Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Student's Guide to The Brontë Sisters - A Review

Our thanks to Enslow Publishers Inc. for providing us with a review copy of this book.

A Student's Guide to The Brontë Sisters
Naomi Pasachoff
ISBN-13: 978-0-7660-3267-5
Enslow Publishers
Series Understanding Literature
Publication Year: 2009
Interest Level: Grades 6-up
Enslow Publishers is a publishing house which specialises in K-12 Nonfiction Library Books and defines its goal on their website with the following words:
The mission of Enslow Publishers, Inc., is to publish high-quality educational nonfiction books for children and young adults, who will access these materials in schools and public libraries. Our goals are that readers will be able to trust our products and that the books will satisfy their needs.
We don't know about the other titles included in their Understanding Literature series but its latest addition, Naomi Pasachoff's A Student Guide to The Brontë Sisters, is quite well described by the above statement and the following one which collectively defines the framework of the series:
An introduction to literature and literary criticism for middle and high school students. A fresh, pleasing visual layout and clear explanations of literary techniques and styles are designed to make the great works of literature more accessible to readers. Also includes sidebars which feature definitions of common literary terms and explanations of related content
The author Naomi Pasachoff is not a neophyte biographer. She teaches Reading and Writing Biography at Williams College and has a long experience in the field (1). She knows her craft and has made her homework reading the Brontës' works and several Brontë biographies(2). The result is a quite consistent Brontë Readers' Digest with the logical limitations of a volume of this sort but overall very satisfactory.

The book begins with an introductory and motivational chapter which is followed by a succession of chapters following the chronology of events of the Brontë family. Particular attention is paid to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with a chapter devoted to each novel. Anne Brontë's works are not forgotten or glossed over as the author keeps a chapter for the younger sister which is particularly interesting as Ms Pasachoff goes beyond the mainstream literary agenda and praises The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey which she considers a precedent in many aspects of Jane Eyre itself(3). The final chapter exploring the legacy and everlasting influence of the Brontës' works is probably the least satisfactory(4). The book is completed with a glossary, a paltry bibliography and an embarrassing selection of internet addresses.

The author knows well the target of a book like this and uses adequate vocabulary and simplifies the many critical approaches that the novels have given way to. Nevertheless sometimes the insets where literary terms are explained are quite unnecessary as they literally double the definitions already made within the text and there are a couple of instances of clarifications à la Lemony Snicket which are clearly superflous (is it necessary to clarify that in the Brontës' time there were no computers?).

The illustrations are in black and white but the criteria for their inclusion is a bit erratic. Branwell's portrait of Emily is included but George Richmond's portrait of Charlotte is not (instead we have the beautified 1873 painting by Evert A. Duyckinick based on Richmond's). The novels are illustrated by stills of Jane Eyre 1996 and Wuthering Heights 1992 which are a poor choice when there are plenty of Brontë country landscapes probably more fitting and evocative.

The book appears with a reinforced library binding and clear and not overwhelming typeface in order to appeal to all those students which don't limit themselves to the Wikipedia articles or the same old online Jane Eyre/Wuthering Heights essays and want to discover the basics of the lives and works of the Brontës. If some of them comes across this book in their local or high school library we are pretty sure they will not be disappointed.

Notes

(1) No less than fifteen books can be found on her bibliography. Including biographies of T.S. Elliot, Marie Curie, Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford or Linus Pauling.
(2) The notes to the text suggest that Juliet Barker's The Brontës, Margaret Smith's Letters of Charlotte Brontë, Edward Chitham's Life of Anne Brontë and his Life of Emily Brontë, and Harold Orel's selection of The Brontës: Interviews and Recollections are the most quoted. Surprisingly Gérin's biographies are practically absent.
(3) It's a pity that the independence of thought that Ms Pasachoff shows in her treatment of Anne Brontë is not applied to Charlotte. The author joins the ranks of the recent critical trend that bitterly punishes Charlotte for 'editing' and 'manipulating' her sisters' works.
(4) There's even a mistake in one of them. As far as we know the comic show Withering Looks is not by Monty Python but by LipService Theatre. (p. 130)

