The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion, New York, 2012, $18.99)
Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë led lives worthy of their fiction. All the elements present in their novels – cruel teachers, illicit or unrequited passions, the wild beauty of the Yorkshire moors, isolation, madness, early loss, and death – were all realities they or their brother Branwell experienced. Losing their mother and two eldest siblings at a young age, isolated in their father’s Yorkshire parsonage, the children sought refuge in each other and their imaginations, creating fantastic kingdoms and writing stories about these places. As adults, all three sisters penned poetry and novels now considered masterpieces.
In The Brontë Sisters, Catherine Reef describes the women’s hardships and rich inner lives, which form the backdrop of their novels. She refuses, however, to romanticize her subjects: all three sisters worked as governesses or teachers, and all were difficult employees despite their intellectual gifts. “There could never have been temperaments less adapted to such a position,” observed one of Charlotte’s friends. Neither did the sisters mix well with company. Even Charlotte, the most worldly and conforming of the three, could appear odd and aloof. Emily rarely spoke to or made eye contact with people outside the family. But the very qualities that made the Brontës strange and difficult let them turn an unflinching eye on subjects proper Victorians ignored or accepted: the uneasy position of governesses (Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey), abusive schools (Jane Eyre), domestic violence (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), human cruelty, revenge, and bitterness (Wuthering Heights), and the general position of women (nearly all of the Brontës’ novels). Despite their inward focus, they wrote vividly about the world outside the parsonage.
The Brontë Sisters is an accessible introduction to the sisters’ writings and their era. It is also a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between a writer’s biography and oeuvre, prose and temperament.
Dorothy A. Dahm