Last summer I reread Jane Eyre, and was amazed by its power and formal innovations. This summer I’ve continued my little Bronte project with Rebecca Fraser’s fine biography, Charlotte Bronte: A Writer’s Life. Fraser writes well, with that calm, fair, and sensitive point of view I admire most in biographers.
What strikes me most about Bronte in Fraser’s account is the way she schooled herself from childhood to become a writer–the way she combined spirit and study. She was both Romantic and modern, realist and fabulist, traditional and transgressive at the same time.
How can a novel be so rooted in a time and place and also so innovative? How does it strike a nerve as Jane Eyre did? I think the greatest books are also the deepest darkest dreams of the culture: revealing and unraveling social pieties, passions, wrongs, hopes, desires. A treatise might talk about how to live, but a great novel asks: what do we really want?
So much of the novelist’s art is bound up in that question.