This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.
This tells an unusual biography - not one of a writer, but one of someone who influenced a writer - or more accurately, four writers: the Brontës.
I've never actually been a fan of the Brontës' writing, but I am a fan of writing in general, and I'm always interested in the process: in how writers start out, where their inspiration comes from, how approach their work, and how they sit down day after day and write. I do have my own experiences, but it never hurts to learn of others'. Unfortunately for me, this book really didn't help in that regard. While Aunt Branwell's influence is touched upon, it's never really demonstrated, so for me, the book failed in its thesis.
The Brontës themselves (the surviving, writing Brontës that is) do not show up until forty percent into this book when Charlotte is born, so we get a long introduction to Elizabeth Branwell, her history, and her tenure in Penzance, Cornwall, on the very tip of England's west coast. I did not know until I read this that Cornwall had suffered a tsunami, caused by an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal in 1755. This actually wasn't the first tsunami to strike the British coast (there was one in 6100BC that hit Scotland), but they are rare. There was one on the south coast in 1929, and a minor one as recently as 2011. It was on odd coincidence that simultaneously while reading this, I was also listening to an audiobook during my daily commute, which featured a tsunami.
But I digress! Elizabeth eventually left Penzance to stay with her sister in Yorkshire and was there at Charlotte's birth, and this is where I had some problems with the text. A major problem I had with this biography was in how it frequently leapt to conclusions and made unwarranted assumptions. For example, when Elizabeth gets the letter inviting her to visit her younger sister in Yorkshire, the author writes: "Tears welled in Elizabeth's eyes as she placed the letter carefully back into its envelope, but how should she respond?" How can this author possibly know what her emotions were? This kind of thing appeared more than once, and without any supporting reference, and it severely devalued the authenticity of the biography in my opinion.
Around this same event, I also read, "Elizabeth's intuitive response was to accept the invitation." The author knows what Elizabeth is intuiting at a specific moment how exactly? There is a reference at the end of this paragraph, but my intuitive response is that this reference relates to the difficulties of long distance travel in those days, and not to intuition and responses per se.
Later I read, "It was decided to call this third one Charlotte after her aunt in Cornwall, a move Elizabeth wholeheartedly approved of." And the author knows what Elizabeth wholeheartedly approves of how? If there had been a reference to a letter or a journal entry supporting this assumption, that would be one thing, but just to put this out there is meaningless when it's merely the author's evidently over-emotional opinion. It cheapens the whole work. It's possible to put heart and soul, into something without having to resort to pure invention which is what these comments felt like to me.
There were many instances of this, which had not seemed so prevalent before the Brontë children began showing up. It seemed like it was after that point that the story became rife with them as though the author had been lightning-struck by the arrival of the children and suddenly everything was ten times more dramatic. I read things like: " Ripping open the envelope, not standing on ceremony this time, she knew something was terribly wrong."
No, she really didn't. She merely got a letter in an unfamiliar hand! When she read the letter and learned that her younger sister was gravely ill, then she knew something was terribly wrong, but there is no foundation whatsoever for the blind assumption that she ripped the envelope open especially since, back then, the letter was the envelope as often as not, and 'ripping it open' would have actually torn the letter and made it harder to read!
I also read: "Elizabeth's mind raced as she slumped into a chair, letter clenched tightly in her hand." We don't know any of that! I can see how it would appeal to an author to imbue his writing with some emotional content, to leaven the dry facts, but there are limits to what's reasonable.
If you want to add that kind of dramatic flourish to it, then for goodness sake write it as fiction. This kind of intemperate invention does not belong in a biography! Another such instance was: "Branwell, just turned 4, looked on with a confident gaze, and a toddling Emily remained with shy suspicion in a corner." Really? And you know this how? It was the repeated influx of what can only be deemed to be pure fiction, which turned me off this biography and actually began to make me doubt some of the other things I'd already read.
