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on October 28, 2012
Barker puts a lot of energy into righting prior biographers' missteps--certainly an important undertaking, but sometimes her efforts lead her down a less-than-ideal path. (Not having read a Bronte bio before, not even Gaskell's, I had no false impressions to correct.) She seems intent on salvaging the brother's reputation and painting Charlotte as selfish and unkind. She'll say Charlotte was "in a rage" or "hostile" but the letter she quotes as evidence doesn't support that judgment. Unacquainted as I am with Bronte family legend, I don't know if she's making an effort to correct a falsely glowing impression previously painted of Charlotte. She does say that biographers have been unfair to Branwell, the brother, and to Patrick Bronte, the father, both of whom had been painted with jaundiced brushes.

It's quite an accomplishment, bringing together all this information and painstakingly organizing it--I can't imagine the time and effort that went into this book. My primary complaint is that the book teems with far-fetched judgments (though a few seem insightful). It's par for the course for biographers to assume and imagine, but I prefer less reading-between-the-lines when it amounts to mere supposition. For instance, she'll assert that so-and-so "must have been there that night." Well not necessarily, maybe so-and-so was sick or out of town or otherwise indisposed. She'll read a motive into someone's actions when she has no way of knowing how that person was feeling, tending to be sympathetic with some people and surprisingly harsh with others. She goes too far when attacking certain individuals, for instance an old school friend of Charlotte's is pilloried by the end of the book. After Charlotte's death, the friend, who Barker says was a source heavily used by Elizabeth Gaskell, becomes a machinator intent on carrying out her evil agenda to the detriment of Patrick Bronte and Charlotte's widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls. The married woman whom Branwell apparently had an affair with is likewise evil, while he is painted as the victim of an immoral woman, but this doesn't jibe, considering all the drugging, drinking and carousing he'd been up to by then (he apparently had a daughter somewhere by this time, too, probably by a servant). She tries too hard to rescue Branwell. In the process of trying to right wrongs, she makes some of the same mistakes she accuses Gaskell of. She seems to decide a person is good or bad and then runs far and fast with her verdict. I get the feeling that the truth about some of the people involved lies somewhere between Gaskell's and Barker's portrayals (though again, I haven't read Gaskell's book, I only know what Barker states and insinuates).

Barker makes the big statement that the Bronte sisters' books wouldn't have been written were it not for their brother Branwell. Quite a claim. Yes, he was an important part of the Bronte tradition of childhood writing, but that doesn't mean he was responsible for their later success. She presents no evidence that his impact was that far-reaching. He had no direct hand in the writing of the books and it's impossible for anyone to tell what influence was most instrumental in forming the young women's extraordinary writing gifts; perhaps writing was simply in their blood/genes/makeup; probably it was the whole package--the way all their lives intertwined, their father's influence, their friends, the books they read, the environment, the schools they attended, their lives' particular twists and turns, combined with natural talent, etc, etc. That Branwell was responsible for their success is another supposition that feels unjustified, but this one is SO huge, and SO unfair, it has to be called into question.

The portrayals of the father and of Charlotte's husband come across as fair. By the time every one of Charlotte's siblings (and her mother) are dead, Barker also finally lets up on Charlotte. Emily comes across as especially enigmatic and intriguing; too bad there's not more information available on her.

The extent to which the juvenilia are quoted becomes very tedious after a while. I wish these sections had been heavily edited, but I suppose a real Bronte aficionado might find it all interesting.

A final criticism, and one that really niggles, is the writer's references to female authors as "authoresses" and female poets as "poetesses" and I don't mean when she's quoting, she does it herself. I think we can move beyond that now? It's one thing for a 19th century writer to do it, and quite another for a 21st century author (should she be called a biographess?). Charlotte Bronte the authoress had her brother to thank for her success? I'm sorry, this rankles.

It takes a fair amount of boldness to write a bio like this (that boldness also leads directly to the work's weaknesses). For a long book packed with minutiae, it truly is a page-turner. Kudos go to Barker for a fabulous job on a complicated task; the work is well thought-out, exhaustively researched, well-written--feels like a labor of love. Though I often found myself muttering, "oh come on" at some of the excesses, it is well worth a read.
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on September 10, 2012
Juliet Barker's updated biography is over a staggering one thousand pages; all containing impeccable research on The Brontes. Her writing is dense, collegiate, extremely well researched dripping with admiration and respect for this family. Anyone wanting to get to know The Brontes owes Ms. Barker a debt of gratitude! She traces their lineage then writes a chronological retelling of The Bronte Family beginning with clan patriarch Rev. Patrick Bronte through to the entire life and death of all six of his children until the death of Rev. Bronte. The notes section in the back of the book is not to be missed and is most likely the size of a small novel itself! The photographs and sketches are wonderful as well.

