Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Brontës, The Critical Heritage (2010) - A review

Our thanks to Routledge for sending us a review copy of this book

The Brontës. The Critical Heritage
Edited by Professor Miriam Allott

* ISBN: 978-0-415-56878-4
* Binding: Paperback
* Published by: Routledge
* Publication Date: 10/02/2010
* Pages: 496
Brontë scholarship has been very copious in the last century and a half. Hundreds of books have been published and thousands of papers have appeared in the specialized journals. Among this huge amount of publications there are a few true milestones that can be considered turning points. A before and after in Brontëana. In the last forty years we can list, without being exhaustive, Juliet Barker's The Brontës, Christine Alexander and Margaret Smith's The Oxford Companion to the Brontës, Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars's The Art of the Brontës, Robert and Louise Barnard's A Brontë Encyclopedia, Margaret Smith's Letters of Charlotte Brontë, Patsy Stoneman's Brontë Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth... or Miriam Allott's The Brontës. A Critical Heritage.

When in 1974, Miriam Allott published a selection of contemporary reviews and comments (from 1847 until 1900) of the works by the Brontës (including Elizabeth Gaskell's biography)(1) she covered a black hole in the current Brontë bibliography and supplied an invaluable reference tool for Brontë scholars and enthusiasts alike(2). The author was familiar with the critical response to the Brontës after having signed a couple of Casebooks on Jane Eyre and Villette (1973) and Wuthering Heights (1970). Plenty of the material selected for those books and many of the ideas later expressed in the introduction of the present book had its germ in those, now hard to find, books.

It is Miriam Allott's selection which has formed the basis of nearly all the research done about the critical reception of the Brontës in the last years. It is not reckless to say that most of the modern day understanding about how the Brontë novels were received and how their critical appreciation changed in the 19th century comes from Miriam Allott's The Brontës. The Critical Heritage. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of this first hand windows into the society that received and, in great measure, created and shaped the Brontë myth. They provide the necessary contextualization of the impact that Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights had on the readers. The turning point marked by Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë and the subsequent evolution of the critical appreciation of particularly Charlotte and Emily. How, slowly but firmly, the last one surpassed the first one in the preference of critics. Or how even the most apprehensive reviewers that qualified their novels as coarse or inmoral recognized the strengh and originality of their authors.

Therefore when we found out that a paperback edition was to be published, we felt the need to devote to it more than just an informative post. Regrettably, the new edition, interesting as it is, it's a facsimile, or - sorry - a digital printing in modern terminology, of the original 1974 one(3). That of course means that the selected bibliography is clearly outdated and the introduction lacks the perspective about the 20th century criticism that over thirty years provide.

And even when we would love a new revised edition, The Brontës. The Critical Heritage in its original version is still an indispensable book which includes apart from the highbrow reviews several other contemporary comments by people as diverse as W. M. Thackeray, Harriet Martineau, Dante G. Rossetti or Queen Victoria. This kaleidoscope of opinions enriches our perception and gives a global vision of the Brontës as seen by their contemporaries.

If your Brontë library already includes a hardback edition of Miriam Allott's selection, this reprint will not replace it but if you consider yourself a true Brontë aficionado and the shelves of your library still lack a copy of The Brontës. The Critical Heritage it's your chance now.

Notes
(1) The book was included in The Collected Critical Heritage : 19th Century Novelists collection.
(2) A collection that was surpassed by the vast, huge amount of information to be found in
The Brontë Sisters: Critical Assessments (edited by Eleanor McNees), 1996, which covers in four volumes Brontë criticism in almost its entirety:
Volume I: Recollections, Obituaries, General Nineteenth-Century Studies, Writers on the Brontës
Volume II: Assessments of Juvenilia, poetry, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wilfell Hall.
Volume III: Assessments of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
Volume IV: Assessments of Shirley, Villette, and The Professor; Critical Essays on the Brontës; Twentieth-Century Comparative Studies.
(3) Regrettably, the printing is a bit defective, at least in our copy. The quality of the printing is clearly improvable on the first twelve pages.

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