As the title suggests, a sense of melancholy pervades the Brontës’ lives. As Morgan details their personal histories, he makes it easy to understand why. But despite the suffering and tragedies they each experience, we’re also left with vivid impressions of the intellectual spark that helped them triumph over what could have been a wholly bleak existence.
The most harrowing moments occur toward the beginning and end. In 1824, Reverend Patrick Brontë, the strong-willed parson of Haworth parish in windswept, remote Yorkshire, helps his dowerless daughters plan for a lifetime of duty by sending the four eldest away to boarding school. The abominable conditions and abusive treatment leave them malnourished and despondent, yet they’re too proud to complain. Maria and Elizabeth, the oldest girls, eventually sicken and die of consumption, events recited as living examples of the dreadful “children’s stories” read by the school’s proprietor.
Charlotte’s childhood experience at the Cowan School clearly shapes her character (and writings, as we know from Jane Eyre). After their sisters’ deaths, she and her remaining siblings, including brother Branwell – gifted, unhappy, self-destructive Branwell – band together in a fertile literary synergy, creating imaginary worlds which to them are very real. The lands of Angria and Gondal become physical places where they spend time (and sometimes get lost), so strong is their pull. Literary genius, given life on the page.
Although Charlotte emerges as the main protagonist, Morgan ensures no one receives short shrift. We see how Anne, quietly independent, uses her frustrations with governessing as fodder for Agnes Grey, but Emily needs no outside inspiration. She finds all the knowledge she needs of passion, torment, and the complexity of human nature within herself; she is a wonderfully realized character. Though fiercely solitary, Emily's advice following Charlotte’s romantic rejection by her married mentor from Brussels shows perceptive insight. Even Maria and Elizabeth, the young leaders of their family group, have more than walk-on roles, and their absence leaves Charlotte, the original middle child, feeling vulnerable and exposed.
Not only does Morgan have a sure touch with character, but his wording is spot on. His phrasing is precisely crafted and setting-appropriate. When Anne notes that the unpleasantness she encounters as governess at Thorp Green Hall “rubbed like a nutmeg-grater at the quick of her self,” we know her meaning exactly. However, while the language reflects its time, the novel’s style is actually quite contemporary, and what’s remarkable is how well it works. Without excess drama or irrelevant scenes, it presents the Brontës in tune with what’s known of them, offering impressionistic fragments when full sentences won’t do. The narrative slips back and forth between their actions and thoughts; one scene told in a tangle of four contrasting inner voices is especially effective. Every word contributes to the whole, and the result reads seamlessly.
One result of this understated approach is that the sisters are allowed some of their intensely guarded privacy. For example, with a few exceptions, we don’t get to scrutinize the thought processes that went into the creation of their masterworks; those novels stand on their own, as they should. Other scenes fade out at a point when less practiced writers might have been tempted to continue. Knowing when to hone in versus step back is a powerful skill, and here, the silences speak as loudly as words. This restraint makes the emotional content all the more poignant, and the conclusion all the more heartbreaking.
The Taste of Sorrow was published in hardcover this May by Headline Review (£12.99, 384pp, 9780755338894 ). Those outside the UK can order it, as I did, from Book Depository.