I highly recommend this beautifully written biography to any person who has read any Bronte novel and fallen in love with the story and characters, to anyone who wants to visit Yorkshire and walk along the moors, to anyone who wants to satisfy their curiosity about who this talented family were. Please don't be put off by the sheer size of the biography, it is to be savored and lingered over maybe even perhaps kept as a reference book.
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on October 5, 2012
I read this book in the first edition and am very glad to have an updated version I can get on my Kindle. However the Kindle edition leaves me with a question or two... NO TABLE OF CONTENTS?? In a book this size, why no TOC with clickable links? I was reading it from the library when I decided to buy it, and I can't just go to the TOC and click to the chapter where I was reading. Also since it is a work of scholarship, not just a story, people might want to refer back to something specific and need a TOC and/or an index to get to it, neither of which seem to have made it into this version. And if there are no illustrations in a Kindle edition, this should be disclosed up front before you buy it and find out you can't see the plates. So, if I could give it a 5 for the book and a 3 for the edition I would do that... so average out to 4... Edited to add... Not sure why the print book is called "Story of a Literary Family" and the Kindle book is called "Story of Three Sisters" - this is odd, it's not just the story of the sisters...
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on January 12, 2013
I'm disappointed in this book because I expected more insight into the writing lives of the Bronte sisters, however this scholarly book deals more with the life of their father, Patrick and their very early childhood. The author goes into excruciating detail about Patrick's early life, his religious beliefs, where he was assigned as a pastor, what each church looked like, who said what to whom about his assignment etc. The author did a lot of research and used every single bit of it, resulting in an overwhelming amount of detail and distracting information. Much of the book covers the years leading up to Patrick's marriage to the doomed Maria. I didn't see how this related to the development of the Bronte sisters' genius. Many of the quotes from letters and documents could have been left out. The book covers Patrick's marriage to Maria, the birth of their children, her death, and the girls' experience at Cowan Bridge school, which would become the notorious Lowood School in Jane Eyre. Most authorities acknowledge that Cowan Bridge was the basis for Lowood, so that isn't new information.
I was hoping for more insight into the adult lives and creative genius of The Bronte sisters. To be honest I quit about 3/4 of the way through, something I never do, since at that point it was clear the Brontes' writing years were not going to covered in much, if any detail. The author argues successfully with several of the claims of Mrs. Gaskill's book on the Bronte sisters. She does provide details about the Cowan Bridge School to which the girls were sent, and which caused the deaths of young Maria and Elizabeth.

You will like this book if you are interested in the life of a minister in rural England in the early 1800's, but I didn't think that the author made many connections between the Brontes childhood and their adult creative genius.
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This mammoth biography explores the Brontes' history in exquisite detail. Barker has dug far beyond the usual surface treatment one expects in a historical biography. I bought the book on Kindle without realizing its size and was more than a little overwhelmed at first, especially during the interminable early chapters about the father Patrick Bronte's early life and loves. But once Charlotte and Co. show up, the depth of Barker's research becomes not only an invaluable tool for understanding these classic authors and the times they lived in, but also fascinating reading. I can't remember the last time I felt so immersed in a historical period and so well-informed about a historical personage.
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on November 26, 2012
Even though this family history is long and full of detail, I can honestly report that it's a page turner, absolutely. Much of the Bronte mythology remains intact - those wild sisters and one even wilder brother wandering the moors thinking up great stories - still the much harder, more mundane facts emerge, some quite startling. Patrick Bronte turns out to have been a scholar and a gentleman, a man of liberal beliefs and great strength of mind. No wonder he had such children!

The benighted Branwell was much more successful as a writer than we knew, possibly because his sisters outshone him. Still, he lived as he died, in trouble all the way.

More than anything, the stunning heroism of the sisters Emily, Anne, and Charlotte really does wring the heart. They saw so much of death and heartbreak, and yet they not only struggled but prevailed. The magnificent Charlotte, alone at the last (except for her father) finally married, and, it would appear, achieved great happiness.

This is a superb book and a great achievement for the author, Juliet Barker.
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on August 14, 2013
I appreciated all the detailed research, however from my perspective, the author made far too many excuses for Branwell's behavior and tried to cast him in a victim role.

The author also seemed to seek every opportunity to call Charlotte Bronte's character into question. Midway through the book, these repeated speculations and slanted opinions got really, really old.

