What Charlotte Did

Susan Eilenberg

  • The Brontës by Juliet Barker
    Weidenfeld, 1003 pp, £25.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 297 81290 4

Juliet Barker’s The Brontës is an uneasy work. It seeks to defend the family it takes as its subject against those who sought to invade its privacy: the Victorian reading public, with its prurient speculations about the mysterious authors Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; meddling acquaintances whose reports fuelled those speculations; previous biographers who exploited those reports; close friends such as Ellen Nussey who defied Charlotte’s husband Arthur Nicholls and refused to burn the letters Charlotte sent her; even Charlotte herself, who, by reading her sister Emily’s poems, violated her privacy and thus allied herself with the intruders and the voyeurs. As a biographer and as a scholar of the Brontë family – she was for many years curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum – Ms Barker has a stake in Charlotte’s accidental discovery and in Nussey’s obstinacy, even in the salacious speculation she deplores. But her sympathies are with Nicholls, threatening censorship, and with Emily, secretive and outraged. Too conscientious to withhold information, she proceeds only after reminding us that the privacy she seems to violate had in fact been violated long since by those she charges with ignorance, malice and greed. This makes for embarrassing reading.

Officially, Barker writes to correct and to avenge. The story she principally corrects, derived from Charlotte’s hints, was elaborated by Elizabeth Gaskell in her hugely influential Life of Charlotte Brontë and amended but not substantially challenged by later biographers. It had to do with a family of shy, precocious children who (as Ellen Nussey remarked) resembled ‘growing potatoes in a cellar’, wild and motherless, neglected by their savage and withdrawn father, cut off in their remote Yorkshire parsonage from all civilised pleasures and practices, the interests of the girls sacrificed to those of their worthless brother. Charlotte’s role in this version of things was that of designated martyr. Having experienced the loss of her mother and, later, her two older sisters, Charlotte wanted desperately to preserve her younger siblings from a similar fate. She worried over them, sacrificing youth and opportunity for their sakes. Teaching, studying, writing and encouraging her sisters to write, she kept the household going while Branwell degenerated and died; she did what she could for Emily and then Anne as, in quick succession, they died too; and then, after years spent caring for her misanthropic father, she married his curate and died in pregnancy.

As far as Barker is concerned, this is a grossly misleading rendition, a compound of slanders, distortions and mystifications to be undone detail by scrupulous detail. The undoing is a laborious process, requiring the judicious consideration of countless bits of information, and the result of all this documentation, as Barker herself says, is to reduce both heroism and monstrosity to varieties of ordinariness. A harsh and controlling father, a selfish and shameful brother and a home in the wilderness, all necessary elements of the Brontë myth, are transformed; so, too, is the thrillingly dreary quasi-Gothic atmosphere; quotidian annoyances supplant exotic evils and heroism springs up in surprising places.

There was never any doubt that Patrick Brontë was a man of intelligence, principles and courage: it has long been known that he insisted on sleeping in Branwell’s room during his son’s horrific last days lest, drunk and outrageous, Branwell commit some terrible act of violence. Until now, however, Patrick’s courage has seemed tinged with ferocity, his principles with misanthropy, his intelligence with arrogance. Barker restores his character. The old stories about how he burned his children’s boots because he found the colours unsuitably gay, destroyed his wife’s silk dress to preserve her propriety, and fired guns out the back door in rage are laboriously scaled down into anecdotes of somewhat lesser eccentricity; the rumours that he fed his children a diet of potatoes to accustom them to self-denial and habitually ate his own dinner in dyspeptic solitude are vehemently denied: all these tales are traced back to a disgruntled former nurse. To compensate for the loss of these gratifying slanders, Barker supplies innumerable instances of virtue. Over the long decades of his Haworth curacy, Patrick worked tirelessly to strengthen poor-relief, promote compulsory national education, secure a supply of clean water for the town, improve sanitation, aid striking workers, strengthen religious tolerance, protect his parishioners from the dangers of fire and fight official injustice; like his children, he wrote poems and stories; and, according to Barker, he was also a loving father anxious for his children’s welfare and proud of their achievements.

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