Thursday, November 13, 2008

A life of graft and grief

Dudley Green's Patrick Brontë. Father of Genius is reviewed (check our own review here) in The Times Literary Supplement by Frances Wilson, author of The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth:

In the days of the Brontës, the clock at Haworth Church was inscribed with the words “Time how short – eternity how long!”, but this cannot have been the experience of Patrick Brontë, forty years the incumbent of the parish. Tithonus-like, he survived his young wife and all six of his children, living on and on at the quiet limit of the world, a white-haired shadow worn down by loss, and waiting open-armed for the end. When he reached eighty, his immortality on earth was sealed by Elizabeth Gaskell who described him in her newly published Life of Charlotte Brontë, as a child-hating “strange half mad husband” who let off steam by sawing the legs of chairs, shredding silk dresses, burning his hearthrug and his childrens’ boots, and firing a loaded gun from the kitchen door.
Aware of being “somewhat exccentrick”, the Revd Patrick Brontë objected less to Mrs Gaskell’s descriptions of his “passionate explosions”, for these had, he said, no basis in truth, than to what he called her “false statements respecting my denying my children the use of animal food”. The story, picked up from a disgruntled former servant, that his children were fed only potatoes suggested that the death from consumption, at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, of his two oldest children, Maria, aged ten, and Elizabeth, aged nine, were the result of constitutions weakened by a poor diet. As to the picture of himself, Gaskell was, Patrick Brontë explained, a novelist and therefore saw things with a storyteller’s eye, but in doing so she had ironically missed the character he felt he most resembled, “the father of Margaret in North and South, peaceable, feeling, sometimes thoughtful – and generally well-meaning”.
Nothing anyone ever said about Patrick Brontë was as strange or surprising as what he said about himself. The oddest of the stories he told Mrs Gaskell, repeated here by Dudley Green, is the one describing how “in order to make them speak with less timidity”, he questioned his children under the cover of a mask. “I began with the youngest [Anne, aged around three] – I asked her what a child like her most wanted – She answered, age and experience – I asked the next [Emily, aged around four] what I had best do with her brother Bramwell, who was sometimes a naughty boy. She answered, reason with him, and when he won’t listen to reason whip him.” And so it continued, each child wearing the mask to reveal their true self.
So busy was Mrs Gaskell constructing the masquerade of the Brontë myth that she missed the unmasked man staring right at her. Similarly, Patrick Brontë was unaware, until he was shown his daughters’ published books, that behind another set of masks his tiny house was pulsating with what Mrs Gaskell called, when she read the Brontë juvenilia, a “creative power carried to the verge of insanity”.
Green, who previously edited a fine edition of Patrick Brontë’s letters, is primarily interested in revealing Brontë the clergyman (the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has written a foreword), who rose from an impoverished childhood in County Down to take up a scholarship at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he befriended Lord Palmerston and William Wilberforce, was in favour of Catholic Emancipation and against capital punishment, who campaigned for a proper water supply, and established a Sunday school. Green also gives attention to Brontë’s published poetry, which contains something of the family grimness. “Verses sent to a lady on her birth-day” begins, “But, hark, fair maid! Whate’er they say, / You’re but a breathing mass of clay, / Fast ripening for the grave”. Overwhelmed by his burden as a penniless widower, he frantically sought to replace his children’s mother, but had his proposals firmly turned down. Resigned to being alone, he emerges as a concerned father who, as Branwell told a family friend, “watched over his little flock with truly paternal solicitude and affection . . . their constant guardian and instructor”.
If he was bad-tempered and took his supper alone it was because of the sheer weight of parish duties. In 1834, he presided over 135 funerals; 301 baptisms took place in Haworth Church in 1835. Sometimes he performed twenty baptisms a day. Green describes a life of graft and grief. When Charlotte told her father a few years after the deaths, one after another, of Branwell, Emily and Anne, that she was being courted by his curate, Arthur Nichols, his rage was surely understandable. Patrick Brontë “was no domestic demon”, as a friend said of Branwell, “he was just a man moving in the mist who lost his way”, and as soon as he had found his way again he gave his consent to the marriage.
Green is the first biographer in forty years to attempt to repair the damage caused by Mrs Gaskell. “I thought I carefully preserved the reader’s respect for Mr Brontë”, Gaskell said, but “the desire of doing justice to [Charlotte] compelled me to state the domestic peculiarities of her childhood which . . . contributed so much to make her what she was”. It follows that the peculiarities of the children must have contributed to the man Patrick Brontë became, but there is no sense in these pages that his children were peculiar at all. This is in many ways the book’s strength; rather than rehearse the nature of the “genius” Patrick “fathered”, Dudley Green describes the nuts and bolts of the working life that allowed such talent to flourish.
Now, that April de Angelis's adaptation of Wuthering Heights is being performed at the Chichester Theatre Festival, new reviews are appearing. The Portsmouth News focuses on Amanda Ryan, Cathy in this production:
While training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and working as an usherette at the Odeon, Leicester Square, Amanda Ryan decided to fill a gap in her literary education.
'Once I'd worked out how to sort out the popcorn, there wasn't much left to do,' she says, 'so I started to read Wuthering Heights.
'I was completely shaken by its anti-romanticism and by its portrait of Heathcliff, the ultimate anti-hero. The book is so relentless, so brutal and so incredibly modern.'
Amanda is now playing Cathy, the heroine of Emily Bronte's novel, in a new stage adaptation by April De Angelis at Chichester Festival Theatre until Saturday. (...)
Amanda - whose credits include Shameless (Channel 4), Closer (National Theatre tour) and Shekhar Kapur's film, Elizabeth - says: 'I'd love to travel back in time, join the Bronte sisters in the parlour and have a conversation with these extraordinary talents.
'You have to wonder how this young woman could have written a novel of such dark passions. But I took a walk over the moors while I was there and thought about the way Cathy is rooted in the landscape.' (Mike Allen)
The Georgia Straight presents Deborah Dunn's new choreography: Elegant Heathens. Her previous piece, Nocturnes, inspired by Wuthering Heights, is mentioned:
She's created pieces around subjects from Elizabeth I (The Little Queen) to Wuthering Heights (Nocturnes) and silent-film star Louise Brooks (Pandora's Books).(...)
In fact, Dunn seems so steeped in history, one pictures a weighty copy of Wuthering Heights sitting on her bedside table. It turns out that image is not so far from the truth. "I've read it five times," she states matter-of-factly. When the artist thinks back to what got her interested in the classics, it wasn't necessarily at home. (Janet Smith)
The Yuma Sun talks about the upcoming release of the film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight:
Lemmon says she considers herself a "literary snob" who prefers reading Pearl S. Buck and Charlotte Bronte, and thought she'd never get sucked in by the series, which is mostly written for teens. (Darin Fenger)
A few days ago, we linked to a comment where BrontëBlog reader Faye told about not really finding the much-mentioned similarities between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and the Twilight series. Now, in an effort to tip the balance, we bring you a link to a comment where reader ThisbeCiel states that the parallels are there indeed. The debate is on!

