Monday, December 06, 2010

Monday, December 06, 2010 12:11 am by Cristina in ,    4 comments
We are very grateful to Little, Brown for sending us a review copy of this book
The Brontës (Revised and updated edition)
Juliet Barker
ISBN: 9780349122427
Published 04/11/2010
Abacus. Little, Brown Book Group
Over the years at BrontëBlog we have reviewed a few books which we have claimed couldn't be missing from a Brontëite's bookshelf, but if there's just one book - apart from the Brontë novels, of course! - that simply has to be there then it's Juliet Barker's thorough biography The Brontës.

First released in 1994, it became an instant classic, and deservedly so. The wealth of information contained there in and Juliet Barker's clearly extensie research in order to get nearly each and every fact ever linked to the Brontës verified is simply overwhelming. Juliet Barker's goal was no other than to try and dispel - or confirm - the many myths surrounding the Brontë family(1) going back to the sources, thus doing the dirty work for many present and future researchers. A huge number of the books/articles on the Brontës' lives published since then have listed The Brontës in their bibliography.

Time didn't stop in 1994 and as we say many books have been published since and a few discoveries have been made. And so Juliet Barker decided it was time to update the book and so, too, keep it in print for the new generations of Brontëites. One of the most impressive things about The Brontës when it was first released is that many books and editions which are as standard(2) as The Brontës itself hadn't been published yet, so Juliet Barker had it even more complicated than it might be initially considered. Juliet Barker herself in her new preface to the second edition mentions some of the groundbreaking works that have seen the light since 1994:
Two monumental works of meticulous scholarship deserve especial mention: Margaret Smith's The Letters of Charlotte Brontë (Oxford, 1995-2004) and Victor Neufeldt's The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë (New York, 1997-9) [...]. I wish they had been available when I was struggling to date Charlotte's letters or assemble a coherent narrative from the morass of Branwell's juvenilia.
But she also mentions Sue Lonoff's The Belgian Essays. A Critical Edition (1997), Christine Alexander & Jane Sellars's The Art of the Brontës (1995), Derek Roper and Edward Chitham's edition of The Poems of Emily Brontë (1995), Heather Glen's edition of Tales of Angria and Dudley Green's The Letters of the Reverend Patrick Brontë(3).

Thus, as she says, she has updated all the references that she painfully tracked down mostly from first hand or remote sources to these new editions and, in some cases, she has altered her own readings.

Not only readings have been altered, as she has also modified accounts - sometimes rewriting whole pages - such as Branwell's trip to the Royal Academy in London. Where in 1994 she appeared pretty confident that the journey may not have happened and if it had it had been to London only and not to apply for entrance to the Royal Academy, in 2010 she is practically sure that the journey never took place. And this is obviously not just a change of heart, she brings up new documents in order to prove it. Another modification in connection to painting is the inclusion of Charlotte's two drawings - 'Kirkstall Abbey' and 'Bolton Abbey' - at the Royal Northern Society for the Encouragemente of the Fine Arts 1834 exhibition in Leeds(4). In the previous edition Barker mentioned the Brontës as mere visitors, not saying that Charlotte was also a contributor (unfortunately the drawings were not sold and it seems that it was there and then that Charlotte abandoned her dreams of becoming an artist, whereas Branwell's were encouraged further by Patrick hiring William Robinson as his tutor, a timeline that is also now modified as Barker previously doubted that Robinson's lessons had started as early as 1834).

The index - as thorough as in the first edition - doesn't show these changes in the key words under each relevant name but the added page numbers do reflect the revised content. The illustrations are practically all the same as well(5) with a few new additions. On the other hand, the notes at the end clearly reflect the updated sources, theories and small changes(6).

