Samantha Ellis at Literary Review:
Even now, Brontë’s voice is the most compelling thing about her work: a voice as full of anger, violence and gall as passion. Harman has a lot more time for Brontë’s first novel, The Professor, than most (certainly she has more time for it than me) and she suggests that its annoying and repressed heroine, Frances Henri, gains power by staying silent: ‘This convention of not answering back allows able women a scornful superiority, flashing out in looks, in suppression of comment, withheld speech; quellingly disdainful, devastatingly critical, but always held in check.’ She concludes that ‘This pent-up power, secretly triumphant because unrealised, is the incendiary device at the heart of Jane Eyreand all Charlotte Brontë’s works.’ I’m not sure. I prefer Brontë and her heroines when they are realising their power – and even Harman later finds that Jane Eyre’s vividness and energy come from Jane’s ‘articulation of long-pent-up sorrows’.
Brontë’s stunning literary control deserted her in Shirley, which she wrote in unimaginable circumstances, beginning it before her brother and sisters died, one after another, and finishing it in the throes of grief. Throughout the novel, using the fig leaf of an androgynous narrator, Brontë interrupts the story to tell us what it means and what she thinks. At one point, dazed and bitter, she advises disappointed women to stay silent: ‘You held out your hand for an egg, and fate put into it a scorpion. Show no consternation: close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your palm. Never mind; in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob.’