The East Bay Rhode Island interviews a local librarian who happens to be another Brontëite:
The book that started it all: “My favorite book is “Jane Eyre.” I responded to the book in the most positive of manners. I still get shivers thinking about reading it for the first time. Rochester, he’s so handsome and manly. [The book] is so fascinating. I haven’t been able to read it in awhile. I was 13 when I read it. It was hard to get started. I think I read the beginning four to five times.” (Carol Shedd interviewed by Abigail Crocker)
Brief news: The Grant County Chronicle-Tribune announces that next month's reading choice of the Gas City-Mill Township Public Library Book club: Jane Eyre.

On the blogosphere: Just B recommends the current performances of Wuthering Heights at the CCBC in Catonsville, Maryland:
Not sure about you, but we have this ongoing love-hate relationship with Emily Bronte’s seminal work. We didn’t want to read it in high school. Then we kind of liked it, despite its frequent lapses into soap opera-style melodrama. Then we forgot about it, until that interminable MTV “modernization,” which made us reach for the book on the shelf just out of sheer reverence. So, yes, we’re excited to see the live version of Heathcliff and Cathy. All that’s missing is the foggy moors and that six-page essay due Monday. (Jordan Bartel)
Procastinando posts a series of curious Amsterdam's graffitis including one with a Brontë mention! (in Spanish) and Other Stories posts about Classical Comics' recent edition of Jane Eyre. The Graphical Novel.

Categories: , , , , , , , ,

Comments :

2 comments to “ A life of graft and grief ”
JaneGS said...
on  

I really enjoyed your review of the new Patrick Bronte bio--I shall have to get a copy. However, I feel compelled to say that having recently read the Gaskell bio of Charlotte Bronte, I did not find her portrait of Patrick Bronte to be as outrageous as I was led to believe it was. She reported stories told to her by himself, his neighbors, and Charlotte (via letters and when she visited Gaskell). She didn't vett them, that's true, but I think his representation of himself as a Mr. Hale type of person is pretty much the image I had of him after reading Gaskell's bio.

Cristina said...
on  

Thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad you liked our review. I don't know whether the portrait of Patrick is so outrageous per se. But I do find it especially sad (and outrageous too, to be honest) when compared to the actual, real man. He was way ahead of his time, let his daughters and son have the same education, let them read anything they felt like reading (Byron, the Shakespeare comedies!) and even encouraged their writing (he gave the children a notebook which he inscribed with the instructions that it was to be used for writing at a normal - not tiny - handwriting size).

All this is glossed over in Elizabeth Gaskell's biography, if not entirely omitted. Instead we get a series of untrue episodes told Gaskell by a spiteful ex-servant who had been fired when the children were little. I find it particularly generous of Patrick too, that when he wrote to gaskell to acknowledge the publication of the book he mentioned there were some false stories concerning him but never even asked for a correction.

Don't get me wrong, I love Elizabeth Gaskell. And her Life of Charlotte Brontë is highly valuable for all sorts of reasons. But I do feel that her good intentions overran her sense of justice and reality.

Post a Comment