The Brontes: Juliet Barker

Simply put, this isn't the most pleasurable reading- but it is the most comprehensive. If you want to 'get to know' the Bronte sisters. there are more accessible biographies. If you want to KNOW the Bronte sisters with an intimacy as if you were the fourth sister- this is the book for you. To get the level of intimacy needed to tell the entire story, Juliet Barker needed all 976 pages of text (plus notes) to set out her account of the Bronte family and while daunting, I found none of it dull. Indeed, her style of writing is excellent. For example, we are introduced to Howarth on page 134 as follows: “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 colors 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.” 

The same skill is employed as we are confronted with the insanitary housing conditions of the village itself, which were responsible for its excessive death rate from avoidable infectious diseases. Later in the book, we are also able to observe the wealthy property owners declining to allow an increased rate (the local tax) to pay for clean water, better drainage and sewers which would, as they knew very well, greatly reduce those deaths. Death features prominently in this book, from conditions that would be treatable in modern times, and for all of the sisters, as for the one brother, it is without fail a painful thing to observe. It is just stunning to contemplate the calm necessity with which people then faced such early deaths. 

The book is clear eyed about social conditions and not least about the unacceptable condition of educated women in that society. A startling example very late in the book shows Charlotte Bronte in London, a successful and respected author with a huge readership, obtaining a ticket to sit in a gallery from which she and other women can observe a literary dinner, with men like Thackery, Dickens and others eating and making speeches, but as a woman she is not suitable to take part. 

It is the very restricted opportunities available to them as women that gradually induced the Bronte family to try one opening by which to make a living with dignity, and in the same year Anne, Emily and Charlotte each produced a novel of sufficient quality to not only sell but also endure. Their ability to perform this astonishing feat at their first attempt arose because, in reality, they had been writing imaginative fiction almost incessantly since their early childhoods. The book's account of this "juvinilia" is a major part of the story, especially for Anne and Emily. The children, in fact, invented characters and countries and not only developed entire biographies of the characters and histories for the countries, but did so often by taking turns with the same stories, often struggling competitively to drive events in one direction or another. For example, Branwell might invent a character who behaves brutally, only for Charlotte to transform the character by writing a romance for him, on which Branwell may write a story in which the lovers are torn apart, ... 

A significant task of this book is to change perceptions of Branwell, a brother long regarded in an evil light. He is shown here to have been a leading figure in the lives of the sisters, typically initiating projects which the sisters then adopted. He was expected to enjoy a brilliant career, though the form this might take was uncertain, and the account of his disappointments and frustrations as these hopes are undermined by experience is a painful one. He does finally succumb to alcoholism and an addiction to opium, in the context of a severe and unbearable depressive illness, but this is not allowed to conceal the memories of his youth and his gifts. 

If the story of the Brontes requires the radical revision which this book achieves, it is because the very first biography of Charlotte Bronte - written almost immediately after her death by her friend, Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell - had established very quickly a jaundiced version of the family's history based on a few, very negative and mistaken sources. However, instead of turning this into an historian's self indulgent feast of academic point scoring, Juliet Barker manages - I think - to merge the writing and reception of Gaskell's book into the story so that it becomes yet another interesting part of the whole picture. 

It must be said that the book is filled with spoilers - we are told far too much about what will happen before we need to know. The fact is that I knew very little about the Brontes before opening this tome and I was prepared to enjoy the story as it unfolded. To take one example, a photograph of Arthur Nicholls appears in the chapter about the year 1850, and the text which accompanies this picture tells us all about the role he will play from 1854 onwards. Now if, like me, you had no idea this was coming, nor who this man might be, you would, like me, be enraged. Maybe the Bronte story is indeed very widely known already and has few surprises for those who know, but even if everyone knows, there has to be a moment when each one first discovers this story. In future, I am sure there will be many people like myself who first discover the Brontes through Juliet Barker's wonderful book.