With regard to their home education provided by Elizabeth Branwell, I read that the children "were, in general, able and eager students, although they also demonstrated a mischievous streak from time to time." Again, there's no reference for this, and no example given here of how they were mischievous, so why would the author say this? He adds later, "even though the lessons given by their Aunt Branwell were not always to their taste." How do we know this? Again, there's no reference. It doesn't matter how much of their history the author has read; if he or she cannot reference something, then it can be only opinion. It makes a big difference when opinion is substituted for actual evidence. It makes the whole biography untrustworthy.
In another instance, there was this:
When Elizabeth informed her nieces of her new subscription they were delighted, although Charlotte's announcement of it in a letter to her brother is characteristically muted: 'I am extremely glad that Aunt has consented to take in Fraser's Magazine for though I know from a description of its general contents that it will be rather uninteresting when compared with "Blackwood"
Blackwood was Charlotte's preferred magazine, so it hardly looks like she was "delighted" with her aunt's choice! Again, it leaches credibility from the account to have so much fanciful commentary added.
If the author had written, for example, that "Patrick's journal for that day reported that Elizabeth was slumped into a chair, letter clenched tightly in her hand," it would be one thing, even if some dramatic license had been taken with the verbs, but that's not what we read. If the author had reported, "according to some reports, the children demonstrated a mischievous streak from time to time," again, that would be another matter, especially if the reports had been referenced in the notes. If the author had reported, "When Elizabeth informed her nieces of her new subscription the children evidenced mixed feelings" and quoted Charlottes comments, that would have worked well, but this constant resorting to superlatives strongly suggests an overly emotional and unreliable reporting of events which is not what I want to be reading in a biography.
I read at one point about the children naming toy soldiers they had, which were characters in the various worlds they built in their evidently fertile imaginations:
Charlotte instantly named hers after her hero the Duke of Wellington, whereupon Branwell decided that his would be Napoleon Bonaparte. Even at this stage of his life - he was then aged eight - he delighted in being the anti-hero rather than the hero. We should also remember, however, that the twelve soldiers had been bought for Branwell, yet he willingly shared them with his sisters; this one early moment encapsulated the duality of his nature.
I'm sorry but I don't buy this. Charlotte instantly named hers? Maybe. Patrick deliberately chose an anti-hero rather than he just chose Napoleon because that man was the brain-dead option when his sister had chosen Wellington? Once again the author seems to be investing far too much fertile (if not fervid) imagination of his own into every action the children took.
Patrick was eight years old for goodness sake, yet already the author wants him to be well onto the downhill slide into addiction and intemperance which we know did not become part of his character until later in life. It's too much. The author fails to give us sufficient information for us to tell if Charlotte's naming was a one-time thing for a specific scenario they were playing out, and this is why Patrick chose Napoleon, or if Arthur Wellesley was the permanent name she gave him. In omitting this, he does the reader a disservice and to quote Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame, he rejects reality and substitutes his own.
The author can even read the thoughts of the dying! As a part of the description of Aunt Branwell's last hours, I read, "Her thoughts dwelt once again on her family in Cornwall, the beautiful coast she would see no more, and then upon her nieces." The problem with this was that she died of an apparent bowel obstruction and was in severe pain for four days. It seems to me a stretch to declare with such certainty where her thoughts were when pain was the foremost thing in her mind. It seems far more likely that her thoughts dwelled on wishing the pain to be over even if it meant her dying. I don't doubt that at times her mind was in other places, but to certify that we can read her thoughts with such confidence seemed disrespectful to me.
Their aunt never did know of her nieces' success. It was only after she died and the children received a very generous inheritance, that they embarked upon their 'professional' writing careers. The first effort was a book of poetry to which all three contributed quite a number of poems. They had to pay for the publication and it never did take off. It was this failure which far from stunting their growth, launched them into their prose careers. We're told that the poetry book was launched after Charlotte had discovered a book of poetry written by Emily. The poems were supposedly, "a key to Emily's soul, and she was furious when she learned Charlotte had found them. After days of silent, and not so silent, recriminations, Anne managed to persuade Emily of the opportunity the discovery had brought."
