I have always had a fascination with the Brontë sisters, three diminutive, severe looking ladies who wrote novels and poems that surpassed almost every one of their 19th century British (and probably worldwide) counterparts. Almost everyone I know cites Pride and Prejudice as their favourite novel (more to do with a soaked Colin Firth emerging from a lake than a reading of the actual novel methinks) but for me personally, it cannot hold a flickering candle to the savagery, the passion and the eery bleakness of either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre.
As a writer I draw heavily on personal thoughts (if not direct experiences) to paint my characters and the stories I create for them, and so often wondered how, just HOW did such socially awkward, seemingly severe, joyless looking ladies write novels that encapsulated not just romantic love, but romantic love of a sublime yet almost violent nature that we all would love to experience (whilst grudgingly admitting that such intensity would be painful to live with on a normal day to day basis). Wuthering Heights takes this to a different level which is probably why, on these ‘favourite novel lists’ Jane Eyre appears more often. Using an inclusive narrative that the author feels a part of, Charlotte, serves a non-traditional love story that includes a twist so unexpected modern day publishers would almost certainly approve, and a strong feminist nature that again, with quotes like “I am a bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will’ to me always seemed contradictory to the eldest child in a motherless family who seemed to live with an overwhelming responsibility to the other occupants of the sparse parsonage in the little village of Haworth.
From the very first line of Charlotte & Arthur, I was completely engrossed, all senses engaged and that would be my abiding feeling throughout the reading of this book. Up to now, all my observations of the Brontë girls had been through snapshots of a grim monotone world, scratchy photos, sepia hued letters, the grim wildness of the dark moors, the grey dresses, the dark stormy skies… but in Clooney’s book I was reminded of when Dorothy arrives in Oz and the TV screen explodes into glorious technicolour.
The book opens with our direct inclusion in the thoughts of Charlotte in her final moments as a single lady, as she sits on the edge of her bed. She is about to marry her father’s Curate, an Irishman, Arthur Bell Nicholls and rather than the culmination of a passionate courtship that is so often the final chapter of a romantic novel, it is quickly apparent that this decision made by Charlotte was more of a solution to a problem than proof of her undying love for her future husband. Instead of bubbling excitement for her future, Charlotte’s thoughts are very much immersed in the past, in a time when she didn’t live with ‘a household of ghosts’ and her sorrow that Anne, Emily, her mother or even her Aunt Branwell were not there to create ‘clamours of joy that would reverberate and burst forth to our beloved moors’ is the predominant theme of her thoughts.
Poor Arthur, I found myself thinking upon reading that Charlotte had a ‘sense of pity’ for her future husband, but this feeling was shortlived when, after an albeit disastrous marriage proposal, Charlotte takes her place at the alter with her tall, handsome ‘rather impish Irish rogue’, and starts to feel a sense of approaching freedom.
And so our journey with Charlotte & Arthur begins.
And what a journey it is, on SO many levels. Not only do we join the newly weds for their honeymoon ‘to rival that of the great Queen herself’ through 19th Century Ireland, but we also embark on a unique love story where, in every chapter, we learn a little more about both Charlotte and her tragic yet accomplished past, and, her handsome husband whose tender acceptance of her prickly, challenging nature thankfully never emasculates him in our eyes, but quite the contrary, only ensures that both we, and Charlotte fall for him a little more each chapter.
I loved this book.
I have never read a book before where every line has been crafted so suitably. The rhythm of the paragraphs, the construction of the sentences, the choice of words and even the comma placement echo the writings of both the novels of the time and indeed the letters of the Brontë girls. Nothing is accidental, nothing is either excessive nor too sparse. The rich descriptions of what the couple saw as they travelled from Wales, then through post- Famine Ireland through what was then Kingstown, down to Banagher and on then to Cork and Kerry are like nothing I’ve read before. The clever use of setting echoes Brontë’s own use of both setting and the elements in Jane Eyre and I couldn’t count the number of times that I turned to Google to see how something described in the book looked ‘in real life’ and in every instance the image on my computer served up exactly what Clooney’s words had only moments earlier painted in my mind. My favourite being their trip to the Botanic Gardens and the rather cheeky inclusion of a cameo from another famous Irish author as a slightly ‘spooky’ young boy…
But there many wonderful references to other writers of the time, and the addition of actual letters that Charlotte both wrote to, and received from, friends and family while on her honeymoon added yet another layer of authenticity to the story. The conversations between both herself and Arthur show how well matched this pair really were, despite the less than auspicious start of their relationship and amongst the cast of people they meet on their travels are some wonderful characters that I would gladly have seen more of.
And yet, throughout this beautiful reverse-love story, there is an undercurrent of sadness… Anyone who knows anything at all about Charlotte Brontë’s life, knows that there is no possibility of a happy ending for this new couple. And it is testament to how Clooney writes that I didn’t let this stop me. I rarely read anything where there is any possibility of grief, but yet, despite what is ahead in the months after this book’s end, I found I couldn’t tear myself away from both their romantic and actual journey.
The book finishes with a sense of hope, and again, my reluctance to look ahead, was completely overshadowed by my joy that these two had found each other for whatever period of time that was to mean. Like the adorable Arthur, I found myself content ‘to stand still and gaze at the sunset and the moon rise, with you by my side, forever content to just be”.
Which, dear Reader, is most unlike me…
(c) Margaret Scott
Order your copy online here.