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(as Ellen Nussey remarked) resembled ‘growing potatoes in a cellar’, wild and motherless, neglected by their savage and withdrawn father, cut off in their remote Yorkshire parsonage from all civilised pleasures and practices, the interests of the girls sacrificed to those of their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.
Rehabilitating Branwell requires more skill. The Branwell of established legend was a weak and dissolute parasite for the sake of whose unrealistic and expensive ambitions his sisters sacrificed themselves – a hard case. The new Branwell bears a certain resemblance to the old: like him, he dies in squalor, sunk in drugs, debt and alcohol; like him, he is involved in sexual scandal, not just sleeping with the mother of the boy he tutored but also fathering a child on a farmer’s daughter and then abandoning both mother and child. But Barker delays the date of Branwell’s degeneration by many years, insisting that his problems became problems only after he had been seduced and rejected by the cold-hearted Mrs Robinson. What Mrs Robinson’s lust destroyed, Barker insists, was a man of fine talents and splendid, joyous energies, a musician, a painter, a poet, a novelist. As founder of the collective childhood fantasy that produced the imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal, he made possible his sisters’ later literary success; and his literary experimentation led the way towards themes and modes they would later exploit.
Renovate the characters of Patrick and Branwell, bring Haworth into the circuit of 19th-century life, and Charlotte, Emily and Anne take on a different aspect. Of the sisters, Anne profits most. In place of the delicate recluse, Barker presents a self-contained young woman who did what had to be done without fuss. Her courage and generosity were enormous, though sometimes unapparent: Barker argues that she submitted to a useless and painful course of medical treatment while dying of tuberculosis, not because she had any hope of recovery but because she knew how deeply Emily’s refusal of it had distressed her father and Charlotte, and wanted to spare them what grief she could.
Emily comes off fairly well too, but against the odds. She was less willing than either of her sisters to endure inconvenience for the sake of others. As employment made her ill, she stayed at home, keeping house and writing about Gondal. Friendless, she wanted no friends, regarding people outside the family as not worth the trouble of pleasing; long unread, she had little desire for readers, who had no business meddling with her work. She inhabited her imagination, and so wholly did it satisfy her that she could care for almost nothing beyond it: even her own siblings’ sufferings seem to have left her largely unmoved.
Barker points out where Emily fell short in her sisterly, daughterly and neighbourly obligations. But she also emphasises how very hard, and with what great satisfaction, Emily worked, even perhaps exaggerating her productivity in her eagerness to excuse its questionable spring. Barker contends, like others before her, that Emily wrote a novel after Wuthering Heights. She believes in this second novel because, though there is no sign of it, there is no sign of anything else Emily might have been writing during the last two years of her normally productive life; because Thomas Newby, the publisher of Wuthering Heights, wrote to her agreeing to make arrangements for a second novel whenever it would be ready; and because Newby announced he would be publishing a work ‘by Ellis and Acton Bell’. That no such work ever appeared, and that Charlotte never said a word about it, signifies to Barker that Charlotte must have destroyed it. Other possibilities – that Newby’s letter referred to a novel Emily planned or began but put aside; that his announcement, like others he made about the Brontës’ works, was fraudulent; that Emily herself destroyed whatever it was she may have been working on during those mysterious two years – these possibilities Barker dismisses. She argues that Charlotte destroyed it, telling herself that the book’s publication would bring a renewal of the critical abuse that Wuthering Heights had provoked and that the only way to protect her dead sister’s reputation (and her own) was to prevent its appearance. As evidence goes this isn’t terribly substantial, but Barker knows that Charlotte did this thing because it was the kind of thing Charlotte would do.
