Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Brontë Encylopedia - A review

Blackwell Publishing kindly sent us a copy of A Brontë Encyclopedia by Robert and Louise Barnard. After reading it carefully, this is our review.

US / Canada
$99.95
Europe / Rest of World £55.00
Australia / New Zealand
A$198.00
ISBN13: 9781405151191
ISBN10: 1405151196


Publication Dates
USA: Aug 2007
Rest of World: Jul 2007

Australia: Sep 2007

Format : 246 x 171 mm , 6.75 x 9.75 in
Details :
416 pages, 50 illustrations.



This is not an ordinary book and thus this cannot be an ordinary review. A Brontë Encyclopedia is a titanic work which can be certainly included among those few books in Brontë literature that can be considered truly indispensable. It becomes a complement, and not a substitute, to Christine Alexander and Margaret Smith's Oxford Companion of the Brontës. The scope of the Barnards' project is clearly stated in the preface:
This encyclopedia of the Brontës concerns itself with the family, their writings, and their lives. It tries to cover their own characters and experiences, the people they met, corresponded with, or were influenced by; the places they went to; and their works from the juvenilia and adolescent sagas to the finished fiction and poetry.(1)
This excludes voluntary all the critical evolution of the Brontës' writings (the contemporary critical reception is well covered, of course), the adaptations of the novels in other formats, biographies (with the exception of Gaskell's Life) and so on.(2)

Even within the limits into which the authors force themselves, the scope is very ambitious. The result is a book with an extraordinary amount of information, almost an annotated onomastic index of previous biographies (Chadwick, Gérin, Chitham, Barker...) and other books on Brontëana (Smith's Charlotte Brontë Letters, Alexander & Sellars' The Art of the Brontës, Lonoff's Belgian Essays...).(3)

On the one hand, the book excels in tracing a huge list of people and places the Brontës knew, read about, were influenced by or simply crossed their lives with. The biographical data, the description of places and the uncovered curious details of Brontëana combine to make a very pleasant and informative read. On the other hand, the purely literary entries suffer from the severe limitations of the scope of the book. Therefore, the entries on the novels and principal characters are descriptive and give the contemporary views but avoid any a historical and/or critical approach. Except for the sometimes too subjective comments of the author on the qualities of a novel or the plausibility of a character or situation.(4) Of course, we are not questioning the authors' views (ie. that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a failure or that The Professor's time is still to come). That would be the topic for another kind of discussion. But to introduce these subjective opinions in an encyclopedic work and not counterbalance them with other approaches is, in our opinion, not entirely advisable.(5)

Being a first edition and a book that has been written over many years, the volume is considerably consistent. Nevertheless, there are aspects that clearly need revising. The navigation inside the book can be improved. There's a lack of completeness in the recursivity of the entries. For instance: the entry on Abbot, Joseph points to Scoresby, William for further reading. But the entry on Scoresby doesn't point back to Abbot. And sometimes this leads to cul-de-sacs: the entry on Brown, William mentions Lord Houghton. However, Lord Houghton is nowhere to be found in the encyclopedia. Unless the reader knows their Brontës and realizes that Lord Houghton was also Richard Monckton Milnes, where information on him can be found.(6)

At times, books like this one tend to be written in a medical prospectus kind of way. Fortunately, this is not the case with Robert Barnard's(7) writings. When the entry allows it, he writes with considerable panache insufflating life into the article. Some examples: in James Hogg's entry, the author compares the editorial standards of Blackwood's Magazine to a modern tabloid; in the London entry, Charlotte is defined like 'a lion, but one who would infinitely prefer to be a mouse'; in the Parsonage entry the following comment about the early 1990s proposal to extend the Parsonage can be read:
This proposal, out of scale and out of style, was scuppered by Brontë Society members, who in successive years voted off the Society's Council members who had supported it.
Or this other gem in Elizabeth Rigby's entry:
Her perverse judgements of Jane Eyre and its author can be seen as springing from her obvious prejudices: she is obsessed with gentility and breeding, and she is a sucker for duchesses ("it was something to be walked off one's legs by two Duchesses!") and leading lights of the Tory party. (...) She was a notable mid-Victorian woman of letters, but not someone one would have wanted to meet (unless one was a duchess).
On the shelves of the Brontë bookcase that each Brontë scholar or aficionado would dream of, A Brontë Encyclopedia should be in a prominent position, near the Oxford Companion, Barker's The Brontës or the three volumes of the Complete Letters of Charlotte Brontë edited by Margaret Smith. It is as we said previously: indispensable.

Notes:

(1) The authors choose to include only the main characters (about 20), places and stories of Charlotte and Branwell's juvenilia so as not to overbalance the book due to the enormous amount of juvenile writings. For a more complete analysis of the juvenilia, the Oxford Companion is a good alternative, Christine Alexander being not surprisingly one of the authors.
(2) Nonetheless it's puzzling that 1966 Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is included among the entries. Maybe an Encyclopedia of Brontë Adaptations wouldn't be such a crazy idea after all, listing Stoneman's Brontë Transformations, Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth...
(3) Inevitably some names or places have been left out. For instance, Henry Garrs (brother of Sarah and Nancy Garrs) corresponded with Charlotte (CB to HG, 22 Feb 1854 / 17 Mar 1854) and neither does he have an entry nor is he mentioned in the Garrs sisters entry. Another example: Anne Lister appears only through the entry on Shibden Hall.
We don't know if these omissions are an editorial decision or not. But if they are, they are not consistent with the purpose stated in the preface or with the appearance of other people or places with the same or degree of importance or even smaller.
(4) See for instance the entries on Agnes Grey or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In the first one, Barnard says: "Discussion of the first novel of Anne, a much more even achievement than her second". The entry on Gilbert Markham is even more explicit: "Anne, unfortunately, does not succeed in animating this off-the-peg fictional character".
(5) It's difficult to understand why some fictional characters are discussed at length while others are reduced to the bare minimum. Check for instance the entry on Rochester.
(6) Some of these problems slip into the bibliography: in Martha Brown's entry, Palmer (2004) is mentioned. The book cannot be found in the bibliography as Palmer but under Arthur Bell Nichols: Dear Martha: The Letters of Arthur Bell Nichols to Martha Brown, ed. Geoffrey Palmer.
(7) As the Preface says, all the entries (save one; Mr Barnard doesn't say which) are written by Mr Barnard.

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