The Brontë Family: Passionate Literary Geniuses is a short biography of the Brontë family written by Karen Kenyon. Originally published in 2003, it is about to enjoy re-publication by Endeavour Media in July in time for the bicentenary of Emily Brontë. However, I’ve decided to post my review in time for Branwell’s birthday on 26th June due to its refreshing portrayal of the Brontë brother. Another post solely dedicated to Branwell will follow in time for his actual birthday next week. Below are my thoughts on Kenyon’s biography. The text consists of a Brontë chronology, author introductions, an epilogue, eleven reasonably short chapters, and an epilogue. Reader, let’s begin.
A Note on the Chronology
It’s always useful to begin with a chronology of events in any biography, but especially one which concerns an entire family. Deciding which events to include must be a headache but here we have the basics such as the births of the Brontë siblings in addition to information about their employment as adults and their deaths. I noted the omission of some facts including Anne becoming a governess for the Ingham family and Branwell’s stint working for the railway, however, I was pleased to discover their inclusion in greater detail within the biography itself.
A Word from Charlotte
We being rather fittingly with a quote from Charlotte Brontë taken from a letter to William S. Williams (joint owner of Charlotte’s publisher, Smith, Elder, & Co.) about writing, imagination, and finding strength.
Here we can read Kenyon’s introduction. It’s an interesting read and contains a fair bit about both Kenyon’s love of the Brontës and facts about their lives. Although it does contain snippets of information that can be found later in the text, it sets up the biography nicely. There is also an author’s note from the original publication in 2003.
The Text Itself
Rather interestingly, Passionate Literary Geniuses begins with Anne and Charlotte’s trip to London to visit Charlotte’s publisher in 1848. It’s an intriguing touch for those expecting to delve into facts about Patrick and Maria Brontë’s meeting, wedding, and the births of their six children. It does the job of drawing in the reader and making one wonder where Kenyon’s biography is heading next; maybe it’s also to imply that like the two sisters that day, Kenyon’s work is aiming to set the record straight about the Brontës.
The following chapter discusses the influence of the Brontë patriarch Patrick on his young children’s minds and creativity with his own storytelling skills discussed. There is no doubt in my mind that Patrick was a positive creative influence on his children, and this chapter helps to convey that. Chapter three focuses on the sisters’ experience at Cowan Bridge, the inspiration for Lowood Institute in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, and the tragic deaths of the eldest siblings Maria and Elizabeth following their cruel treatment at school. Kenyon poignantly uses a quote from Branwell’s poem “Misery” helping to indicate that although he never attended the school, he was also affected by the misery of the place due to his sisters’ deaths.
My favourite chapter was chapter four which focuses on the origins of the Brontë juvenilia and Patrick’s famous gift of twelve soldiers to Branwell in 1826. Kenyon delves into the Brontës’ childhood worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, however, there are a few minor issues with the information she presents. The chapter begins with a quote by Charlotte, however, despite the source of the quote being listed, Kenyon neglects to inform her readers that the quote is originally from A Romantic Tale, one of the earliest pieces of juvenilia dating from 15th April 1829. Kenyon also doesn’t cite or date another quote from Charlotte which describes how the Brontës chose their own soldiers and dates from the Young Men’s Magazine, March 12th 1829. Overall though, Kenyon does a good job of summing up the excitement of the siblings, and presents the essence of their earliest texts, some inspired by Arabian Nights tales, very well. She also describes just how tiny these famous tiny books were and the power battle between Charlotte and Branwell. Little is said of Anne and Emily’s Gondal but as most of it is lost to time, this can’t be helped. Kenyon also states that Charlotte and Branwell continued to write their Glass Town saga for a further eight years after 1829 when Charlotte’s last explicitly Angrian text is dated 1839 and Branwell continued to be inspired by his Angrian characters until his death in 1848.
Another minor quibble with this chapter is that it implies that Tabby Ackroyd arrived at the parsonage in 1824 (as stated in the chronology) when Charlotte was 9, Branwell 8, Emily 7, and Anne 5. However, the children would actually have been a year younger than stated.
Chapter five covers an awful lot of information, beginning by examining Charlotte’s time at Roe Head and her initial meeting with her lifelong friends, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. It also details Branwell’s attempts to find a suitable career, his portrait painting (including the Pillar Portrait of his sisters, temporarily on display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum), and both his and Charlotte’s literary rejections. One minor issue is that due to Kenyon’s attempt to document what all the siblings were doing at certain points in time, some information gets muddled, and it seems to be implied here that Branwell was 17 in 1832 when he was actually only 15.
Chapter six documents the careers of the siblings, covering Emily’s lesser known attempts at teaching, Charlotte’s governess work, and Branwell’s short lived time as a tutor to the Postlethwaite family before beginning his stint working for the railway. I’d be interested to know the source of Kenyon’s statement that Branwell was dismissed from the Postlethwaites for neglecting his charges when the strongest “evidence” actually suggests that Branwell fathered a love child whilst employed there, a theory elaborated on by Juliet Barker in her own biography of the family, The Brontës. This is a detailed chapter which provides information about the siblings’ occupations and attempts to hold down more conventional and steady jobs. It does a good job of grounding the Brontës in reality and examining their varying degrees of success functioning in wider society and away from Haworth.
