Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book review: Jude Morgan's The Taste of Sorrow

In historical fiction circles, the Brontës look set to become this year’s Tudors, prompting questions on whether the world needs yet another novel on 19th-century England’s most famous literary family. In this case, the answer is definitely yes. Jude Morgan has traced the dark paths to artistic genius before (his Passion is an absorbing look at Byron, Shelley, Keats, and the women in their lives). In his latest effort, he sweeps the aura of romantic legend away from Charlotte, Emily, and Anne and examines who they were as writers and as people, working separately and together. The Taste of Sorrow is a masterful work, written with admiration, deep understanding, and imaginative skill while remaining faithful to the historical record. It’s totally engrossing as well, the only downside being that it may spoil the enjoyment of other fictional accounts.

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.

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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.

19 comments:

  1. My copy came in last week! Looking forward to starting it.

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  2. Let me know what you think! I still want to read Emily's Ghost, but I'll wait a little while before starting it.

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  3. I've ordered this for my vacation next month. Now the challenge will be to see if I can wait until then. Talk about temptation --!

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  4. I'm so pleased you ended up ordering a copy. See if you're able to resist -- I was glued from page one!

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  5. Thanks for the perceptive review, Sarah. I've enjoyed Jude Morgan's other books- he really knows how to fit nuance of language to subject- and I've been hanging out for this one, though I felt a bit of trepidation about it which you've allayed. It's just arrived at the library, and I fully intend to bag it before anyone else gets their paws on it :)

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  6. WOW, I think that's the best review I've ever read! I must have this and quickly!

    I admit to not being too educated about the Brontes and now I can't wait to meet them! Thank you for such an awesome review!

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  7. Thanks, Annis and Amy - especially since this was probably the most difficult review I've written! I was too absorbed in the story to take notes for the review as I read, bad me :) I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    You've caught what I like so much about Jude Morgan's novels, Annis. I thought Passion was brilliant yet challenging in places... just like his subjects must have been. The Taste of Sorrow is more accessible, but just as psychologically astute.

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  8. You said everything I thought was so good about this novel - and much better than I could have said it myself. Now I must read "Passion".

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  9. Thanks again for recommending it to me, Sarah, and I'm happy you liked the review. I figured I ought to pass the recommendation on to others!

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  10. Amy was right...this is a fantastic review- got a get this one! Thanks:)

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  11. Absolutely beautiful! I need to order this book.

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  12. Fantastic review, Sarah. I have Judr Morgan on my radar now, thanks :)

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  13. Thanks for the review. I'm rather a fan of Jude Morgan's--I devoured Passion,The King's Touch and Symphony. I felt all three books provided such a keen insight into the minds and hearts of their subjects. However, I think Symphony could have been improved if the music created by Hector Berlioz had been packaged along with the book (a book cum audio CD). It would have added to the experience tremendously. I remember reading An Egual Music many years ago and wondering what the music it described would have sounded like if played. I was thrilled to discover an audio CD at Blackwells' that had the music from the book.
    I look forward to The Taste of Sorrow.

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  14. That's a great idea, Devaki. I haven't yet read Symphony but can understand the sentiment. I took out my copy of Wuthering Heights for a reread after finishing this one, and it increased enjoyment of the whole experience.

    Thanks for your comments on the review, everyone, and to Amy for helping draw more attention to this book.

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  15. Anonymous11:43 AM

    I thought the Wars of the Roses (and the last of the Plantagenets) were the "new Tudors"! Does everyone plot at historical fiction conferences on who are the next "in" subjects?

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  16. I think if Philippa G had her way, that'd be the case! We all talk at conferences about the next big thing might be, but it doesn't do much good - you never know what's going to start something.

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  17. Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir6:37 AM

    Great review of a great book. I am so surprised that Morgan has not won awards for this one. There is very little available on him. I am going to be teaching this novel in my course on historical fiction as it is absolutely excellent.

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  18. Hi Ingibjörg, thanks for your comments, and that's excellent news you'll be including it as reading for a historical fiction course. It's one of my favorite historical novels, and I can only think that the reason it didn't win a prize is because the publisher wasn't paying attention and failed to nominate it. Have you come across this short interview that Jude Morgan did with Dovegreyreader? I came across it some time after writing the review (finding information about him is very difficult!) and found it enlightening.

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  19. Thanks for this Sarah, yest I came across this and it's true there is little on him, but one just has to look more closely at the text then, spend more time on it. Its intertexuality is one of its many greatly interesting features.

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