Monday, December 13, 2010

The Brontës by Juliet Barker

Where I got the book: a gift from a friend (see below).

While I was engaged in the writing marathon that is NaNoWriMo, I was also caught up in a little personal reading marathon. Juliet Barker's The Brontës, published in 1994, is a humungo 830 pages, followed by 170 pages of notes. It is frequently, so it seems, referred to as the "definitive" Brontë biography, which is why I asked my friend The Blond Knitter to buy it for me when I won her blog contest. (I like to think of the writers of definitive biographies crying "Follow that!" as they write the final line. I would.)

The Brontës totally lives up to its billing. Between the text and the notes (which I only dipped into), I really did feel that Barker had explored every possible source available to her. And yet not once, not once, I am not kidding you, was I bored. This could be due to my fascination with all things 19th-century-literature, but I think I'll put it down to good writing.

And I discovered so many interesting things, especially about Patrick Brontë, the father, and his most famous daughter, Charlotte. The book begins with the transformation of Paddy Branty, a poor but highly intelligent farmer's son, to the gentleman who outlived his wife and all six of his children; in some ways, he is the star of the narrative just by reason of his longevity.

Barker sets out to set the record straight about Patrick, who in Brontë legend is usually seen as mad and bad; in her book you get a portrait of a deeply devout clergyman (with a few foibles, such as a tendency to brag about himself and his children to the family he left behind in Ireland) who greatly loved his children, encouraged them to think and write, and was constantly worried about their ill health (which mostly seems to have been due to Haworth's generally unhealthy environment. The water supply was bad, and disease was rife in the village). Charlotte, on the other hand, comes across as less saintly than she usually does: she was rather on the bossy side, prone to outbursts and sulking, and decidedly manipulative.

Barker quotes extensively from the Brontës' letters and early poetry and prose, showing every alteration and insertion so that I got a real sense of their writing process. Fascinating. Her notes are detailed and written in just as lively a fashion as the text.

As the book advanced, it became increasingly hard to put down. A very nicely done treatment of a fascinating group of subjects. I'm actually racking my brains to think of a criticism, but the only one that comes to mind is that the collection of photos is a little idiosyncratic. But I've read enough about the issues surrounding the publication of photos in books to understand that this may have been a situation beyond the author's control.

I'm happy. Except that I have to inform you, dear reader, that this is a hard book to obtain. I was lucky and located a good copy at a reasonable price, but I see that on the day of writing we're talking about "collectible" (i.e. exorbitant) prices. I hope you have better luck.


stacy said...

At any rate, it is going on my wish list, pronto.

moonrat said...

woah!! how is it that this book isn't in print?! that's unbelievable to me.

they were a fascinating family. i can't help but read anything i come across about them. do you follow The Bronte Blog? good source of new stuff is you're interested.