Another Biography, Another Opportunity

There seems to be no such thing as the definitive biography of an individual. However, any biographer describing a life, already treated numerous times, must establish what new information justifies yet another work. Rarely does the discovery of new facts play a part. Perhaps developments in psychology or science, such as medicine, allow a different analysis of events.  A purportedly more thorough approach starts at an earlier point in time than its predecessors, or ranges into issues tangential to the person’s life, such as political events. More commonly, new scrutiny justifies itself from the passage of time, such that the subject appears through the perspective of a new age, with different mores and sensibilities, which might allow, for example,  a more probing and revealing treatment of certain aspects of the subject’s life.  In that regard, it could be said that each generation “deserves” its own biography of those most intriguing individuals immortal of interest. The possibility that a noted scholar will offer an interesting interpretation even of a well-known subject leads to another book on the shelf.  Last, certain subjects are so fascinating that their life stories bear repetition.

My expectations of Nicholas Roe’s take on the life of John Keats were in keeping with the foregoing realizations of the limited yet potential virtues of repetitive biography —  virtues particularly suspect in this case because John Keats’s life and work had fairly recently received a thorough, modern, and compelling analysis by Andrew Motion. Nonetheless, there were a few points in the life of Keats for which I desired more information or even further informed speculation. And I welcomed an excuse to once again plunge into the story of the life of John Keats.

First, I wanted to know what in the world was going on with Keats’s mother; she leaves her children and disappears for five years. There is no indication that she was not a loving mother before her husband’s death, yet she abandons her four children. After the new biography I remain curious.  Although Roe speculates that Frances, Keats’s mother, might have known and even had an affair with Rawlings, her second husband, while married to Keats’s father, no new material about her personality, character, actions or motivations explains her absence. As I recall, Motion depicts her more sympathetically as a bereft and beleaguered person who turns to Rawlings to help her run the family business, now entirely her responsibility, along with four little children.  A profligate floozy, a half- mad widow, an alcoholic, something in-between?  Two biographies down, and I would still like to know.  Roe makes a new (to me), but light-weight, suggestion on the topic of Keats’s mother, later in the book: Keats felt a connection with Hamlet because his mother too was unfaithful.  The resemblance ends there, since Hamlet’s mother does not run away and leave Hamlet as a little child. Roe does not offer any convincing evidence (or really any evidence) that Keats saw such a connection.

Second, I wanted to know more about Isabella Jones and whether she was as important influence on Keats emotionally as Robert Gittings suggests, or not so much, as Motion believes. The jury is still out on whether she was one of the great loves of his life, an inspiration, or just a friend.  Let us have a little more informed guessing on this topic. One clue to her importance is that after Keats dies she re-emerges in letters excoriating Severn for thinking too much about himself and his own difficulties while taking care of Keats in Rome. At least give me her appearance — no one knows what she looked like?  Even as only a passing dalliance, such information would be of interest.

Keats’s use of mercury still baffles me from a medical perspective. If Keats was taking it for a sexually transmitted disease, did it work?  According to Keats, in a letter, the mercury did help; that throws into question whether he was indeed suffering from a STD because mercury does not cure STDs — or so my internet research indicates. Did he just feel a little better from the mercury, but was left uncured such that he would have died or gone mad from syphilis? Roe, more than Motion, focuses on Keats’s use of mercury and asserts that, as a highly toxic poison, it was doing him in as much as his consumption. That is interesting; however, Keats knew from his medical training how harmful it was, so that creates a question why he would continue using it. I raise my hand to ask an even more urgent question raised by Roe: if Keats knew he had venereal disease how did he think he could ever marry Fanny Brawne?  Was it known to be contagious?  Roe suggests that Keats did know it was contagious and held off from Fanny for that reason; but he did not hold off – he became engaged to her.  Is Roe suggesting that one reason Keats went to Rome was to leave Fanny because he knew he could not be with marry her? How does that square with his engagement and plans to marry her if he recovered?

