Monday, December 26, 2016

Monday, December 26, 2016 12:30 am by Cristina in    2 comments

The Brontësaurus
An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte (and Branwell)

John Sutherland and John Crace
ISBN: 9781785781438
Publisher: Icon Books
Pub Date:December 2016
John Sutherland is a well-known Brontëite and many horders of Brontë-related books will be acquainted with his books Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (1995) and Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? (1996) in which he ponders literary mysteries of the kind, Brontë-related or otherwise. His new book is wholly devoted to the Brontë family: The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily & Anne Brontë (& Branwell)(1)

He starts by telling the readers when the Brontë spark was ignited, which we always love to read about. In his case, it was Wuthering Heights that did it (even though he had read The Professor earlier on, which he is still very fond of), and it feels throughout this book. He likes the other novels and he's acquainted with their lives but you can tell he knows Wuthering Heights like the palm of his hand and is still mesmerised by that novel.

The book is divided in short chapters, each pertaining to a letter (well, most letters) of the alphabet. A letter may just have one entry or several of them. All sorts of Brontë topics are touched upon: from literary criticism as in the above-mentioned books to glimpses into passages of the Brontës' own lives as well as other topics that are historically relevant. It is all pure John Sutherland through and through, which saves the book from being susceptible of being called 'irregular'. As it is, though, some chapters are better executed than others, although this will largely depend on the reader's own affinities when it comes to the Brontë family.

Let us highlight the ones we have enjoyed the most.

Most of the chapters related to Wuthering Heights are very perceptive and enlightening and truly a joy to read. Apart from the sheer admiration they show for the novel, they are well-thought-out and pose questions that the modern reader may not have paused to consider as well as enlightening on subjects common to Victorian readers but long ago forgotten these days.

The letter T is particularly interesting. We expected 'Tat' to be derisive of modern-day Haworth, like he says Juliet Barker does. It's an opinion that makes us cringe so we were very pleasantly surprised to see that his take on the matter (not just of Haworth but also the Brontës' and their novels as household names and all that entails, literary mash-ups of dubious taste included) is exactly the opposite of Barker's (and others):
There is no fate worse for fiction than to come and go into Shakespeare's 'wallet of oblivion'. Everything from 'Jane Hair' salons to Jane Eyrotica confirms that will never happen to the Brontës' fiction. Their novels will last as long as there is money to be made from the novels, which are wholly uncontaminated. Long live 'tat': it bears witness to long life. ('Tat', p. 159)
'That Name', on the surname Brontë offers nothing new per se, but is highly perceptive. One of our favourite chapters in the whole book may be 'Three-decker', which is very enlightening on this eminently-Victorian way of publishing and brilliant in its analogy of TV-series on regular channels and on Netflix these days.

Several questions about Jane Eyre are worthy of mention. Mr Sutherland devotes a chapter of the letter M ('Murderer') to trying to establish whether Mr Rochester was one. At the end of the day--like his explanation of Adèle's parentage--it all boils down to how reliable a narrator Rochester is to you. He also wonders ('Jane's change of heart') about the alternative ending Jane Eyre may have had if Jane had returned to find that nothing had changed at Thornfield. 'Rochester's Wealth' explores the origins of the Rochester money as well as Jane's inheritance, which all would point out to be slave-produced. Like in the matter of Bertha, Charlotte's agenda may or may not have been bent on these issues and it is somewhat unfair to judge the characters on these (fair but modern) assumptions.

'Normality?' is also a chapter worth mentioning in which Mr Sutherland dwells on the Brontë myth and the most sensational readings on their lives. Despite much evidence pointing to them having had sort of) normal lives, or at least not as sensational, Mr Sutherland can't but conclude that
''Normal' (even if true, which I believe it is) has a hard time triumphing with the Brontës. We love the myths too much.'
Some chapters are wholly unexpected, somewhat random, but most make interesting reads nonetheless. 'Bog people', 'Branderham', 'Extradiegesis', 'Guadeloupe', Myopia', 'Spirit-written', 'Steel' (which is one Agnes Grey and Anne's defence of animals) and 'Toothsome' are among the least expected.