Barker’s Charlotte is the antithesis of the saintly Charlotte of legend. She is a moping hypocrite, a projector of venomous blame and vicious self-loathing, a manipulative neurotic, a cold, devious, derivative, masochistic snob, a resentful, dirty-minded, castrating, hypochondriacal old maid. She is all these things until, very late, she marries, and then, saved by a good man’s love, she dies pregnant, serene, fulfilled, no longer literary, absolved of her sins. This Charlotte (pre-Nicholls) is ruled by shame to an extent that renders her shameful. She could submit neither to her familial duty, like the admirable Anne, nor to the discipline of her own powerful imagination, like Emily, but lived a life of embarrassed and dishonest vacillation. Neither happily selfish nor peacefully good and quite unable to address her own problems, Charlotte spent her energies trying to correct and control those around her. Her hypocrisy flowered most spectacularly in her treatment of her brother. After his calamitous separation from Mrs Robinson, Branwell lived on for three wretched years, drinking, taking opium, running up debts, swaggering about and threatening suicide, but also, intermittently, writing and even looking for a job. He was, Barker insists, no monster but a broken-hearted man, and he deserved not the cold contempt that Charlotte showed him but sympathy – especially since, as has long been known, she herself had given way to the very same adulterous yearnings as had led to his downfall, remaining technically innocent only because of the decency of M. Heger, the Brussels schoolmaster who had found himself the uncomfortable object of his pupil’s romantic obsessions. There is no doubt that she suffered; but she suffered neither silently nor alone.
Accidental and agglomerative and obstinately unsymbolical, this biography is in many respects true to the texture of experience. No individual event or detail has precedence, except chronologically, over any other, nor is the ultimate insignificance of any fact a bar to its recording. We are told that on the way to Charlotte’s wedding Joseph Redding, the parish clerk, stopped to lace his boots against a wall – information not exactly useful but interesting, conceivably, to people who are interested in that kind of thing. We are told, too, that Patrick signed the Cambridge University Subscriptions Register ‘the day before, instead of after, the conferral of his degree’; that at a picnic Patrick may or may not have attended in 1813 roast beef and beer were served; and that in 1847 the man who was to succeed Dr Scoresby as vicar of Bradford suffered a head cold that forced him to delay the assumption of his duties for several weeks. Considering the extraordinary privacy the Brontës cherished and the huge gaps in the data about them, it is easy to see how a researcher might be tempted to substitute information about their social context for information about them. Barker has amassed a wealth of information about life in mid-19th-century Yorkshire, and, naturally enough, wants it to matter. But it doesn’t, mostly. This annoys Barker, whose complaints about the way that Charlotte in particular neglects local politics sound disturbingly like complaints that her subject is refusing to connect with the material her biographer has heaped up around her.
Although one’s first response to so massive a collation is astonishment, fidgeting and doubt rapidly follow. For, despite the appearance of scholarly neutrality that the dry abundance of material and strictly chronological organisation produce, this is not an impartial work, nor even, for all Barker’s drive to right old narrative wrongs, a just one. Throughout the book there are passages in which Barker seems to be in the grip of an intuition so powerful she does not care whether her evidence supports it or not.
A particularly striking example is Barker’s discussion of Charlotte’s death. Charlotte died in the first year of her marriage after months of unrelenting nausea. The cause of death was put down as ‘phthisis’, a wasting associated with tuberculosis; but some have suspected that it might have been a tumour that killed her, or even hypochondria. Barker, along with many others, believes that Charlotte was pregnant and that the nausea was a particularly virulent and protracted morning sickness. This is what she says: ‘There seems little doubt that it was the pregnancy and its consequent violent nausea which had worn her down; the baby, of course, died with her.’ The dead baby even has a footnote. But there was no baby, at least none that was ever recovered dead or alive, and the footnote concedes, first, that Nicholls never admitted his wife was pregnant and, second, that even if she was it is possible that what she was pregnant with was not a baby at all but a hydatidiform mole. The foetus so confidently announced and regretted was a supposition, not (as it seemed to pretend) a proof; had it lived it must have died, but its non-existence is no proof of its death or of Charlotte’s pregnancy, any more than the non-existence of Emily’s second novel is proof either of its destruction or of Charlotte’s responsibility for that destruction.
