Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Brontes, Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family by Juliet Barker

I loved The Brontes, Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family by Juliet Barker. 
This book was massive and took a long time to finish but I learned so much. 
In her own words on her website (found here) Juliet explains why she wrote this biography: 

"If anyone had asked me what was my ambition when I was a teenager I would have said that it was to write a biography of the Brontes. I had been immersed in the Brontes since childhood, and, living near Haworth, loved the landscapes that had inspired them as much as their novels. I always thought it would be impossible to realise my dream: so many books had already been written- how could there be room for one more?
"It wasn't until the 1980's, when I was working at the Bronte Parsonage Museum as the librarian and curator, that I realised just how much unpublished manuscript material there was available, particularly for the hitherto vilified men in the Brontes' lives- their father Patrick, brother Branwell, and Charlotte's husband Arthur Bell Nicholls. I also realised that the published editions of letters, juvenilia, and poetry upon which most previous biographers had relied were invomplete and unreliable. When I left the museum in 1989 I therefore made it my mission to track down as many of the manuscripts as possible and transcribe them as accurately as I could. This was especially difficult in the case of the juvenilia, not just because of the minute size of the handwriting but because the manuscripts had been divided up and sold off page by page to different collectors. Reconstructing them was like doing an immense jigsaw puzzle but the reward was to see Branwell emerge as the leader and originator of the Brontes' childhood stories; where he led his sisters followed and without him there would have been no Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
As a historian it was also clear to me that previous biographers had also neglected to make full use of the historical records available. The most valuable source turned out to be local newspapers, which revealed not only many original Bronte contributions but also a wealth of information which radically changed the received view of what Haworth was like at the time. Mrs. Gaskell's description fo a remote village cut off from civilisation and caught in an eighteenth century time-warp turned out to be completely wrong: Haworth was a busy industrial township with dozens of working mills, a thirst for self-improvement (fostered by an enlightened and self-educated Reverend Patrick Bronte) and a thriving arts culture, particularly in the field of music. 
Rather to my own surprise, therefore I discovered not only that there was room for a new biography of the Brontes but that it was an absolute necessity to set the record straight. Time to put Mrs. Gaskell's " Life of Charlotte Bronte" back on the fiction shelves where it belongs!"

This book covers it all. I have been intrigued by the Bronte family ever since I first started reading their books and I found the information this biography covered fascinating. There were times when it felt like an information dump about the time period and town but I think that was also really interesting and gave me a better understanding of the times and places they lived in. 
The book was expertly written. It was full of facts and yet when needed became very personal. 
While it read like a normal biography which can sometimes come off as dry and detached, there were times when I was glued to the pages and other times when I shed tears. 
Even though I didn't particularly like Branwell, his death scene brought tears to my eyes and I will always remember how I felt reading it. The deaths of all of the Bronte children as well as the father's situation of watching his whole family die were so poignant and touching and sad. 
I also love the fact that this was written by someone that worked where they lived. She knows her stuff and that is very obvious while reading it. 
I am so glad I read this biography, I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about this family, and I will definitely read more by Juliet Barker. 
In fact, I read quite a few books about the Bronte family around the same time as I read this one, by different authors, and I am not even going to bother reviewing them ,save one that I will write about next week, because none came close to this one. 
If you want a Bronte biography, this is the one to get. 

"The story of the tragic Brontë family is familiar to everyone: we all know about the half-mad, repressive father, the drunken, drug-addled wastrel of a brother, wildly romantic Emily, unrequited Anne, and "poor Charlotte." Or do we? These stereotypes of the popular imagination are precisely that - imaginary - created by amateur biographers such as Mrs. Gaskell who were primarily novelists and were attracted by the tale of an apparently doomed family of genius.

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 first-hand research among all the Brontë manuscripts, including 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 literary family. 32 B&W phots plus 25 in text drawings" (blurb from Amazon.)


The Kings said...

I think I need to read that book!

cheryl said...

I think you would find it really interesting.