Charlotte, Emily, Anne. All Brontes, all exceptionally talented, born into the same family and struck dead in their youth. The business of being a Bronte was no doubt a tough one. Apart from the icy, stark Yorkshire landscape and their clergyman father’s meagre income and preoccupations, the motherless mites suffered largely from the times they lived in. In Jude Morgan’s The Taste of Sorrow, the sisters come back as dramatically as it is discreetly possible for the dead.
This is a flesh and blood biography. Facts come in thick and fast but are instantly converted into warm breaths, sidelong glances, sighs and suppressed longings. The mother does not go gently into the night, she rants and raves blasphemously, already not a woman one saw during those days, on her deathbed because of ‘too many children, too quickly’. The girls are there for each other, with ‘the ripple of Papa’somewhere around. Patrick Bronte is a widower ‘consoling himself by turning into an old, childless bachelor’.
The wasting away of Maria and Elizabeth — the elder two sisters — due to TB is followed by the other girls being recalled home from an over-moral school run by Reverend Carus Wilson who can ‘picture hell most precisely, and there the girls have long, long hair, and wear no clothes at all’. His mission: to provide the world with an antidote.
‘The prayers at Cowan Bridge go on and on. Prayers before breakfast, before dinner, after tea, before bed. It is as if God must be nagged’. Charlotte, who took comfort in being in the middle before Fate ripped off the firstborns and left her in the frontline, had ‘thought she was protected’. Anne ‘cried humbly, as if waiting to be told to stop’ while Branwell moves from his toy soldiers to dangerous liaisons and then drunken death.
While Charlotte’s outward reticence is broken now and then, as her ‘mind-sky filled with fireworks’, Emily articulates her internal turmoil. ‘It’s just—when you realise what you want from life, and how little, how very little it is — a quiet room, a pen — the few people you love nearby — an open door to walk through — the sky to look at — and that’s it, nothing else — and the fact that this is too much to want in this world. It makes you see, oh this world sets a mighty high value on itself…’
This literary lament runs side by side with a ripening imagination until it blooms forth into the classics ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Agnes Grey’and verse. The playful conjuring up of pen names — Currer, Ellis and Acton — even as they ‘don’t believe there are any happy endings…’ But before fame there is heartbreak, unrequited love, much grappling with the Muse, anxiety and so many funerals to attend.
If sobriety and sacrifice strengthened their sorority, an adherence to duty, menial governess jobs and the love for the written word clarified the importance of education. About the tales she could verbally regale her friends with, a young Charlotte explains:
‘That’s why we invent them. To take the edge off the real ones’.
There it is then, the possible reason for their creative superiority — the tragic tedium of going from one day to the next. To transcend the homily flung uniformly at all females: ‘It is better to be good than to be clever.’ Charlotte grasps at her gravity-ridden gender position: ‘Anything we feel, we are not supposed to know we feel. If we do know, there is something morally wrong with us. If you like a man — not even love him, but like him enough to be drawn to him, to think that you might possibly love him — you aren’t supposed to know that either. You are supposed to go drooling about like an emotional infant’.
And the sibling rivalry. ‘I’m jealous of you Emily, ‘Charlotte says stonily. ‘Half hate you. Because you can write. ‘Emily herself stoutly defends fantasy: ‘(Imagination) is something you experience, just like experience…’ Much of their moors-bound melancholy seeps through in Morgan’s metaphors and descriptions, now lyrical, now layered.
The inherent elegance of piety and poverty, the isolated living tantamount to mere survival at times, the losses, the little, little pauses that tuning-forked into silences that screamed, the submissions and the rebellions that grew out of these submissions, all recorded for posterity in a way their lives have seldom been chronicled. Character after character, big or small, taken into account, empathised with, expressed inside out. A huff and a puff, and the Bronte building is up.
The author richly compensates for Emily’s cry — ‘But we have never been like that, have we? Writing to please?’ By penning intricately interwoven life stories of this extraordinary trio in a way that would please the harshest of critics and the most dyspeptic of readers.
In allowing us a taste of sorrow, Morgan ladles out a host of feelings — feelings that make up three of the world’s most beloved authors. The emotional and the cerebral seesaw is set just right in this pulsating decoding of the Bronte psyche and personalities.