The outward events of the Brontës’ lives are reflected particularly in the novels of Charlotte and Anne; a deeper search must be made in Emily’s work for signs of her actual experience. But a pronounced factor which links the lives and works of all the Brontës is the atmosphere of storm and agitation—a motif running through the fabric of their experience and thought. The recurrent storm symbol is one of the main points of similarity between the writings of the three sisters, providing as well a connecting element between them and their heredity; the Brontë father’s letters, poems, tales and even his sermons show a preoccupation with the storm image that is echoed in Jane Eyre, Villette, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It expresses, in fact, the temperamental climate of the family.
The question of their mental inheritance—the Celtic strain from a Cornish mother and Irish father—is closely examined by Miss [Phyllis] Bentley in her introduction to the new edition of the Brontë works. The Celtic heredity of the Brontës, she suggests, conflicted in their minds with the more solid indigenous nature of Yorkshire, at a time of transition between the agrarian and the industrial systems. The conflict present in the Brontës, which they ultimately resolved in imaginative terms, was perceived earlier by Mr. Herbert Read; but whereas he attributes their “neurosis” to an inferiority complex arising from “the early rupture of the maternal bond of affection and protection” and “the counteraction of a stern, impassive father,” Miss Bentley’s theory offers a more specific clue to the Brontë genius. Miss Bentley is as successful in her understanding of the early nineteenth-century ethos as she is of the West Riding countryside and people:
"The Brontës saw around them, in their own kitchen and Sunday School class, in the village street and on their walks, in the homes of their parishioners, Yorkshire people behaving in a strongly Yorkshire way, speaking strong Yorkshire dialect. The Brontës from early childhood wrote this dialect with admirable accuracy and ease, but their speech retained a faint Irish accent at any rate into their youth, and their writing retained an Irish fluency throughout. This bilinguality is in my opinion a reflection of a process in the Brontë minds which covered the whole range of their experience: a contrast, a conflict, ultimately a fusion, between their Irish heredity and their Yorkshire environment."
Three tales from Charlotte’s prolific juvenile writings have been selected for this edition by Miss Bentley, who indicates in them the anticipation of some of the chief characters in Charlotte’s later novels. The “daydream” compositions of the young Brontës, falling roughly into the categories of the Angrian legend invented by Charlotte and Branwell, and the Gondal myth of Emily and Anne, have become highly absorbing to the Brontë student, giving an insight into the development of their creative talents and revealing the separate processes that distinguish their individual achievements. In making these distinctions Miss Bentley might perhaps have implemented her arguments and defined her terms to advantage . “Gondal,” she writes, "is an imaginary world, but it is not a daydream world in quite the same sense as Angria; it is a fiction, not a Freudian fantasy; . . . Charlotte was ashamed of Angria, teeming as it did with sexual passion which her mentar censor would not admit into her Haworth life . . . But Emily was not ashamed of Gondal, where her usual stern ethic held inexorable sway . . . ".
If Miss Bentley’s intention, as implied by her curious juxtaposition of the words “fiction” and “Freudian,” is to prove the comparative innocence of Gondal as a factor of distinction between the two legendary worlds, she fails to make her point: what she does succeed in showing, unwittingly as it seems, is an essential difference between Charlotte and Emily — the tendency in Charlotte towards convention, and the innocence, the complete absence of humbug, in Emily.
Angria and Gondal are the early products of genius flourishing in isolation, of which not a few examples exist in literature. Just as their childhood, devoid of normal family friendships, moved in a teeming imaginary world, so in later life their novels evolved from a nucleus of loneliness, outside the influence of literary or social relationships. Miss Bentley, in her extremely able assessment of the Brontë novels, illustrates how the combination of isolation with highly developed imaginative powers contributed simultaneously to the fulfilment of the sisters’ early promise, and to the failure of their brother Branwell; her observation, "Certainly the day-dream habit helped to ‘ruin Branwell. The lonely boy with his over-active brain, never sent to school, wasted his energies and retarded his manhood on Angrian creation, and, finding Haworth intolerable after Angria, took to drink and unsuitable companions to assuage the day-dreamer’s ennui,’ leads to the reflection that the fact of their sex played no small determining part in the Bronte’ sisters’ creative functioning. Branwell’s misfortune seems to have been that he was a man; had he been constrained, as were his sisters, by prevailing conventions, had he been compelled to write for want of alternative outlet, his conflicts might have been resolved in terms other than neat brandy.
Branwell’s is the portrait that, surprisingly, emerges with the greatest clarity, from Mr and Mrs Hanson’s study of the four Brontës. His case history, of course, possesses an intrinsic psychological interest since Branwell Brontë is one of the more spectacular failures in literary history. The pursuit of this theme, however, is not the authors’ intention; Branwell’s appearance as the most coherent character in their work is accidental, for their publishers announce: “Here, for the first time, all the Brontës are studied in detail in a single volume.” (The claim is not quite accurate: Miss Laura Hinkley has, in her biography, dealt with all four Brontës very attentively.) Mr and Mrs Hanson have, indeed, studied all the Brontës in detail; the striking circumstance, however, is that their subjects compel conviction, in inverse proportion to the amount of detail introduced.
The thousand-odd notes to which passages in this volume refer, seem to defeat their own purpose; instead of helping to elucidate, a complicated family history, they confuse it. The more so since the authors themselves seem at a loss to decide which authorities are reliable. For example, we are told that Emily “looked with mingled contempt and pity upon the struggles which were beginning to convulse the tender but conventional religious conscience of Anne" - a statement for which the authority given is Mrs Elsie Harrison’s Haworth Parsonage. Later, however, we find Emily and Anne working in collaboration “even closer, together than Charlotte and Branwell,” and learn that” unlike the elder couple this collaboration was never broken.” Next, a passage from Emily’s diary offers its own evidence: “And now I must close, sending from far an exhortation, ‘Courage, courage,' to exiled and harassed Anne, wishing she was here “—an expression of feelings difficult to reconcile with the alleged “pity and’ contempt.”