Our biggest objection to this edition is purely practical and has nothing to do with the contents. Juliet Barker said in a recent talk in Haworth(7) that she wanted her publishers to release this edition in two volumes but they refused for logistical and sales reasons. We are not too keen either on the two-volume concept but this new, compact paperback edition is not exactly ideal for reading - not to mention the tiny main text font or the even tinier font used for the notes) and it's certainly quite impractical for research purposes (or for writing up this review, for instance), particularly if they carry on throughout the years. And one has the feeling that, careful as you may be, the spine will end up broken. And while we understand that one of the goals was to keep the price affordable, we must say that we are pretty sure that both our previous hardback and large paperback editions have seen much handling and will probably stand the test of time better.

And speaking of a physical aspect, we must say that the new cover is just right for this time of the year, making it the perfect, you-can't-go-wrong-with-this-one Christmas present for any Brontëite. There's nothing better than this bundle of Brontë.

(1) Dispelling myth, however, seems to have 'proved astonishingly difficult'. And of course there's a whole book devoted to it, published years after The Brontës, Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth.
(2) Juliet Barker herself says that The Brontës is now the 'standard biography' of the Brontës in her new preface.
(3) To which we may add, Christine Alexander & Margaret Smith's The Oxford Companion to the Brontës (2003), Robert and Louise Barnard's A Brontë Encyclopedia (2007), Dudley Green's Patrick Brontë: Father of Genius (2008), Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Early Writings, edited by Christine Alexander (2010) ...
(4) Juliet Barker quotes as her source the catalogue exhibition, which is of course in accordance with her custom of going to the original sources. It seems as if the credit for this 'discovery' however goes to Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars which included it in their Art of the Brontës, published just one year after The Brontës, and which is, as stated above, listed by Juliet Barker as one of the books published afterwards deserving special mention.
(5) And definitely unchanged is Juliet Barker's certain degree of animadversion towards Charlotte, which was one of the main criticisms which the first edition received.
(6) Access to the notes is thankfully much easier than in the first edition. Whereas the heading at the top of each page of the notes section in the first edition showed the chapter by number (which was only given in the main text at the start of each chaper; page headings including only the name of the chapter and the year), making the reader go back to the start of the chapter to check the number before heading to the notes at the end. However, in this new edition the heading at the top of each page of the notes section clearly says to which pages the notes listed below belong. A much more accessible approach for the occasional reader and/or researcher.
(7) An Evening with Juliet Barker, talk by Juliet Barker, Haworth, 12 November 2010.

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  1. Although I understand why Barker's book is considered standard biography and I don't question her hard work and research, I am always put off by her excessive dislike of Charlotte and her biased attribution of Charlotte's acts and motives. Barker doesn't like Emily much better to say the truth, but at least Emily is not presented as super-selfish and mean or hysterical. For a historian, I think that Barker ought to be more objective or more subtly suggestive of what she is implying and not present her opinions as the sole truth or possible explanation. Other than that her book contains a wealth of information.

  2. I just received this and was shocked at the size too. I would happily have paid more for a larger edition or a hardcover.

  3. It is indeed a great shame that Baker, the author of the current definitive biography of the family, dislikes Charlotte so much and as ksotikoula says, treats her therefore biased opinions about CB as fact.

    But you know Charlotte has faced such abuse by those with an ax to grind before and won. My money is on her ;)

    To get a true picture of the the Brontës imo, one must read a good many books about them and the decide for oneself. Because the authors all seem to have thier favorites.

  4. Barker seems to have no sympathy for the morbid and highly-strung like Charlotte, and commends only rational martyrs like Anne. While I think Anne merits more attention, this doesn't mean one should attack Charlotte for being only human, and expect her, instead of her sisters, to be better to Branwell who was pretty much useless. Charlotte is given excess condemnation and unproven accusations, and Anne's "guilty charges" are all justified. She wants us to think Charlotte a devil and Anne a saint. They are both human. Barker is precisely the sort of person Charlotte would have attacked in her novels, assuming she had encountered someone like her. I know this comment is late but seeing everyone call this "standard biography" irks me - it lacks objectivity. I was not surprised to discover that Barker objected to Charlotte's high-flown prose - she sounds like a rationalist, no-nonsense minimalist. She is also highly biased towards Wordsworth in his biography, and brutally unsympathetic to the unstable Coleridge.