LONDON, ONTARIO – I’ve been reading books (and knocking back films) by and about the Brontes for most of my life now. What follows is a montage of commentaries and snippets about this fascinating family that I’ve made along the way.
FEELING THE the dreaded approach of a stinker of a cold that I just knew was going to lay me out for the best part of last week’s rather goofily scheduled long weekend – I mean, tomorrow is actually Victoria Day; so who’s idea of shrewd holiday planning was that? – I staggered into town on the Thursday for provisions to see me through the fevery, wheezy ordeal ahead. In addition to the usual industrial-sized bale of Kleenex tissues and a couple cartons of those chemical-laced hot lemon drinks that make you too dopey to care about how nasty they taste, I ducked into the Central Library for enough videos to stock a three day Infirmity Film Festival.
You’re allowed up to six videos for a one-week loan and as someone who’s been picking over the Library selection for years now, I have sturdy favourites which I’ve happily checked out over and over again. I got a few repeaters from the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series and the Stephen Fry/Hugh Laurie adaptations of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. And then my eyes happened upon a four video set (which – happy day! – only counted as one selection) entitled The Brontes of Haworth.
Now I’ve been besotted with the Brontes ever since reading Emily Bronte’s 1848 novel, Wuthering Heights, at the age of eighteen and having all my childish preconceptions about love blissfully shattered in one pulverizing blast. Assuring me that I was ready for what she called ‘the big one,’ my English teacher had given me a reading list for the summer holidays consisting of just that one book. Not being all that avid a reader at the time, I remember setting aside two weeks for the chore of getting through it and then breathlessly racing through the novel in three days of flat out ecstasy and trauma; first becoming punch drunk with Bronte’s infectious evocation of young love at its most indomitable, and then becoming appalled unto a physical sort of sickness as the tale pulls the two lovers apart into their separate orbits and never really reunites or reconciles them in this lifetime.
I’m constantly checking out new biographies and studies about this doomed family of pathologically shy geniuses and was incredulous that a six hour series had been made – much of it filmed at the Brontes’ parsonage home on the border of the Yorkshire moors – and I’d never even heard of it. Filmed in 1973 from a script by Christopher Fry (making it contemporaneous with the original Upstairs Downstairs series in terms of production values) The Brontes of Haworth was a one-off project that was broadcast well before the development of the VCR and the rise of video culture. The series was allowed to drift in a sort of unremembered limbo for a quarter century until its silver anniversary rolled around in 1998 when Yorkshire Television released this set.
By tracing the story back to their childhood, this series also gives full portraits of the habitually overlooked Bronte men – the girls’ widowed father, Patrick, who, for that period, held remarkably broadminded opinions on the education of girls, and their brother Branwell whose fiery intensity reportedly inspired Emily in her portrait of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. It is often lamented that women without means in the Brontes’ time (and a half century earlier in Jane Austen’s) were effectively forbidden to foster any sort of independent livelihood. They had either to catch a man (which invariably meant they’d soon be swept up in the demands of domesticity and maternity) or go into service at some great house.
The unenviable fate of Branwell as delineated here nicely explodes any reflexive implications that therefore un-propertied men must’ve had an easier go of it in 19th century England. Arguably as talented as any of his sisters when they wrote and illustrated their collective narratives as very young children, a pressure and urgency was soon applied to Branwell alone that broke his spirit and dried up all his wells of inspiration. Unlike his sisters who could nurture their gifts solely for the pleasure of their personal recreation (and early in any artist’s career that is the ideal climate for full development) Branwell knew he was going to have to turn his art into the meal ticket that would support them all.
When the family scraped together the tuition and packed Branwell off to London to attend the Royal Academy of Art, he hit the booze so quickly that he couldn’t summon the nerve to attend a single class. Back in the bosom of his family in a state of disgrace, Branwell lacked the strength of character to even revive, let alone develop his literary or artistic gifts any further. Spurned by an older married woman who dallied with him as a bohemian toy boy but ultimately sent him packing, Branwell then added regular dosings of laudanum to his drinking problem and slowly, extravagantly began the work of utterly destroying himself. That sequence makes for riveting and painful viewing, imparting the often overlooked truth that we can do just as much violence by overloading young people with expectations, as we can by denying them opportunities.
