At home with Heathcliff

Fiction: BRONTE by Glyn Hughes Bantam Press pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
The line between biography and fiction in books about the Brontes' lives has always been extremely narrow and inconclusively drawn. Charlotte's first biographer, Mrs Gaskell, was of course a novelist, and George Henry Lewes was only one of many early critics of The Life of Charlotte Bronte to recognise that Gaskell had painted "the psychological drama and scenic accessories with so much vividness - that fiction has nothing more wild, touching and heart-strengthening to place above it".

This cross-fertilisation between biographical fact and artistic fancy has continued ever since, and never more voraciously than in the spate of plays, novels and romantic biography which appeared throughout the Twenties and Thirties. They Lived: A Bronte Novel is a little bland, and Three Virgins of Haworth a bit pious and repressed, but Wild Decembers, Empurpled Moors and Moor Born are stoked with Bronte fire and ardour. They present us with all the stereotypes: of mouselike Anne and mystical Emily at one with nature, of sharp-tongued Charlotte, pitiless in her condemnation of brother Branwell who rolls home to the Parsonage every evening from the Black Bull, and whose dissolution prevents him from completing his novel, which under Emily's authorship becomes Wuthering Heights.

There is also a more challenging sideline to the genre in novels which introduce members of the family into modern situations. In Rachel Ferguson's almost surreal 1931 fantasy, The Brontes Went to Woolworth's, we are treated to the spectacle of Charlotte buying a mauve hair-net ("quite hideous, poor girl") in the store's haberdashery. And Stevie Davies's recent Four Dreamers And Emily imagines the effect of nocturnal visits from the ghost of Emily Bronte on a group of Bronte enthusiasts.

There are no wild imaginings in Glyn Hughes's new novel. Aside from a scene in which he portrays Charlotte destroying Emily's unfinished second novel after her death, he remains a stern literalist. Bronte marks a return for Hughes to a familiar landscape: his first novel, Where I Used to Play on the Green, which won the 1982 Guardian Fiction Prize, was set in Haworth during the incumbency of Patrick Bronte's predecessor, the 18th-century leader of Northern Methodism, Reverend William Grimshaw, and was memorable for its gritty descriptions of the West Yorkshire countryside.

Bronte too is at its best, here and there, in its evocation of the harsh moorland scenery and the everyday lives of smoke-blackened industrial towns, but overall his imaginative command is less sure. Hughes acknowledges his plundering of Juliet Barker's recent mammoth biography of the Bronte family, and stresses that he has been at pains to be accurate in his presentation of detail. Yet it is this drive for accuracy which has effectively snuffed out any spark of invention in the novel. Some secondary characters have life breathed into them (Aunt Branwell, out of place in Haworth in her Penzance silks and petticoats, is a particular comic success) but elsewhere Hughes is content to fall back on traditional mythology. Hence Patrick is once again the repressive father, while Anne moons over William Weightman, and is beset by Calvinist self-doubt. Hughes uses stray sentences from the Brontes' letters and diary papers but their conversion into a late 20th-century vernacular deprives them of impact.

For a modern novel about the Brontes to succeed, in the way that 20 years ago Lynne Reid Banks succeeded, in Dark Quartet, in distilling the elements of the story into a revitalised framework, the novelist must be prepared to investigate what Lyndall Gordon has called the gaps and silences, the unseen spaces in the Brontes' lives (though perhaps not to the extent of accepting half-baked theories about a "stolen" novel by Charlotte Bronte called Miss Miles). It is no coincidence that the most satisfying section of Hughes's book, dealing with Branwell's seduction at Thorp Green by that enchantress, Lydia Robinson, is also the area of the Brontes' experience for which we have the least documentary evidence. It is difficult to know for whom Hughes is writing. The cover illustration of a Top Withins-like farmhouse suggests that Bantam may be trying to lure the audience of Cliff Richard's new musical Heathcliff. But devotees of the family will find Bronte an irritating read, and beginners should stick to Mrs Gaskell.