Monday, October 02, 2017

The Brontes: Wild Genius of the Moors



After giving a copy of The Brontes: Wild Genius of the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family, by Juliet Barker, twice to my brother--once for Christmas and once for his birthday, because I had forgotten that I already gave it to him--I was thrilled that it was selected by the GoodReads Tuesday Read-Along group for September.

It's a long book--979 pages, not counting footnotes--but extremely readable. Barker did a bio of the entire family--patriarch Patrick, wife Maria Branwell, and all six children, five daughters and one son.

It was fascinating. I know the story of the Brontes well, having read a couple of bios, visited Haworth, and gone to the exhibit last year at the Morgan Library in NYC. Nevertheless, it was interesting to get a take on the story from someone who was curator and librarian at the Bronte Parsonage Museum for six years in the 1980s.

Barker did much to soften the image of Patrick Bronte from crusty, eccentric firebrand to crusty, but well-meaning father, and to mostly exonerate Branwell Bronte. She couldn't change the fact that he completely fell apart at the end of his life, but she did much to prove that he wasn't the spendthrift, thieving talentless wastrel that has been his role in the family for 150 years.

My only real gripe, but it was a doozy, was that Barker seemed bent on discounting and discrediting Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte. I found Barker's condescending tone with regards to Gaskell very annoying, especially since Barker bragged on the fact that she had access to documents no other biographer had and so was able to refute much of the myths surrounding the Brontes. It hardly seems fair to sneer at someone for getting the facts wrong when they had no access to the facts, and were reporting first-person remembrances. 

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I admire Elizabeth Gaskell, the novelist and the woman, so I did have a hard time understanding why Barker felt she had to prove that she was a superior biographer to Gaskell.

I don't want to end on a sour note--I did end up enjoying the bio immensely, tweaked my own view of the family as a whole, and am eager to read Villette, Shirley, and Agnes Grey, all of which have been on my TBR shelf for far too long.

From the BBC film, To Walk Invisible

14 comments:

  1. What is it about these Brontes that's so fascinating? I just started reading Agnes Grey today and am already enthralled. :)

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    1. A family of genius, for sure!

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  2. Love the Brontes. All such fascinating people. I enjoyed the biopic they a little bit ago. I'll have to pick this one up soon. I read Shirley right after my first reading of Jane Eyre as a teenager. I didn't compare so I'd love to reread it with a different perspective.

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  3. Great commentary on this book. The Bronte sisters were brilliant and fascinating. I need to learn more about them. With that, I am always torn on whether I should read biographies and similar books about authors, or if I should read more classic works themselves. Reading time is so limited.

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  4. My son gave me 'The Brontes' for Christmas in 2015. I started reading it almost straight away - I've been meaning to get back to for ages! Reading your post has made me get it down off the shelf, determined to finish it. I also have Elizabeth Gaskell's biography too which I haven't read yet either - as Brian says - reading time is so limited, especially when there are so many books I want to read.

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  5. Hi JaneGS, I read Barker's book years ago and I remember being very impressed with the detailed information she had particularly about the childhood of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Bramwell. As I recall they lived almost in their own fantasy world as children where they created stories about this alternate time period filled with kings and kights and ladies. One can see how it would lead to their great novels years later. Not happy that Barker felt she needed to go after Gaskell's biography. I am curious now to read Gaskell's biography of her friend Charlotte which I understand is very respectful and loving. Thanks for your review, as always you have given me alot to think about.

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    1. That part, the childhood of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell, was incredible. I could see all four of them totally fitting in as modern role playing gamers. For all four, the fantasy lands they created were what drove them and gave meaning to their lives, even as adults, the lure of Gondal and Angria was always there.

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  6. Hmm... I've had this biography on my shelf for almost 2 years, but am wondering if I should read Gaksell's first.

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    1. I've read Gaskell's 2-3 times and I love it, despite the flaws. Gaskell knew Charlotte and Patrick, and visited Haworth--yes, she believed what disgruntled servants told her, but she had no reason not to. I found it interesting to know Gaskell's bio first hand before reading Barker's bio.

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  7. Academics have to show their reaserch has an innovative, novel content, so that their work can be actually considered a contribution to the field. Could that be the reason of her critisism toward Mrs Gaskell's biography of Charlotte? Not to boast but to demonstrate the 'usefulness' of her work? I'm sure you may forgive her 😉 Enjoy reading Villette, Agnes Grey and Shirley!

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    1. I think you're right in that each biographer has to show his/her contribution to the understanding of the subject, but it was her sneering tone that really got to me.

      For one thing, she always referred to Gaskell as "Mrs Gaskell"--yes, I know that that's how Gaskell was known in her day, but with the passage of time and Gaskell's reputation as a serious and important Victorian author, it's belittling.

      And she talked about Gaskell as a gossip, overly romantic, and implied that she was either slapdash or less than conscientious.

      It goes back to the idea that you don't need to prove your worth by tearing down others. Yes, Gaskell's bio did contribute to the "Bronte myth," but as Barker was unable to prove, there were a lot of grains of truth supporting those myths.

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  8. Sounds like a fascinating biography. I think you sold me on it despite her sections discrediting Gaskell. I wish that was edited out. I need to learn more about the Brontes!

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    1. Despite my reservations, it's well worth reading.

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  9. This sounds like a great biography - although I'm not keen on the anti-Gaskell sections. It's been awhile since I've read any Bronte biographies.

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