– MAY 2003
THERE WERE originally six children born to the Reverend Patrick Bronte and his wife. Isolated by geography in their Yorkshire town, none of the children were remotely outgoing even by the more circumspect standards of the 1800s. Following the death of their mother from tuberculosis, the two eldest sisters were carried off by the same disease at their boarding school in harsh and deprived conditions like those so memorably described by Charlotte in her most famous novel, Jane Eyre. This left in order of their births, Charlotte (1816–55), Branwell (1817–48), Emily (1818–48) and Anne (1820–49). In addition to Emily and Charlotte, Anne was the third famously scribbling sister with two novels to her name, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Though there was an early book of their own verse which they paid to publish themselves under the pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (Emily’s or Ellis’ strangely cold and mystical poems are still worth reading today) it is as novelists that the Brontes won their immortality. Infusing the old gothic tales of the macabre with their own hard scrabble sense of romantic love, they created and perfected a new hybrid, the gothic romance. In all these stories, sinister atmospheres and disruptive emotions are pumped up on steroids. If a Jane Austen novel holds up a shrewd and sober marriage as the supreme life-enhancing ideal, the Brontes investigate more chaotic possibilities between men and women. Where an Austen marriage hums along in constructive, well-balanced placidity, casting its beneficent glow on the surrounding community, a Bronte love match roars away like the unleashed furies, selfishly decimating everything that gets in its way.
Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm from 1932 (wonderfully filmed by John Schlesinger in 1996) is a charming satire that places its prim Austenian heroine, Flora Poste, into a seething rural compound where her Brontesque relatives challenge her sense of order as she strives to tidy up and productively channel their bitter and brooding excesses.
The popular Victorian novelist, Mrs. Gaskell, was the first to set down this heart-breaking story of brilliant siblings cut down in their prime by the family’s tubercular curse. Gaskell gingerly wrote her Bronte biography while their curate father and Charlotte’s widower still lived. Later writers – I particularly favour Margaret Lane’s The Bronte Story (a wonderfully accessible study of the entire family) and her later collection of supplementary essays, The Drug-Like Bronte Dream – haven’t had to be so circumspect. Winifred Gerin, the queen of Bronte specialists, wrote comprehensive (if stodgy) biographies of all three sisters as well as Branwell. Another Bronte scholar, Miss Fanny Ratchford, zeroed in on the siblings’ juvenilia in her two studies, Legends of Angria and The Brontes’ Web of Childhood.
These juvenile writings were worked on steadily and even obsessively from 1829 to 1845 Taken all together the juvenilia ultimately adds up to far more text than is contained in all seven Bronte novels and their collective volume of poetry. The earliest childhood manuscripts were handwritten in tiny, home-made books, each measuring an average of two by one and a half inches, that they stitched into covers made from recycled sugar and Epsom salt bags. As the children grew older and became more verbose, they made somewhat larger books but the handwriting remained infinitesimal.
In the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, there is an exercise book on display with a warning written on the cover by the children’s father: “All that is written in this book must be in a good, plain and legible hand. P.B” I suspect their father was motivated more by fears that his children would wreck their eyes than in any interest to clap his own near-sighted eyeballs onto their literary creations. But the size of their writing was the surest guarantee these shy children had that their secret, creative world would remain unviolated by any snooping adults. Needless to say, the sensibly dimensioned exercise book provided by Reverend Bronte was left entirely empty.
Those juvenile writings that were not lost or destroyed were dispersed to collectors all around the globe after the death of Charlotte’s widower, Reverend Nicholls. The two major collections came together at the Bronte Parsonage Museum and (of all places) at the University of Texas. London poet and playwright, James Reaney (1926–2008) who wrote the libretto for a 1990 musical play, Zamorna, based on the juvenilia, visited both of these repositories and was delighted to learn from a Japanese scholar in Texas that Wuthering Heights – that most mysteriously evocative of titles – was translated into Japanese as The Well Ventilated House.
“The problem with most movies and plays about the Brontes,” Reaney told me (and the reason why his libretto confined itself to the juvenilia) “is that for the whole last act you’ve got all of these beautiful characters coughing and hacking up bits of their lungs. Dramatically, it’s just awful.”
Until Fanny Ratchford undertook her investigations in transcribing and writing about the juvenilia, the little books were assumed to be nothing more than disconnected first stabs by the four budding writers. On the contrary, Ratchford insisted. These incomplete bundles of precocious scraps formed nothing less than “a closely connected series of stories, poems, novels, histories and dramas, having a common setting and common characters,” all of it carefully compiled over a period of sixteen years.
Furthermore, the majority of their poems and all of their greatest books, including Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, are seen to have grown out of the juvenile writings. The Scribner Companion to the Brontes by Barbara and Gareth Lloyd Evans has almost a hundred pages worth of plot summaries and glossaries regarding just the juvenilia. Margaret Lane likens the intense creative communion the siblings shared until their mid-20s to a narcotic which they each had to struggle to break away from before they could face real life and get on with their own work.
