage, Caroline moves to Brighton to wait on Mrs. Catling.

Caroline soon learns that Mrs. Catling is demanding and petulant. She treats her servants harshly. When Mrs. Catling’s niece and nephew, the Downings, come to call, Caroline witnesses how her employer manipulates Matthew Downing with the promise of her fortune. Still, Caroline manages to get along with the Downings and Mrs. Catling fairly well, even receiving unwanted confidences from Matthew. However, her dependent position unexpectedly leaves her open to an insult from an unscrupulous man.

Re-opened contact with her relatives eventually removes her to an entirely new neighborhood and life, and she makes some new friends. After awhile, though, her experiences in Brighton return to haunt her.

I don’t often read romance novels and tend to stick to the older authors I love when I do. I have found no writer who can surpass Georgette Heyer in Regency romances. But a friend recommended this novel to me, and I found it quite entertaining. It does not seem simply a copy of Heyer as some other Regency novels have. The dialogue is witty. Once Caroline leaves Brighton she meets some endearing characters, and the plot is both complex and interesting. Caroline is an intelligent and engaging heroine. For some light, escapist reading, I recommend Indiscretion.