Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Tuesday, January 26, 2016 12:30 am by Cristina in ,    No comments
We would like to thank the author for sending us a review copy of this book.
Winifred Gérin
Biographer of the Brontës
Helen MacEwan
Sussex Academic Press
ISBN: 978-1-84519-743-8
November 2015
It's like a Brontë rite of passage. When you read the Brontë novels and - for some reason(1) - you need to know more about the women who wrote them, you go through the standard biographies and of course you can't miss the Gérin ones. Who can resist an individual biography for each of the four Brontë siblings? You begin by whoever attracted you the most in the first place and read your way through the other three. This usually entails either trips to the local library or a search around secondhand bookshops, as neither of the Gérin biographies have ever been reprinted after their first publication. Still though, and this is obviously to their credit, they are perhaps more read than more recently-published books on the Brontës.

And then a strange thing happens: once your (perhaps never-ending) thirst for knowledge about the Brontës begins to be satiated and you take a step back, you also begin to wonder about the biographer with a foreign-sounding name who wrote these biographies(2). And up until a few months ago, the intrigue remained, alleviated perhaps by her entry on the Dictionary of National Biography or a few enquiries aimed at people who know, but there was no real answer as to what moved Winifred Gérin to write them.

Enter Helen MacEwan, founder of the Brussels Brontë group, with her biography of the biographer. It might be a strange concept to non-initiated people, but it also goes to show how many seemingly 'normal' lives are anything but.

Born in 1901 and living a life that almost spanned the whole of the 20th century (she died in 1981), Winifred Gérin's romance with her Belgian musician first husband Eugène Gérin, their reality-always-surpasses-fiction escape from occupied France during World War 2 and of course her life in Haworth with her second husband researching her biographies all make for a truly engrossing read, brilliantly told by Helen MacEwan, who has managed to piece together  the widely-scattered writings by Winifred Gérin from all these different periods of her life. Most notably, the unpublished autobiography she wrote at the end of her life at the insistence of her Oxford University Press editor which sadly didn't find a publisher after her death.

She called her autobiography The Years that Count and focused on the stories she most loved to tell: anecdotes from her first marriage, from occupied France and from her time working near Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Her happy childhood, Edwardian upbringing, family life and poetry-writing are also things you can't really imagine when you read her biographies. Although of course, the years that count for Brontëites will be the ones she spent writing her biographies.

Helen MacEwan also makes a good use of parallels between the life of Winifred Gérin and the Brontës themselves. Winifred Gérin's own childhood was as imaginative as the Brontës' and we relished this anecdote:
Their favourite game that summer involved regularly parading the heads of various dolls [...] on top of wooden poles [.] [...] On that Sunday afternoon on 14 July 1907 the children were marching the heads of their decapitated victims through the front garden, red ink streaming in abundance down the poles, belting out the words of the Marsellaise, 'Allons enfants de la patrie', at precisely the moment the visitors' carriage drew up at the front gate. Despite [their father]'s explanations of the significance of the date for Francophiles, the startled visitors were unamused by this choice of a Sunday-afternoon pastime, confining themselves, however, to remarking that 'the children seemed extraordinarily bloodthirsty'.
A trip to Haworth with her artist sister Nell brought her to the man who would be - unexpectedly for her - her second husband. Twenty years her junior, John Lock was a Brontë enthusiast who sparked in Gérin the Brontë interest that was already there. Together they formed a Brontë team: they got married, moved to Haworth and lived what would seem like the perfect life for any Brontë fan. They spent their days getting to know the place that saw the Brontës bloom into writers, researching their lives and writing about them. Sadly, and as Helen MacEwan points out and which seems to be the case with the Brontë Society, embroiled in fights with the Brontë Society over renovations and appointments to the point of resigning their membership. It's something you don't expect, do you, these two well-known Brontë biographers (John Lock went on to write - after much effort - the pioneer biography of Patrick Brontë: Man of Sorrow) which led the path for much of today's works, not being members of the Brontë Society in protest for their way of doing things.

These questions posed by her husband John Lock in their joint guide to Haworth(3) gave us food for thought:
What would these moors, that high carpet of grass, these rolling hills, what would they mean to us without the memory of Emily Jane Brontë? [...] Would they seem beautiful or grim? Haunt us or be forgotten? most of us will never know, for it is her life, her writings, that have led us on, will draw us back again, just as surely as if she held our hand.
And of course Helen MacEwan highlights some of the thoughts we had when we first read Gérin's biographies in the late 1990s-early 2000s, technologically light years away from both Gérin's time of research and today. We obviously didn't know about Gérin's background then, but we knew that what she had done was ground-breaking in terms of research. MacEwan deems it 'an impressive achievement', particularly for a 'newcomer to biography'. The rivalry with Daphne Du Maurier when they were writing their biographies of Branwell Brontë at the same time(4) turns the craft of biography-writing  into a most thrilling race and makes for a very interesting read on the background of both takes, which ended up being so different. Even if she claims that her Branwell biography 'placed [Gérin's] reputation on a still firmer footing', MacEwan seems resigned to consider Daphne Du Maurier to be the 'winner' because 'it is [her] book that is still on sale today' but we think that's not a valid point when it comes to Gérin's books as none of her Brontë biographies have been republished and Brontëites from all over the world must - as we said above - look for them in secondhand bookshops. And besides, Du Maurier's Infernal World was only republished in 2006 by Virago alongside many of her lesser-known novels in preparation of the centenary of her birth in 2007.

Helen MacEwan's success is in her untiring research and her vivid storytelling, which combined make Winifred Gérin and her entourage really leap off the pages of this biography. The reader truly is happy with her and suffers with her. Her final years - the years during and after the publication of Brontë biographies - are particularly interesting, not just because we rejoice in her successes but because for some reason we have seen her grow into herself. Joanna Richardson, a biographer friend of Gérin's, once claimed that readers of biographers 'ought to know what sort of marmalade the subject eats for breakfast'. Helen MacEwan doesn't exactly say, but her knowledge and openness about her subject do make it easy to guess. What a well-done and well-deserved tribute this is.

(1) Even if Helen MacEwan, a Brontë devotee herself, claims that,
Such fanaticism may be found alongside a certain lack of fulfillment in the devotee's own life. 
We beg to differ.

(2) If you are curious about Brontë biographes, Helen MacEwan also includes a short tidbit on another early Brontë biographer: Ellis Chadwick of In the Footsteps of the Brontës fame.

(3) Lock, John and Gérin, Winifred, A Guide to Haworth: The Brontës' Moorland Home (Haworth: Petty, 1956).

(4) Daphne Du Maurier's The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë was published in October 1960 and Gérin's Branwell Brontë in July 1961.


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