Many myths grew up around the Brontës, the seemingly self-created, original nineteenth century geniuses who appeared to have materialized out of nowhere, as wild and uncivilized as the moors about which they wrote. This perception prevailed even while they lived and only became more pronounced after their untimely deaths. The primary Brontë mythmaker, as Juliet Barker and others have noted, was Elizabeth Gaskell, who published her biography of Charlotte Brontë in 1857, only two years after Charlotte’s death. It was the first biography of any of the Brontës, and as a work devoted to any member of the Brontë family inevitably encompassed them all, it set the tone for most of what was to come.
Gaskell was at the time a highly successful novelist, and although she had come to know Charlotte relatively well toward the end of the latter’s life, she could not resist embellishing Charlotte’s biography with a number of inaccurate and sometimes sensational details. Barker, who worked six years as curator and librarian of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth and devoted eleven years altogether to the writing of her biography of the Brontës, does an excellent job of casting new light on the lives of these five fascinating individuals and laying to rest some of the misinterpretations and exaggerations perpetuated by Gaskell and those who followed her.
A prime example of Gaskell’s hyperbole concerns Patrick Brontë’s habit of discharging his pistol out his bedroom window every morning. While Gaskell sees this action as evidence of Patrick’s erratic, even sadistic temperament, Barker offers up a more logical explanation. Patrick was a prominent member of the local community who had openly voiced his opposition to the violently anti-industrial Luddites. His public stance on this issue obliged him to begin carrying a gun to protect himself and his family, and his morning ritual was in fact a safety measure, for the bullet could not otherwise be removed from the gun.
Barker’s conception of Patrick is indeed far more positive than those of other Brontë biographers. Patrick seems to have been, like the children he fathered, a thoroughly ambitious individual. Born into poverty in Ireland as a Prunty, he willed himself into a new existence as the more distinguished Patrick Brontë, a translation that owes much to his admiration for Admiral Horatio Nelson, “Duke of Bronti.” After attending Cambridge University on scholarship, he was ordained as an Anglican cleric, and throughout his career he was an active writer, turning out poetry, stories, and a novel.
In 1812, Patrick Brontë married Maria Branwell, another writer. Together they had six children before Maria succumbed to cancer in 1821. Their two eldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, died four years later of tuberculosis contracted at a grim boarding school for clergymen’s daughters—later immortalized in Jane Eyre as Lowood School. Patrick was left with four children who, thankfully, were infected only with “scribblemania.”
The four drew together in an intense union. Barker makes it clear that Patrick Brontë was an excellent parent, aided by his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell, who stayed on at Haworth after nursing her sister through her final illness. Nevertheless, the remaining children, all close in age, did considerable mutual nurturing, accomplished largely through their shared preoccupation with writing about exotic imaginary worlds. Charlotte and Branwell together created Angria, while Emily and Anne held sway in the breakaway kingdom of Gondal. So intense was the Brontë children’s absorption in their fantasy life that it was sometimes difficult for them to distinguish it from the reality around them. Indeed, Barker makes a strong case for the theory that Emily—always remote and otherworldly—never did break away from her imaginary realm.
Charlotte, as the oldest, took the lead among the siblings, and she is the central figure in Barker’s book, as she is in most works devoted to the Brontës. Her bossiness was apparent even in youth, but it was after she and her siblings were grown that she truly took charge of their fates. When it became apparent in 1845 that Patrick’s only son—who had a nearly unblemished record of employment failures—was not going to be able to help support the household, Charlotte organized her sisters in an effort to make a living by one of the few means available to Victorian women, writing. (An earlier attempt at opening a girls’ school proved abortive.) After all of their rehearsal in childhood, the Brontë sisters were well prepared for this endeavor. When their first published effort, a volume of poetry that appeared in...
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