BOOKS / Angria young women spell trouble
THE BRONTS by Juliet Barker, Weidenfeld £25 EMILY BRONT: HERETIC by Stevie Davies, Women's Press £8.99
Sunday 18 December 1994
sheet of paper," she goes on, unpromisingly, and admits that despite the 1,000 pages of scholarship here, Emily and Anne remain "shadowy figures". Anne is still the quiet, if not quite the conventional one, but Emily's fabled intransigence is seen here as a self-defence mechanism masking chronic insecurity; her dependence on the imaginary kingdom of Gondal, which lasted well into adulthood, disabled her for any life outside the sheltering walls of Haworth Parsonage.
We have to wait until page 797 for a clue to Barker's deeper motives: sardonically recounting the success of Mrs Gaskell's 1857 Life of Charlotte Bronte she quips: "the school of `poor Charlotte' biography had been born". The latest Bronte biographer hasa discernible animus against "poor Charlotte", though whether this was a preconception or a conclusion formed after research is unclear. Poor Charlotte gets a kick in the pants.
The story begins in 1802, when 25-year-old Patrick Bronte, just arrived from his native Ireland, signed up as an undergraduate at St John's College, Cambridge. The son of a poor family, Patrick was hard-working rather than brilliant, and focused on the goal of ordination. His achievement of this aim, his ham-fisted attempts at finding a wife and the gradual drift northwards from parish to parish are all detailed exhaustively; at times it seems as though Barker's chief interest is ecclesiastical history.Chartists, church-rate riots, rebellious parishioners and successive Machiavellian bishops of Bradford are invoked during the stormy years of Patrick's early career. Haworth had the right to appoint its own ministers and resented the bishop's interference: at first the parishioners were united against Patrick, drowning his sermons with catcalls or simply clumping out in droves. It took many months of politicking and placating before Haworth's most famous minister could take up his position.
Far from being a brutish backwater, Haworth was a bustling industrial town with 13 small textile mills, a surgeon, a watchmaker, a wine merchant and two confectioners. Barker's depiction of Haworth, with its fresh water problems, its ginnels, open sewersand cobbled yards, its inns, cottage industries and public privies, is thrillingly vivid. Blame Mrs Gaskell, again, for the "remote rural village of Brigadoon fantasy"; two of the first literary tourists offered to send the bemused Patrick Bronte a newspaper after reading of "backward" Haworth in her book. As Barker makes clear, regular perusals of the most up-to-date periodicals were essential for the Bronte children's first essays in composition, those minute but exhaustive chronicles of the imaginary kingdoms Angria and Gondal which Mrs Gaskell was later to describe as "creative power carried to the verge of insanity".
Barker has studied these productions in depth, and it is here that Branwell finds his place in the story. For, as she shows, in the Angria stories he shared with Charlotte he was always spurring his more introspective sister on with increasingly complex and outrageous storylines. His interest lay in politics while Charlotte introduced touches of the supernatural; they both gloried in warfare. Anne and Emily's Gondal was a quieter realm. Far from hailing them as young prodigies, Barker points out how appalling their spelling is; Branwell writes "feild" right into adulthood.
So keen is Barker to avoid the pitfall of substituting literary criticism for hard biographical fact that she avoids any in-depth discussion of the novels; the juvenilia and the poems (much of them doggerel) are given more prominence than, for example, Wuthering Heights, about which it doesn't seem quite sufficient to say it was a Gondal story tweaked into a Yorkshire setting. Barker's Grad-grindian facts form a mesh through which something indefinable is draining away. Vast tracts of the book are painstaking lists of events; some of the most vivid descriptions are those copied from Gaskell or from letters. It is possible to close this huge book and still be somewhat confused about the chronology. Certain parts are brilliantly lit: the careless regime at Cowan Bridge school which led to fatal consumption for the two oldest Bronte children, Maria and Elizabeth; the deaths, painful and pitiful respectively, of Emily and Anne. As a work of scholarship it is brilliant: a random dip into the notes trawls up such fascinating detail as Arthur Bell Nicholls's insistence that his wife Charlotte's white and green wedding-dress, in which she looked "like a snowdrop", be burned rather than fall into the hands of curiosity-seekers. For those with a passion for the Brontes, or for Victoriana, or for sheer wealth of historical minutiae, it is a stupendous read.
Stevie Davies's approach is in total contrast. In Emily Bronte: Heretic she rushes in where Barker fears to tread, enthusiastically pulling out plums of biographical inference from Wuthering Heights. Davies's partisanship knows no bounds, and occasionally leads her into silliness. Listing Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Shakespeare and Milton among Emily's influences, she exlaims: "how paltry such light fare comes to seem in the light of Emily Bronte's achievement". This just leaves Homer as a fit comparison. While Juliet Barker hesitates to suggest that Emily and Anne's bed-games had any sexual rather than Gondalian significance, Davies practically has her head under the sheets, emerging to identify masturbation as the primary sexual experience behind the novel. There seems to be some kind of lesbian agenda here, and Davies is also keen to cut Emily free from the religiosity of her background. Where Barker works to rehabilitate Patrick and stern old Aunt Branwell, Davies busily redemonises them. And yet there's more sense of the sheer excitement of the fiction in these 247
garrulous pages than in all Barker's doorstop.
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