It is unfortunate, too, that the authors have not avoided such small factual inaccuracies as that where Charlotte is seen leaving Brussels for the last time: “. . . in a short while she was on the seas, heading towards England, which she was never again to leave.” She did, in fact, leave England once more, to spend her honeymoon in Ireland. Again, Anne is said to have endured six years as a governess at Thorp Green, whereas her stay there actually lasted four years. The references to Hartley Coleridge as “Coleridge” are also misleading. These small errors, although not over-important, are none the less inauspicious for larger issues.
Possibly because, as we learn from the preface, this book has been some eighteen years in preparation, or perhaps because of some disinclination or inability of the authors to sum up, there is little possibility of identifying a standard of criticism with the biography as a whole. Some chapters show originality and intuitive judgment; others are banal and pedestrian. Even the prose style is inconsistent, moving swiftly and with vigour when some fresh idea is offered, but sagging heavily over the effort to assemble the theories of other biographers. The passages on Gondal and Angria, for instance, are exhilarating; they present those comparisons and distinctions without which the most “impartial” writing is hardly worth reading’. It is refreshing indeed to find such percipient observations as:
"Both the Gondal and Angrian chronicles are, superficially, biood and thunder concerned with savage struggles for love and power; but while the Angrian tales are amoral, even when they are no longer told by children, the Gondal poems, even at their most bloodthirsty, show a clear sense of right and wrong."
Such critical acuteness does not extend to the chapters devoted to analysis of the novels. Emily, we are informed, was primarily an intellectual writer.
"Unlike Charlotte, she shows no sign in her book that she had ever felt sexual passion. And although she deals in scenes of naked passion, fierceness and brutality, and although the supernatural is implied throughout the book, it is all described so calmly and in so matter-of-fact a manner that the story is given a reality and a credibility that it would never have told by another hand and in another way."
The idea of Emily as an intellectual writer is a provocative one, further consideration of which is soon arrested by the attempted justification, first by a comparison with Charlotte and then by reference to the style of Wuthering Heights. To say simply that Emily "shows nosign in her book that she had ever felt sexual passion,” merely to point out that her most passionate scenes were recounted calmly, is not to prove an intellectual attitude; and the reader suspects that the conception of Emily as an intellectual rather than an emotional author arises out of a loose assumption that, sexual passion is the only, or the most profound, human emotion. A reader may also find the definition of Emily’s prose style — “matter-of-fact” — as strange as the subsequent introduction of Jane Austen as a parallel, to Emily. More than seven pages of full quotation from Wuthering Heights adorn, but fail to elucidate, the authors’ argument; while their study of Villette is neither adorned nor elucidated by such inadequate critical verbiage as “It is true, it is moving and it is beautiful.”
One of the most important aspects of Brontë biography is the correlation of each member of the family to the others. Around Charlotte, the most ambitious and practical, speculations concerning the other members seem, always to congregate. To say that Charlotte was practical; is not to suggest that she was a realist; her approach to, human relationships was profoundly idealistic and consequently foredoomed. Her marriage was probably the only major realistic action of her life, for she entered it without illusion. Charlotte’s reluctance to accept the fallible in human nature had an effect, both on herself and on her relations with her brother and sisters, which many sentimental biographers have chosen to ignore. Mr and Mrs Hanson are not guilty of this fault, recognizing in Charlotte’s lack of sympathy with Branwell’s misfortunes the precipitation of his downfall, and noting her failure to understand the monolithic “otherness” of Emily.
But Charlotte’s attitude to her youngest sister Anne is one which neither Mr and Mrs Hanson nor Miss Bentley have fully investigated, nor do they give an adequate interpretation of Anne’s character. In this they are not alone. Charlotte’s curiously concealed deprecation of Anne’s personality and talent, in letters and prefaces written before and after the latter’s death, has built up a conception of a “pious, gentle” creature with a tendency to morbidity, that has coloured almost all subsequent critical opinion of Anne Brontë, though this conception is hardly commensurate with the facts of her life and work.
Although both Mr and Mrs Hanson’s biography and Miss Bentley’s introduction have done justice to Anne’s audacious novel Wildfell Hall, the same cannot be said of their, approach to her poetry, their respective verdicts being merely an echo of Charlotte’s preface to a selection of her youngest sister’s verse. “I find,” Charlotte wrote, “mournful evidence that religious feeling had been to her but too much like what it was to Cowper.” It is to be regretted that Miss Bentley has chosen to include this preface in her edition, and that her selection of Anne’s poems does not improve, upon Charlotte’s. Among Anne’s poetical works can be found many fine, imaginative and well-constructed lyrics which in no way give “mournful evidence” of the religious morbidity alleged to be the principal defect of her poetry. And though Anne’s ability is overshadowed by the superior talents of her sisters, the character and spirit which moved her to answer her critics with the words,
"I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."
should not be regarded as inferior to theirs.
Since Charlotte was the most prolific correspondent of her family, it is from her letters and pronouncements that most data on the Brontës must be taken; it is through her eyes, for the most part, that we observe their movements. The greatest task of the Brontë biographer and critic is to find, so far as possible, the facts and feelings behind Charlotte’s complex subjectivity. Happily, neither Mr and Mrs Hanson nor Miss Bentley indulge in the alternative extreme of baseless conjecture, which has too often cluttered Brontë biography in the past.