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3 comments to “ A Student's Guide to The Brontë Sisters - A Review ”
ksotikoula said...
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I too think that many biographers are very unfair to Charlotte Bronte especially when it comes to Anne. Barker especially seems to dislike her so very much that despite her being a historian, she makes some very one-sided comments about her. For example, about Anne's last wish to go to Scarborough. She presents Charlotte as too controlling, overreacting and scheming to avoid the fulfillment of Anne's last wish. But here we have simply a difference of opinions. In Charlotte's opinion Anne was too week to move, it was too late for the effect of the sea and it would be terribly inconvenient if Anne didn't made it through the journey. She was correct about all three: Anne had to be carried around with a wheelchair and she died far from home. It was nice that she managed to see Scarborough again, but that doesn't justify Barker's account of what happened there. Why should she take sides? And overall her presentation of Charlotte is always as "bossy" and "controlling" and "ambitious", qualities that some would call "determination", "perseverance" and "creativity/hard work".

About Anne I really like her and I think she is underestimated. She must have had genius enough to write these books without the Heger training that the other two sisters had, but the lack of this training sometimes shows (for example I like very much "The tenant of the Wildfell hall", but as some reviewers have commented its structure is not the best possible as the whole diary section kind of distances you from the initial empathy you feel for Gilbert - I at least find the transition back to him as narrator awkward). And then Anne was a realist like Jane Austen (another writer not a favorite with Charlotte). So, I believe that Charlotte's opinion about Anne's second novel was true and not a conscious effort to undermine her (why do this anyway. Charlotte was the famous one not the other way around). Maybe that novel reminded her too forcibly of Branwell's failure of morality and strength or she just preferred the treatment of some issues through more symbolical or poetical way ("Can there be greatness without poetry?" she had wrote and Anne's style is not really noted for it's poetry but for it's reality and simplicity).

As for the editing of her sisters' work, I am not very happy about it, but Charlotte was the only recognized genius of her family and clearly her style was more to the taste of her era. So probably she thought that by glossing a little bit some of their work she could made it more appealing to the public. That woman understood some things about advertising (she even stopped her editor from publishing another cheap edition of Jane Eyre because people "would get sick even of the title of this book"). So, thanks to her for many years people admired Emily Bronte for her "last" poem which however was written way before her death. Charlotte knew how to present things and the Bronte Myth is her own creation. And then even if some don't like her, they must be grateful to her because, had she not been "ambitious" and "bossy" enough, we would have missed some of the greater novels ever written.

Cristina said...
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I wholeheartedly agree with you. I also think that Charlotte is often treated unfairly and judged on grounds that are simply unsuitable. We all know about the "walk in another man's shoes" thing, but not so much is needed in order to empathise with Charlotte and at least begin to understand her decisions, reactions and actions. Like you, I don't think she edited, or commented on, her sisters' work correctly, but she was a passionate woman and they were her sisters first and foremost. The fact that they were also published authors came afterwards. She couldn't - and wouldn't - act coolly when it came to them.

Agreed too about Charlotte being the original creator of the Brontë Myth (TM). Her letters emphasising isolation, lack of refinement, etc. were written way before Mrs Gaskell took over. And Mrs Gaskell only took Charlotte's cue.

What happens to Charlotte is also what happens to Arthur Bell Nicholls. People criticise them for their actions concerning what they only know as famous writers, but it should always be borne in mind that to them they were more than just that and - much to our regret - couldn't act as we would have wanted them to. Yo don't need to agree with their actions in order to understand them.

ksotikoula said...
on  

Yes, Arthur Bell Nicholls is another person that I really like and has often been neglected or even worse abused. Some people still believe that Charlotte didn't love him. There is even an article at the Victorian web that says that Charlotte was so disappointed with her marriage that she chose death over it. This is not only insulting to him but also to Charlotte who definitely was a woman to be admired for her courage and will to live. I wonder haven't those people ever read her letters. And this is serious matter bacause I have even seen some sites that help students with their exams on Jane Eyre to mention in Charlotte's Bronte biography that she wanted to die. At any rate it is a different thing to have an opinion and different to present it as a matter of fact.

The article at the victorian web that I am referring to is this: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/brontbio1.html and while I like very much paragraph that describes Charlotte's complex personality, the end always manages to spoil it for me.

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