Like most people, he treats Juliet Barker's biography with reverence (except for the 'Tat' disagreement). It is, indeed, the Bible of Brontë biography, but as we have said in the past, we consider Juliet Barker harsh in her treatment and assessment of Charlotte Brontë. Influenced by this or by his own opinion, John Sutherland's treatment of Charlotte is often harsh too and, sometimes, we would say, wholly mistaken. Take these statements:
The Madwoman in the Attic argues a powerfully ideological reading and one is grateful for it. But it masnifestly violates what Charlotte Brontë, in her ignorance, believed she was doing. What was that? She believed she was writing a 'moral' tale for young women, not a manifesto. When asked what good novels did, Trollope replied they instructed young women how to receive their suitors. Charlotte Brontë could have said the same. [...]
But in a long career I can't recall any essay arguing that Jane Eyre is a novel with an overt Christian motive written by a woman who attended church weekly (often daily) and subscribed faithfully to its doctrines; the daughter of a clergyman (whose parsonage she never left--even in death), eventually the wife of a clergyman, who superintended Dorcas meetings, undertook the routine task of 'district' [i.e. parish] visiting' and awaited, with almost orgasmic excitement, the second coming. ('Attic Matters', p. 7-8)
But that's just a matter of opinion, of course. What the book would seem to need, objectively speaking, is a proofreader. 'Claire Harmon' [Harman] and 'Susan Gerber' [Gubar](2) are among the 'most perceptive critics of the Brontë oeuvre' in the preface. Some inaccuracies are also incurred on in the Brontë story: the reader is told that 'Anne, Charlotte and a servant' left for Anne's last trip to Scarborough(3), and that was not a servant but a friend: Ellen Nussey. Thornfield Hall is once referred to as 'Thornton Hall'. We are told that Emily Brontë said that she liked her dog better than her pupils while in Brussels, while she did so at Law Hill and referred to the school dog, not Keeper. John Sutherland thinks that Arthur Bell Nicholls was incorporated into Shirley in the shape of Malone, while it was Macarthey. Nicholls, too, is said to have been 'seven years older than Charlotte' when in fact he was three years younger. Tabitha Aykroyd is said to have outlived all the Brontë siblings, when in fact she pre-deceased Charlotte. A photograph of 'the main street in Haworth, at the period the Brontës lived there' is highly improbable. Nothing too relevant, and yet small details that subtract from the book, particularly if a Brontëite is reading and noticing the mistakes made.

The book also includes John Crace's abbreviation of Jane Eyre.

We like John Sutherland's shrug-like general take on the Brontë myth (when speaking about whether Charlotte did or did not ever take opium/laudanum):
One is tempted to take it with a grain of something stronger than salt. But the jury is out. And we'll never know and always wonder. The usual situation with the Brontës.
The Brontësaurus is definitely a fun book for Brontëites. It jogs our minds, takes us out of our comfort zones, asks unexpected questions and offers insightful glimpses into what the Brontës may or not have known. And not many writers can pull that off as--seemingly--effortlessly as John Sutherland.

(1) Some letters are missing and the last word to be featured is Windows. This is something John Sutherland himself would point out if he wrote a review of this book. He can be nitpicking like that, as he is here:
There are obvious objections to the 'Madwoman in the Attic' reading of Jane Eyre and the critical theses which have given it currency. [...]The first objection is rather mundane [...]. Bertha Mason is not locked up in an attic. There are indeed attics at Thornfield Hall under the 'leads' (i.e. lead-lined roof). But servants were accommodated in these wretched, cold and leaky dormers at the back of the main building. Bertha Mason is housed in a separate annex, with its own staircase, on the third floor, accessible only by master key, with a barred window. ('Attic Matters', p. 6)
(2) Gubar's surname is sometimes spelt correctly. In one instance it's spelt wrongly in a paragraph then correctly in the following paragraph.
(3) Kudos to John Sutherland for being among the first scholars to credit Mick Armitage's infinitely well-researched website on Anne. We are sure it is checked by many, but mentioned by few.


  1. but as we have said in the past, we consider Juliet Barker harsh in her treatment and assessment of Charlotte Brontë.

    Indeed. Well Barker loves Branwell...and it seems those who do,usually do not favor CB.It seems to go hand in hand. People blame Charlotte for her sharp criticism of Branwell during his post Throp Green decline. But I think that was because if she became too sympathetic, Charlotte feared she would join Branwell in his wallow. They were twins still. They were both hopelessly in love with a married person and both suffered greatly over it. But Charlotte could not let herself go as Branwell did. Society and the family's needs would not allow it. If she acted for one week as he did for three years, she would have been carted off to Bedlam. Meanwhile who would see to it Papa would get his eyes operated on? Charlotte wrote she had to be " quite decided " about that...well someone had to be. We do not grant a freedom to others we will not grant to ourselves. Charlotte is keeping herself in check when telling Ellen her twin's failings while suffering for love.

  2. Just started reading. I found an important mistake! Anne and Charlotte did not go to Scarborough in Anne's last travel with a s servant but with their dear friend Ellen Nussey!!!!