Kenyon moves onto Brussels in chapter seven, documenting Charlotte and Emily’s time spent at the Pensionnat Héger, and of course, the former’s romantic infatuation with married teacher Constantin Héger. This chapter also covers the deaths of William Weightman, the handsome and charming curate in Haworth and a good friend of the siblings, and Elizabeth Branwell, the woman who gave up her own life in Penzance to care for her sister’s children. Although I felt a little more time spent on Elizabeth would have been welcome, this would have shifted the focus from the siblings so Kenyon was wise to avoid this. She also writes a particularly poignant passage about the impact of the losses on Branwell and his move to join Anne teaching at Thorp Green before their eventual return to Haworth due to Branwell’s affair with their employer’s wife. Charlotte’s return to Brussels and her visit to a Catholic cathedral that eventually made its way into her later novel Villette are also explored.
Chapter eight moves towards more familiar territory for most readers: the writings of the sisters. Kenyon discusses the publication of their collection of poetry before they found fame as novelists in addition to Branwell’s less successful attempt at novel writing, a piece mentioned at the end of the last chapter but here named as And the Weary Are at Rest (coincidentally I am currently writing a post on this). Overall though, this chapter is a little speculative and anecdotal, covering well known events but without many hard facts. One interesting little detail is the mention of reviews of Wuthering Heights that were saved by Emily and which I believe are currently on display as part of the Making Thunder Roar exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Chapter nine is surprisingly short considering it covers the deaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne. However, the brief chapter along with its title “Gone Like Dreams” (taken from Charlotte’s correspondence on the subject) packs an emotional punch and stresses the fragility of life, and Charlotte’s sense of isolation following the losses.
Chapter ten examines Charlotte’s life as an only child and her attempt to cope with her grief. Her sudden literary celebrity status is also examined, something she’d always dreamed of (her juvenilia are testament to this), but juxtaposing it alongside the loss of her family allows Kenyon to highlight just how lonely and bereft Charlotte was at this point in her life. This is an interesting section that covers what was quite literally a new and unfamiliar chapter in Charlotte’s life. The beginning of her friendship with her eventual biographer Elizabeth Gaskell is also documented.
The final chapter examines Charlotte’s relationship with and marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls. As in most biographies, Nicholls doesn’t get a lot of space here, but perhaps it’s because he is more of a footnote in the Brontë story rather than a driving force or creative influence. Kenyon does a good job of depicting Nicholls’ devotion to Charlotte (something I have always wondered about), and presents Charlotte’s initial indifference but growing warmth towards him before their marriage. Although he is mentioned earlier in the biography, leaving a more detailed picture of Nicholls until the conclusion was a smart move partly because, let’s face it, he isn’t a Brontë hero, a dashing William Weightman figure, nor even a passionate Branwell type, but rather ordinary and dull. He was also technically the last Brontë and so it’s actually rather fitting that the biography should conclude with him rather than Charlotte’s death. Ultimately, the final words of the text are not Charlotte’s, Nicholls’, or even Kenyon’s, but Patrick’s, confirming his daughter’s death and demonstrating his remarkable strength, courage, and faith in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell, a woman who would later unjustly paint him as a villain in her biography of Charlotte.
The epilogue winds down with the Brontë legacy and addresses the mythology that has grown over the years and surrounds the siblings to this day. The deaths of Patrick Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls are documented in addition to efforts made to preserve the Brontës’ literary legacy. I felt that Kenyon was perhaps a little too sympathetic towards Nicholls, he did after all destroy some Brontë artefacts rather than preserve them, including the majority of Branwell’s Gun Group Portrait. Kenyon’s statement that “The connection with the Brontës at the parsonage was broken” following Patrick’s death is poignant and seemingly true. However, Kenyon’s mention of the formation of The Brontë Society, the endurance of the sisters’ novels, and the thousands of visitors to Haworth each year confirms that the spell was only dampened, not broken, following Patrick’s death, and it is stronger than ever in 2018, two centuries after their births.
This is less of a traditional and stuffy biography; instead it provides detailed yet bitesized chapters of information for those new to the Brontës or those unable to commit to longer texts about the siblings. However, it’s still one that diehard Brontëites like myself can take pleasure in reading. Kenyon’s book is solely focused on the siblings so there is less information about their family background, their servants, life in Haworth etc. to clog up the text; a good thing if you want information about the creators of some of the most beloved fiction of all time. One aspect I was particularly pleased with was Kenyon’s depiction of Branwell. Although his dependence on drink and drugs is addressed in addition to his failure to establish a lasting career, his successes are also highlighted, and he is neither footnote nor disgrace here, just simply one of the family, which is how it should be. I like how Kenyon doesn’t focus on each sibling in turn, but documents what they were all doing at particular periods of time even if it means the specific dates of events get a bit lost. However, a little bit more focus on Anne would have been appreciated. It would also be beneficial for the reader if all of the quotes used by Kenyon were identified. There are some nice and appropriately placed photographs that provide the reader with a physical picture of the places inhabited and visited by the siblings.
Kenyon’s passion for her subject shines through in this reader friendly biography which provides plenty of detail and allows one to dip in and out at leisure, and I very much enjoyed reading it. The format would be a good idea for a book detailing something as complex as the Brontë juvenilia, and I may have just been inspired by it.
I received a free copy of the ebook to read and review, however, this is an honest review. Readers of my blog will notice that I don’t post negative reviews, not because there aren’t bad Brontë inspired texts out there, but because I’d rather write about the ones I enjoyed and would recommend to others. Therefore, I reviewed this text because I genuinely enjoyed it. Reader, give it a try.
As stated above, The Brontë Family: Passionate Literary Geniuses by Karen Kenyon is due to be republished by Endeavour Media in July 2018, and according to the press release will be available in both ebook and physical format.
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By Nicola Friar a.k.a The Brontë Babe.
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