Monday, December 04, 2006

The Brontës at Haworth - a review

The editors of the book The Brontës at Haworth by Ann Dinsdale with photographs by Simon Warner - Frances Lincoln - were so kind as to furnish us with a review copy of this fantastic book.

Initially, we thought this would be the kind of book which simply states the basic facts of the Brontës' lives and times and is accompanied by beautiful pictures to make it attractive for those a little more knowledgeable on the Brontë story. We couldn't have been more wrong.

Ann Dinsdale, who knows what she is talking about since she works as librarian at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, begins her book by devoting a chapter to each member of the Brontë family, with the exception of Maria and Elizabeth sharing a chapter. The servants at the Parsonage also get a chapter for themselves. Perhaps we missed a chapter on Arthur Bell Nicholls, who after all became part of the Brontë story. We dreaded the chapters on the Brontë siblings would become somewhat repetitive if read at once but - even though some facts are unavoidably repeated - it is splendidly carried out by building on the knowledge imparted a few pages before and moving on with the Brontë story while keeping in mind that the reader might be just browsing sporadically. A treat to both newcomers and well-read Brontë enthusiasts, as we soon discovered. Indeed, this seems to have been Ann Dinsdale's guideline.

The newcomer will find out about the basics of the Brontës in a very entertaining, pigeon-holed and original way throughout the book and will be looking forward to reading more on the Brontës and their works. The well-read Brontë enthusiast, on the other hand, has already a baggage of Brontë reads and is sometimes difficult to surprise. BrontëBlog humbly considers themselves part of the latter group and was most certainly surprised in many instances.

The Brontë story is told in such a way that it invites pilgrimage to the places mentioned. Each step the Brontës took is carefully documented and can be relied on before embarking on a trip not only around Brontë Country but elsewhere too - wherever the Brontë family ever set foot. Needless to say, Simon Warner's wonderful pictures work wonders both when it comes to conveying the atmosphere of a certain place and when it comes to make the reader 'wish for wings'.

Each rung of the literary ladder has a chapter to itself. Each work is carefully examined, by looking into its context as well as by looking at what the contemporary critics said of it, in order to give us a picture not of what the book is today but of what the book was back then and how it has come to reach us.

If BrontëBlog had to choose their favourite chapters, they would be those included in the last two sections. The chapter called Life and Death in Haworth makes you realise that all those dreadful facts you have read about Haworth have been toned down. An eye-opening, explicit kind of chapter ideal for those who really wish to know what the place was like in the Brontës' times and why the siblings tended to leave the house and head for the moors.

The last section is called The Legacy of the Brontës and makes a fabulous read too because it is on subjects that are hardly written on. Ann Dinsdale explores the many tendencies in Brontë biography starting with Mrs Gaskell. The final chapter After the Brontës examines the Brontës' afterlife by looking into the first collections of Brontëana, the first auctions, the first museum, the acquisition of the Parsonage and its reforms until it became what we know today.

Ann Dinsdale very successfully manages to separate what is fact from what has been regarded as fact up to now but isn't. She seems intent on waving away for once and for all the many legends that populate the Brontë story by stating things as they happened. She never tries to fill gaps or to build theories. This book is a collection of facts as solid and as real as any of the objects we see in the pictures by Simon Warner.

Indeed said pictures are stunning. He more than portrays beautiful landscapes, he also provides us with atmospheres and captures the feeling of each place. The book includes many old pictures rarely seen before such as images of the Parsonage when it was inhabited by subsequent curates or a picture of the famous but seldom visited cellar where the Brontës are supposed to have played too.

Needless to say, this makes for a fabulous Christmas present for any Brontë aficionado. Whether you have been reading about the Brontës for the last 20 years or whether you have just discovered them through the latest BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre you will find this book will become one of the pillars of your ever-growing Brontë library.

Stay tuned to BrontëBlog - there will be surprises in the coming days regarding this book.

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