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.