Friday, 14 September 2012

Reviewing Juliet Barker's The Brontës: Vindicating the Characters

I got a copy of Juliet Barker's The Brontës (2010) this last week at Waterstone's, having heard it was widely praised. The historical research Juliet Barker has done is certainly superior to any other biography of that family before. The good bits include Patrick's past, the Luddites, the political scene, and numerous excerpts from Angria and Gondal.  Factually speaking, this book is by far the best you can get. But subjectively speaking, I feel that Juliet Barker has made several errors which I hope to bring to attention. I don't mean she was exactly wrong in her research or anything, but to be honest Winifred Gerin's biography of Charlotte Brontë has grasped the essence of Charlotte as a woman. Juliet Barker's chief error is that she fails to sympathise with Charlotte, and it shows. Which is a pity, because the book otherwise is really well-written. Also, it may lead ignorant readers to hate Charlotte for no good reason and provide fuel for fanatical Austenites. (I don't mean the liberal Austenites who like the Brontës as well. Good grief, Austen and Brontë are like two opposing religions.)

Firstly, Juliet Barker tends to bear a grudge against Charlotte for either being unfair. For example, Charlotte didn't rate Anne's talents highly. I agree this was rather unjust of her, but bearing in mind the sort of family they came from, Anne's talents would not shine compared to Emily's.  In fact Charlotte considered Emily a greater genius than herself, so you can't say it was jealousy.  Anyway we'll skip that.

She also blames Charlotte for "self-inflicting" her unhappy loneliness in Belgium. I beg to differ. To be sure, Charlotte shunned people and seemed to despise them, but Juliet Barker's issue is that she is extremely logical and reasonable. She sees and judges Charlotte as a detached outsider, which can be good, but is detrimental in this case. You cannot judge the Brontës with general impartialities, not because they were geniuses or wonderful people, but because their character and temperament was so different from anyone else. For them the exception is proven rather than the rule. Of course any ordinary person in Brussels who acted as Charlotte did would be an unbearable snob, but Charlotte was not an unbearable snob. She could be remarkably self-effacing in her letters, and felt inferior to many people (except in depth and intellect, and I think she was right in this). She was patronising to Anne but remember that Charlotte too was a genius. The reason Charlotte shunned people was not because she set out to hate them, but because judging from her reactions in Brussels and London (which Barker fails to have noticed) she was extremely shy, awkward and insecure in company. She could not make friends easily, and she had no charisma. Even if people tried to be nice to her I am sure she tried to be grateful (this was in her character) but she could go no further.  Small talk was not her forte unless she was comfortable with the person, something she rarely was. Note she tried to be friendly to the Jenkins but didn't know what to say. With foreigners she would feel shy and unfamiliar and therefore her tongue would be held back even more. Charlotte's superiority complex against foreigners stemmed from a complex cause: she was insecure and to mask these insecurities, and because she couldn't understand foreign culture, her defence mechanism was to despise them. It is a common defence mechanism I am sure all of us are acquainted with. It is not detached logic we are looking at here, it is empathy with Charlotte Brontë in a subjective manner. She did not think like other people (she didn't know how to) and so the rules of society must be adjusted for her. Ditto for Emily, who I think has been misjudged as well.

Barker sets out to cast Anne as a heroine. This would not be so bad (Anne has been underrated, and she had the most stable job among the siblings, though Charlotte was the most extroverted among the sisters) if only she would not make so many spiteful jabs at Charlotte for remaining at home. Charlotte probably had the weakness of sloth but I do not see how it makes her particularly evil. Her father's job earned little money but they had enough to live on and not to work was normal for that era. I think it is not so much sloth (Charlotte worked very hard at her studies and at work at Brussels) as loneliness that made Charlotte remain at home. Remember, all the Brontë sisters couldn't stand being in a strange environment, and couldn't become likeable. This intense loneliness would result in a mental breakdown - something most of us wouldn't get, as we are not the Brontë sisters (I suspect they were neurotic) and prevented them from being cheerful at work. Of course they would become unenthusiastic, though they were all diligent. Emily fared the worst, but Barker herself says she had no time for small-talk and the only friend outside the family she had was Louise de Bassompierre. She had trouble coping with the real world, a tendency inherited by Charlotte as well. We all see Charlotte as the normal one, but she was no normal person. She was only normal compared to the rest of the sisters. While we must commend Anne's fortitude for staying on at Thorpe Green there is no need to over-condemn Charlotte. Besides, Anne was naturally more capable at being tidy and able to get along with her pupils better. I suspect being quite childlike in nature (not that she was immature), she could sympathise more with children - that's something natural, not something anyone can acquire - certainly not Charlotte and Emily.  Anne was more stable and so this reflected in her writings - cool and logical. Barker states her favourite novel is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and she finds Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights melodramatic. I agree both are melodramatic, but there lies the power of the Brontës, something even Anne had though in lesser quantities. To dislike the Brontës for their melodrama is to dislike the force that drove their work. Excessive emotion in high literature is probably their pioneering. Looking at them with a cool and detached eye would undoubtedly make you sympathise with Anne and despise the attitude of the rest. But Anne was an exceptional person: the rest were more obviously flawed.

