Top positive review
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Well done, with some reservations
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.