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Whenever I read a great book, I always wonder about the author. What motivated the author to write the story? How much of the author’s presence has shadowed the story? The words and thoughts of the main characters – how much of it is the author’s voice? At what moment did the story bloom in the author’s mind? And so it was with Charlotte Bronte. Okay, it was not an idle curiosity or a mild passing interest with Bronte. Let’s call it an obsession. If she were alive, I would be her stalker. Such is the influence of her words on my mind.
And so, it is with much gratitude I mention my Anonymous reader of this blog – the reader who recommended I read Syrie James’s ‘The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte’. The title although literal in every sense – can be misleading, especially in these sexed up days – it conjures a sordid plot. But Anonymous is a die-hard Bronte fan, and I suspect, a dreamer and a romantic nomad of the imagination (as I am similarly afflicted); so I took the recommendation in good faith, ordered the book immediately. Absolutely, no regrets whatsoever.
The book, based largely on Charlotte’s diaries and correspondence, is written in Charlotte’s voice, as if she were speaking in the first person. This narrative style impressed me no end, and is a mark of James’s stupendous talent. Writers have their own voice – to mask that voice, and to tell a tale in the voice of another is no mean feat. Right from the word go the entire conversation is between you, reader, and Charlotte. Syrie James does not interfere anywhere. Such is the skill with which she has woven facts, with very limited ‘fillers’ to keep the narration smooth. Oh she’s a clever one, that Syrie James.
The book cannot be appreciated completely if one is not familiar with Charlotte Bronte’s works, especially Jane Eyre and Villette. Like millions of readers, I’ve been awestruck by Bronte’s description of her characters, especially their emotional sides. As a writer, it is easy to get carried away by your lead roles and show them in a dazzling light – as I do (shameful, childish...arrrghhh!) – but Bronte’s characters are so human. How did she manage that? One cannot do that just because one has a genius grip on a language. As I lived Charlotte’s life vicariously through this book, I understood the secret of her ‘success’ – she had learnt the art of chiselling perfect characters from a very exacting teacher – Life.
And what a life – ripped, ravaged, torn, strewn by tragedy of the worst kind. Tragedy of seeing her siblings waste, wither and die one after another all through her life. Tragedy of finding love just a couple of years before her premature death at 38, with a child in her womb. And yet, a life so full of fire, passion, intelligence and independent spirit that one can only applaud instead of shedding tears. For I see men and women who live to be a hundred, but who were dead all through their lives.
A small village, a small parish all enclosed by howling Yorkshire moors. No society to speak of, no cultural stimulation, a father who thinks it is ridiculous for women to be educated (barring languages and sewing and cooking and suchlike), a brother who is a junkie and a raving alcoholic, no money to speak of, the threat of death and disease always looming over - is it not enough for one to just curl up and stop breathing? Despite these depressing settings, it is a mark of the indefatigable spirit and imagination of the Bronte sisters that they authored masterpieces which tug at our hearts even today.
If there is one thing I can learn from Bronte – it is not her craft, it is not her method, it is not her language – but it is her uninhibited, childlike ability to commit to the moment. Be it sadness, be it happiness, be it love, be it anger – she put her mind, heart and soul behind it. It is this ability to feel so powerfully, so strongly, without filters, without blinkers – that made her write with such force. Is it any surprise that her husband was so hopelessly, utterly in love with her and waited for nearly a decade to propose to her? She must’ve been as intriguing, as mysterious, as intimidating, as seductive as the Yorkshire moors.
Charlotte lived in the 1800s (1816 to 1855). Given her humble education, humble background, self-confessed ‘plain looks’, I realized she was a misfit then, as she would have been a misfit now. Yes, she would not have had to publish under a man’s name now, but given her incisive intellect, her bristling thoughts on gender equality, her introvertness, her strong views on ritualistic religion, her dislike towards ‘show and publicity; trust me – she would be a misfit! Who said the world has changed?
Once again, I question the extremely flawed logic of God, or whoever is up there – to cut short lives that could have added a tinge of beauty to this world; but to let assholes thrive till a ripe old age.
© Sumana Khan - 2012