Juliet Barker’s The Brontes was first published in 1995 and is considered to be the definitive biography of the whole family. As such, it’s a huge and detailed book and one that I can’t really do justice to in a blogpost; there’s just so much of it. Unlike many Bronte biographies, it covers the family from Patrick Bronte’s birth at the tail-end of the eighteenth century, to just after his death in the latter part of the nineteenth. Of course, his brilliant family are the reason we’re reading the book in the first place, but I was quite unprepared for how quite extraordinary he was as well.
On paper, the Brontes really shouldn’t have been all that remarkable; a Northern Irish parson from a poor family becomes the vicar of a small industrial town in West Yorkshire. He marries, has children and lives his life. So far, so normal. Except that Patrick Bronte’s life-and that of his children- was one of great tragedy (he outlived his wife and all six of their children) and great creative spirit.
Juliet Barker perfectly captures what I imagine 19th century Haworth to have been like (as I grew up in Leeds, it was a summer holiday trip that happened fairly frequently.) It’s really hard to describe the town and the surrounding moors to anyone who’s never been up there. But once you know it, even briefly, you kind of get how the Brontes wrote what they did. They were a product of a literary household, a doting father, a dramatic landscape and an unusually strong familial bond.
The men of the family- Patrick, his wayward son, Branwell and Charlotte’s husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls- are all relatively well accounted for. The two Bronte men were well known in West Yorkshire in their lives and were regularly published in local newspapers (although the scandal assigned to Branwell losing his prestigious tutoring job is still shrouded in mystery; modern historians accept that it is more than likely that he had an affair with the mistress of the household where he was working and that she later sent the money that would send him on his downward spiral of drugs and alcohol.) Barker also deftly separates Patrick and Nicholls from the mythology created by Mrs Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte. Contrary to popular belief, both men were kind and devoted to improving the conditions of the poor in Yorkshire- quite different from the eccentric, disliked men she presented.
Charlotte, too, is of course well represented. She was a prolific letter writer and, despite her husband’s wish that her letters would be burnt after her death, many survive. They show a woman who was at times bossy and infuriating, but also funny and caring. I admit, I didn’t always like Charlotte as she comes across here- her hypochondria drove me mad at points and I have been known to describe her as ‘a bit of a madam’- but I think I understood her. She’s a fully fleshed individual in Barker’s hands, ‘warts and all’, as Oliver Cromwell would have it and distanced from the saintly portrayal often presented. We see her grow, dealing as a little girl with the aftermath of losing her mother and two sisters and growing into an unhappy teacher before writing Jane Eyre at the age of 30. Her flirtations with her publisher, the mental image of her giving Thackeray what we would call in West Yorkshire ‘a right telling off’, her doomed and unrequited love affair with her Belgian teacher and finally her growing love for her husband make for fascinating reading. She was fiercely protective of her family (unless it came to her own ambition; Emily was less than impressed when she found that Charlotte had read her poetry without permission and was dead against publication.)
In terms of writing, Emily has always been my favourite Bronte. Her poetry is magnificent and I love Wuthering Heights. Barker has less to work with here, as so few of Emily’s letters or diaries survive. I’ve long been convinced that if she lived now, Emily would be diagnosed as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I think it’s possibly why she clung so tightly to her made-up world well into her twenties. Barker also speculates on whether there was a second novel in the works at the time of her death in December 1848, which is both intriguing and frustrating, as if there was it’s highly likely that Charlotte chucked it on the fire soon after she died.
Anne. Poor Anne. She’s the most neglected of the sisters and the one with the least amount of information. As a result, she’s almost a ghost. Of all the Bronte siblings, she was the one with the steadiest employment history, who just got on with life, causing a as few waves as possible. She’s also dreadfully misrepresented by Charlotte at times; in one letter, she describes Anne as being ready and welcoming of death- a direct contrast to a letter Anne herself wrote just before, where she states she wishes she has more time to get things done. However, this most enigmatic of the Brontes wrote one of the best novels in Victorian literature about a woman’s place in society, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Even though she’s not as famous as her sisters, she deserves a prominent place in the British literary canon.
Overall, this is a comprehensive book and acted as a good starting point for my own amateur Bronte studies and would be a good place to start if you wanted to do something to celebrate the 200th year since Charlotte’s birth. There were times when I recognised something from the novels (Charlotte’s experience in Brussels will be particularly familiar if you’ve read Villette) and it was particularly useful as I was slogging my way through the Tales of Angria. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the Brontes orthe Victorian literary establishment.