Waking early on these dark mornings to read about a writer’s life is a fine way to start one’s day. Currently, two biographies are on my bedside table: Some Writer: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet and Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman.
Both Brontë (1816-1855) and White (1899-1985) started writing when young, filling their hand-made books with imaginative stories and poetry. And both became famous authors, penning what we now know as classics in order to bring money into their respective households.
I found Sweet’s recent biography in the juvenile section at my local library and gobbled up her smartly presented book, relishing in the facts and life of White. The pages dance with her captivating collages and illustrations, and as with thoroughly researched references, footnotes and a bibliography. She has included a timeline that puts his life into perspective. Reproductions of early drafts of Charlotte’s Web, from his penciled pages to the typewritten, clearly depict his writing process. There is a full page of instructions on how to use a typewriter, for as she notes, “E.B. White used a manual typewriter.” This book would make a fine present for any young reader, or an adult, for that matter.
After seeing the masterful exhibition “Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will” curated by Christine Nelson at The Morgan Library and Museum, I began to reread Jane Eyre and subsequently found the Harman biography in the ‘new section’ at my local library. Harman’s book, filled with facts, quotes and a generous quantity of letters, gallops along at a most readable pace, delving deep not only into the life of Charlotte, but also the relationship between the creative Brontë siblings (Anne, Emily and Branwell are published writers, too).
From these two books, one may glean how to live a ‘creative life,’ its ups and downs, as well as the forged path of each author. For me, there is comfort in reading how others construct their lives, especially revealed through primary sources.
As the New Year approaches, I found the following two passages relevant, reaffirming and uplifting.
Charlotte Brontë received this advice from her tutor, Monsieur Constantin Heger:
“Without study, no art. Without art, no effect on humanity, because art epitomizes that which all the centuries bequeath to us, all that man has found beautiful, that which has had an effect on man, all that he has found worth saving from oblivion…Poet or not, then, study form. If a poet you will be more powerful & your works will live. If not, you will not create poetry, but you will savour its merits and its charms.“
E. B. White’s advice seems so pertinent and hopeful as we navigate the ever-changing landscape:
“Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time, waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang onto your hat. Hang onto your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”
Happy New Year, dear Reader.
Claire Harman, Charlotte Brontë A Fiery Heart, (Alfred A Knopf, 2016), pg. 179.
Melissa Sweet, Some Writer The Story of E. B. White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), pg. 132.
Note: “Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will” at The Morgan Library and Museum is on view until January 2, 2017. Brontë’s letters, drawings, writing desk, dress and shoes are on view, as well as handmade books and drafts of many books.