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The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors (1994)

de Juliet Barker

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8491725,182 (4.19)88
Biography & Autobiograph Nonfictio HTML:A "brilliant" biography of the Brontë family, dispelling popular myths and revealing the true story of Emily, Anne, Charlotte, and their father (The Independent on Sunday).

The tragic story of the Brontë family has been told many times: the half-mad, repressive father; the drunken, drug-addicted brother; wildly romantic Emily; unrequited Anne; and "poor Charlotte." But is any of it true? These caricatures of the popular imagination were created by amateur biographers like Elizabeth Gaskell who were more interested in lurid tales than genuine scholarship.

Juliet Barker's landmark book is the first definitive history of the Brontës. It demolishes the myths, yet provides startling new information that is just as compelling??but true. Based on firsthand research among all the Brontë manuscripts and among contemporary historical documents never before used by Brontë biographers, this book is both scholarly and compulsively readable.

The Brontës is a revolutionary picture of the world's favorite litera
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This very comprehensive biography of the Bronte family is a very hefty tome and in small print, with many chapter notes at the back, but was well worth the effort of reading. I found it very informative, and it was also a useful corrective of Daphne Du Maurier's short biography of Branwell Bronte, tackled at the same time - plus it will be again when I get round to reading Mrs Gaskell's famous biography of Charlotte.

The book starts with Patrick Bronte, father of the family, as a young man going to one of the colleges in Cambridge. As an Irishman, and from a not-wealthy background, he had done well to obtain an education in Latin and Greek - which anyone going to such a university had to have in those days - and to win a scholarship. With his hard efforts, he won prizes every year to supplement his grant, but still had to survive on a shoestring. Eventually he graduated and was able to apply to be a clergyman in the established church (Church of England). He then started on a series of jobs as a curate and worked his way up to being the vicar of Haworth, the town made famous by its Bronte association, where he served for many years.

Patrick has apparently been much maligned because of unsubstantiated stories about him in Mrs Gaskell's biography, which relied on malicious gossip from those with various axes to grind, including a servant sacked for unsatisfactory service and Charlotte's friend Ellen Nussey who wanted to monopolise Charlotte and was extremely jealous of her eventual husband. With the documented sources used in this biography, which includes local newspaper reports and the letters Patrick wrote urging reform of various social ills of the day, he comes across as a very tolerant clergyman who had a great deal of sympathy for the poor of his parish and for the Dissenting movements (non Church of England), and who held much more conciliatory views than most of his contemporaries. He campaigned for education of the local people and for improved sanitation - in a deplorable state in the town and causing a lot of premature death - and worked very hard for a comparatively low salary into old age, when he was forced by frailness and failing sight to hand over to the curate who eventually became Charlotte's husband. His only real faults are that as a younger man he had had rather unrealistic ideas about his eligibility as a marriage partner.

His children are each delineated although, as the author says, there is a paucity of material on Emily and Anne, resulting in previous biographers taking at face value Charlotte's published statements about them - which portray Emily as a wild, free spirit and Anne as a patiently enduring, rather depressive woman with strong Christian views whose talent wasn't a patch on Emily's. However, Barker is able to show that a lot of this over praises Emily, who had a selfish side and was content to live at home and keep house while her siblings had to work away on jobs they hated, and does injustice to Anne who had a tough, practical streak and was (certainly from what I am seeing now, being in the process of reading 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall') a much more talented writer than Charlotte was prepared to admit. Their early deaths, together with the ruin of their sole brother, Branwell, are a tragedy, but Barker also shows that Branwell lacked the industry and perseverence of his sisters and had an arrogant sense of entitlement which alienated the publishers of Blackwell's Magazine and others to whom his early attempts at being published were directed.

Barker destroys a few myths created in biographies such as du Maurier's, and establishes that Mrs Robinson, wife of Branwell's last employer, was culpable in the love affair which he blamed for his sacking. It was this and the dashing of his pie-in-the-sky hopes that Mrs R, widowed shortly after, would ever consider marriage with him rather than the lord to whom she promptly attached herself, that drove him into the bottle and the laudanum phial. Branwell was the first of the siblings to die, followed shortly afterwards by Emily and Anne, a sad sequence to read.