I also wanted more details on what Keats did during his time at Guy’s Hospital and how he reacted personally to the horribly gruesome state of affairs there. Roes gives a clear rundown on the courses that the students followed, but nothing more than Motion on how his experiences there affected him.  We know from his letters that he found the suffering of women hard to bear, so he might have found surgery on female patients particularly awful; but others students at the time, who are used as stand-ins for Keats’s reaction, spoke about the horrors of surgery on children.  How did that affect Keats?  Does a teenager, which he was at the time, with the soul of a poet, glide through days of cadavers, putrefaction, and suffering?  If so, that ability or personality trait bears some analysis. His silence about Tom’s death – the last days and how he felt — and that his statement that “our own suffering touches us too nearly for words” might suggest that he found his surgical experience too horrible to translate in any verbal form at any time of his life.

In sum, Roe tantalizingly ruffled those areas of special interest to me, but stopped short of answers or even meaningful informed hypotheses. As for my reactions to Roe’s work on the whole, any minor revelations were mixed with a number of irksome ongoing and loose suggestions about how various details of Keats’s life surfaced in his work.  Roe’s major addition to Keats’s biography was to insist on the importance of Keats’s father’s death on his life and work.  A parental death would be expected to have a residual impact, but the connection of the event to any statement by Keats or poem is not proven or supported, just announced.  Of the many sorrows and difficulties in Keats’s life, Roe takes up his father’s death and the anniversary of it as influential; however, everything is influential.  Far less notable events are also considered to underlie Keats’s poetry—almost everything figures. Every museum, ruin, field, cliff, street, room Keats has seen lies behind a description in a poem.  In a way that might be true because writers blend their own experience with imagination, but Roe does not offer any argument showing the meaning of such a purported connection to enhance one’s understanding or appreciation of the poem. The worst instance of an unsubstantiated connection between Keats’s life and his poems pertains to eating. Roe opines that Keats ate for consolation, although he offers no proof ( in fact food and any “palette affair,” as Keats called an interest in food, did not mean much to Keats.)  Maybe if he had suffered from an eating disorder, a focus on food would have had some relevance. Nonetheless, any time there is food in a poem, Roe points to a hungry Keats, eating for comfort, and Roe twice interjects that the word “eats” figures in his name “Keats.”  Saying such a thing once would have been too much, but he gives it to us twice.

Another distinguishing approach of Roe was to say less on some points to which Motion gave special attention.  For example, one gets the sense of the dire and relentless financial straits that Keats was under from Motion, whereas money is mentioned far less by Roe and without imparting a sense of the strain and turmoil those problems posed for Keats. Similarly, Motion gives the reader a very dim view of Abbey; in Roe’s book, Abbey plays a much smaller role and does not seem in the least villainous. Roe also does not address the events following Keats’s death, the epilogue, which serves valuable purposes. At this point, we need to know what became of the other characters in the drama: Fanny, his sister Fanny, George, and Brown, among others. Also some words on Keats’s legacy are needed as one can hardly bear to bid him farewell after so many hundreds of pages without considering the destiny of his poetry as consolation.

Roe raises a few tantalizing ideas, but overall Motion’s work gives a more complete and painful sense of Keats’s identity.  The differences between biographies does not slight the achievements of the respective authors, and they would, I suspect, understand the keen interest  of my foregoing enquiries because they of course fell under the spell of Keats’s life and relished every minute spent considering and reworking the mysteries of the greatest story ever told.  One could safely say that the final words have not been written — there will be other biographies, probably within my lifetime.

With full appreciation for the research complied and presented in biographies on John Keats, I am also very thankful that I can indulge my fascination and construct my own concept of him as a living being through his own words, immortal in his letters and poetry.

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.


Emily Bronte, The Person and the Poet


Emily Bronte and John Keats are my household gods, and one of my goals with this blog to promote their poetry; Keats needs it less than Bronte, however, who is not generally known as a poet, but as the author of  Wuthering Heights. Knowing something about Emily Brontë adds to the appreciation of her poetry because the person behind the words was an unusual, iconoclastic, enigmatic individual, and a literary genius. Further, as a general matter, it is important to get to know the poet to round out the poetry-reading experience, particularly when reading a body of work, rather than a few random poems. More than prose fiction, poetry is a personal matter that invites the reader to feel a rapport with the author, who can become a compatriot soul and sharer of sentiments. I relate to her biography, in large part, because she was a nonconformist, developed her own system of spiritual thought, experienced the era-transcending difficulties of an alcoholic in the family, and failed in her attempts to attract a publisher and gain popular acclaim.

