The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan

The Taste of Sorrow is a fictional retelling of the lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, beginning with their childhoods and ending just after Charlotte’s wedding. Before I started reading this book if you’d asked me how much I already knew about the Brontës, I would have said I knew very little. And yet a lot of the story felt familiar to me – their early attempts at writing stories set in the fantasy worlds of Angria and Gondal, their experiences of working as governesses, their brother Branwell’s alcoholism – so I must have known more than I thought.

Although The Taste of Sorrow does seem to stick to the historical facts as far as I could tell, it’s important to remember that this is a novel and not a biography. Jude Morgan brings the Brontë sisters to life by giving us insights into their feelings and emotions, their hopes and dreams. His fictional Brontës are realistic, complex and three-dimensional, and would have been interesting characters to read about even if they had not been based on real people. We can obviously never know exactly what thoughts would have gone through the minds of the real Charlotte, Emily and Anne, but I had no problem believing that they may really have said and done the things that Morgan has imagined them to have said and done. And that’s the highest praise I can give to an author writing this type of historical fiction.

The Taste of Sorrow, as the title suggests, is not the happiest of books. The Brontës had a lot of sorrow in their lives, beginning with the death of their mother and two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. They also had to deal with the usual challenges and obstacles that came with being a woman in the 19th century. When Charlotte suggested that she would like to be an author she was discouraged by her father simply because she was female. Instead, Mr Brontë pinned all his hopes on his son, Branwell.

I had read very little about Branwell before I started this book, though I knew he had caused his family a lot of pain because of his drinking. I thought Morgan portrayed him quite sympathetically, attempting to show the pressures and disappointments that contributed to his downfall, and how his sisters struggled to reconcile their love for him with their despair in him. Although I couldn’t like Branwell, his character felt as real to me as the characters of Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

The book itself is very well written, although the style is unusual and takes a while to get used to, but the strong point of the book is the characterisation and each sister is shown as having her own distinct personality. Morgan does focus more on Charlotte than the other two, though I can see that as the sister who outlived the others it probably made sense to tell most of the story from her perspective. But my favourite Brontë book is Wuthering Heights (I love it even more than Jane Eyre, which I know puts me in a minority within the book blogging world) and for that reason, the sister I was most interesting in reading about was Emily. Although we don’t get to spend as much time with Emily as we do with Charlotte, I thought Morgan’s portrayal of her was excellent and I could easily believe that his Emily was the person who wrote Wuthering Heights.

I was also pleased to see that Morgan does give Anne a lot of attention and she is not shown as being in any way inferior or less important than her sisters. Personally I loved both of Anne’s books, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey, and I think it’s sad to see how often she is overlooked or dismissed.

The Taste of Sorrow will obviously be of particular interest to Brontë fans, but I think it would also be enjoyed by a wider audience as an interesting and compelling historical fiction novel in its own right. Now I just need to read the remaining two Brontë novels I still haven’t read: The Professor and Shirley.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

I wanted so much to love this book. Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favourite books and although it has taken me a long time to get round to reading another Charlotte Bronte novel, I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, for a long time Villette just wasn’t working for me and I’m not really sure why not.

I actually read this book at the end of January and discovered too late that there was a readalong taking place in February/March. I wonder whether reading it along with other people would have helped, as there were times when I really started to lose the motivation to continue with the book. There was a point where I didn’t think I was going to be able to keep reading, but eventually things improved and I finally became immersed in the story. I ended up enjoying it, but sadly it was too late for this book to become another favourite.

Villette is the story of Lucy Snowe who, after an unspecified family tragedy, finds herself completely alone in the world. She travels to Europe on her own and starts a new life teaching English to the girls at Madame Beck’s school in the city of Villette.

I think part of my problem with the first half of the book was that it took me a long time to warm to Lucy Snowe. I didn’t like her at all at the beginning of the novel, but eventually I did begin to feel a lot more sympathetic towards her and this coincided with the point where I started to enjoy the story more. My perceptions of Lucy changed as I learned more about her and saw how badly other people treated her. She was so lonely and isolated and my heart broke for her at times. Despite her cold exterior, underneath she was a person who desperately needed love and friendship. It’s quite sad that she doesn’t make this observation until two thirds of the way through the book:

“I liked her. It is not a declaration I have often made concerning my acquaintance, in the course of this book: the reader will bear with it for once.”

Lucy is also quite secretive and often withholds important information from the reader. And throughout the early chapters, although Lucy is our narrator, we learn more about the people around her than we do about Lucy herself. She’s an intensely private person and doesn’t open up to the reader very often. But as I got to know Lucy better, I found a lot of things to admire about her – her independence, for example, and her bravery in leaving England and travelling to another country with no idea of where she would go once she got there.

There is a romantic aspect to the book, but it’s not the most passionate of romances and not love at first sight. I already knew who Lucy’s love interest was going to be because it told me on the back cover, but things developed so slowly and so subtly it might not have been immediately obvious to me otherwise. Because of this though, the relationship feels believable and real.

Apart from the length of time it took me to get into the book, there are a couple of other negative points I should mention. Firstly, I thought the racism and religious prejudice was excessive, even by the standards of Victorian literature. Lucy considers the girls at Mme Beck’s school to be inferior to English girls in every way, and she doesn’t like Catholics or the Irish much either. Also, a lot of the book is written in French. I do have a basic understanding of French and am fine with books incorporating a few French phrases but this one has whole paragraphs where I kept wondering if I was missing something crucial.

Although I did end up enjoying this book and could eventually appreciate the complexity of Lucy Snowe’s character, it still doesn’t come close to Jane Eyre in my opinion. However, I know a lot of people think Villette is the better of the two. If you’ve read them both, what do you think?