An interesting aspect is the depiction of Charlotte's stubbornness and almost bullying tactics in forcing her sisters to publish their poetry, then novels. She went so far, after their deaths, as to rewrite parts of their work, especially Anne's poems, and deplored her two sisters' choice of subject matter for their novels, which had been considered scandalous by many critics. She produced very odd defences of this, portraying them both almost as unlettered simpletons, cut off from any society - Barker shows that the area, although deprived, had a thriving cultural climate including libraries, lecture rooms and concerts - and despite the fact that both had received an education as good as Charlotte's own: Emily alongside Charlotte in Brussels, and Anne at school with Charlotte. In Anne's case she was even able to teach basic Latin to her pupils when a governess, which was unusual as this was usually taught by male tutors. In fact, it seems that Emily had at least commenced on a second novel and it is likely that Charlotte destroyed it, as it would have contributed further to her sister's bad reputation from the then-shocking "Wuthering Heights".

Charlotte also suffered from depression and hypercondria. I did wonder whether Branwell's swings from high spirits to depression might have been due to bipolar disorder (or as it would have been termed at the time this biography was published in the 1990s, manic depression) and also whether Charlotte had a touch of this too though not to the same degree as she was able to pull herself out of her lows by hard work. Both siblings did form unsuitable attachments and were desperately unhappy as a result, although Charlotte did manage to control her feelings more than Branwell despite sending lovelorn letters to her ex-Professor in Brussels and becoming rather too close to her sympathetic publisher. This tendency did, however, impact her ability to write anything, especially after the loss of her sisters, which threw her into a deep depression, especially when the anniversary of their deaths arrived. It was heartening to see that her all-too-short marriage to Arthur, the curate, was happy despite her initial doubts about accepting his proposal, but it was cut short by her wasting away from pregnancy-related uncontrollable vomiting, something the biographer speculates could have been triggered by an infection which in modern times would have been curable.

The book finally winds up with the fates of the two men in the parsonage - Patrick and his son-in-law Arthur who took care of him, carried out all his duties, and was treated disgracefully when Patrick died. It also describes the start of the Bronte cult with all the attendant myths, mostly derived from Mrs Gaskell's biography.

On balance I have rated this at 4 stars as I did find the lack of any suggestion of bipolar disorder affecting the two best-documented Bronte siblings rather an omission. There were also so many people to keep track of, especially clergyman colleagues of Patrick's, that it wasn't always possible to remember who someone was when reintroduced later. But other than that, it was a very satisfying read. ( )
  kitsune_reader | Nov 23, 2023 |
Really, really massive biography. Though personally I found myself less interested in the political and religious context than the personal, it was thorough and incredibly well-sourced. No wonder it's considered the definitive biography of the Brontes.
I neglected other books on hand in order to finish it in under a month... very compelling, but due to the length, best suited to intense enthusiasts! ( )
  Alishadt | Feb 25, 2023 |
Te herlezen nav lezing van Jolien Janzing auteur van 'Het meester - de geheime liefde van Charlotte Brönte', bib Puurs 17.11.2016 http://www.librarything.nl/work/13839302/reviews
  Baukis | Nov 18, 2016 |
The repeating word to describe The Brontes is "thorough". Because of its length, over 1,000 pages, many readers are filled with trepidation at the thought of even starting such a behemoth. They should know there is nothing to fear. While the narrative might be dense it is far from boring or solely didactic. One does have to keep in mind, however, that this is about the Bronte family and not just the famous sisters. With limited information, Barker tries her best to also include father Patrick, mother Maria and brother Branwell. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Apr 8, 2016 |
Nearly 1,000 pages of brilliance!

This thorough account is by far the best biography that I’ve read about the Brontë family. Here we have an extensive opening focusing on Patrick before his famous and not-so-famous children enter the world.

The book doesn’t end with Charlotte’s death like with the other biographies I’ve read. This one follows Patrick life to its end, and briefly mentions what happened to all the main people connected to the family.

The author also discusses the effect that Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Life of Charlotte Brontë” had on the book-reading nation – this is the first time I’ve ever read a biography that covers another biography on the same topic.

I read Mrs Gaskell’s account a few years ago. Although I enjoyed it, I now realise after reading this heavy tome that “Life” features many inaccuracies.