As for the outward incidents of her life, Emily Bronte lived for twenty-nine years, from 1818 to 1848, which period saw the close of the Romantic era and included the early Victorian era. Her father, extremely intelligent, caring, and hardworking, was the minister of the Anglican Church in Haworth, having risen from the extreme poverty of his boyhood in Ireland to become an ordained minister and consequently an English gentleman—although, a poor one. Her mother died when Emily was three, leaving six children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne. Her two oldest sisters died in 1825, at the ages of eleven and ten, after a disastrous stay at Cowan Bridge School, a boarding institution for the daughters of poor clergymen, which turned out to be a harsh, cold, and unhealthy place. Charlotte and Emily were also there at the time their sisters became ill, Emily, at five, being the youngest student on the premises. Tuberculosis caused the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth and eventually claimed Emily and Anne, who died within five months of each other. It also most likely caused or contributed to Branwell’s death, three months before Emily died, and Charlotte’s, in 1855. Mr. Brontë lived to the age of 84.

Except for a very few brief periods when Emily was away at school or at a boarding school attempting to teach, she was at the parsonage, her beloved home, situated at the edge of Haworth, England, and a stone’s throw across a crowded cemetery from her father’s church. The back door of the two-story brick parsonage opened onto the moors, vast, open rolling, brown earth, tufted with wild grass–a wilderness of hills, masses of boulders, and springs in green valleys bordered by trees, all of which Emily knew like a long-tenured game-keeper. Her home still stands today, maintained by the Brontë Society, with rooms of Brontë artifacts–a place well-worth the visit. Emily never married. None of the Brontë children did except Charlotte, but her marriage ended with her death after only nine months.

When the three sisters were in their twenties, the necessity of making a living preyed upon them. Once their father died, they would be without a home. There was no annuity or savings; Mr. Brontë, although frugal, had never had sufficient means to do more than survive. It might be difficult for the modern mind to imagine the solid and impenetrable lack of opportunity that surrounded the Victorian woman. Particularly for a “lady,” which Emily would have been considered since her father was a clergyman, there were no paths to pursue except marriage, living as a dependent on a family member, or teaching, whether as a governess or in a boarding school. These choices were grim for Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. None of the three seemed likely to marry. In fact, historically, there was a shortage of men in England at the time, and Haworth was not a social hotspot. Branwell, the son, was not going to support his sisters; his attempts at various careers ended in failure. Charlotte and Anne had tried to accept the fate of a governess, although with the utmost hatred; but Emily could not bear to be away from home, much less interact with strangers in the subservient role of governess. They would attempt at one point to operate their own school in the parsonage, but would not receive a single expression of interest. The Brontë sisters also were not suited to follow the path of women who immigrated, where in the comparative freedom and opportunity of Australia or America they could better make their own way, such as by owning a shop. One very slight opportunity existed for a few remarkable women–writing and publishing a novel. Poetry and theater were male bastions, but the novel was fairly new to the time, and women, such as Anne Radcliff, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen had successfully exploited the opportunity.

As the question of their financial future grew desperate, one surprising twist to the plot of their lives occurred. Their mother’s sister, who had lived at the parsonage since the time of Mrs. Brontë’s death, left, upon her death, a small sum to the three sisters. It was astonishing to all, and although the sum was not enough to live on for long, it did give them the funds to publish a volume of poetry in 1846, containing poems by Charlotte, Emily and Anne, using their pseudonyms for the first time: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. One reviewer noted the beauty of Emily’s lyrical voice, and Charlotte and Anne acknowledged Emily as the most gifted poet among them. Despite the merit of Emily’s poems, the volume went unnoticed, selling only three copies. Poetry was the family hobby; Mr. Brontë had written and had published some poems, many of a religious nature, although he also would include a clever and thoughtful poem to a friend in a letter. Charlotte and Anne, as noted, had poems handy to contribute when Charlotte discovered Emily’s poems one day and promoted the idea of the volume containing the work of all three sisters. Branwell yearned to be a poet, but he met with no success in any of his endeavors, owing in large part to his addiction to alcohol and opium. His presence in the parsonage, frequently raving drunk and in debt, created great unhappiness and tension.

