Meet the Biographer: Catherine Reef

Catherine Reef has published biographies about a variety of literary figures, including E.E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, and Jane Austen. This October, Clarion will publish The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Ann, her middle-grade biography of the novelists. This week, Reef chatted with Kidsbiographer about her responses to the Brontë’s lives and fiction.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of the biography is your refusal to take the Brontës at their own assessment. That is, you don’t accept their romantic idea of themselves as tortured artists persecuted by those around them and demeaned by their employment. Obviously, the family suffered a great deal, but you acknowledge that the sisters were difficult colleagues and employees when they worked as teachers and governesses. How did you learn about their quirks, and how did those revelations correspond with your previous vision of them?

Catherine Reef: If I relied on my subjects alone to explain themselves to me, then I never would write a fair, insightful, well-rounded biography. We are all conscious of the way we present ourselves to the world. We want to make the best impression we can, and therefore we may minimize or fail to mention shortcomings or mistakes. By listening to family members, friends, acquaintances, and even adversaries, a biographer sees a more complete picture of her subjects acting in their world.

I had no clear vision of my subjects when I began my work on The Brontë Sisters. I knew only the most basic facts of their lives – the remote childhood, the masculine pen names, Charlotte’s short-lived marriage, the early deaths – although I was familiar with their novels, of course. I came to know Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as I read surviving accounts written by the sisters themselves and by people who knew them. These include letters, journals, memoirs, and documents like the sisters’ “diary papers,” which offer candid views of family life inside the Haworth parsonage. I should also add that because the sisters’ lives informed their fiction, the Brontës’ novels contain important clues to who they were and aided me in my effort to understand them.

Kidsbiographer: As startling and outspoken as the Brontës could be, they were also women of their era, as The Brontë Sisters makes abundantly clear. Charlotte accedes to her father’s wishes by at first refusing the man she eventually marries; later, she destroys a friend’s letters at her otherwise mild-mannered husband’s command. Understanding human behavior in its historical context is difficult even for well-educated adults. How do you think kids will respond to Charlotte’s obedience?

Catherine Reef: This is a good question. Teens and preteens are idealistic – often courageously so – and they have zero tolerance for hypocrisy. I’m sure some readers will understand why Charlotte acted as she did, but I can imagine others insisting she was wrong to obey her father and husband rather than do what she knew was right, or asking why a grown woman would behave this way, even when faced with societal restraints. Such questions lead to fruitful discussions, though, don’t they?

And doesn’t Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor offer a refreshing contrast? Mary vowed never to marry as long as marriage meant giving up her property and her rights, and she boldly sailed to New Zealand–then a rough and ready place–and went into business there. Mary’s example shows readers that not every Victorian woman conformed to society’s expectations.

Kidsbiographer: When I first received my advance copy of The Brontë Sisters, I was a bit surprised the book targets a middle-grade audience. Given the often torrid nature of their fiction and some of their experiences – particularly their brother Branwell’s affairs and addictions – I thought the book might be more appropriate for young adults. Then I remembered I was ten when I first devoured Jane Eyre – and I felt sorely ashamed of underestimating middle-grade readers. How old were you when you first discovered the Brontës, and what were those early encounters like?

Catherine Reef: My first childhood encounter with the Brontës had to be watching the 1944 film Jane Eyre on television. The scenes at Lowood School made the strongest impression on me, especially the one in which young Jane and her friend Helen Burns (played by Peggy Ann Garner and Elizabeth Taylor) share a bed, and Helen dies in the night. Chilling! I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights when I was twelve or thirteen – my parents owned a gift set with striking woodcut illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. I know I enjoyed both, but I wish I could recall with clarity my youthful impression of Wuthering Heights  because my thoughts on this enigmatic novel continue to evolve.

It may be that most people first read the Brontës’ novels in high school or beyond, but great books are powerful, and we can never know which literary works are going to speak to which children, or when. In general, I am uneasy with telling a child that a certain book or poem is too difficult for someone his or her age. I have a bad memory of being in the second grade and having the school librarian tell me I could only check out easy readers when I was beyond them in ability and hungry for something challenging. So I’d much rather say, “If you are curious, give it a try!”

