Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Little Book of the Brontë Sisters - a review

Thanks to Green Umbrella Publishing for sending us a review copy of this book.
Little Book of the Brontë Sisters (Little Books) (Hardcover)
by Emily Wollaston

# Hardcover: 96 pages
# Publisher: Green Umbrella Publishing (15 Sep 2008)
# Language English
# ISBN-10: 1906229597
# ISBN-13: 978-1906229597
The Little Books are a series of introductory books to diverse, wide-ranging topics. From cars to gardening to a few literary-oriented titles, such as the newly-published Little Book of the Brontë Sisters. The series is made up of square, small hardback books printed in good-quality paper and attractive-looking design and format.

In less than one hundred pages the book tries to cover a general view of the Brontës, a chapter for each of the three sisters, a chapter for Brontë country, a chapter for the novels and a chapter for poetry, together with a great deal of accompanying images. The premise as such is interesting and would work well as a gate into the wide world of the Brontës.

The book has no bibliography at the end and so we can't know which biographies have been used for the research. We understand an introductory book shouldn't need a lot of background - a few, well-chosen texts would certainly suffice to write such a book.

As we frequently see here on BrontëBlog, errors, misconceptions and imaginary interpretations of facts abound in newspaper articles, etc. These, while somewhat irking are more or less excusable on the basis that they don't come from specialised publications. However, when they occur in a book - little or big - on the Brontë sisters we can't dismiss them so easily. And whether the mistakes are of much or of little importance, whether they come from typos or careless research, is besides the point.

Stating - twice - that it was solely thanks to Patrick Brontë that The Professor was published posthumously (Arthur edited the book so he must have had something to do with it), that Emily Brontë began working at Law Hill in 1842 (Emily arrived in Law Hill in 1838 and it is unclear for how long she worked there, probably about six months), then - in that same year she travelled to Brussels with Charlotte (which is correct) and then, still in that same year, Charlotte discovered Emily's poems (which is then correctly given as 1845 on another page). How busy they were that year! Anne Brontë was supposedly neglected by her father and the author has trusted her tombstone to avoid checking her real age when she died (29, not 28). And there even is a "Howarth" too.

These - and other - mistakes are embedded in a muddled, badly-structured text ("Her aging father was also supported by Arthur Nicholls, when Charlotte went to London, who had proposed to her in 1852" had us laughing out loud at the thought of London proposing to Charlotte), chaotic, back-and-forth timelines and overall confusing statements. Wuthering Heights is not the easiest of novels to summarise but it is highly doubtful that anyone will feel at all tempted to read it after reading the Little Book's synopsis.

But, as if that wasn't enough, the pictures are quite frustrating as well. Emily Brontë is never shown as her real self: she is this and this. The former was discredited by Clement K. Shorter in his book Charlotte Brontë and Her Circle (1896) by saying:
There are three or four so-called portraits of Emily in existence, but they are all repudiated by Mr. Nicholls as absolutely unlike her. The supposed portrait which appeared in The Woman at Home for July 1894 is now known to have been merely an illustration from a 'Book of Beauty,' and entirely spurious.
And the latter is, in all probability G. H. Lewes, and although Charlotte did remark on the resemblance between them we consider it taking it too far to pass his picture as Emily's; Charlotte is shown in one of her idealised engravings and we suppose that early biographer Ellis Chadwick is turning in her grave to see this picture, which early in the 20th century she got the National Portrait Gallery to stop passing as Charlotte, captioned "Charlotte Brontë in a watercolour by Paul Heger":
It is quite impossible for any member of the Heger family, or Charlotte Bronte, to have painted this portrait. M. Heger, Charlotte Bronte's professor, always used the signature " C. Heger," and his son, Dr. Paul Heger, was only a boy of four in 1850. He has assured me, both in conversation and by letter, that his father did not either paint or draw, and as one of M. Heger 's daughters, Mdlle Louise Heger, is a pro- fessional artist, it is impossible that there can be any mistake in the matter, and yet the inscription at the foot of the frame reads " Signed Paul Heger, 1850." I was able to convince the present Director of the National Portrait Gallery that this could not possibly be correct, and the plate with the inscription on was removed in my presence. (In the Footsteps of the Brontës, p. 397)
In short, we were not expecting this book to be highbrow or to include previously-unknown facts of the Brontës' lives or to reveal whether Emily Brontë actually wrote a second novel. We were just expecting a concise introductory text and we have been much disappointed by this missed opportunity.

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1 Comment
egmond codfried said...
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The Brontës, and the Bell Nicholls, like Jane Austen and her family: were native Britons or Irish with a dark complexion. This was described also as ‘saturnine’ or ‘bad complexion’ in the 19th century. Next to the dark skin, they often had black eyes and black or dark brown hair. They intermarried to keep the dark colouring. Among these black Europeans there were some who had classical African facial traits: thick lips, broad noses, subnasal prognatism, and woolly hair. From the beginning of this era these looks were defined as ‘ugly’ while before they were considered marks of ‘pure blood.’ Whenever there are portraits missing, or they do not confirm to the personal descriptions: the presented portraits are idealised and whitened, sometimes completely fakes, used to hide the blackness of part of the elite. Charlotte Brontë and her siblings wrote about brown and black skinned aristocrats, and even made a strong link with Africa, and Africans (Angria). Villette starts with informing us that the lead personage is of a ‘brunette’ complexion. But her son has golden hair, is white, with piercing blue eyes. And everyone is sorry she did not impart her complexion to her son. In this way Brontë comments on the prevailing change, the revisionism to turn black and brown skinned persons into blue-eyed whites. Brontë like Jane Austen, who had a brunette complexion; considered herself superior over whites. As these facts are not acknowledged, although they are clearly spelled out in their works and letters, a lot is not comprehended from their lives, works, letters and motivations. This is also at the base of the confusion over portraits, the scarceness of portraits and why they do not match the personal descriptions. My research is: ‘The eloquence of her blood; Was Jane Austen Black?’ (2011) and can be read in google.

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