Given that Emily was widely known to be shy and retiring (even her signature was more restrained than that of her sisters!), this rage and several days of huffy silence felt like a lot of drama, too, especially since Charlotte herself went on record stating that "My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character"! The actual words Charlotte used in describing this particular incident were "It took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication."
While we must make allowances for Charlotte perhaps downplaying emotions here, there's nothing there about fury and days of silence! This is all imagination. We can, using imagination, convince ourselves that Emily would have been at least embarrassed that her secret writing had been read, but anger? Perhaps a little, but the fact is, we do not know. This 'days of silence' is pure fiction. It took days to persuade her to publicly reveal her private writing, but this does not mean she was off in a huff somewhere, perhaps stalking the moors wearing sackcloth and with ashes in her hair, for goodness sake!
It's well known among Brontë aficionados that each of the three sisters chose a masculine name that preserved their initials while masking their femininity. Charlotte adopted Currer Bell, as the author suggests, perhaps taken from Frances Richardson-Currer a family friend who may have helped her father out of dire straits at one point with an anonymous donation.
Emily adopted the name Ellis Bell. The author assumes this to be a shortened version of Elizabeth, but that seems a stretch. We honestly don't know where it came from, but it's also been suggested it might be a reference to George Ellis, a friend of Walter Scott's, who is referenced in Scott's poem Marmion, which itself is mentioned in Jane Eyre.
Anne's experiences at Blake Hall, which were given new life in Agnes Grey, could equally have played a part. Anne's employer at the hall was Mary Ingham, whose father was Ellis Lister, an MP who presided over the Brontë's electoral district. But to me these are also a stretch. I prefer to think it was taken from contemporary writer Sarah Ellis. This would fit in with the other two sisters also choosing a (to them) well-known last name as their first.
The author suggests that the inspiration for Anne's choice of 'Acton' may be the castle her aunt had told her about during many childhood stories, but it could also have been from the last name of a recipe book writer and poet named Eliza Acton. She's largely unknown to us today, but may well have been in the Brontë library and for all we know could have been a beloved author of Anne's.
Of the surname, the author speculates: "It is often conjectured that the surname Bell was inspired by the sound of bells from their father's church; this may be so, but it could also be a contraction of the family name B(ranw)ell." Or it could have been the middle name of the curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, whom Charlotte later married? There are too many options to be sure, and in the end we cannot really know. It's all guess-work!
Tragedy struck when three family members all died within a few months of each other. The apparent cause was tuberculosis, and the author seems to think this came from the visit made to London by Charlotte and Anne (Emily was too retiring!) to prove to their publisher that they were women - and not one man - who wrote all of these novels! He says, "Could one or other of the sisters have picked up a further dose of tubercle bacilli which when they returned to Haworth they handed on to Branwell and to Emily? This seems a most likely supposition. Almost certainly one or other of them introduced a new pathogenic element into the closed community of Haworth Parsonage, which wreaked so much havoc so quickly."
We can't know now who patient zero truly was, but it seems far more likely to me, since Branwell was the first to get sick and die, that it was his dissolute lifestyle that doomed them all. He died in late September 1848, and was doubtlessly nursed by his sisters, in particular, Emily, who then died in late December that same year. Anne, who was so very close to Emily died in late may of the following year. To me this scenario makes more sense than blaming Charlotte.
So evne to the end, this book felt like it was far too much authorial imagination, and not enough hard fact - or supported conjecture at least. I imagine when an author is writing a biography and researching endlessly, that they come to feel close to the subject of their research, but this is not the same thing as actually knowing them personally, and certainly not the same as actually having evidence for assertions that are made. For me, the author crossed that line too many times, and this is one of the two main reasons why I felt this book fell short.
The other is the fact that I think the underlying assertion, that Aunt Branwell was such an influence on these creative children, is not made convincingly. From all that I've read about the Brontes, and from this book too, it seems to me that while they were undoubtedly influenced by many things and people around them, including Aunt Branwell, these kids themselves were the biggest influence on their writing - their minds, their interaction with each other, and their wide reading, which made the perfect storm that became their oeuvre. While I wish the author all the best, I cannot commend this biography.