If at times Barker promotes theories into facts, at other times she demotes facts into fictions. Thus, for example, she dismisses a letter Branwell wrote to a friend describing an evening of wild drinking and fighting on the eve of a journey to take up a tutoring position at a time when she insists he was still stable and sober. ‘Branwell probably exaggerated the amount he had drunk,’ she tells us, ‘as he is unlikely to have wished to travel the last tortuous twenty miles of the mountainous southern Lakeland road between Kendal and Ulverston in a stagecoach with a hangover.’ Few young men, one supposes, wish to travel or even to sit quietly with hangovers; but the improbability of the wish is no argument against the possibility of the phenomenon.
Barker’s logic turns circular only in moments of stress, when she is confronted with a problem she finds particularly troubling, but the biases that motivate the circularity are everywhere evident. When Branwell is dismissed from a job, he is unlucky; when Charlotte is dismissed, dismissal is what she deserves. If she worries about her sisters’ health, she is obsessively morbid or hypochondriacal; if she does not worry, she is too preoccupied with herself to see what is before her eyes. When she writes, Barker accuses her of leaning on a ‘mental crutch’ and indulging in fantasies that ‘poisoned her mind against her daily life’; when she does not write, Barker accuses her of lethargy and reminds us of her siblings’ productivity. Her desire for education is ‘entirely selfish’, her feminism an unmeaning form of self-pity, and her flashes of magnanimity aberrations from her habitual resentment. So unrelenting is the abuse that the most determined sceptic must come away from this book at least a little repelled.
Perhaps Charlotte was indeed so thoroughly disagreeable that even her virtues stank. But the ingenious mobility of the standards Barker uses to condemn her, the flexibility of the logic she brings to bear on her failings, the snideness, the sniping, the deep and irritable contempt – all this raises questions about Barker’s relation to her subject and the sources of her hostility. Two things seem consistently to bother Barker: the independence of imagination from the familiar world and the independence of artistic values from domestic or economic ones. Barker talks about imagination, even healthy imagination, in terms of ‘dependence’ and ‘retreat’. To dwell on a subject, even when that results in writing of undoubted worth, is to be in a ‘rut’. Writing is valuable insofar as it reflects a devotion to ‘productivity’, but it is also a distraction from the real business of living in the world and can endanger those domestic bonds that must always take precedence. To Barker’s mind, Charlotte is to be blamed for wishing that ‘she could pursue her reading and writing at will’. Though it is hard to imagine any writer not wishing for more time to write, Barker believes Charlotte’s discontent to have been both unreasonable and ungrateful: ‘She seems to have been unable to appreciate the advantages she had, including that of a comfortable home. By comparison with most of her father’s parishioners, the Brontës enjoyed enormous wealth.’ House and family before solitude and imagination. Barker minds extremely when Charlotte allows literary considerations to interfere with familial decorum, when, for instance, she makes it clear she rates Emily’s genius higher than Anne’s or when, together with her sisters, she excludes the ruined and unstable Branwell from their attempts to publish their novels. Behind it all one can hear the indignant question, just who does she think she is?
One might say that with all this Charlotte gets no more than she deserved. She was the one who teased the public with hints of her mysterious family life, who justified her novels by reminding readers that she was a sister and a daughter, relations in which, if Barker is even approximately right, she did not shine. She defended herself as a writer on grounds that do not bear examination. Nevertheless, in this book the bad sister and the bad daughter crowd out the writer – and that is disturbing.
One of the many curiosities of The Brontës is how much it sounds like the work of a resentful younger sister outraged by the kind of misbehaviour that is so notoriously hard to explain to outsiders. There is an intimacy to Barker’s distaste for Charlotte, a need to tattle, a loathing of the interfering older sister that does not end until Charlotte leaves behind one family for another. Once the siblings are all gone and the intolerably embarrassing old maid is absorbed into the wife, her biographer grows kind: at last she approves. Nor is this surprising: since the very beginning the Brontës have had the power (though it goes against their will, and ours too) to pull us into an incompletely comprehensible drama, to make their unexplicit family disturbances ours. If Barker feels it, so did Gaskell, so did the curious Victorians, and so do I.