Monday, August 18, 2008

Patrick Brontë: Father of Genius - A Review

Our thanks to The History Press Ltd for sending us a review copy of this book.

Patrick Brontë: Father of Genius
by Dudley Green
£16.00
Publication Date : 01 Apr 08
Imprint : The History Press Ltd
Binding :Hardback
Page :284 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1845886257
As we have written before, the Brontë men have been considerably maligned and mistreated in this century and a half of Brontëana. Branwell, the black sheep of the family, was from the very beginning vindicated by his friends (Grundy, Leyland...)(1) and more recently by biographers such as Winifred Gérin or Daphne du Maurier. Arthur Bell Nicholls, the oppressor husband, is a more marginal figure associated with Charlotte Brontë's final years but has also received some rehabilitation from recent biographers(2).

But if a Brontë figure has been misunderstood and ill-treated from the very beginning then that is Patrick Brontë. It is well known how Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë which did so much to rehabilitate the author of Jane Eyre in the Victorian eyes, did so much more to convert Patrick Brontë in a tyrant, irritable and eccentric creature. The effects of such a description can be traced even to our days. It's frequent to see how from time to time a book, an article, a newly-discovered letter serve as excuses to once again vindicate the real figure behind the grotesque Gaskell mask. One of those moments was forty years ago when the pioneering work of Lock & Dixon: A Man of Sorrow: The Life, Letters and Times of the Rev Patrick Brontë was published. That was a huge landmark and an enormous step forward in the knowledge of Patrick Brontë. Another was the 2005 publication of The Letters of Patrick Brontë by Dudley Green who now publishes this new biography which integrates all the new documents and evidence which have been brought to light in the last few decades.

Dudley Green's ambition is clearly stated in the preface of the book:
It has been my aim to present a fair and accurate account of Patrick's life and ministry, based on the considerable documentary evidence which is available. I hope that the picture here presented reveals a kindly and loving father who took a keen interest in his children's development and an able and faithful clergyman who was ever sensitive to the pastoral needs of his parishioners.
In order to do so, Mr Green relies basically on Patrick Brontë's own words. It is through direct quotation from his letters (and from the letters of other members of the family and friends) that this biography usually progresses. When the records are scarce or unavailable, Mr Green tries to base his statements on first-hand sources and avoid speculation. An example of this approach can be seen in the first chapters devoted to Patrick's Irish. Other biographers (Lock & Dixon, for instance) relied almost entirely on the controversial account by William Wright in The Brontës in Ireland which Dudley Green, as others before, considers altogether questionable and hardly reliable. Consequently, his account of these years is less detailed and meticulous than Lock & Dixon's(3) but what is lost in the description of the legend is gained in credibility.

The book tries to maintain a balance between the more familiar aspects of any Brontë biography and Patrick's Church of England ministry over 55 years, 41 of them serving as incumbent of Haworth. Therefore the biography is divided into two first parts covering the biographical events from 1777 until 1846, before Branwell's death. The third part: A Varied Ministry devotes several chapters to Patrick's varied personal interests and ecclesiastical campaigns: his literary efforts, his continuous quarrels with the Haworth Dissenters because of the Church rates, his fight for the establishment of a National School and the improvement of the water facilities in Haworth. What this structure allows - without stopping a particular chapter - is for events which expand over several decades to be developed more in depth but it inevitably causes repetitions and reexpositions of quotes or events previously explored(4).

A final section covers the events from 1847 until his death in 1861. The death of his children, Charlotte Brontë's literary career (and Patrick's pride for it), the problems with his curate Arthur Bell Nicholls over the wedding with his daughter, Charlotte's death, the comission and development of Gaskell's biography of Charlotte and his final years.

This last section reveals that Patrick Brontë's condescension with Elizabeth Gaskell's portrait of himself probably is one of the reasons why Patrick's distorted image still perdurates:
"I have no objection, whatever to your representing me as a little excentric [sic], since you, and other learned friends will have it so; only dont [sic] set me on, in my fury to burning heathrughs, sawing the backs off chairs, and tearing my wifes [sic]..." (Patrick Brontë to Elizabeth Gaskell, 30 July 1856)
He only complained bitterly and vehemently about his alleged denial of meat for his children at the Parsonage(5).

The book is enhanced by several appendices including an account (based on a previous paper by Ann Dinsdale) of the dismissed nurse from the Parsonage whowould go on to be the source of many, if not all, of the misconceptions about Patrick so eagerly relayed by Elizabeth Gaskell, a chronology, the list of Patrick's curates, a couple of new letters(6) discovered after his edition of Patrick's letters, extracts from Gaskell's Life, etc(7)...

Dudley Green's portrait of Patrick Brontë shows once more (and for all?) that Patrick was no bigot(8) but a man firm in his beliefs, not always diplomatic and sometimes a little too impulsive. A loving father who encouraged his children in their endeavours, who was proud of their triumphs and sympathetic in their failures. A fighting clergyman, always at his post, indefatigable in the many battles of his ministry at Haworth.

It can be argued that Patrick's life and virtues are not so different from many other contemporary clergymen and with all certainty without the literary efforts of his daughters, his life would just have been a footnote in a clerical directory. But the fact is that he was the father of the Brontës and a key figure in their world. As we have also said before: Sometimes the boundaries of history are as definitory of an era as the Big History of great men/women and Big Events. And Dudley Green's biography of Patrick Brontë is a shining proof of that.


Notes
(1) Francis Leyland, The Brontë Family (2 volumes) by Francis A. Leyland (1886); Pictures of the past by Francis H. Grundy (1879).
(2) Cochrane, Robert & Margaret,
My Dear Boy: The Life of Arthur Bell Nicholls, Highgate Publications 1999; Adamson, Alan H., Mr Charlotte Brontë. The Life of Arthur Bell Nicholls, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008 (read our review here)
(3) The verbal excesses of Lock & Dixon's book are, happily, not repeated here. In Green's approach there's no room for statements like the following:
Those first days of June 1861, were hot, almost sultry days, and in his bedroom Patrick was murmuring to himself as his mind wandered. What did he see in his imagination as he lay there dying? Was there the preacher galloping along the lanes of Ireland (...)? (Lock & Dixon, A Man of Sorrow, Nelson, 1965, pag 524)
And furthermore we tend to like more the positive title of Green's book: Patrick Brontë, Father of Genius than the more mournful one of Lock & Dixon's.
(4) Some other minor mistakes have to be pointed out. Note 4 in Chapter 8 is missing, a Mr Ramsbottom is rebaptized Mr Robinson in page 157 and figures 33 and 34 are, as a matter of fact, the same figure. The Illustrations are frankly disappointing, not including practically anything not seen ad nauseam in other recent biographies. Lock & Dixon's list of plates were much more exciting.
(5) A fact that is clearly contradicted by Emily and Anne Brontë's diary paper of 24 November 1834: “We are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef, Turnips, potato’s and applepudding.”
(6) One of them, Patrick Brontë to Bishop of Ripon, 10 April 1855, was first published complete on BrontëBlog and can be read here.
(7) The book also contains a Foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Curiously, Lock & Dixon's biography also features a Foreword by the Archbishop of York. It seems that if you don't have an archbishop you cannot publish a biography of Patrick Brontë.
(8) Some examples quoted by Green: In April 1826, he had to appoint a new parish clerk. Two candidates applied for the position. Considering that those were times of need, Patrick gave the position to the both of them in alternating months. How he didn't hesitate to hire Eliza Brown, sister of Martha Brown, even knowing that she had been a natural mother. Or how he aligned with the Haworth wool-combers in strike in 1846 in spite of his strong and unbending Tory convictions...


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