After the failure of the volume of poetry, the legacy left by their aunt also allowed them to attempt to become novelists and be free, at least for a while, of the dreaded prospect of serving as governesses. Every night after Mr. Brontë went to bed at nine o’clock, the three sisters gathered at the table in the parlor. With ink wells, nib-tipped pens, and reams of paper, which constituted a considerable expense, they wrote their lengthy novels by the firelight from the grate and the glow of candles. At the end of 1847, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey appeared in print together as a three-volume set. Emily and Anne, after numerous rejections by publishers, had paid a large sum of money to publish their novels, greatly diminishing their meager legacy. Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, was not accepted for publication even at her own expense, and she had turned her attention to writing her second novel, Jane Eyre. It appeared even before her sisters’ novels because Charlotte’s publisher was far more reputable and productive than Emily and Anne’s. Jane Eyre was a great success, and the financial worries would have been allayed; however, one can wonder how much that mitigated for Emily the failure of Wuthering Heights, as unappreciated as her poetry had been. Her sisters, critics, and the public disliked and, apparently, failed to understand it. A year after its publication, Emily died and was laid to rest in Haworth Church under the stone slab that served as the family burial vault.

Those are the facts, in a condensed format. To arrive at any greater detail, biographers of Brontё must deduce and suppose from the bare incidents because there is an amazing lack of information about her. In an era notable for letter writers, she wrote only a couple of notes to her sister Anne and a few brief lines once to a friend of Charlotte. She did not keep a diary, and she had almost no acquaintances outside of her family. The few who had met her never knew her well because she kept to herself, and, of course, they would not have known at the time that she would be worth remembering. The source for much of the information about Emily comes from Charlotte, who wrote letters, knew and conversed with people, and even became a person of renown before her death. Yet, the more I have learned about Charlotte, the less I trust her view of Emily, and, upon further reflection, the unreliability of a sibling’s account should not be a surprise. Charlotte and Emily had very different natures, and there is reason to believe that they did not see eye to eye on many things, despite the fact that all three sisters were very close.

Looking to the unbiased outward incidents of her life and reflecting upon her writing, one gleans much about her formative experiences, intellect, frustrations, religious beliefs, sense of humor, preoccupations, joy, and sorrow. For a start, it would be in keeping with Emily Bronte’s philosophy to assume that her childhood experiences—the loss of her mother and her two sisters and the near isolation at the parsonage, almost entirely in the sole company of her family—had a tremendous impact on her personality because she depicted in Wuthering Heights and in her poems the everlasting imprint of childhood on a lifetime. From a twenty-first century perspective the importance of childhood might sound axiomatic; yet, consider that Emily Bronte lived a hundred years before Freud pronounced the request, “Tell me about your childhood.” In her time, the idea predominated that breeding, pedigree, lineage, and blood were, like for racehorses, the important factors in determining a person. Also current was the notion that a person’s outlook and actions could be determined by following Christian precepts. From the expression in her work of the importance of childhood, then, we can deduce not only that her childhood affected her, but can also see a recurring and salient aspect of Emily Brontë: she was a great forward thinker, as her insights and ideas, expressed in her literary work, were ahead of her time. She wrote a novel that must owe part of its negative reception to the fact that it was not appropriate to its time and place: the story has many scenes of domestic abuse, drunkenness, and violence, presents as its central figure an anti-hero, lacks didactic moral content, does not extol Christian virtue, and depicts a frank and unflattering portrayal of various forms of love. Regarding that last topic, the plot of the novel also lacks a traditional love story trajectory so popular with the Victorians.

