Book review: The Brontës by Juliet Barker

The story of the tragic Brontës is familiar to most...‘poor’ Charlotte, wild and romantic Emily, Anne and her unrequited love and Branwell, their drunken, drug-addicted wastrel of a brother.

Barker’s definitive biography, first published in 1994, demolishes these myths and presents startling new information that is just as compelling, but true instead of imaginary.

The author spent 11 years researching this reappraisal of the fascinating Brontë family and her outstanding portrait reads like a masterclass in biographical writing.

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The well-known Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a famous biography of Charlotte Brontë two years after Charlotte’s death but it ended up more a defence of her good friend than an objective account of her life and that of her family.

One hundred and fifty years – and a raft of other biographies - later, Barker sweeps away many of the misapprehensions about the Brontës and paints a vivid and memorable picture of 19th-century Yorkshire and an astonishingly creative family.

Barker trawled through newly discovered letters by every member of the Brontë family and their circle, original manuscripts, historical documents and even excerpts from contemporary newspapers to give us a radically different and much more intimate assessment of their lives.

The treasure trove of information includes newly discovered poems and letters by the Rev Patrick Brontë and three of his remarkable children, Branwell, Emily and Anne, as well as first-hand reports by friends and acquaintances which contradict many of Mrs Gaskell’s wilder flights of fancy.

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But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Barker’s biography is her insistence on tackling the Brontës as a family unit rather than as individuals.

Their closeness, she claims, is the key to their incredible achievements and taking one of them out of context ‘creates the sort of imbalance and distortion of facts that has added considerably to the Brontë legend’.

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Barker allows the letters and memoirs to tell their own story and in this way we meet the real Charlotte, Emily et al and discover the dynamics of their relationships and the tragedies that shaped their outlook on life.

And, whichever perspective you choose, their lives were certainly ravaged by death and illness. Mrs Brontë, born Maria Branwell, died of cancer when Anne, the youngest of her six children, was just two.

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The two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, both died from TB before they reached their teens and Branwell, the only son, Emily and Anne succumbed to the same illness within eight months of each other when they were all aged about 30.

Charlotte, the last surviving child and the only one to acquire an established literary reputation, died aged 38 while she was carrying her first child after marrying her father’s curate Arthur Nicholls.

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Barker uses Charlotte as the central plank of her biography, allowing her distinctive character and voice to convey the essence of the family’s everyday life.

It is Charlotte herself who presents the real tragedy of her brother Branwell’s descent into bitterness and alcoholism, weeping for ‘the untimely dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and a shining light’.

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It was Charlotte, too, who paid a lasting and eloquent tribute to her sisters: ‘I felt it a sacred duty to wipe the dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from this soil.’

This book is a truly outstanding achievement, a reinvigorated, honest and instructive account of the Brontës, not the mythical, shadowy, doomed geniuses of so many biographies, but real, talented people with flaws and frailties.

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(Abacus, paperback, £14.99)