In my memories, family trips to the Brontë parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire, always took place on gloomy days. The venue looked sinister; a building built so close to a cemetery full of gravestones and memorials which lurched unevenly towards the living. The weather always seemed damp and dreary, and the moor appeared unending to my young eyes. The atmosphere inside felt no better. Branwell Brontë’s famous painting hung, if I recall, on the stairs. His attempts to paint himself out made him look like a foreboding spirit hovering behind his sisters. And, of course, there’s the tragic history of a man outliving his entire family, including his children. I knew Anne died in a different location, but I don’t think I properly realized that every other member of the family died in that house.
That includes Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, the subject of Nick Holland’s newest Brontë biography. Not much has been previously been published about the hidden woman behind the Brontë sisters’ writings. Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy is quite possibly the first biography about her. She left no writings of her own, so we must rely on what has been written about her. Holland refers often to Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, arguing that Gaskell unfairly portrayed her as a hard and unloving woman. He gives examples of how she can be seen in the characters the sisters created in their novels, as both an aunt and a mother figure.
Holland begins with a description of Aunt Branwell’s youth in Penzance, Cornwall. This will be of particular interest to fans of Poldark, which is set around the time of Elizabeth Branwell’s birth in the same area. We get an interesting look at the heritage of Cornwall, with particular regard to its culture and folklore. It’s thought that the sisters incorporated into their writing aspects of the myths they heard from their aunt. There are many differences between Cornwall and Yorkshire, and one can only imagine what she sacrificed in order to take care of her sister’s family. Whatever Gaskell’s opinions, there’s no doubt that this is a woman who loved the Brontë siblings; her ultimate act of including them in her will put their writing careers in motion.
I found the book itself well written and easy to read. Perhaps it’s just me, but I did notice the electronic copy I received for review used the British English language throughout. This would make sense since the author is British, as is the publisher. Whether or not this will be changed for American readers when it’s released in the USA, I don’t know. I personally hope not, if only to retain the true tone of the author and his British subject matter. The sole problem I had is not the fault of the author. The Brontë and Branwell families followed naming traditions and, coupled with their apparent preference for popular names of the era, this means there is more than one Elizabeth and Charlotte appearing in the narrative. Thank goodness for the index; included along with notes and a select bibliography at the end of the book.
Are there any revelations in this book? It depends on what you knew about the family and Aunt Branwell prior to reading. I had only my childhood memories to go on, which admittedly may not be entirely accurate, and I knew nothing about the subject except that she was the aunt who helped raise the Brontë children. I didn’t know, for example, of the extent to which she inspired elements of the books that still grace many a bookshelf in the world. This isn’t just a good biography of Elizabeth Branwell. It also serves a concise introduction to the Brontë family history as well.
Disclaimer: I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. I was not required to write a review, and the words above are my own.
Publisher: Pen & Sword History (an imprint of Pen & Sword)
Publication Date: 30 September 2018