Monday, December 10, 2012

The Brontes

"I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bels; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

The biography of The Brontes by Juliet Barker
Revised and updated for a new generation of readers

The books written by the celebrated Bronte sisters have captured the public imagination for almost 200 years since they first appeared in 1847.  In 1994 Juliet Barker wrote The Brontes, Wild Genius on the Moors, the definitive biography of the the famous literary family that produced Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte.  They lived in Haworth village in the north of England in the wild Yorkshire landscape of endless moors and rugged stone walls. Barker's biography was a landmark work because it dispelled much of the myth that had surrounded the Brontes since their deaths and finally portrayed them with the clarity and precision that Barker's vast scholarship and research brought to the topic.  It told the real story of the Bronte sisters.  As a passionate fan of the books by the Brontes, I bought the biography in 1994 and read it, learning so much about this extraordinary family.  I was very excited to discover that it has recently been reprinted with updates based on new information that Barker has uncovered.  She is very happy (like the rest of us who loved it) to have this book back in print so that a new generation can learn about the Brontes and their fascinating lives.  

Portrait of Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte by Branwell Bronte (he erased the image of himself)
It hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London
Photo via here

After reading the novels written by the Bronte sisters in my twenties, and many more times throughout the years, I was intrigued by what I knew about their lives.  It was the stuff of myth and I was as spellbound by the stories of their lives as I was by their books.  The sisters lived in a remote parsonage on the wild moors of Yorkshire with their tyrannical and stern father Patrick (a clergyman) and their disturbed, alcoholic brother Branwell.  When young, the four siblings spent endless hours creating fantasy kingdoms called Gondal and Angria and populating them with heroic and Bryronic characters.   They wrote the stories down in tiny handwriting in a series of miniature books.  Later, when each of the sisters wrote the books for which they would became famous -- "Jane Eyre," "Wuthering Heights," and "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," to mention a few -- they published them under male pseudonyms.  Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell.  And, tragically, all of them died young -- Anne at 29, Emily at 30, and Charlotte at 38.   Charlotte died just months after getting married at the age of 38.  

Haworth Village in Yorkshire, England
Photo via here

Twenty years ago Juliet Barker realized that this story needed to be retold based on first-hand research among all the Bronte manuscripts, including contemporary historical documents never before used by Bronte scholars.  She had observed that many of the stereotypes about the Brontes, such as the one about their father Patrick being a tyrant, were reinforced by the practice of writing separate biographies for each member of the family.  Her thesis was that this extraordinary family produced three, or four if you count Branwell, talented writers and the fact that they were such a close family is the key to their achievements.  And so Barker wrote about the Brontes as a unit, showing for example how the children's closeness and interdependency led to their writing together the elaborate Gondal and Agria stories. These stories would later influence the creation of the sisters' masterpieces "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights," as well as the other novels.  

Barker's biography is now considered the standard biography of the Brontes.   She spent years as Curator and Librarian of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth and during that time talked to many Bronte enthusiasts, those hardy pilgrims who treked to Yorkshire to visit the shrine of the Brontes.  Part of her motivation to write the book came from the many misconceptions she heard from them.  The myths were being perpetuated by old biographies and folklore. Her 1994 biography finally revealed the family as real people, rather than stereotypes.  When I saw that this new edition of the book had been published with Barker's updates, I bought it to find out what she had discovered. Among her new discoveries is a charming letter from Charlotte about her wedding dress which shows her sense of humor (she could laugh at herself being a new bride at 38) and some new information about Branwell's art instructor.  Although his teacher was a member of the prestigious Royal Academy of Art,  he was a bad instructor and failed to show Branwell how to mix the pigments properly.  This explains Branwell's faded portrait of his sisters that hangs in the National Portrait Galley in London.  These discoveries and others further clarify our understanding of the Bronte family that emerged in the 1994 biography.    

The new edition of Barker's biography is a lovely book; the snowy scene of the Brontes' parsonage and adjacent cemetery on the dust jacket captures the moody atmosphere of the Bronte books and the landscape where they took place.  It would be a wonderful addition to any library.  It's the kind of book to dip into for all kinds of historic and anecdotal information about the Brontes, but is also an engrossing read from cover to cover.  And with Christmas right around the corner, it would make a special gift for anyone you know who loves the novels by the Bronte sisters.    

10 comments:

  1. I bought and read this book some years ago and I really loved it, so much information and beutifully written. Great to hear there is now a new and updated version, it will go on my list of 'books I want to buy (again)'

    kind regards,

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  2. Thank you for this recommendation, I'd never heard of this book before. Despite the fact that my sister has lived in West Yorkshire for years, I have never visited Haworth. I must make the effort to get there. I have just read Wuthering Heights for the first time since I was a teenager, and I have to say that age has given me a different perspective on it! Joanne

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  3. I haven't read this book, but I love the Bronte novels, and will absolutely get this book. I have seen that portrait in London, and it's really great. On a broader subject though, your post made me think about how much creativity and the nurturing of magical imaginations came out of children and families, when "free" time wasn't so scheduled with extra curricular activities for children. The Bronte family is a perfect example of how they had the time and space to create these magical kingdoms and fill them with characters. This undoubtedly led to their ability to write extraordinary fiction. Just something I've been thinking about....

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  4. This sounds fascinating. I think I'll have to read it and brush up on my Bronte knowledge (I didn't even know that Charlotte had married!). And Branwell's erasure of his own image adds a somwhat haunting quality to that portrait.

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    1. I agree with you about Branwell's erasure of his own image from that portrait. I have seen it many times at the National Portrait Gallery in London and that erased image never fails to get to me. What a family and what a story!

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  5. I read a biography on the Brontes a few years ago. I am not for certain if this is the one. I did see this edition in the bookstore a few days ago and thought it sounded like something I would like. Thanks for the synopsis! I am also intrigued with the brother.

    I hope your hand has healed. I have grabbed a hot pan more often than I would like to admit. Burns are so painful.

    Have a wonderful week. Bonnie

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  6. Lovely, lovely post. I really MUST read this, Sunday. Thank you.

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  7. The revised edition of Barker's Bronte bio is at the top of my Christmas list. After reading the usual Bronte novels (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), I decided to broaden my horizons and read Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - loved it! It has renewed my interest in the whole family. The Brontes now figure prominently in my 2013 reading plans. Great post.

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  8. I read the first few chapters of this back in the summer, but I had to return it to the library before I could really make a dent. I'm currently on an austerity plan as far as books go, but I'd really love to read it so I might just have to keep checking it out from the library!

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  9. A wonderful post, Sunday! My knowledge of the Brontes isn't all that vast having only read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and currently Villette, but Haworth is a place I so want to visit one day. Barker's book sounds like the perfect gift for someone interested in non-fiction and literature...like me!

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