The most absorbing chapters in Ms Barker’s great work are those that flit between the lives of the four of the six Bronte siblings who survived into adulthood. Sadly, little info exists on Emily or Anne, but a large amount of Charlotte’s letters have survived after her death, as have a number of Branwell’s. While Emily & Anne’s juvenilia are lost to the world, much of Charlotte and Branwell’s have survived. Must admit, having previously read these early writings, I’m not a fan of them; however, it’s interesting to read them just the same. It also gives an insight to their lives.

It’s a shame that Branwell failed where his sisters succeeded. That said, he did have numerous poems printed in papers, which is better than nothing. Branwell’s character is an interesting one. Such a shame that unrequited love ruined the last few years of his short life.

Emily’s character comes across as quite selfish in some ways but I can forgive her this seeing as she was and is a genius. Pity she only had one novel published. It’s a shame “Wuthering Heights” wasn’t appreciated for its full worth during Emily’s lifetime. It certainly went on reach dizzy heights of success but nobody even knew the author’s true identity until after Emily’s sad early exit from life. Another great pity is that it’s believed that she’d written another novel but seemingly, as it was unfinished or perhaps considered too “course”, it was destroyed – probably by Charlotte.

Charlotte herself was accused of being a coarse writer, which seems ludicrous to the reader of today. Thankfully she produced three novels in her lifetime, plus her originally rejected first offering saw the light of day after Charlotte’s sad demise. I prefer her writing to Emily’s, though of course with only one novel to compare against four, my opinion may have been very different if fate hadn’t been so cruel to this talented family. “Villette” is my favourite work by Charlotte.

Regarding Charlotte’s personality, she often comes across as being difficult to deal with. Sometimes she seems awkward just for the sake of it.

She was very dismissive towards Anne’s abilities, patronising towards her in general, treating her as nothing more than a baby sister even when she was in her late twenties. Charlotte was also chief among those who criticized Anne’s masterpiece, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, arguably causing it to disappear from the public eye for many years.

To me this is criminal. “Wildfell Hall” is my favourite work of fiction. I can forgive Charlotte for any of her faults apart from her attitude towards this magnificent book. In fact, I like Charlotte the “person” a lot. With so many of her letters extant you get a real picture of her unique character. Her letters are a treat to read, much more so than her pre-famous fiction.

Anne is not only my favourite Brontë but she’s also my favourite female author – perhaps favourite overall; can’t quite decide between her and Robert E. Howard.

The image we get of Anne from what few letters she penned and from the few extant sources about her is that of a quiet, caring, selfless, responsible, intelligent woman. You only have to read her two novels to realise she’s a genius. Yet again, though, during her own lifetime Anne’s unique talent went by unnoticed, even by fellow genius Charlotte.

Many people over the years have referred to Anne as “the other one”, whereas to me she’ll always be “the best one”. Fate has a lot to answer for in taking this wonderful, gifted woman away at the age of 29 when she had so much more to offer as a writer and as a person.

Thanks to Juliet Barker, as “The Brontës” is the ultimate tome for anyone wanting to know more about this fascinating family that deserved much more from life than they received.

A superb read. ( )
1 vota PhilSyphe | Feb 4, 2016 |
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Introduction
Yet another biography of the Brontës requires an apology, or at least an explanation.
Chapter One
An Ambitious Man

On the first day of October 1802 a twenty-five-year-old Irishman walked through the imposing gateway of St John's College, Cambridge.
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The Brontes and The Brontes: A Life in Letters are NOT the same work; the former is a biography and the latter is a collection of the sisters' letters. Please do not combine them.
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Biography & Autobiograph Nonfictio HTML:A "brilliant" biography of the Brontë family, dispelling popular myths and revealing the true story of Emily, Anne, Charlotte, and their father (The Independent on Sunday).

The tragic story of the Brontë family has been told many times: the half-mad, repressive father; the drunken, drug-addicted brother; wildly romantic Emily; unrequited Anne; and "poor Charlotte." But is any of it true? These caricatures of the popular imagination were created by amateur biographers like Elizabeth Gaskell who were more interested in lurid tales than genuine scholarship.

Juliet Barker's landmark book is the first definitive history of the Brontës. It demolishes the myths, yet provides startling new information that is just as compelling??but true. Based on firsthand research among all the Brontë manuscripts and among contemporary historical documents never before used by Brontë biographers, this book is both scholarly and compulsively readable.

The Brontës is a revolutionary picture of the world's favorite litera

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