"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 Brontes" by Juliet Barker
Revised and updated for a new generation of readers
Ever since I discovered the books by the Bronte sisters in my early twenties, I have been fascinated by their lives. Their story was the stuff of myth and I was as spellbound by their lives as I was by their books. The sisters lived in a remote parsonage on the wild moors of Yorkshire with their stern father Patrick, a clergyman, and their disturbed, alcoholic brother Branwell. Their house was adjacent to a cemetery. As children, the four siblings spent endless hours creating fantasy kingdoms called Gondal and Angria and populating them with Bryronic characters. They wrote the stories 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.
In 1994 Juliet Barker wrote The Brontes, Wild Genius on the Moors, the definitive biography of the the family that produced Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. I remember buying it and devouring every word. 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. I learned 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
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 who treked to Yorkshire to visit the shrine of the Brontes. It was there that she heard many misconceptions about the family. Her 1994 biography finally revealed them as real people, rather than stereotypes. 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). There is 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.