I’ve never done more than one post about a single book (except read-alongs), but I’ll open an exception for this one. It’s not just because it’s probably the biggest book I’ve ever picked up, but I’m half-way through it and it’s fascinating enough to make me want to put some thoughts down. This is compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in the Brontës and don’t be intimidated by its size: it’s one of those books that just floooows.
Juliet Barker’s approach is that a reliable biography of each Brontë cannot be done in isolation, since their lives were too connected and they constantly inspired each other’s works. She’s also in the business of myth-busting.
It was especially enlightening to read this after Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. While Gaskell’s clear agenda was to give a sympathetic view of Charlotte and ease the shock the family’s books generated at the time, she did it by making certain sacrifices. Patrick and Branwell for instance, were not portrayed in the best of lights and it was clear Gaskell bent the truth to carry this argument.
The Life is responsible for many Brontë legends, namely “poor Charlotte” (the martyr daughter and saintly sister) and Emily as the romantic and wild free spirit. With The Brontës, Barker set out to defy these and other dogmas by diligently re-visiting all direct and indirect sources and re-accessing every established assumption.
My perception of Charlotte in particular changed from the “picture of perfection” image I had of her. I was spellbound by her struggle between her duty towards her family (a job she didn’t like and was bad) and the ever-present temptation of her imaginary worlds.
I discussed this book with other Brontë fans and some thought Barker was sometimes too set on thoroughness at the expensed of compelling story telling (the opposite of Mrs. Gaskell?). I didn’t feel that way, even though I admit to a few skims here and there. Baker’s very keen on describing several juvenilia characters and after a while it became too difficult to keep up with who killed, (de)crowned or married whom. Certain parts on the religious and political activism that took so much of Patrick’s time could also have used a little trimming, but the fact remains these were central events in the family’s lives.
Other myths Barker busted included the image of Haworth as an isolate, stagnated village, Branwell being an alcoholic from a very early age and Patrick as a severe and distant father. And we’re only talking about the first half of the book!
There was one debunking where I felt Barker went too far. The Brontë’s two elder sisters – Maria and Elizabeth – died of TB contracted in the boarding school Charlotte also attended. Charlotte was so traumatized by her time there as seen in Jane Eyre’s first chapters. Barker puts these experiences into perspective: Roe Head was bad, but not that bad compared to other schools and their mortality rates, malnutrition and aggressive daily routines were better than average. Somehow, perspective just doesn’t stick as a compelling argument in these cases. Better unhuman conditions are still unhuman conditions. The nightmare at Roe Head is one Brontë legend I can live with.
I’m just at the point in their lives where Charlotte and Emily arrive in Brussels. The voyeur in me is looking forward to Charlotte’s relationship with Mr. Heger, Branwell’s downfall and future literary disappointments 🙂