Saturday, April 22, 2017

Saturday, April 22, 2017 12:26 am by M. in ,    No comments
Thanks to Wiley-Blackwell for sending us a review copy of this book
A Companion to the Brontës
Edited by Diane Long Hoeveler, Deborah Denenholz Morse
ISBN: 978-1-118-40494-2
632 pages
A Companion to the Brontës (Wiley-Blackwell) is a huge enterprise: thirty-five scholars write in-depth articles about any possible imaginable Brontë-related topic: six hundred pages in 10.5pt Garamond font. Quite impressive. The editorial efforts of the late Diane Long Hoeveler and Deborah Denenholz Morse are remarkable in providing a sense of coherence and avoiding repetitions. Their success is not always absolute but we have to consider that this is no ordinary book. It is as much a book to read page after page as a reference book and, as it can be easily understood, the editorial criteria for both types of books are not the same.

This book appears almost four years after a similar project: The Brontës in Context, edited by Marianne Thormählen and certainly some topics (and some authors) are repeated in both works. Nevertheless, the aim is different. For better or for worse A Companion to the Brontës is a much more ambitious, polyhedral and heterogeneous work. It may lack the focus of The Brontës in Context, but it is more exciting (and, at times, irritating) in its bold absence of scholar frontiers. Biographical pieces of information are reduced to some context in some articles but are not developed per se, something that will please the Brontë aficionado who knows these details by heart, but no so much the occasional reader who peruses the book casually.

The editors make it clear in their illuminating introduction:
Although one of our projects is to consider the Brontës together and within their many contexts, it is also our aim in this volume to study each Brontë sister as a great writer in her own right.
The book is divided into five sections exploring the literary and critical contexts and the imaginative forms of their early writings; the texts themselves; reception studies; historical, intellectual and cultural contexts and the afterlives of the Brontës. Not all the sections have the same ambition and the selection of articles is irregular (something unavoidable in a book like this). By far the articles devoted to the texts and to the diverse contexts are the most complete albeit not necessarily the most exciting. The Afterlives section is probably the less coherent and/or complete but contains the most engaging studies of the volume. All the articles have a reference list and a selection of further reading with a brief description of the book or article listed, which is particularly useful.

The selection of authors ('well-known and emerging scholars from around the world') is sometimes surprising. If the collaborators of The Brontës in Context were almost a list of a who's who in Brontë scholarship here we find a more diverse selection of authors. It could seem like a wise decision to oxygenate the list of usual suspects and to introduce new voices and points of view. However, we don't really know whether a reference book like this one is the best place to do it. The danger is obvious: to give space to approaches which being singular can also end up being footnotes in the whole of  Brontë scholarship without actual transcendence or relevance. Similarly, really important names in the Brontë scholar world are not featured at all.

Among the big names of Brontë scholarship we find Christine Alexander on juvenilia; Dudley Green on Patrick Brontë's articles, letters and poetry;  Edward Chitham on the Irish Heritage of the Brontës; Ann Dinsdale on the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the Preservation of Brontëana (one of the most interesting articles of the whole collection, exploring the fascinating story of Brontëana after the Brontës); Lucasta Miller (on the periodicals read by the Brontës). Also important names in Victorian studies and occasionally Brontë-related like Penny Boumelha, Karen E. Laird, John Maynard, Judith E. Pike, Herbert Rosengarten...

Special mention has to be made to Tom Winnifrith who writes the most bizarre article in the book devoted to film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Clearly, he is not comfortable with the topic:
In my oldfashioned way, I prefer the original texts to modern adaptations, and am glad that looking at films and television drove me back to study the words of Charlotte and Emily Brontë.
Probably not the best contribution to the intertextual and intermedial studies of the Brontës.

In no particular order, and from a personal viewpoint (with all the subjectiveness and bias we can associate with it) we enjoyed the contributions of Diane Long Hoeveler placing the Brontës within the Gothic tradition or Lisa Jadwin's survey of theoretical approaches to the Brontës. The two articles devoted to Anne Brontë's works The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Kari Lokke and Agnes Grey by Judith E. Pike were particularly interesting. Margaret Markwick signs a Jane Eyre paper, exemplary in its survey of critical approaches to the novel. Herbert Rosengarten contextualises and lists the industrial tropes of Shirley. Beth Lau's article on Marriage and Divorce in the Novels elevates to the surface common structures and topics which we were not aware permeated so clearly the Brontë narratives. We loved Abigail Burnham Bloom's incomplete but full of information article about the Brontë family and popular culture (and not only because this blog was among the quoted references!).

A few other contributions were disappointing or anodyne because of lack of focus or because of being too much self-focused in an impenetrable solipsism. Irregularity is the name of the game, of course. This may not be THE book of Brontë reference which it sometimes seems to aim at but, nevertheless, it contains enough interesting articles and ideas to complement the other available Brontë scholar omnibuses.


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