Kidsbiographer: Do you have a favorite Brontë sister? What’s your favorite Brontë novel, and why?

Catherine Reef: I often have trouble choosing favorites, especially among my subjects. I grow to know them all quite well, and I discover aspects of their characters that I like and admire, as well as aspects that – well, let’s just say there are some I wish I could change. All three sisters showed courage, writing as they did and publishing their work at a time when it was considered unseemly for women even to know about passion or ambition or vice. I admire Charlotte for stepping out in the world and making a place for herself as a woman of letters as much as I admire Emily for insisting on her privacy because both women were true to their natures. Anne showed extraordinary promise, and I regret that she never had the chance to come into her own.

What would I change about them if I could? I would make them more sensitive to their students’ needs. As someone who writes for young people and cares about their intellectual and emotional development, I hate to see pupils called dolts, told they matter less than a dog, or tied to the furniture. As teachers,  the Brontë sisters disappointed me,  but then they were meant to be novelists and not teachers.

Of the novels, Jane Eyre is the one I know best. Jane herself is a remarkable achievement, a fully developed female character, perhaps the first one in western literature. The novel contains a number of vivid, memorable scenes, from young Jane being locked in the room where her uncle died to Edward Rochester revealing the horrific secret hidden in his attic. I like Wuthering Heights for its complexity and its ambiguity. When Lockwood stands at the graves of Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar and marvels at the peacefulness of the scene, I have to wonder just how much of this tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale was the product of Nelly Dean’s runaway imagination. When reading Agnes Grey, I was reminded of Jane Austen in a way that made me appreciate the magnitude of Anne Brontë’s talent and regret that she didn’t leave us more. So, in short, I can’t choose a favorite novel; there is too much to like about them all.

Kidsbiographer: How has researching the Brontës’ lives altered your experience of their fiction?

Catherine Reef: Understanding how an author’s life and fiction intertwine enriches our reading and teaches us something about how stories are crafted. Even readers who are only somewhat familiar with the Brontës’ story can see how they wove their experiences into the fabric of their novels. For example, Charlotte turned her traumatic memories of the Clergy Daughters’ School into Jane Eyre’s years at Lowood. The time she spent in Brussels and her love for Constantin Heger inspired her novels Villette and The Professor. In the same way, Anne’s work as a governess gave her material for Agnes Grey.

But because I spent so much time with the Brontës, I noticed quite a few borrowings from life that were more subtle. For instance, I recognized the family’s longtime household servant, Tabby Ayckroyd, as a model for the character Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights. And when I read about Anne conversing with a visitor, a woman who had been abandoned by her alcoholic husband but had successfully built an independent life, I saw an idea find fertile soil in Anne’s imagination. The result was Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

The Brontës wrote from their lot in life, but they also wrote in spite of it. For aspiring writers, their situation could hardly have been less promising. They were isolated, they had no money or connections, and they were women in Victorian England. Yet each of the three made a significant contribution to world literature. Because I researched their lives, when I read their novels I appreciate how wondrous their achievement was.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Catherine Reef: My next book for Clarion has me very excited. It’s about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and it explores their public lives as groundbreaking artists as well as their private life as husband and wife. This book will also introduce readers to the artists’ work, providing historical and artistic context as well as insights into each painter’s working methods and artistic goals, thus empowering young people to explore the work in a meaningful way. This dual biography is scheduled to be published in spring 2014.

Later this fall, look for Leonard Bernstein and American Music from Morgan Reynolds. This is a complete biography that follows the great musician and composer from childhood, when he dedicated his life to music, through his glorious Carnegie Hall conducting debut in 1943, and into adult life, when he composed his great works for the concert hall and musical theater. Bernstein also conducted orchestras throughout the world, introduced generations of young Americans to classical music, and served as an unofficial ambassador for peace. He embraced life, and so should we all.

-Read an earlier interview with Catherine Reef about her Jane Austen biography: Jane Austen: A Life Revealed.

2 comments

    1. Thanks, Jama! I’m envious that you got to visit Haworth – I’m afraid I didn’t get to Yorkshire during my time in the UK though I hope to see it during my next visit. Catherine’s book is great, and the cover illustration is simply gorgeous.

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