Classics Reissued: The Brontes
by Juliet Barker
Pegasus Books, 2012
Praise be to the good folks at Pegasus Books for deciding to re-issue Juliet Barker’s fantastic book on the Brontes. The original came out in 1994, and as Barker points out in her Preface, much water has gone under the Bronte bridge since then – new studies, some bits of new information, and ongoing new interpretations. This is true for all literary subjects, which makes this re-issue all the more praiseworthy, since most such studies tend to languish in growing obsolescence rather than have publishers take a second chance on them.
When it comes to the Brontes, admittedly, there isn’t much chance involved. The reading public’s fascination with them seems evergreen (a visually stunning new film of Wuthering Heights gets wide release in October, for instance), almost as much for the story behind the famous books as for the books themselves. Barker, who was curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum for six years, has made that family story her life’s work (with some notable detours), and she’s well aware of how stubborn can be some of the popular conceptions:
Charlotte is portrayed as the long-suffering victim of duty, subordinating her career as a writer to the demands of her selfish and autocratic father; Emily is the wild child of genius, deeply misanthropic yet full of compassion for her errant brother; Anne is the quiet, conventional one who, lacking her sisters’ rebellious spirit, conforms to the demands of society and religion. The men in their lives have suffered and even worse fate, for holding the Bronte sisters back from achieving literary success and even, at times, for simply existing. Patrick is universally depicted as cold, austere, and remote, yet given to uncontrollable rages, alternately neglecting and tyrannizing his children. Branwell is a selfish braggart, subordinating his sisters’ lives to his own by right of his masculinity, and negating the value of their sacrifice by squandering his talent and the family’s money on drink and drugs.
In this re-issue of The Brontes – wonderfully produced by Pegasus with a solid binding, bright pages, and plentiful spot-illustrations, really a volume to keep – Barker subtly works to undermine and broaden those conceptions, and more than any researcher before her, she has the entire array of Bronte scholarship at her fingertips. Such scholarship would be cold comfort if it came without style, and fortunately, that’s not a worry in Barker’s case – here, no doubt inspired by her subjects, her prose is always forceful and passionate and often edges on the lyrical:
To those who love bleak and dramatic scenery there is something almost heart-wrenching in the beauty of the sweep of moorlands round Haworth. The great hills rise, one after another, horizon beyond horizon: as Mrs Gaskell described it to a friend after her first visit to Haworth, ‘the sinuous hills seemed to girdle the world like the great Norse serpent, and for my part I don’t know if they don’t stretch up to the North Pole.’ Apart from a few short weeks in September, when the moors are covered with the purple bloom of the heather and the air is heavy with its scent, the predominant colours of the landscape are an infinite variety of subtle shades of brown, green and grey. There are no hedgerows and the few trees which brave the elements on the skyline are stunted and grow aslant, bent under the power of the prevailing wind. The whole landscape is in thrall to the sky …
Barker presents us not only with the familiar story of an isolated group of very bright young people bursting with stories but also with the book-world’s reaction to those stories as they appeared under their scattering of pen-names and subterfuges, as when a contemporary critic of ‘Ellis Bell’s Wuthering Heights commented that it was “a strange sort of book … baffling all regular criticism; yet, it is impossible to begin and not finish it; and quite as impossible to lay it aside afterwards and say nothing about it …” There’s an expertly-orchestrated feeling of something new dawning on the world of letters, and it’s all written with panache and consummate authority (although rhetorical irritants like “general consensus” make the odd appearance).
And for Barker’s purposes, there’s one other book, not written by any Bronte, that must govern large chunks of any posthumous life of the family. When Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte appeared in March of 1857, it “created a sensation comparable to the first publication of Jane Eyre,” Barker writes:
It was seized upon and avidly read by everyone, from London literati to provincial novel readers, all of whom were intrigued to discover how and why a woman as retired as Charlotte Bronte had produced some of the most passionate and explosive fiction the world had yet seen. The success of Mrs Gaskell’s decision to vindicate her friend by blaming her family and her upbringing in Haworth for all the critical condemnation of her writing was amply vindicated by the reviews.
There’s a small, sharp irony in the fact that even after eagerly consuming all 1100 pages of this new edition (the extensive Notes at the back of the book are every bit as enjoyable as any other part of this production – they’re not to be missed), a great many of those Bronte family popular conceptions persist. We still get patient Charlotte, wild Emily, conventional Anne, tyrannical Patrick, and most of all wastrel Branwell – they’ve got more depth and nuance than any other biographer has ever given them, but the neat seduction of the mythology remains, as perhaps it should. At least one element of that mythology – as easily exploded as the rest – appeals enough to our author to inform her final passage:
More than anything else, however, they had each other. As children they had needed no other companions and in the sometimes heated, often intense, but always affectionate rivalry between them, they had each found a place and a voice. Even as adults they tended to exclude others: though self-sufficient as a unit, they were dependent on each other for the mutual support and criticism which underpinned their lives and illuminated their literary efforts. Without this intense family relationship, some of the greatest novels in the English language would never have been written.
Without those intense family relationships, we wouldn’t have books like Gaskell’s or Barker’s either, so that’s yet one more debt we all owe the Brontes.