Review: In ‘The Brontës,’ Juliet Barker plays detective
Wild Genius on the Moors — The Story of a Literary Family
Pegasus: 1,200 pp., $39.95
Just about everything you thought you knew about the Brontës is wrong.
That’s the essential message of “The Brontës” by Juliet Barker. Eighteen years after her landmark biography was published, the author — a former curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth — has produced a revised edition with new material, including letters and juvenilia that were unavailable when the author wrote the book.
Hers is not the typical account of the famed sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily; this is a group portrait. She redeems unfairly maligned figures (such as the children’s father, Patrick Brontë) and dismantles images of sainthood, as in the case of Charlotte. In other words, Barker shows the family as flawed and human rather than as the mad, freakish clan of isolated geniuses portrayed in many biographies. She expresses astonishment that a vast trove of archival material, including local newspaper accounts of the era, has never been used by other scholars.
Spelling is among her first concerns about the Brontës: “I believe that the policy of ‘correcting’ the Brontës’ often wildly ill-spelt and ungrammatical writings gives a false impression of their sophistication,” she writes, explaining that she has transcribed original manuscripts with “warts and all.”
Although she concedes that producing “yet another” biography of the Brontës seems to warrant an apology — What else is left to say about them? — Barker bluntly justifies her contribution to the pile. “The Brontës have been ill-served by their biographers,” she writes, citing shoddy work based on bowdlerized, inaccurate texts. She does not cite by name any contemporary offenders. (Biographies by the scholars Lucasta Miller and Rebecca Fraser were published within the last 10 years, and both were fine, insightful works.)
The distortions and myth-making around the Brontës can be traced to the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, who published “The Life of Charlotte Brontë" in 1857, two years after her “dear friend” died at 38. This book, which suppressed certain facts and misinterpreted and embellished others, set the tone for subsequent Brontë biographies and is regarded as an important reference work by scholars today. Barker calls it “a flawed masterpiece.”
It is thanks to Gaskell that we see Emily as the mercurial, rebellious wild child, given to unseemly outbursts; Anne as quiet and conventional; Charlotte as the stoic, dutiful, morally upright sister; and brother Branwell as a brilliant but self-sabotaging, ignominious drunkard. Father Patrick has been universally cast as a cold, tyrannical figure. (Two sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis in 1825; their mother died of cancer a year after Anne was born.)
Even Haworth, the Brontës’ Yorkshire home, was mischaracterized by Gaskell as a remote village. “‘Isolated,’ ‘solitary,’ ‘lonely’ are the epithets on every page,” Barker writes. In reality, Haworth was “a busy, industrial township” with a growing and thriving population.
She is dismayed, to say the least, that the lives and works of the Brontës have been “taken apart and reassembled according to varying degrees of sanity.” She seems personally insulted that other biographers have relied on literary criticism for their portraits and that they were fixated upon identifying the “real” people based on characters in the sisters’ novels — a search that Barker calls “fanatical and irrelevant.” At one point she goes further, asserting that “it is always dangerous to argue autobiographical facts from fiction.” However, when fiction and fact do match, Barker notes the connection.
Certainly there is much in Barker’s account that will be familiar to readers — notably, the public shock and moral outrage that the Brontë sisters faced upon publishing their revolutionary novels. (These works were released pseudonymously, under the names Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell.)
And some of the new information uncovered by Barker is simply more mundane than revelatory. For instance, she quotes from a moving 1854 letter by Charlotte describing her wedding dress: “white I had to buy and did buy to my own amazement — but I took care to get it in cheap material …. If I must make a fool of myself — it shall be on an economical plan.”
Yet the additional material helps fill out the family portrait and overturns the legends around them. Charlotte, for one, is seen not as a passive martyr but as strong-willed, controlling and often self-absorbed. She also comes across as far more interesting than she has been presented in other biographies: bossy, judgmental, flirtatious and wickedly funny, with a fondness for sarcasm.
Patrick is portrayed as a loving father and a kind, sympathetic figure in his community. He was a much-admired preacher at his church, one who advocated vigorously on behalf of the poor. Although he once admitted resenting the “caricature” of himself and “many unfounded things” in Gaskell’s biography, he nonetheless graciously welcomed Gaskell and her daughter, Meta, to Haworth in 1860. (He died a year later, having outlived all his children.)
Barker also dispels long-held assumptions about Emily’s literary output. After “Wuthering Heights,” Emily never wrote another novel. Some insist that because it was such a powerful work, Emily had “exhausted all her genius” in writing it. Others have said that the savage reviews from critics had crippled her, preventing her from writing fiction again. Barker says that both views are wrong and that, despite conclusive evidence, Emily would have most certainly begun another project.
It would be fair to assume that, at more than a thousand pages, “The Brontës” is a slow, daunting read. Surprisingly, this book doesn’t drag at all. Barker is an impressive, exhaustive researcher, but she’s also a great detective and a lively storyteller. Each section offers further insight into this family’s struggles, illnesses and losses and, above all, their closeness and affection.
It is this unique intimacy, Barker argues, that yielded their extraordinary creative endeavors — despite difficulties, rivalries and temperamental differences, each family member ultimately sustained the other.
After more than 150 years, the Brontës remain as fascinating (and inspiring) as ever. They have lost none of their allure. If any writer has earned the final word about their lives, it’s Barker, with her triumphant and eloquent book. She can savor this distinction, of course, until the next Brontë biography comes along.
Ciuraru is the author of “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.”