Also, I don't know why Barker must say Anne was not in love with William Weightman but Charlotte was. She says that Charlotte's interest in him, her insistence on staying at home means she loved him. Whereas Anne's poem doesn't mean she loved Weightman. I think the argument is flawed. If this argument shows Charlotte loved WW, it can also show Anne loved him as well, to the same degree. I doubt Charlotte was in love with WW. If she was, it was a minor infatuation - not the all-consuming passion of Heger and George Smith.  Anne remained at her job instead of returning to Haworth to be with WW, which according to Juliet Barker, means she wasn't into WW. We must look at Anne's character as well. As a good, dutiful woman she would want to earn her bread. Why come home when she could be doing her duty and getting respect from her employers? Also, WW was a flirt and was not in love with Anne - not deeply, that is. Anne was known for being a strict Christian and it is quite likely she had self-denial. If she knew that she could never be with Willie Weightman there would be no reason for her to come back as seeing him would be too painful and she might feel it was a silly indulgence. Remember she was a realistic person. She was also very shy and quiet, and according to Charlotte's letter, when WW gazed at Anne and sighed, she said nothing. Barker says that as Charlotte appears not to notice Anne's affection for WW, saying that Ellen Nussey should marry Weightman, it means Anne didn't love WW. This means nothing, as Anne may have loved in secret. Charlotte, as we all agree (Barker definitely would) did not understand Anne at all. If Anne loved WW, she would not be aware of it.  Also suggesting that Ellen would make WW a good wife would indicate Charlotte was not in love with him. As for Anne's not returning to Haworth:  if she spoke so little to WW there would be no hope for her. She would not throw herself away on a flirt. The poem mourning his death is said to be platonic and no hint of passion shows. I beg to differ. Why did she write a poem on him and Charlotte didn't, if Charlotte loved him? Charlotte wrote anguished poetry on Heger, but not on Weightman. Barker's justification that Anne did not love WW was that she refers to him as "our darling", not "my darling." Of course he was the whole family's darling. And "our" may make a better rhythm than "my". But in a later stanza she writes,
That angel smile that late so much
Could my fond heart rejoice;
And he has silenced by his touch
The music of thy voice.

I'll weep no more thine early doom,
But O! I still must mourn
The pleasures buried in thy tomb,
For they will not return.
The first person pronoun comes here, but this is ignored. It might indicate she was in love with him. Since WW spoke most to Charlotte among the sisters, it would make sense for Charlotte to treasure him more, instead of Anne who was quiet most of the time. The fact she treasured him could mean she loved him. It's inconclusive though, so let's get to Charlotte. Why Charlotte was likely not in love with WW, even though she was certainly interested in him: he was her first friend after her schooldays. Being bored and lonely at times, his cheerful presence must have meant much to her. He was congenial and it would have been flattering to be friends with a popular person (I'm sure we've seen this many many times). She had not much of a social circle, so what he said and did would be of great interest to her. Feeling she was unlikeable, she must have felt happy he made her feel otherwise. So when he flirted with other women she was sour, not so much because she wanted to marry him, but because she liked to be the special good friend. She writes he hardly came to the parsonage some time later, and no doubt their lives were dull after that. Having few friends she invested her hopes in him, and he turned out to be a shallow friend (though he was a kind person). She may have liked the fact he flirted a little with her (many girls liked to be flirted with even with people they weren't in love with) because it gave her self-esteem, but it does not translate to love.  Some people no doubt will challenge this view, but I am seeing Charlotte subjectively, through her books and through my knowledge of her life.

When Branwell was drunk, jobless and adulterous, Barker pours her vitriol into Charlotte. Charlotte despised and condemned Branwell for adultery - she had a perfect right to. Barker says this is hypocritical as Charlotte was in love with a married man. This is true, but unlike Branwell she never stooped to adultery. Even if Heger was in love with her, she would have hated the idea of being a mistress and being second-best instead of a wife. Branwell advertised his sorrows in the open about his unhappy affair, whereas Charlotte suffered much in silence. It is justifiable that she thought that if she had to suffer in silence about an unhappy love, Branwell was being weak and contemptible by airing out his sorrows. His love was also sensual, whereas Charlotte's was primarily intellectual. She would rate her love higher than his. We can see this in Jane Eyre. Charlotte's impassioned letters to Heger was not to have an affair, but what she desired was his friendship. He was married and she had her respectability, and she wouldn't want to have an affair. But she longed for an intellectual equal as a friend, who understood her genius and corrected her. The girls at her old school, Roe Head would have been impressed by her intelligence but they would not have been her equal. Heger was clearly superior as he could correct her.  She did love him, but she would settle for platonic friendship. Remember we are looking at a lonely, intellectually frustrated woman. Heger was her closest thing to the society of clever people - her sisters, being family, don't exactly count, because they are not outside. This reclusive woman would have longed for outside friendship and acknowledgement of her abilities.  In fact Barker's resentment against Charlotte for being unkind to Branwell is the most unforgivable thing in the book - one could understand why she was angry with Charlotte for not caring for Anne.

