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Romancing Miss Brontė    by Juliet Gael order for
Romancing Miss Brontė
by Juliet Gael
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Juliet Gael's Romancing Miss Brontė takes readers into the lives of the talented Brontė family in bleak 1800's Yorkshire. Though I was aware before reading that there had been tragedies in the family's life, I had not realized the extent of them. Gael does an excellent job of showing what it must have been like for Charlotte to balance her own needs and creative drive with the constant drain from illness and death of close family members.

Charlotte had studied in Brussels for two years and misses that life - and the married professor she desperately loved - when she returns to her family in their Haworth parsonage and helps her sisters Emily and Anne deal with their almost blind, self-centered father Patrick and alcoholic brother Branwell (who's obsessed with his passion for an older, married woman). 'As children they had forged a unique bond, creating imaginary worlds of astonishing complexity and spinning them into tales that had brought excitement and enchantment to their lonely lives in this dull little village.'

Romancing Miss Brontė opens on the arrival of earnest young Arthur Nicholls (Reverend Brontė's impoverished Irish curate) in Haworth and shares his first impressions - past the church and graveyard, 'The parsonage stood alone at the top of the steep hill, anchored firmly in this sea of dead. Beyond lay the vast stormy sky and the wild moors.' The novel follows the progression of Charlotte's relationship with Arthur - though relationship is perhaps too strong a word since the feelings are entirely on his side for a very long time.

After giving up on the idea of running a private school in Haworth, Charlotte encourages her sisters to attempt to get published together. They begin by self publishing poetry and in 1847, handsome young publisher George Smith (with whom Charlotte later falls in love) offers her a hundred pounds for Jane Eyre. Emily's Wuthering Heights also garners acclaim, though Anne is less successful. As their creative lives flourish, their brother's life declines even further - 'what could possibly be worse than a smorgasborg of talents coupled to an ultrasensitive nature without a lick of self-discipline?'

Then tragedy strikes the household again and again and again - as first Bramwell, then Emily, and finally Anne, die of consumption. Arthur, 'a man of deep and strong attachments that found their expression not in words but in loyalty, duty, and care', gives what support he can. When he finally gets up the courage to tell Charlotte of his feelings for her, she is unsure of how to respond - but her father vehemently objects to the connection. Eventually though, Charlotte lets go of old dreams and (for a brief time) is surprised by happiness.

Juliet Gael does an excellent job of weaving the books the Brontė sisters wrote into this account of their lives, and making her characters (limited, frail and vulnerable in so many ways) walk off her pages into readers' imaginations. If you have ever wondered about this remarkably creative, and shockingly tragic family, then I highly recommend Romancing Miss Brontė to you.

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