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We Wove A Web In Childhood
The Brontës At Home
by Ruth Thomas
We Wove A Web In Childhood is a fictional work concerning the Brontë family. Much of the existing literature tends to focus exclusively on the sisters, but in undertaking a dramatic reconstruction of their lives Ruth Thomas has succeeded in bringing each family member to life, including their brilliant and volatile brother Branwell, and their scholarly and compassionate father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë. The individual lives of the Brontës are as full of interest and drama as any of the novels they produced, and the family continues to exert a fascination right across the spectrum from dedicated Brontë fans to more casual readers. The novel has been written with an attention to detail and historical veracity, and should appeal to anyone with a love of literature and an interest in the peculiar and tortuous mental processes by which it is shaped.
Q: Your version of events challenges the accepted notion that Charlotte’s marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls was a happy one. Were you influenced by James Tully’s book in which he suggests that the Brontë siblings were poisoned by Nicholls?Some of them a bit more reassuring:
A: I found the plot somewhat far-fetched, but his central premise was intriguing. However, where we firmly part company is his treatment of Charlotte, which is unnecessarily harsh. I do not think for one moment she was in any way involved or complicit in the deaths of her brother and sisters, whom she loved deeply and whose loss she mourned.
Q: But you do think Nicholls might have been responsible for poisoning them? In the chapter where John Brown voices his suspicions to a fellow Mason, the reader is left speculating “There’s summat not right here”.
A: It’s only conjecture. John Brown is a fairly central character in that he knew the family well, and was close to Branwell. The general consensus is that Emily and Anne died from tuberculosis, but there is a lingering suspicion that Nicholls may have murdered his wife, or hastened her end: he was the sole beneficiary of her will, which was mysteriously altered at the end of her life. All the people close to Charlotte - her father, her childhood friend Ellen Nussey, the household servants, and her biographer Elizabeth Gaskell - all took a violent dislike to the man and distrusted him, and there must have been a reason for it. We don’t know what Charlotte’s brother and sisters thought of him, as their opinions are unrecorded. What we do know of him has to be gleaned from the material which survives. And we would not have had access to Charlotte’s voluminous correspondence if her husband had got his way. On several occasions he urged Ellen to burn his wife’s letters - an unreasonable request which clearly outraged her, and which thankfully she ignored. Although her intellect was highly evolved, in matters of the heart Charlotte appears curiously naïve. Nicholls’ proposal came at a time when she was distinctly vulnerable. Because of her father’s advanced years she had no reason to suspect that he would outlive her, and she was acutely aware that she faced a lonely old age in an era where there was a strong stigma attached to spinsterhood. Having read her semi-autobiographical novels (The Professor and Villette) Nicholls would have known exactly what kind of man was likely to capture Charlotte’s heart. He was in the right place at the right time.
Q: What makes this work of fiction so compelling is that you have cleverly juxtaposed biographical material with vividly imagined episodes. Were you influenced by any other biographies?
A: I am indebted to Juliet Barker’s superb biography of the Brontës; the depth of her research and scholarship was invaluable in that I was able to structure my novel around a chronological sequence of events: thus real events and incidents provide the basis for invented scenes and dialogue, and extracts from actual correspondence and diaries are seamlessly interwoven with fabricated journal entries and letters. After absorbing all the biographical data unearthed by researchers I let my imagination supply the rest - filling in the gaps. Above all I wanted the story to be credible. I have far too much respect for the Brontë family to have produced some sensationalist piece of fiction which bears no relation to the truth and dishonours their memory. But I am a novelist not a historian or biographer, so the emphasis in my book reflects what I find interesting: the shifting family dynamics and differing viewpoints of family members, all of whom were strong characters. On the one hand you have Charlotte observing bitterly to her friend Ellen that Branwell has given up trying to look for work, and disgusted that their elderly father is forced to discharge his drinking debts. At the same time we find Branwell confiding to his friend Leyland, the Halifax sculptor, that “work is the only remedy” (for his broken heart) and in another letter practically begging his former colleague Francis Grundy to assist him to find work on the railways. Because they don’t confide in each other any more, they don’t really know what’s going on in each other’s heads, and jump to erroneous conclusions. Branwell is convinced that Charlotte thoroughly despises him – whereas half the time she is just trying to make sense of his baffling behaviour.