Works of pine art

The Art of the Brontes - The Brontes - Emily Bronte
June 23, 1995

The isolated clergyman, his gun, his three untaught daughters and their romantic novels, the moors, and the addictive brother - this is the stubbornly persistent popular myth of the Bront s challenged by these three books. A massive 1,000-page biography, a critical monograph and a catalogue (with explanatory essays), they represent very different kinds of scholarship, but they are researched with all the sophistication and precision that have taken Bront studies into a new phase over the past few years.

Juliet Barker's exhaustive detail-packed book, which turns up new material by the page, gives Patrick Bront and his four children almost equal weight. Strangely, it is the male figures for whom she seems to have most enthusiasm, and whose lives she revalues most strikingly. She attempts a resuscitation of Branwell Bront , whose jokes about an old man's interest in his erections and drawings of masturbating men, illegitimate child (whose existence Barker proves for the first time) and sad affair with the unscrupulous Mrs Robinson, mother of the pupils he tutored at Thorp Green, made him an impossible subject for Victorian biographers.

She defends him with success, dismissing the story of his failure in London, for instance, by arguing that he never went there. Against Charlotte's contempt for him, she protests that he was a serious poet and painter who made consistent efforts to gain financial independence. Only after his disastrous affair did decline set in.

If this investment in Branwell is not altogether understandable, it is easier to see why his father's life asks for reinterpretation. A writer in his own right who had struggled out of poverty in Ireland to Cambridge, the vigorous energies of Patrick Bront are convincingly documented. He was not the violent, withdrawn vegetarian patriarch of tradition but a committed and in many ways liberal father, and a progressive Anglican caught up in almost perpetual political campaigns.

Barker vividly brings to life the lost history of provincial culture and its debates in 19th-century England. An indefatigable writer to the Leeds Intelligencer on anything from national schools to the Irish question, Patrick Bront was a paradoxical figure. From the time he campaigned for the release of an innocent man at the start of his career to when he joined a protester against the new poor law who brandished a pared potato to demonstrate the paucity of the workhouse diet, he was a high Tory with an uncomfortable sense of the need for social justice. He passed these contradictions on to his children.

This biography is invaluable for its portrayal of the public debates to which all the Bront s had access, and should revolutionise the context in which we think about the Bront novels. Disappointingly, it does not. When she turns to the Bront females Barker concentrates on their domestic and psychic lives. The public sphere falls away. Perhaps this is why the immense detail of research collapses under its own weight as she finds her subjects increasingly exasperating.

Praise is reserved for Anne, who resigned herself to the horrors of governessing and its 12-hour day. Emily is seen as an almost catatonic, dissociated figure, living in a dream world of her own, but the author's animus is reserved for stunted, short-sighted, bossy and morally conventional Charlotte.

Charlotte's self-pity, the "spleen" she directed against her employer's wives, her mixture of arrogance and pathological shyness receive no mercy. She stands accused of destroying Emily's second novel after her death.The agonising passion for M. Heger, the Belgian in charge of the school at which Charlotte and Emily taught in Brussels, beomes matter for censure as "unhealthy obsession". How different from Barker's sympathetic treatment of Branwell's obsession with Mrs Robinson.

Biography prepared to devote huge resources of research to figures it dislikes is a strange phenomenon. It comes about, perhaps, because of the reversal of values in which biography is inevitably caught. Writing makes people subjects for biography, but biography makes their writing subordinate to people. What they wrote becomes secondary. Here the Bront women's novels are a kind of negative space, making the lives visible but invisible in themselves.

Stevie Davies's impassioned and brilliant study of Emily Bront , rather like turning from an epic to a lyric, occupies the space Barker leaves empty. It is an ambitious and arresting rereading of Emily's poems, novel and essays, and rightly takes her seriously as an intellectual with a profoundly philosophical and audacious imagination.

Emily Bront was a heretic, she argues, because she denied the possibility of a benevolent God and a benign natural order: she asserted the independent power of her own feminine sexuality and refused patriarchy; she interpreted Victorian social hierarchies as the ultimate in brutal power struggles; she refused the metaphysic of human superiority to animals and asserted parity between men and animals because of their shared propensity to violence; she became a convinced political revolutionary by the end of her life. Hence Charlotte's extreme embarrassment and shame.