I thought it had the potential to be a first rate book, had the author let us draw our own conclusions on the wonderful research she did.
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on November 18, 2012
By writing a biography which, as the subtitle indicates, focuses on a "literary family" Juliet Barker has produced a definitive work on the Brontes. She places the famous trio of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne in the context of their family and their Yorkshire culture with extensive research not previously well explored. During six years as curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum at Haworth, Barker became well acquainted with not only extensive Bronte family correspondence, but also local newspapers containing a wealth of data on the cultural and religious environment of the Bronte family. Her descriptions are so rich you almost feel she lived in 19th century Haworth rather than the 21st century version dominated by tourist buses and souvenir shops.

She completely destroys many of the Bronte myths created by Elizabeth Gaskell in her 1857 "The Life and Times of Charotte Bronte" -- particularly the prejudiced negative portrayals of Charlotte's father Rev. Patrick Bronte and husband Rev. Arthur Nicholls. It is a monster of a book at 979 pages and some readers may be tempted to scan some of the quotations from the juvenilia written by the four youngest Bronte children about their imaginary civilizations. Most of the book, however, is mesmerizing simply because of the wealth of the author's detailed research and the fascinating revelations it provides about a family which one might assume the world already knew everything. The secret to this book's success is its consideration of the whole family in context rather than an isolated individual biography. As the author's concludes,"Without this intense family relationship, some of the greatest novels in the English language would never have been written."
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on November 23, 2012
This is an extremely satisfying, exhaustively reasearched, brilliant, biography on the great literary family, the Brontes. At over 1400 pages, there is not much that Juliet Baker hasn't analysed, dissected, and/or debunked. She writes like a detective, weeding out fact from nonsense, and along the way she extinguishes 150 years of myth. Was Branwell always a screw up and a drunk with no redeeming qualities? Was Patrick an uninvolved parent with anger issues? In this wonderful bio, Baker manages to set the record straight once and for all. She didn't write a dry recounting of previous information. This is a fresh account of a real family, consisting of 8 distinctively real personalities with just as many flaws as virtues. There is no reason to read anything else on the Brontes.
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on February 4, 2015
I've just finished reading Juliet Barker's nearly 1,000 page biography on the Bronte Family. I'm exhausted, but then the book is exhaustive on the subject. All the usual storytelling about the Bronte's is here with much additional detailed information about each family member. I loved reading the many snippets of letters from each Bronte that brought them to life again in their own words. I loved reading their selected poetry, which also further illuminated them as real people and not fodder for biography. I especially liked (and printed out) a clever poem by Patrick Bronte about his curate Arthur Bell Nichol's battle to remove the women of Haworth's drying laundry off the tombstones! And of course, every piece of detail imaginable about what each of the Bronte's was doing in their lives: writing, illnesses, travel, letter-writing, personal battles, requited and unrequited love, premature death and it's aftermath. We even hear about their dogs! It's all here in the greatest amount of detail you will probably ever find on this family. The vivid chapter dealing with Charlotte and Arthur Nichols tortuous coming together to become engaged is worth skipping to and reading all on it's own. Lovely stuff. Touching and very romantic. I guess the best thing about this book is that the author has done so much research and provided so much supportive detail about what was happening to the Brontes, what they did and thought at any given moment in time, that they come alive again. I've never felt that way, experienced that, with any other Bronte biography. When you are told about Charlotte's trouble in finding the correct size underwear for her tiny frame, you really get to understand a person.

But I do reserve some criticism for the author. Beware reader, the author, Barker, feels duty bound to resurrect the image of Patrick & Branwell Bronte, while she happily skewers almost everyone else for their occasional lapses in behavior. There are times where you want to scream at the author for attacking Charlotte for the zillionith time, when the evidence of a crime is not clear and the comment unnecessary. Whereas Patrick and Branwell, despite the presented evidence of their selfishness or laziness, etc. is forgiven without comment or simply misinterpreted. The Bronte women seem to make out much worse than the Bronte men and are held to a different standard, again and again. Only Emily and sometimes, Anne, are let off the hook. No doubt because there aren't enough of their letters/writings to call them out on 'something' that bothered the Author. Or maybe, the Author just likes Emily more than Charlotte? Who knows. Be prepared to get irritated when the Author freely opines up until the last page when she credits Branwell inspiring his sisters to write their novels. Did he do that from a drunken stupor, passed out on his bed?

So, I do still recommend this as required reading for anyone really interested in going into the depths of the lives of the Brontes. Too much delicious detail to overlook this one. Just be warned that here and there, the Author will tell you what she thinks and what she thinks may irk.
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