This review is reproduced here by kind permission of English Studies. It is an extended version of one first published online on 14 November 2014, and in print in English Studies, Vol. 96, I (2015): 107-08. The author has added illustrations and captions to this Victorian Web version. Click on the images for larger pictures.

Cover of the book under review. The arresting image is of Literary Landscape by Martin Heron.

As Marianne Thormählen explains in her introduction, editing this recent addition to the Cambridge "Literature in Context" series presented unusual challenges. Dealing with three authors instead of the usual one, she also had to gather fresh insights into lives and works whose inter-relation has never ceased to fascinate, even when modern critical approaches have tried to separate the two. Happily, a veritable galaxy of Brontë scholars has helped Thormählen meet these challenges triumphantly. These include such well-known names as Christine Alexander, who pioneered research into the Brontës' juvenilia and art, and has written chapters here on both; and Margaret Smith, whose Clarendon and World's Classics editions of the novels, and three volumes of Charlotte's correspondence, have been a lifetime's work. These two important Brontë scholars also co-edited the equally indispensable Oxford Companion to the Brontes, so it does not seem invidious to pick them out from among the many other well-known names represented here.

The first and longest section of the book concerns "Places, Persons and Publishing." Its nineteen essays deal with everything from washing facilities at Haworth Parsonage, described in Ann Dinsdale's entertaining chapter on "Domestic Life at Haworth Parsonage," to the Brontës' "way into print," in another useful essay by Linda H. Peterson. There are separate accounts of each of the three sisters, with Dinah Birch stressing Charlotte's "determination and optimisism, in the face of every setback" (66), Lyn Pyckett surprising us with a picture of "little petted Em" as a new girl at Roe Head school (69), and Maria Frawley commenting particularly usefully on Anne's ability to turn her very obscurity "into subject matter for her writing, the matter of her art" (81). There is a good account too, by Drew Lamonica Arms, of the dynamics of the sibling bonds, and their complex effects on the sisters' writing:

Despite Charlotte's claim [of their closeness], the creative and emotional intimacy among the Brontë siblings was not always the harmonious union of like minds: throughout their lives the sisters both supported and challenged one another, allowing each to find a distinct literary voice.... Writing in collaboration reinforced the Brontës' sense of family solidarity. It was also the means by which they established, asserted and explored individual differences among siblings cast in the same mould, raised in like circumstances and space, placed in similar life experiences as daughters, wives, governesses and authors, whose devotion to one another was both profound and intense. For many readers, balancing the inevitable influences they had on each other's writings with the uncommon distinctiveness on each is the greatest challenge and highest stimulus in studying the lives and works of the Brontës. [97]

There are also chapters devoted to others in the Brontës' circle, including their father and mother. Dudley Green draws a warm-hearted revisionist portrait of Patrick Brontë as a loving and conscientious father and dedicated clergyman, while Bob Duckett considers those who helped to fill their mother's place after she died — their aunt Elizabeth Branwell and Margaret Woolner of the Roe Head School in Mirfield. The latter eventually became a close friend and adviser, and gave Charlotte away at her wedding in her father's absence. "If Mrs Brontë was the mother the Brontë children barely knew and Elizabeth Branwell the surrogate mother they never loved," says Duckett perceptively, "then Margaret Woolner was, at least for Charlotte, the wise counsellor and kindly confidante that the young woman needed" (51).

Towards the end of this section, Margaret Smith gives some fascinating details about how the Brontë letters were written and conveyed to their destinations, and are, amazingly, still coming down to us today — even after her own monumental work on them. Among the other chapters that close Part I is Janet Gezari's, on the way the poetry — including Branwell Brontë's for a change — "stole into life" (qtd. 134). Last but by no means least, Stephen Colclough's research into the different kinds of lending libraries and their catalogues examines another way in which ideas circulated, revealing that the Brontës' works could reach some working-class readers even in the 1850s through the new free libraries in cities like Manchester and Liverpool. Indeed, "multiple copies" of the novels were ordered by Manchester in those very early years (164).

Left: Haworth Parsonage, from a photograph taken in Charlotte Brontë's time (Wood, facing p.16). Right: Haworth Church in Charlotte Brontë's time (Wood, facing p.288).

Colclough's findings show how the new interests of our times are yielding whole new entries to the Brontë corpus. The six essays on "Scholarship, Criticism, Adaptations and Translations" in Part II include Sara J. Lodge and Alexandra Lewis's skilful round-ups of (respectively) twentieth-century and current critical approaches to the sisters' work, indicating nothing so much as its inexhaustibility. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in particular, still permeate not just British but world culture even as it continues to evolve. Patsy Stoneman's discussion of the stream of prequels, sequels, theatre, cinema and television adaptations, ballets, operas, musicals and so forth is another tour de force here, bringing in such feminist curiosities as Fay Weldon's stage production of Jane Eyre using life-sized grey dolls to indicate societal pressures on Victorian women, and Paula Rego's illustration of a jack-booted Rochester. The archetypal status of Wuthering Heights is also demonstrated by, amongst others, a part-Hindi production of 2009, set in the Rajasthani desert.