Also, Barker alleges that Emily was selfish by not worrying about the family money and worries while staying at home. Emily was worse than Charlotte: she simply couldn't get along with people. If she went out to work she would be lonely and wouldn't fit in. Today, had they lived, the sisters might have been problem cases at school (intelligent and quiet and bullied) and been diagnosed with a mental disorder. We are fortunate they were Victorians, and so their eccentricity was not considered a medical problem, which fostered their creativity. Emily was self-centred, but she couldn't help it. She was not deliberately mean, but she could not understand many things around her. Though she was the genius among the sisters.

Barker seems to have a tendre for Branwell, since she heaps infamy on Charlotte for being mean about him. Branwell was clever, he did look for jobs, which is why Barker thinks Charlotte shouldn't have said those things about him. The point is he didn't accept a job he was offered, which justified Charlotte's meanness. Barker also condemns Charlotte for not accepting a job offer and therefore being lazy and self-indulgent in her woes. If Charlotte is self-indulgent in this, so is Branwell. In fact Branwell's self-indulgence is less justifiable, as he was charming, intelligent and could get along with the world far better than his famous sister.

I am not discouraging anyone from reading Barker's biography. It is a good biography, except for her bias against Charlotte (but just mentally erase a few sentences and you'll be fine). We could see this biography as an outsider's view on the Brontës eccentricities - which weren't well-liked, in their lifetime. If Juliet Barker wants to destroy the myth of long-suffering geniuses she has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. She makes Charlotte seem petty, Emily seem selfish, and Anne a realist. In ordinary life the sisters were dull, except for the things they thought and wrote. We tend to think we love Emily Brontë, had we met her in real life we would have disliked her.  In this aspect it is a useful way to understand why other people didn't like the Brontës in their lifetime. In contrast, Winifred Gerin's biography could be an example of an insider into the mind of Charlotte Brontë. She looks inwards, Barker looks outwards with a rational dissecting eye.

Perhaps I have no right to say this, as I am only an amateur student with none of Dr Barker's qualifications and research. But some things must be said, and I hope that by writing this I have justified the actions of the Brontë family. Winifred Gerin knew about the self-indulgence about the elder sisters, but she accepted their reasons for being so, and by doing so showed a great understanding of their characters and their position in their surroundings.


  1. Just a brief comment as I didn't had the time to read your whole post and I am leaving for a few days again. I believe Barker is a great scholar and the details in her book are impressive but I never managed to read the whole of it because it makes me feel angry the way she vilifies Charlotte. It would be a perfectly good book if she had only given the facts and not try to "interpret" (distort is the real word) Charlotte's motives. I don't think this happens because she can not understand her. I am afraid that she is even more guilty than Gaskell in her effort to create a new myth to displace the old one. What I mean is that exactly as Gaskell vilified Patric in order to make amends for Charlotte's shocking work, Barker vilifies Charlotte so as to show that she (Barker) has a brand new grasp of their story.

    1. Exactly what I meant, ksotikoula. (Gee, it's hard typing your username lol). I felt angry reading her book I wanted to shut it, but I forced myself to read. Because seriously the history and background research is good. Pity she sees the Brontes as a critical outsider, not a sympathetic friend. And even when describing Charlotte's faults she has to go on and say "she was being unfair," or 'she was self-indulgent," which is over-judging Charlotte -completely unnecessary something a biographer should never do. Well, unless the subject is Lord Byron lol. Do you think she's vilifying Charlotte to create controversy and so promote her theories? I've heard of academics doing this sort of thing. by the way have you read Winifred Gerin's biography of Charlotte?

  2. Hello Caroline, I loved your review, it's very insightful, but I have to disagree with your statements about Anne and Emily. Anne's talents, at least, for me, brightly shine out against Emily's. In psychological complexity (again, in my opinion) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall stands together with Thomas Hardy's finest novels. I love their ability to show people's characters through their doings: movements, gestures, glances, sighs, etc. For me, it's the sign of a great genius. Emily Bronte protected the independence of her mind all her life, but it doesn't make "more pliable" Anne and Charlotte any less original. Their genius is just a bit less on the surface.