In further exploring her thoughts, one can wonder if Brontë was distraught by the negative reception of her novel. The facts suggest that she was. Charlotte and Anne took up a second novel promptly at the lack of success of their first. After Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, was not accepted for publication under any terms, she rather promptly wrote Jane Eyre, and Anne turned her attention from a flagging Agnes Grey to write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. There is only speculation that Emily had made some sort of start on another novel at the time of her death, and it is likely that she had not. Perhaps she was more doggedly attached to her novel to give-up on it and write another; or she might have been disgusted with the experience of rejection. In any event, the “failure” did seem to affect her differently than it did her sisters. Failure as a novelist, however, did not keep her from writing poetry; even though her poems had never sold more than three volumes she continued writing poetry up to her illness, from which one easily concludes the importance of poetry to her life. In summation, the facts speak of a person who was deeply affected by her early years, who developed psychological and literary ideas ahead of her time, who was probably troubled or disgusted by the failure of her work, but who always found her consolation in her “slave, her comrade and her king,” her alter egos for imagination, and I think particularly imagination voiced in poetry.

Looking at her novel and her poetry for clues to her personality, we see from her novel that she must have had a sense of humor—satiric and dry, but nearly irrepressible at times, contrary to the view one might have of a shy, reclusive, spinster for life. To create the sermon of Jabes Branderham in Lockwood’s dream, she must have had a sharp satirical sense of humor, eager to poke fun at sermonizing ministers. Also, I have to imagine her chuckling to herself when she wrote the scene recounted in the letter of Isabella of her exasperating encounter with Joseph upon her arrival at Wuthering Heights in her newly acquired state of Mrs. Heathcliff. Likewise, when Joseph complains to Heathcliff about the loss of some shrubs and laments that he might actually have to think about “leaving the old place” Shakespearean comic relief comes to mind. Speaking of Joseph, we know also that Brontë had an uncanny ability to recreate the accents and speech of others and had to be an acute observer and listener. Also, she did not seem to be the sentimental type, as she depicts three instances of love as downright foolish–Edgar’s for Catherine, Isabella’s for Heathcliff, and Young Catherine’s for Linton. Even Hindley’s and Frances’s deep affection for each other as newlyweds is described as a bit silly. Heathcliff’s attachment to Catherine is explicable given his unloved and outcast situation, but his love only achieves tragic and great proportions once he is a mourner. Which brings me to another feature of her personality revealed by the novel–death must have occupied a large part of Bronte’s thoughts; how could it not, given that in her novel she has twelve characters die and creates the greatest mourner in literary history, who is driven to unearth and embrace a corpse even after eighteen years. She explored in the novel, like no novelist had done before and perhaps none have done since, the topics of death and grief like (quite naturally) a poet.

As noted at the beginning of this piece, knowing about the poet adds to the understanding of the poetry, and, to complete the circle, by reading the poetry one comes to know the author. Therefore, Brontë’s poetry, like her novel, reveals a lot about her. There is a caveat to that statement, but only in part. Not every poetic expression of a sentiment can be strictly speaking attributed to Brontë as her own. She wrote poems from various perspectives, developing themes from several facets of a topic. Critics have recognized that approach as her “negative culpability,” a term that the poet John Keats originated to describe the ability of a poet to be outside himself and in the minds of other people or even creatures. Also, many of her poems have an underlying fictional world called Gondal that she and Anne invented as children and continued imagining in discussions, in poetry, and perhaps also in prose stories throughout their lives. Therefore, proper names that appear in poems are Gondolian, and often the emotions expressed are attributed to a character. For biographical purposes, that she looked at events and ideas from various angles and expressed a variety of emotions reveals a fascinating and unusual aspect of her personality as a poet and a person: she was highly empathetic and sympathetic. In any event, Gondal does not subsume her voice; in reading her entire body of poetry, her personal expressions are discernable, separate from the fictitious dramatic monologues in certain poems. Perhaps her “negative capability,” or simply her imagination, underlies expressions of romantic love in her poems. Some fans of Emily Brontë have been desperate to find a love interest for her. I have never felt that she needed one to write what she wrote, nor is neither any factual evidence of one.

Brontë’s poetry garners rich stores of information about her, but for an initial, broad sketch of the person from the poetry, I will note a few features. She was an intense lover of nature, and a person who developed her own sense of spirituality and her own guiding notion of eternity, but who had little use for conventional religion. She could not deny omnipresent hardship and suffering and at times had a grim and sorrowful view of human nature and daily life, but she faced her reality not without compensations—nature, associations formed in childhood and, most notably, the power of imagination, which could defeat even death.