Setting the Record Straight

Are the Brontës particularly subject to inaccurate biographical statements?  I know that there is a general misunderstanding about Wuthering Heights and that recent biographers have had to correct some of the impressions left by the first biography of Charlotte Brontë written by Elizabeth Gaskell. I also know that movies have had a heavy hand in distorting most things that pertain to the Brontës.  But should the writer of an introduction for a reputable publisher rely on vague, sensationalized, and unsubstantiated snippets of misinformation?  I just bought an edition of Jane Eyre for my husband to read.  Mine disappeared last year when my son was reading it in English class.  I skipped the Penguin classic with the lengthy introduction and notes and went for the larger type edition, a “Puffin Classic.”  “Puffin” is a subdivision of “Penguin.” There I found two pages masquerading as an “Introduction.”

Luckily it was brief to limit the number of reckless and wrong statements.  Who wrote this thing? To begin with the errors, there is the statement about the Reverend Patrick Bronte being “remote and dour.”  Wrong; he was an involved and caring parent. Read Dudley Green’s Father of Genius. Then there was the erroneous statement that once Charlotte and Emily returned from school (Cowan Bridge School, although it was not named in the introduction), they were educated by their aunt.  All their aunt did with regard to their education was to oversee their sewing.  Their father taught them, and Charlotte went to boarding school.  Then this mysterious introduction-writer perpetuates the notion that the Bronte girls were lonely and in need of consolation. To the contrary, they enjoyed themselves when they were together; they took great joy in walking on the moors, creating stories; reading, talking and joking together.  The next paragraph brings another misstatement:  Charlotte worked as a governess to support his brother’s artistic education.  Mr. Bronte did pay for Branwell to take art lessons (all the children studied art), and Branwell tried to work as a portrait artist for a year, with little success. Charlotte’s income did not go to support his art lessons, although in his alcoholism his habits of drinking and gambling strained the family’s resources. Then, we confront a very strange statement: “All the girls had nervous dispositions.”  Although I can sort of see where some of the false statements came from, this one is unmoored from any biographical fact, even a distorted one. In light of the other statements the mere inaccuracy about the publication date of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey appears minor, but it is wrong.  Likewise, it is wrong to say that all three novels were highly acclaimed.  Yes, they are now, but at the time, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were not at all successful generally or well received critically. The reluctance on the part of this befuddled or lazy author to check dates again comes up in the sloppy statement, “ Within a few months of 1848 and 1849, their brother Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died.   What does “within a few months of two dates even mean?  Branwell and Emily died in 1848 within three months of each other and Anne died in May of 1849.

Well, one might say, who cares. Probably few if any readers will read this introduction or remember it (thankfully).  It is of little consequence in itself.  However, it does represent a lot of misinformation about the Brontës that circulates generally.  Such a view of the Brontës has been a part of the abominable film and television versions of Wuthering Heights, which I resent because I would so love to see one that does the novel justice. Last, I feel like I know the Brontës, and knowing them, I like them and hate to read silly things about them.

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