In an essay, "The Butterfly", composed in Belgium, Emily Bront wrote that "the entire creation is equally meaningless . . . the universe seemed to me a vast machine constructed solely to produce evil". Davies wonderfully contextualises the granite intransigence of this statement. She sees Bront as a Blake-like writer of contraries who recognised that the logical consequence of a binary universe of struggle is a harsh, perpetual questioning of stable values.

Returning from Brussels, she believes, Emily avidly pursued the German thought - Friedrich Schlegel and F. W. J Schelling, for instance - which explored the idea of dialectic and the notions of dualism and romantic irony associated with it. Davies reads Wuthering Heights as an ironic exploration of power and violence rooted in German ideas. At the same time she is attentive to the detail of the novel, showing how subtle is its use of simple, solid household objects - such as the dresser at the Heights, which is part of the visual and physical experience of two generations of Earnshaws and Lintons.

Davies is aware of the irony of Emily's assertion, "No coward soul is mine", when her inability to tolerate anywhere but the safety of Haworth is well known, but argues that only by refuge in regression could she sustain the burden of her heresy. This account of Emily will be influential for some time to come. For this reason it is worth making some cautionary points.

The book has a tendency to pass too quickly over perplexing aspects of Emily's life and work. Just as it oversimplifies her sexual knowledge by resorting in some desperation to a theory of masturbation, so it converts Emily's celebration of power too precipitately into an overcoming of violence. The Bront s were saturated in the Tory ideology that put the Duke of Wellington - detested and reviled as a dictator by radicals of the early 1830s - at the centre of their childhood fantasies. Here Barker's historical world should meet Davies's philosophical world, as we see the contradictions of Patrick Bront handed on to his children.

They were fascinated by the will to power that justified Victorian discriminations of class and race even while they struggled with it. Emily Bront 's heroic philosophical struggle did not always slip the noose of the master/slave sadism that shocked her early readers. A tradition of reactionary violence, issuing in writers as different as Tennyson and, later, Lawrence, came down to her.

Both Barker and Davies concur in their dislike of bossy old Charlotte. Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars do not feel it necessary to take sides in their study of the Bront artworks, but their research shows that Charlotte, who exhibited two works in Leeds in 1834 in a bid to become a professional artist, had a talent at least for marketing her own and her sisters' work. Without her Emily would be unknown and Branwell a forgotten drunkard. She was successful precisely because, at a deep level, she was sensitive to her society's bigotry.

The Art of the Bront s is a superb resource. Exquisitely designed, it includes a bibliography of the books owned by the Bront s and four scrupulous assessments of their drawings and paintings, two by each critic, in addition to the substantive checklist of their works, the only such catalogue in existence. Alexander is the editor of Charlotte's early fantasies and stories, and is familiar with the meticulous virtuosity required to piece together material scattered over the world. She and Sellars have created a significant interdisciplinary archive. Though Sellars concludes, after an illuminating discussion of Branwell's work, that he "might have achieved a reasonable career as an artist", claims for the worth of this family's artworks - though some are extremely beautiful - are not the main issue. It is in their significance as cultural materials supporting many kinds of inquiry that their importance lies. They tell the history of the provincial art world to which Branwell belonged with such poignant recklessness; the beginnings of a middle-class culture industry, mediating artistic knowledge through steel-engraved prints, print libraries and collections; album book production, which circulated pictures and poetry to a new audience; and above all, the gendered nature of art teaching and its methods in the 19th century, are disclosed in these records. An accomplishment for women, a profession for men, girls were rigidly instructed in the crippling art of copying while men could draw from life and from the nude.

It testifies to Charlotte's powers that she came to deprecate the rigid training in imitation to which she was subjected. A skilful piece of detective work by her editor stands as a parable of the sisters' relationship to one another and to their culture. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily each composed a rare study from nature, a pine tree, when they were in Brussels. It is the same pine tree. They were sitting on opposite sides of it. Charlotte drew a carefully conventionalised landscape, obedient to picturesque principles but hesitant in execution. Emily's drawing is free and impressionistic but tragic. Both orthodoxy and heresy had its cost for women in the 19th century.

Isobel Armstrong is professor of English, Birkbeck College, University of London.

The Art of the Brontes

Author - Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars
ISBN - 0 521 43248 0 and 43841 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £55.00
Pages - 484

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments