Friday, May 19, 2017

The Bewitched Parsonage: The Story of the Brontes by William Stanley Braithwaite

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The Bewitched Parsonage The Story Of The BrontesThe Bewitched Parsonage The Story Of The Brontes by William Stanle Braithwaite

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is so far the best, most interesting biography I have read. It's the first I read of the Bronte sisters and I do not know if it is the most reliable, but it is highly readable and informative.

Mr Braithwaite wrote this biography in the 1950s. I think perhaps that is one reason why I trust his biography. Unlike Elisabeth Gaskell who was a personal friend of Charlotte Bronte and possibly biased or protective of her reputation, and also unlike today's University Professors of Literature who insist on interpreting all woman's literature through contemporary social constructs (woman oppressed, victimized, miserable etc.) Braithwaite writes about his subjects with a cool eye and even-hand.

His biography starts with the Bronte's Great- grandfather, then Patrick Bronte, the father of the Bronte sisters, who was born and raised in Ireland.

Apparently, the great-grandfather came home one day with a swarthy orphan, whom he named Welsh because of his dark skin. When Welsh came of age, he inherited the property of his adopted father. It was understood that when Hugh, Patrick's father, came of age, he would receive his fair share.

This did not happen. Welsh took everything and outcast Hugh who then lived in poverty all his life as well as his wife and ten children. This was the world Patrick was born into. Coming from a family of wealth but being condemned to live as peasants.

This did not deter Patrick who went to school, became highly literate in classical literature and, with the help of a couple of Ministers, went to University and became a clergyman himself.

He moved to the Moors of England and married an English woman, Mary Branwell. It was a marriage beneath her, as they viewed things in those days, but her family agreed and she was devoted to her husband.

Patrick was stern, unemotional and Spartan. The house they lived in was dark, cold and damp and probably contributed to the demise of his wife after eight years of marriage and also to all of six of his children, except his son who drank himself to oblivion. He survived them all.

After his wife's death, Patrick locked himself up in his library and left his children to raise themselves. This they did as well as they could and, since their father forbade them to associate with the village children, they kept each other company and created their own worlds in writing.

Although they were kept from the world, they were acutely aware of it. Their parents had given them a rich heritage of stories from their family histories and also from their father's extensive library of books, of which they were given free use.

They also learned of the local village lore and gossip through a woman who came to take care of them after the their mother's death. This woman was the basis for Nellie in Wuthering Heights and also housekeepers in some of the other novels.

They eventually were sent away to a school that was to become the model for the school of abuse and neglect Jane Eyre was sent to as a girl. As teenagers they went to work as governesses for rich families, an occupation they all deplored. However, it gave them experience that expressed itself in their books.

A well-to-do Aunt sponsored Emily and Charlotte to study in Brussels for a time. What happened there is sketchy and somewhat controversial. Elisabeth Gaskell refused to make any mention of it in her biography but apparently Charlotte fell in love with the Professor presiding over the school.

How far this went, whether there was an actual affair, a mere dalliance on the professor's part or simply a product of Charlotte Bronte's imagination, is anyone's guess. What cannot be denied are the letters that she sent M. Constantin Heger. M. Heger threw the letters away, but his wife retrieved them and kept them, later giving them to the Bronte museum. Six of these letters survive and are included in Braithwait's biography. In my old fashioned opinion, they are not the sort of letters one should write to a married man.

No, they weren't hot and sweaty, filled with passion, but definitely they were the words of someone who missed a person of interest very much. The letters are filled with complaints that her letters were not being responded to.

It wasn't as though Charlotte did not receive marriage proposals. She received a number, but from nobody she felt she could love. I wonder if her longing for a man out of reach was an unconscious desire to keep love firmly rooted in a powerful imagination that no real person could live up to.

Charlotte Bronte's novels, Shirley and Villette were inspired from her time in Brussels and by her mysterious relationship with Professor Heger.

And speaking of mysterious...

Emily stayed briefly in Brussels but quickly returned. Her life was for the Moors. She wrote mountains of poetry that expound on her soul united with the desolate landscape she grew up with. Emily is a kind of cross between Emily Dickenson and Thoreau. She was rarely seen, although she had detailed knowledge of everyone in the village and she was a mystic. Her poetry is the type George Herbert wrote, except her god is nature.

Very little is known about her. Charlotte destroyed most of her sister's work so what might have been known is gone forever.

All three sisters were otherworldly. It has been speculated that they suffered from Autism, Asbergers, or had Radical Attachment Disorder due to being orphaned by their mother and neglected by their father.

Anne wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall and it is considered to be the most revolutionary in its treatment of woman who defies conventions and stands against the confinement imposed by society conventions by creating a heroine who leaves a drunken, abusive husband.

The man could very well have been patterned after the Bronte's brother, Branwell. I would also say that John Reed, the spoiled, dissipated cousin of Jane Eyre is a good likeness as well.

Branwell caused the sisters a lot of heartache and they spent what little money they had trying to erase his debts. But Branwell went to his grave a never-do-well. He spent his short life drinking and it finally ended his life.

After giving historical information of the Bronte's lives, Braithwait describes the writing, giving each book a chapter for analysis, not his but the contemporaries of the Brontes. It is remarkable and also humorous to read some of the reviews. Because the sisters wrote under male pseudonyms, some reviewers remarked on how accurately men were able to describe life as a governess or inside a school room. They were also excoriated for writing about women in unbecoming terms. Very shocking at the time. He also describes how they eventually got their books published.

They wrote under male pseudonyms and would have been content to leave it at that except for a rumor that their publisher was going to sell the rights to an American company without their permission.

Anne and Charlotte traveled to London by themselves, Emily of course refused to go, and confronted their publisher. The publisher had no idea who these two small women, hardly bigger than children were or what they wanted. It took a while for Charlotte to convince him that they were, in fact, Acton and Currer Bell, the writers of Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey. We can imagine his shock.

Someone who was not shocked was their father. He did not have an inkling that his daughters were published authors and it took them a while to convince him. One would have thought he might have left his library after that but apparently not.

Another valuable contribution the book provides is showing the inspiration for many of the characters. I've already spoken of a couple. Rochester and Heathcliff seemed to have stemmed from the same inspiration, which was a stern, very masculine teacher at the school they attended.

But Heathcliff also has family history. Remember Welsh in Ireland? Emily was familiar with this story as it had been told countless times.

Charlotte believed that her sisters' untimely demise was due to the deplorable living conditions at the school there. Both Anne and Emily were dead of tuberculosis by their thirty-first birthdays. Unfortunately, Charlotte did not long outlive them. TB claimed her life at thirty-seven. But not before she married and, according to Braithwait, there is every indication it was a happy marriage, although her husband was not seen as her intellectual equal. He was, however, extremely devoted to Charlotte.

As she was dying, she opened her eyes to see him on his knees, fervently praying over her. Her final words:

"Am I dying? But we have been so happy."

One final irony: During their lifetimes, the Brontes were poor and not considered of the class that could be recognized by the gentry (although Charlotte became good friends with contemporary writers after she became known, such as Thackeray and Gaskell). How satisfying it would be to know that your works are now bulwarks of British literature.

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The Bronte sisters.  Painted by their brother Branwell.  Originally he included himself, but later painted himself out of the picture.

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Just chillin' with my peeps.


  1. Fascinating! I will add this to my wishlist. Given my reaction to Wuthering Heights, someone suggested I read Anne Bronte instead. I think I may like The Tenant of Windfell Hall. A friend and I were discussing how unrealistic we believed the characters of Wuthering Heights were, but I think I may change my opinion. How very real it was for Charlotte.

    1. Hi Ruth. Emily was apparently a strange person and we will never know how or why she wrote Wuthering Heights. Her sister, Charlotte thought it should not have been written, that Emily was fighting inner demons. We know so little about her. I still love the book because it is one of the most brilliantly written novels in the English language. Heathcliff and Katherine were certainly prototypes of the anti-heroes but at the same time I believe they got their comeuppance. It's just so different from what anyone expected back then as far as story formula goes.

    2. (Yeah, I meant Emily -- it seemed very real for her.)

    3. I knew who you meant :) and I agree.

  2. I read "The Professor" a while back and liked it a lot... Before that I plowed through Villette whic I kind of thought was a disorganized mess, but interesting all the same; some the others I read long ago... Your xcelent summarizes pretty well my impressions of the sisters and their works... Tx for te post...

    1. Hi Mudpuddle. I have never read The Professor and it's supposed to be one of her best. I can't remember how Villete was written but I remember I kept hoping it would rise to Jane Eyre's level and it never did.

      Have a great weekend. Hope the renovating is going well.

    2. TX for remembering; we're still in Lincoln City, waiting til next to go home... Nice long walk thru the woods today to visit Drift Creek Falls: impressive ware and a monster suspended bridge way out in the middle of nowhere Excuse the errata-still on the I-pad...

    3. Sounds nice. My mother is from Idaho and her family is spread out all over the Northwest. It is such beautiful country. It's rainy but it makes everything so lush.

      Isn't it cool that we don't have to be shut off from the world even when away from home? I use my cell phone as much as my computer.

  3. Superb commentary in this biography Sharon.

    I have only discovered the Bronte's in recent years. I found both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights to be brilliant and fascinating. There is something enigmatic about both books. Thus I think that I would be very interested in this.

    However, I am always torn as to how to expend valuable reading time. I always feel conflicted weather I want to read author biographies, analysis, etc. , or to read the works themselves.

    Have a great weekend!

    1. Hi Brian. Thanks!

      Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are my two all time favorite novels and I've read them many times over. I love Rochester even though I know many people see him as villainous. I see him as someone who was conquered by Jane Eyre in the end.

      I always think that reading the works themselves should be the priority. The work gives a far more accurate picture of the writer than a biography. I enjoy biographies but I think we always have to consider the source and realize that it's a little like playing the game "telephone". 2nd or 3rd eye witnesses are bound to lose something.

    2. True, Sharon: cogent thought...

    3. Thanks, Mudpuddle :) I have my moments.

  4. Excellent review, Sharon. I have Gaskell's book but haven't read it yet. I got the impression it was going to be gushy so I've put off starting it. Good to see you enjoyed Wuthering Heights. I nearly gave up on it but I glad I didn't. Loved the ending of that book.

    1. Hi Carol,

      Wuthering Heights is one of my all time favorite books but one cannot have expectations that it is going to carry a normal story formula.

      I think there are subtle nuances and when you catch those you realize that justice did ultimately carry the day.

  5. Oh, this looks like a good one. I enjoy biographies, so thanks for the recommendation!

    1. Hi Marcia. I thought this book added a lot of interesting background to the Brontes. I see them differently now, for good or ill.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.