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Biographer of the Brontës
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-743-8
Sussex Academic Press
The biographer Winifred Gérin (1901–81), who wrote the lives of all four Brontë siblings, stumbled on her literary vocation on a visit to Haworth, after a difficult decade following the death of her first husband. On the same visit she met her second husband, a Brontë enthusiast twenty years her junior. Together they turned their backs on London to live within sight of the Parsonage, Gérin believing that full understanding of the Brontës required total immersion in their environment.
Gérin’s childhood and youth, like the Brontës’, was characterised by a cultured home and an intense imaginative life shared with her sister and two brothers, and by family tragedies (the loss of two siblings in early life). Strong cultural influences formed the children’s imagination: polyglot parents, French history, the Crystal Palace, Old Vic productions. Winifred’s years at Newnham College, Cambridge were enlivened by such eccentric characters as the legendary lecturer Arthur Quiller-Couch (‘Q’), Lytton Strachey’s sister Pernel, and Bloomsbury’s favourite philosopher, G.E. Moore.
Her happy life in Paris with her Belgian cellist husband, Eugène Gérin, was brought to an abrupt end by the Second World War, during which the couple had many adventures: fleeing occupied Belgium, saving Jews in Vichy France, and escaping through Spain and Portugal to England, where they did secret war work for the Political Intelligence Department near Bletchley Park. After Eugène’s death in 1945 Winifred coped with bereavement by writing poetry and plays until discovering her true literary metier on her visit to Haworth. She also wrote about Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Thackeray Ritchie and Fanny Burney. This book is based on her letters and on her unpublished memoir.
"In an original and revealing biography ... Helen MacEwan presents not just a fascinating study of Gérin’s long and at times very personal preoccupation with the Brontës, but the story of a highly individual character ... Using much previously unknown and unpublished material, MacEwan has painstakingly put together a portrait of one woman and her times that adds significantly to Brontë studies and literary biography, while her deftly-told narrative brings Gérin’s private, feeling, thoughtful character to life with unerring sympathy.”
Claire Harman, biographer and critic, author of the major new biography Charlotte Brontë: A Life and of Jane’s Fame.
“In this beautifully written and carefully researched biography of a biographer, Helen MacEwan shows us something of the European dimension of Gérin’s experience and understanding, as well as revealing the deeply emotional character of her subject, in her joys, passions and losses ... Helen MacEwan shines a fascinating light, not only on a remarkable woman of letters, but on a reader and writer of exceptional integrity.”
Stevie Davies, critic and novelist, author of Emily Brontë: Heretic and Four Dreamers and Emily.
“For anyone, like me, who knows Winifred Gérin only as the biographer of the Brontës, this book will come as a revelation. Not only did Gérin have an astonishingly adventurous life, but Helen MacEwan has brought it before us in vivid and enthralling detail ... MacEwan’s book draws on extensive original research into unpublished papers and records, but she wears her erudition lightly and always gives a sense of the lived moment rather than the dry facts. She achieves, in fact, that balance between sense and sensibility which friends appreciated in Gérin’s own work. This is a thrilling book to read, a page-turner, offering through specific vignettes important glimpses into the social history of the twentieth century. It will appeal to an audience well beyond Brontë devotees.”
Patsy Stoneman is Emeritus Reader in English, University of Hull, and Acting President of the Brontë Society. She is the author of Charlotte Brontë in the Writers and their Work series, Northcote House Publishers.
“This lovingly researched biography of a biographer is a fitting tribute to Winifred Gerin’s passionate commitment to the Brontës and offers a slice of twentieth century history through the prism of one remarkable woman’s experiences.” Lucasta Miller, author of The Brontë Myth