on 19 August 1999
Refreshingly, this chunky biography is written like a story not a log book. Logical and thorough it is, but not obsessed by data; chronology is used intelligently where it adds value to the point being made: for socio historical context etc. There's a perfect balance between facts, inference and insight, all convincingly proven and argued. The schism in Charlotte, illustrated through her very different relationships with Mary and Ellen is particularly fascinating. Anne and Emily remain heart-breakingly shadowy figures but this book gets you closer to them than you'll have been before. You soon feel really close to all the subjects - there's a truly human touch to the writing which brings history alive. The best thing about this book though is the affinity between the author and her subjects; a family drawn with the understanding and warmth of a female observer. Be warned though, this book will make you long to set off to Haworth right away.
on 4 July 2006
If you want an example of how to write a biography, this is it. It is a sweeping look at the Bronte family and their literature, and it also contributes to the social and ecclesiastical history of Yorkshire in the nineteenth century. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Patrick, and the fine observations on the Luddite rebellion. I love the way that Ms Barker debunks the myths perpetuated by Charlotte and Mrs Gaskell about the strict, sheltered upbringing of the family. The book is superbly referenced and endnoted. I enjoyed this book ten years ago, and have recently re-read it with great pleasure. Biography, social history, and a thrilling read in one wonderful book!
on 8 January 2008
I absolutely love this book from cover to cover and would recommend it to all Bronte enthusiasts and am not ashamed to say that I welled up as Barker wrote of each of the siblings untimely deaths. Unlike other books, Barker does not veer towards pure speculation, particulary where Anne and Emily are concerned as sadly there is so little known of them compared to their older sister. I particularly enjoyed the chapters concerning Branwell Bronte, the childrens imaginary kingdoms they so lovingly wrote and also Patrick Brontes early life.
I understand that Juliet Barker used to work at the Bronte museum and obviously she has spent years painstakingly researching not only the principle Brontes but also, their parents, aunt and even family history.
I intend to read other biographies/histories (not to mention this one again) written by this author as you are guaranteed a superb read.
Many Bronte fans will choose to read the more well known but occasionally flawed biography as written by Elizabeth Gaskell who was a contemporary and friend of the family, but Juliet Barker provides a much more realistic representation of the family. A must-read.
on 3 March 2007
The Bronte story has been plagued by biographers (some of them cranks) who transferred their own prejudices and fantasies onto the family and, frankly, made up a lot of nonsense. Juliet Barker's biography is both a retelling of the story and a refutation of the nonsense. Her restoration of Patrick Bronte is particularly worthy; it seems amazing that no other Bronte biographer in the past 150 years bothered to consult local papers to find out about him. The portrait that emerges is of a much more well-rounded, sane, compassionate individual than previously thought. But it is his offspring, of course, who are the "stars" of this biography. And, inevitably, it is also a portrait of mid-19th century life. If anything, it is a bit too detailed, but that's not a problem. One to savour over a long-period of time like a good Victorian novel.
Barker sets out very clearly her thesis that the Brontes have to be taken as a family rather than as individuals, and that's what this book gives us. In a detailed, sympathetic narrative, she charts the life of the family starting with Patrick Bronte, the father, from the time he emerges into the historical record as a 25 year old poor Irish student at Cambridge.
Self-consciously revisionist, Barker particularly engages with Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte and takes some pains to sweep away the continuing mythologizing of the Brontes. She reveals the truth beneath the isolation and social separation that informs most lives, and has taken a lot of pains to put ideas such as the painful school lives of the girls into their contemporary context.
Most of all she dismisses the eccentric cruelties of Patrick and the strange insularity of the children without ever downgrading the supreme creativity of this literary family. Even, balanced, supremely informative, this restores the Brontes to their rightful place in English literature as supreme writers, rather than as characters in some kind of gothic meta-novel. This is a long book, but an engrossing one - highly recommended.
on 3 November 2001
The common view of the Bronte family is virtually demolished by this magnificent piece of biographical genius. Brilliantly researched, it produces instead a more convincing, and far more interesting picture of this gifted family. The scope of the book is huge, hence its length, but always the scale is that of a small, introverted family. The events of the outside world are viewed from this perspective and the results are detailed enough to satisfy the scholar and well written enough to make it an excellent read in its own right. For fans of the Bronte sisters this is pretty much an essential purchase, but I also recommend it to anybody interested in biographies, Victorian literature or nineteenth century history. It has been highly praised in the press, and well deserves all of the plaudits it has received.
on 8 March 2014
Weirdly enough it was Spike Milligan who made me want to read a history of the Brontes. In one of his war diaries he details spending some time reading a history of the family - of course his history must have been that of Mrs Gaskell who Juliet Barker carefully examines, tears apart and lays out the truth.
