The Brontës is my first great (perfect, even) read of 2017. It's a biography by Juliet Barker, first published in 1994 then revised and updated in 2010 (which is the edition I read). It's magnificent, and I do think it's the best biography I've ever read. As the title suggests Barker writes on the lives of the Brontës, but it begins not with the birth of Charlotte, arguably the most famous sister, but with the twenty-five year old Patrick Brontë entering St. John's College, Cambridge, and it ends with his death in 1861.
|BBC's To Walk Invisible (2016).|
This biography is on my Classics Club list, but it was the recent BBC drama To Walk Invisible (Sally Wainwright, 2016) that gave me the push (that today happens to be Anne Brontë's birthday is actually a coincidence). I expected, before even picking it up, there might be the temptation when I began it to not so much skim the early part, but to have to put some effort to 'get through it' before what I thought was the most interesting bit - the mid to late 1840s when the Brontë sisters' novels were being written then published. It hadn't occurred to me at that point that Barker would start with the early adulthood of Patrick Brontë but, though I love the sisters and though I can hardly say Patrick Brontë is on my radar, it really worked for me. In the first 100 pages or so Barker writes on Patrick, the Brontë name, ancestry, Patrick's university days, entering the clergy, and meeting and marrying Maria Brontë, née Branwell. From there, the births of the eldest sisters, Maria (1814 - 1825), Elizabeth (1815 - 1825), and Charlotte (1816 - 1855), the only son Patrick Branwell (1817 - 1848), and then Emily Jane (1818 - 1848) and Anne (1820 - 1849). We learn of their childhood, education, the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth, their imaginary worlds of Angria and Gondal, and how all of this impacted on their novels. Barker goes on to write of Charlotte's and Emily's journey to Brussels, where Charlotte met and fell in love with the married Monsieur Heger, their return, the publication and reception of their poetry, and then the publication of their novels:
And from there, what is surely the darkest period of the Brontë history: the death of Branwell on 24th September 1848, Emily's death three months later on 19th December 1848, then five months after that the death of Anne on 28th May 1849. Barker writes of these deaths of course, and one of the more interesting questions (I think): why Anne Brontë was not buried with her sisters and mother in the Brontë family crypt, but in Scarborough.
|Anne, Emily, and Charlotte by Branwell Brontë|
(who removed himself from the portrait).
'Wildfell Hall' it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake - it was too little consonant with the character - tastes and ideals of the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer.
This is one of the major reasons why Anne was never as celebrated as Emily and Charlotte, and it's also an element of what can be called 'the Brontë myth', an idea, or defence rather, originating from Charlotte, suggested they were brought up in near isolation away from mainstream society, innocent and naïve, not fully aware of just how shocking their novels were. After Charlotte's death, when she had not quite reached 39 and had only been married to Arthur Bell Nicholls nine months, Elizabeth Gaskell immortalised this myth in her biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). Barker describes Gaskell's rather dubious methods of gaining information, for example Charlotte's best friend Ellen Nussey, who was jealous of Charlotte's marriage and rather unfairly took against Arthur, led Gaskell to conclude that he was oppressive. A rather disastrous stay with the Brontës in September 1853 led her to think the same of Patrick, and, following Charlotte's death, Gaskell returned to Haworth unexpectedly and left with materials it would appear Arthur and Patrick would rather she have left there. From the research to the publication, and then the aftermath: Barker goes on to write on how Arthur and Patrick (and Ellen too) dealt with the impact of the biography, both personally and the subsequent attacks on their reputation. The biography ends, as I've said, with the death of Patrick Brontë, who was essentially the first Brontë owing to the change in name, and he was certainly the last.
This is an outstanding biography. It's fascinating in itself, learning about the lives of the three sisters, and, what really makes this a great achievement, the delving into the myth of the Brontës. Barker questions everything and seems to leave no stone unturned. We think of the Brontë sisters living outside of Haworth on the wild moors, but in fact the Brontë parsonage was less than 500 ft from The Back Bull, a pub which Branwell frequented, a minute's walk or less from the church, and (in today's terms), a ten minute walk from the centre. Haworth was not a tiny village; incredibly, by 1821, there were some 4668 inhabitants. Charlotte, who has often been portrayed as rather saintly, was in fact a little domineering and bossy (I would not say she was a bad person, however) and Emily, who appeared to be deeply sympathetic, was absorbed by her own private world. Anne remains somewhat shadowy, sadly, but there is much to be learned about her. I love Anne Brontë, she is as I've said many times my favourite sister, and Barker treats her with the respect she deserves, not a footnote or written about simply in terms of Charlotte. She is her own person in this biography, and that along with debunking the Brontë myth are my favourite elements of this extraordinary work. There is so much I've learned from this, and I would urge everyone to read it!