Returning to the historical and more immediate cultural context, Part III again encompasses a wide range of topics, from religion and education to sexuality and mental health. Here, Simon Avery's essay on the politics demonstrates the usefulness of the whole contextual project with a convincing treatment of The Professor as a "neglected participant in that strong group of 1840s social-problem novels." He points out that when William Crimsworth, the hero of Charlotte's generally neglected first novel, rejects the Catholic Mlle Reuter in favour of the "honest Protestant Frances," this "opens up debates regarding nationality, patriotism and religion which would resonate throughout Charlotte's later work." It is good to find this novel in the spotlight for once. It was a foretaste of things to come, as well: the sisters' exposure to the newspapers and magazines discussed by Joanne Shattock in the next chapter had opened their minds to such an extent that all their novels were to challenge the "dominant political and social ideologies of the day" (264).

One of Thormählen's own contributions to this section, "Marriage and Family Life," supports Dudley Green's earlier characterisation of the family as a happier, less isolated one than we have been led to believe: "Although the parsonage lacked that figure who should have kept it all together, a wife and mother, it was the north to which every Brontë compass pointed" (311). But the Brontës' excursions from it, and "[v]oracious reading appetites," had given them more than a vague idea of what went on in society at large (331). Jill L. Matus reminds us that "Sexuality in a variety of forms, not least in its illicit social expressions such as bigamy, adultery and illegitimacy, appears throughout the Brontës' work." The round-up is impressive:

In Jane Eyre, the heroine almost contracts a bigamous marriage; incarcerated in Thornfield’s attic is a lunatic who has gone mad at least in part because of sexual excess — her "giant propensities" (111.i.306); Mr Rochester provides a frank account of his mistresses and courtesans; and the ward in his home is possibly his illegitimate child. In Wuthering Heights, the quasi-incestuous passion of Catherine and Heathcliff threatens and overwhelms conventional family structures and marriage bonds, though many readers and critics over the years have questioned the extent to which that passion is sexual.[...] The Tenant of Wildfell Hall depicts the consequences of dissolution, debauchery and extra-marital affairs, daring to expose the injustice of early nineteenth-century divorce and child-custody laws. Even Agnes Grey, the most apparently dispassionate of the novels, turns on the passage from puberty to sexual maturity, its governess narrator observing her charge Rosalie "coming out" on the marriage market. Sexual competition,jealousy, desire and attraction animate her narrative even as she struggles to disguise her feelings. [330]

Sexuality is often discussed in individual works, and nothing here will be new to those working on the front line of Brontë studies. But it gains from being seen throughout the collective corpus, and helps to explain some of the early responses to the work, as readers professed themselves shocked "by the implied sexual knowledge of the novels, some to the point of wondering what sinister pasts were concealed by their ostensibly respectable country parsonage existence" (330-31).

Patrick Brontë (Reid, frontispiece).

The illustrations for these seventeen essays show just how much ground is covered. Among them are stylistically distinct sketches of trees by each of the sisters (Anne's in Christine Alexander's essay on art and music, and Charlotte and Emily's in Barbara Gates's essay on natural history); a nightmarish picture of Charlotte's whalebone corset in Brigitta Berglund's enlightening essay on dress; and, most poignantly, a page from a contemporary medical book closely annotated by Patrick Brontë, who, for all his efforts, saw his whole family die before him. It is hard to keep up with the new advances in Brontë studies, and even scholars in this area are likely to find much new material here.

Inevitably, with so many short chapters (42 in all), some contributions are rather compressed, and some "contexts" needed fuller treatment. Charlotte's visits to London, where she went sightseeing, met Thackeray, G. H. Lewes and others, and visited the Great Exhibition as many as five times, are noted in the helpfully detailed chronology at the beginning, but only mentioned in passing elsewhere. Nevertheless, considering the corrective made to the usual Brontë story in so many other ways, for example, in Sue Lonoff's chapter on Charlotte and Emily's "Brussels Experience," and the masses of fresh information and stimulating discussion on offer, Thormählen's collection makes an invaluable contribution to Brontë studies.

Book under Review

Thormählen, Marianne, ed. The Brontës in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xxxiv + 388 pp. £65.00. ISBN: 978-0-521-76186-4.

Sources of Illustrations

Reid, T. Wemyss. Charlotte Brontë: A Monograph. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1877. Internet Archive. Contributed by Cornell University Library. Web. 2 January 2015.

Wood, Butler, ed. Charlotte Bronte, 1816-1916; a centenary memorial, prepared by the Bronte society, with a foreword by Mrs. Humphry Ward and 3 maps and 28 illustrations. New York: Dutton, 1918. Internet Archive. Contributed by University of California Libraries. Web. 2 January 2015.

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Last modified 2 January 2015