No windswept moors, please Lucasta Miller analyses a monumental new biography of literature's most famous family

the brontes Juliet Barker Weidenfeld £25

Ever since Mrs Gaskell published her famous life of Charlotte in 1857, the Bronte family has inhabited a no-man's-land between reality and fantasy. As Gaskell's great, novelistic version of their story seeped into the cultural memory, it became more and more mono-dimensional, reduced to a windswept moor, three lonely Cinderellas, a misanthropic father, and a profligate son. Told and retold in print, on stage, and on screen, it has become as archetypal and romantic as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, and has spawned a dubious wealth of conspiracy theories and legends.

There are no apocrypha in Juliet Barker's book, which sets out to demythologise the Brontes. As a historian, she sees it as her prime duty to sort out the facts from the fictions and to place the family within its contemporary context. Eleven years of painstaking research have produced a documentary record as full and as trustworthy as we are ever likely to get, which draws on a wider variety of source materials than previous accounts. As such, it is an extraordinary achievement.

Her description of Haworth as a busy industrial township with appalling sanitation (in one case, 24 families had to share a single privy) is a good corrective to the storm-tossed Eden of legend. Her detailed - almost too detailed - account of the Rev. Patrick Bronte's career reveals him to have been a public figure of some standing, writing to the papers, sitting on committees, and closely involved in the political and social life of the area. Her revelations about Branwell, who had an illegitimate child, are positively sensational. She clears up the mystery, which has bothered biographers for years, about his fateful affair with Mrs. Robinson, whose son he was employed to teach. New evidence shows that it really took place: it was no mere delusional fantasy, nor was it (as Daphne Du Maurier suggested) a cover-up for the worse crime of child sex abuse.

Yet for all its historical accuracy, can this biography can live up to its claim to being "the first book to strip away a century of legend and reveal the truth about the Brontes"? Biographical fact, which can be verified, is not the same as biographicaltruth, which involves a leap of the imagination and can never be other than partial, fragmentary, and subjective. The Bronte mythology does not merely consist of a catalogue of false rumours and factual errors. These, of course, can be weede d out, but the data which remains cannot exist in an interpretative vacuum. Ways of seeing - of selecting and presenting evidence - are also part of the process of myth-making, which is perhaps an inescapable condition of biography.

Barker complains that literary critics who search the Brontes' fiction for "some deeply hidden autobiographical truth'' are involved in "a subjective and almost invariably pointless task". Yet her own stance - like that of any historian - is not objective. She makes it clear where her sympathies and antipathies lie, and raises an interesting question about the role of the biographer in presenting herself as a dispenser of "justice''. The Bronte men have indeed been caricatured in the past, but one occasionally feels that Barker's attempt to redress the balance in their favour relies too heavily on cutting the women down to size. Charlotte and Emily - Anne less so - have become such icons that it is easy to understand Barker's urge to demystify them. Yet you also have to remember that without their genius the Brontes would never have become biographical subjects in the first place.

In one sense, Barker is quite right to attack the way in which the Brontes' novels have sometimes been used as biographical evidence. The man who argued, on the sole basis of Wuthering Heights, that Emily must have had a love affair with a farmhand was clearly barking up the wrong tree. You cannot prove from fiction that an actual event in the external world did or did not take place. But biography is not - or should not be - merely a record of external events. And if you accept that it has anything to do with its subjects' internal lives, it seems hard to deny that a writer's works can give you some insight, however impressionistic, into her emotional state, intellectual development, or way of looking at the world.

The question, then, for the biographer is whether he or she should be trying to represent the "truth" as it may have appeared to an unemotional outsider or as it appeared within the subject's imagination. The truth about a life - and particularly about agroup of lives - is so multifaceted, so open to interpretation, and so capable of redefinition that perhaps the biggest myth of all is that the "definitive" biography is possible.

Barker may not be able to claim to have had the last word on the subject, but her contribution will be of enormous value to future generations.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Arts and Entertainment
The Vienna State Opera
opera
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'
musicLilly Wood and Robin Schulz bag number one single
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories