Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Brontës: A Biography by Brian Wilks

The Content ReaderHaving just read Brian Wilks book about Jane Austen, it was with great pleasure that I opened his book about the Brontës. Being part of the Brussels Brontë Group and, as such, a fan of the Brontës, I have read quite a few biographies about them. However, as with the Jane Austen biography, I like the way Brian Wilks approach his subjects.

He manages to extract the most important things on the lives he is writing about. It does not mean that you feel that he has left anything out. Not at all. It is all in there, and all verified by his own interpretation of actions and happenings. I actually felt that I have learned more about the Brontës, although I thought I knew it all, by reading Wilks’ biography and his way of making us acquainted with the Brontës.  Being such a unique family they have managed to keep us spellbound almost 200 years later.
They were a tightly knit group of people all sharing exceptional gifts, interests and ambitions. As Charlotte tells us: 
My home is humble and unattractive to strangers, but to me it contains what I shall find nowhere else in the world - the profound, and intense affection which brothers and sisters fell for each other when their minds are cast in the same mould, their ideas drawn from the same source - when they have clung to each other from childhood, and when disputes have never sprung up to divide them.
Brian Wilks gives us a thorough knowledge, as far as it is possible of both parents, Maria and Patrick and of their aunt Branwell. He questions some ’acknowledged facts’ and shares with us his ideas, built up with the knowledge there is.

Patrick Brontë’s influence upon his children was profound. Directly and indirectly his style of life and deeply held views were to shape their development as people and as writers. to know them we must first try to know him. 
Variously described as selfish, cruel, eccentric; as a recluse and a bigoted tyrant, he has come to represent the popular idea of a typical Victorian father. The shortage of reliable information has allowed too much scope for good stories. The truth is more complicated that the convenient caricature of a bullying, narrow-minded parson. The Rev. Patrick Brontë has been a much misunderstood and maligned man. 
About aunt Branwell Brian Wilks has the following to say. I think we can all wonder the same.
On the whole Aunt Branwell remains an enigmatic figure. More than one biographer has wondered why she remained at the Parsonage so long after the children had grown up. If all the accounts of her plainings about her long-lost Cornwall are to be believed, it is a wonder she did not shake the dust of Haworth from off her feet at the earliest opportunity. The truth is that, whatever her memories of Penzance, she remained at Haworth, in her own way devoted to her nephew and nieces, leaving them her possessions and her money, and finally, at her own request, being buried beside her sister under the floor of the church at Haworth. 
She really did dedicate her whole life to them and for many years was the pillar of the family.

The introduction to the life of Branwell, the only son, is spot on.
Patrick Branwell Brontë, ’Brany’ as the girls called him, will always remain the enigma of the Brontë family. We just do not know wnough about the ill-fated boy of such remarkable and uneven talents. Almost everything about him lies beneath a question mark. From his earliest days until his death at thirty-one in 1848 the story of his life is one of great promise and yet profound disillusion. He has been seen as excessively melancholic; as a boy and man possessed by a religious mania; as a man haunted by the memory of his dead sister Maria, and as a genius manqué who broke his father’s heart. Whether he was, as some believe, an epileptic (hence his being kept at home rather than sent away to school), or whether he was simply spoiled beyond reason by his doting sisters and indulgent father, the upshot of his education and life was drunkenness, addiction to drugs and a total inability to organise his own affairs.
Branwell does come out as a sad character, and one wonders why he could not do anything of his life. Maybe he was just too spoilt by all the women around him, or he felt the pressure of being the only man, and as such, had to provide support for his sisters. Maybe he just had other problems. We will never really know.

The lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne are told with care and respect. Emily, the recluse, Anne the only one who managed to stay away from Haworth for a longer time and actually supported the family as a governess, and Charlotte who was the entrepreneurial one and saw to it that their novels were published.

We follow their struggles and ambitions and are forever intrigued about the talents that ran in this family. We are still amazed how these three sisters, quite isolated physically, but not mentally, they did read a lot and followed the politics of the time through newspapers, could write such fantastic books.  Although I love both Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I think that Emily’s Wuthering Heights is the most spectacular one.
Emily’s Wuthering Heights attracted almost as much attention as Jane Eyre, baffling and alarming most of its readers. An unsigned review, one of five found in Emily’s writing desk after her death, is typical of the reasons her powerful imagination evoked; 
’In Wuthering Heights, the reader is shocked, disgusted, almost sickened by details of cruelty, inhumanity and the most diabolical hate and vengeance, and even some passages of powerful testimony to the supreme power of love - even over demons in the human form. The women in the book are of a strange fiendish-angelic nature, tantalising and terrible, and the men are undesirable out of the book itself… 
’…We strongly recommend all our readers who love novelty to get this story, for we can promise them that they never read anything like it before. It is very puzzling and very interesting…’
A biography, not very long, but well worth reading about a family out of the extraordinary. Brian Wilks has written more books about the Brontës and Jane Austen which might be interesting to pursue.

Thank you to Endeavour Press for a review copy of a book and writer I might not have discovered otherwise. As usual the views are my personal ones.

No comments:

Post a Comment