Like some others I found some of the sheer detail too much to take and wondered if I had made the right move to attempt to read this. The problem there lies in what she calls the 'Juvenalia' - the writings of the Brontes when they were younger. Barker goes into this in immense detail.
And here I have to confess something. I was interested in this book as a history of a literary family, not of a group of people whose books I have loved and adored. I think there will be some people who have read Wuthering Heights, Jayne Eyre and the like and will be spellbound by the early writings. Me? Well I do not hesitate to say that I happily skipped those and read what I was interested in most - the actual life and day to day of the people themselves. And that is maybe the best way to approach this. You read as much or a little as you wish.
It starts with the father, Patrick Bronte and basically ends with him. In between you get the lives of his wife and children with experiences that not only shaped their fiction, but could easily be a work of fiction themselves.
Top notch but only what I expected from the lady that bought us Agincourt and Conquest - two other first class history books.
on 5 April 2011
I have read many accounts of the Bronte family, from Mrs Gaskill, Phyliss Bentley, Winifred Gerin to the feminists' interpretations, but this is by far the best book I have read. If any reader wants to understand this unique family, Juliet Barker's work stands above all the rest. Well written and well researched, this book qualifies as a definitve work. Excellent value for money, the book corrects many misconceptions of Patrick, Branwell, Weightman and Nicholls. It is quite a long book, but is easy and engrossing to read. This book will open your eyes.
This is a pretty mammoth book, but you could expect little less from what is effectively a biography of five people, albeit a family - Patrick, Branwell, Charlotte, Anne and Emily Brontë. That it never once flags is a true testament to the skill of the author; this biography is eminently worthy of such a family of literary genius.
So much of what posterity has known of the Brontës has come down via Mrs Gaskell's biography of Charlotte, a laudable but inaccurate work that set in stone a great number of the myths and legends that have come to surround the family. Barker sets out to chisel through these myths and bring the real but flawed characters of the family to light, in particular the men of the family, Patrick, Branwell and Charlotte's husband Arthur Bell Nicholls, all of whom suffered particularly at the hands of Mrs Gaskell. That biography, whilst succeeding in its aim at establishing Charlotte and her sisters as geniuses, did so at the expense of the men in their lives, setting their achievements against a life of hardship and suffering.
This book spends more time on Charlotte than any of the other family members, but such a focus is understandable, given that Charlotte was the more lionized in her time, lived longer, had more of a desire for public and literary esteem, and bequeathed to history more of her letters, manuscripts and childhood writings. She doesn't come across as an entirely sympathetic figure, but Barker truly succeeds in capturing a vivid, vital and real personality. Anne and Emily are necessarily more shadowy, Branwell even more so.
One cannot help but finish this biography feeling that the Brontë family were cursed by their genius, cursed by possessing such vivid imaginations and passionate feelings in a place and time that did not value them and had little real outlet for them. One can only wonder how the sisters in particular would have fared in a later era.
on 25 February 2004
This absolutly wonderful biography is written so sharply and is jam-packed with everything you want to know about this fantastic family. If you want to read up on this family this is THE book to end all books on the Brontes. I have seen it recommended ten-fold by the Bronte Museum staff and associates.You cannot beat this extraordinary book with its miniscule detail. Its worth its weight in gold, I urge you to buy this book and the novels of the sisters and you have all you need to know on their lives and works. Thank you Juliet Barker for a Masterpiece. I love it.
I am now reading the latest 2010 edition of this book, aswell as all the latest updates and revisions, it is also more readable due to the new text size and spacing. The cover is beautiful, and I am happy to own the two copies of this amazing book.
Exciting, readable, informative and overall one of the best biographies this century!