Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: 8/7/2012
Who were the literary Brontës? Besides Charlotte and Emily? If you guessed more than two, you might be a bonafide fan anticipating a long overdue edition of The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of Three Sisters by British historian Juliet Barker.
First published in 1994, Barker’s new edition is now available in eBook from Pegasus Books. A definitive history and an exceptional reference for everything Brontë, the book’s 1,370 pages and vast sea of footnotes are made navigable with a reliable and searchable index (clickable in the eBook version).
Barker cites Charlotte’s biographer Elizabeth Gaskell as a resource for the Bronte childhood, a portrayal of their father Patrick, Charlotte’s attitude toward boarding schools, their imaginative kingdom of Gondal. She takes issue with Gaskell’s one egregious omission of the literary output of Emily and Anne.
Gaskell, who relied solely on letters in which the Brontës seek to protect their reputations or financial security, also seemed to Barker to be a scandal monger.
Barker concedes that Gaskell ensured Charlotte would be celebrated beyond her lifetime. After release of The Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857, visitors impressed with the remarkably precocious family began making pilgrimages to Haworth to take in the Yorkshire moorland and parsonage.
What was the moor at Haworth to the Brontës? Barker writes as if channeling Emily on page 134:
“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, which is rarely cloudless and constantly changing; each season it absorbs a peculiar and different quality of light and the wind sends cloud-shadows dancing or creeping over the hill, according to mood.”
Patrick Brontë hailed from Ireland, had the luck and tenacity to attend Cambridge and become parson of the Church of St. Michael and All Angels. Books were a high-priced extravagance for a clergyman, but he would cultivate a literate household for his children. The literary careers of the Brontës were inspired by the writing and reading they did at Haworth.
Barker cites Blackwood’s Magazine, a publication of satire and commentary on politics and literature, for shaping the reading interests of the young Brontës.
“They absorbed its Tory politics, made its heroes, from the Duke of Wellington to Lord Byron, into their own heroes and copied its serio-comic style. Its tremendously long and detailed reviews of new works of biography, history, travel, politics and, to a lesser extent, fiction, gave them access to books and knowledge which were otherwise beyond their reach, especially as extensive quotations were given from the books under review.”
A big portion of the Brontë children’s reading came from the library of the Keighley Mechanics Institute as well as a private library belonging to the Heaton family who were trustees of Haworth.
According to Barker, the Brontë children spent hours in these libraries browsing the periodicals, biographies, travel books and works of fiction that would make an indelible impact on their intellect.
All the Brontës, including brother Branwell (who overspent his allowance and drank heavily) exhibited a compulsion to write from very young ages. When first arriving at Haworth, the Brontë children claimed an upstairs loft, not as a playroom, but as their “study.”
Like Charlotte, both Anne and Emily would receive phenomenal acclaim through their literary fiction. Yet, the focus of Barker’s book is the near-sighted, odd, but brilliant Charlotte, who would first flounder as a teacher and governess and after an obsessive and unrequited crush for her married tutor Constantin Heger, would wallow from a lack of purpose.
Charlotte yearned to turn her creativity into a serious livelihood and partnered with her siblings to produce a collection of verse for Poems. Poetry did not become the economic windfall they had expected, so Branwell suggested they trying writing novels.
How much drama could result from a woman publishing fiction in 1847? The three sisters of course penned novels under the masculine noms de plume Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Their identities remained secret with Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in print until a rumor hinted they were all the works of one author.
Charlotte’s publisher in London, Smith, Elder & Co., sent a letter demanding an explanation.
To provide “ocular proof,” Charlotte and Anne surprised the publisher with a visit. According to Barker, Emily preferred anonymity and stayed at Haworth, while her bolder siblings took the night train to London, found lodging at Chapter Coffee House in Paternoster Row and presented themselves the next morning to George Smith at 65 Cornhill. Charlotte wrote of the ordeal:
“I then put his own letter into his hand directed to ‘Currer Bell.’ He looked at it – then at me – again – yet again – I laughed at his queer perplexity – A recognition took place – I gave my real name – Miss Brontë.”
Charlotte and Anne admitted their true identities and George Smith swore secrecy. Barker writes that the surprise visit was not without amusement. The Brontës were treated to a tour of London, including visits to the Royal Academy and the National Gallery as well as a Royal Opera House production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of Three Sisters by Juliet Barker is a highly worthwhile read and a long overdue new edition of the literary and historic legacy of Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
Category: Nonfiction, History