As young women trying to make their way as governesses and teachers, Charlotte and Anne were confessedly ashamed of the torrid literary universe they’d created and were wary of falling back into its embrace. The iron-willed Charlotte was able to hold it at bay and even burned most of Emily and Anne’s Gondal stories shortly after their deaths. (This may indeed be what Emily and Anne would have wanted but some of us will never forgive her for it.) Anne made her escape by clinging to the rock of Jesus and the effect this had on her writing was predictably disastrous. There’s undeniable power to be found in her two novels but you frequently have to scrape away an enervating crust of priggishness and moral disapproval to get at it. And her surviving poems, I’m sorry to report, are dull, dull, dull.
Branwell and Emily never turned their backs on their juvenilia at all. They both preferred the fevered world of their imagination to the rather disappointing real world all around them. Because he was a man, Branwell was not going to be allowed to remain forever in such imaginative seclusion. As a woman, Emily could more readily elect to live there full time and not thereby greatly disappoint anyone. Referring to their writings as their “infernal world” and “the world below,” even as children and teenagers, the Brontes knew they were playing with just the sort of blasphemous fire that would send their father around the twist. The stories explode with violence, sex, murder, treachery, atheism and sadism.
– OCTOBER 2001
WHILE JANE EYRE and Wuthering Heights are among the greatest English novels ever written, they both come with mysterious interludes and gaps that later writers have been challenged to flesh out in novels of their own. Usually inspired by little more than a desire to cash in on a greater novelist’s success, such sequels, prequels and midquels (to coin a literary term) rarely come off. Yet in a few instances at least, the Brontes have been amazingly well served in this regard.
Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea fills in the early story of the mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre and is rightly regarded as a modern classic in its own right. Less well known are two excellent novels that supplement Wuthering Heights: Jeffrey Caine’s Heathcliff tells of the three years when Heathcliff left Wuthering Heights to return a rich and bitter man bent on revenge. My favourite of the lot is John Wheatcroft’s Catherine, Her Book, which ingeniously and convincingly answers the million dollar question that has driven readers crazy for 170 years: why on Earth did Catherine feel compelled to reject her soul mate Heathcliff and marry that whimpering sop, Edgar Linton instead?
– MAY 2005
BEFORE MY LATEST trip to Britain this October, I’d never visited London’s National Portrait Gallery just north of Trafalgar Square by the used book district of Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court. That bibliographical proximity explains how I’ve passed the Gallery dozens of times and never been tempted to set foot inside. I’m not actually averse to art galleries – particularly when they’re situated in the old world where the odds improve that what’s on the walls will be work of manifest accomplishment and vision – but they do not beckon me with the siren-like efficiency of even the humblest hole-in-the-wall emporium of secondhand books. But this October after knocking back too many cups of cappuccino, I was lured in from the shops in search of a washroom and I stayed, and, indeed made a point of coming back for a full day the next week, for an absolutely unparalleled visual and historical experience. With three storeys containing more than forty exhibition rooms housing treasures dating back to the Middle Ages, I drank in chronologically arrayed portraits of monarchs from the Tudors to the Windsors as well as statesmen and soldiers of every era and artists of every discipline including – be still my bookish heart – writers.
I know that I risk sounding frantic in trying to describe the séance-like thrill of standing before dozens of full-colour originals of images I’d only ever known as muddily reproduced (and usually black and white) frontispieces to various classic volumes. Drinking in the details and the mind-boggling expanse of what I’d memorized as inscrutably murky miniatures of some of my life’s greatest heroes, was like having one of those miraculously benevolent dreams where you find yourself in the living presence of the beloved dead. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell have an entire small room to themselves, containing everything from quick comic sketches of their tour to the Hebrides to Joshua Reynolds’ masterpiece of the good doctor.
Perhaps the most moving portraits for me were the paintings of the Bronte sisters - Charlotte, Emily and Anne – two of them by their brother Branwell, including the rather strangely spaced portrait of the sisters with what at first appears to be a ghostly pillar just right of the canvas’ centre which is actually a long turpentine smear where the artist erased his own image. Convinced of his own worthlessness as a man and a writer and – what he most wanted to be – a painter, Branwell died shortly after this act of figurative suicide of a combination of the family’s usual tubercular curse and his very own laudanum-laced despair.
After the too early death of all three of the sisters, Charlotte’s widower folded up the canvas and chucked it into the back of a cupboard where it wasn’t discovered until after his own death many decades later. By then, with the classic status of the sisters’ books indelibly established, the painting was finally treasured at its worth. How one wishes there was some way to signal across the valley of death for just a second to let Branwell know that as things turned out, his work was good enough to hang with the immortals in the National Portrait Gallery.
– NOVEMBER 2009
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