Author: Catherine Rayner, life member, trustee and the Chair of Conference and Publications Committee for the Bronte Society
Genre/category: Non-fiction – biography
Where can I buy it? Here
Release date: 28th February 2018
I knew surprisingly little about the Bronte sisters before I read this book.
The book takes you through the tumultuous lives of the Bronte children, focusing specifically on Emily, Anne, and Charlotte. Their lives were, at times, dark and difficult – their mother died at an early age, followed by two of their siblings. They each struggled with illnesses and physical pain. And all three had extra issues to contend with – wrestling with their faith, their position in society, unrequited love, intense homesickness, bereavement, and dissatisfaction in their jobs.
Despite this, they had something that a lot of girls their age didn’t – an education. Their parents were dedicated to giving all of their children the best possible academic experience, and so, from their home overlooking wild, endless moors, they learnt about music, art, literature, philosophy, science, and writing, a never-ending well of information for them to feed their curious minds.
And curious they were, as well as fiercely intelligent and creative. As the children spent hours playing and exploring on the moors, they came up with entire worlds together, a whole race of people, political systems and individual personalities and romances of the people that lived there. They then transcribed their worlds into tiny books, some of which can still be seen today at the Bronte Parsonage museum. (As a side note – I really, really want to go there.)
The first part of the book gave me a lot of food for thought. Is genius born, or is it to do with the way we educate? What if some children would suit more of a free-flowing education, with the time and space needed to really fulfill their interests? What if we allowed children hours to play outside? The Bronte children, particularly Emily and Anne, never really let go of their imaginary worlds, to the point where it interfered in their adult lives – is this level of obsession healthy? How would the Bronte sisters have turned out if their parents didn’t so passionately believe in educating them?
The second part of the book moves on from their life story, concentrating instead on the individual works of Anne, Charlotte and Emily, going into each book in-depth and exploring how their lives influenced their writing. It explores how their brief experience with boarding school had a huge negative influence on all of them and resulted in the first part of Jane Eyre; it covers how Emily’s struggles with God and the afterlife can be seen in Wuthering Heights. This part of the book was fascinating and it made me want to sit down and read each one of their books in turn, now understanding the context.
The one issue I had with this book is that it was repetitive and felt, at times, a little jumbled. At some points I found myself re-reading the same story, about their brother Branwell’s alcohol dependence, for example, three different times in the same book. It could have done with being cut down. If the repetitive parts were cut, it would be a sharp book bursting with information – and a bit of an easier read.
However, the writing style was brilliant and I really enjoyed reading this. What makes a non-fiction book enticing enough to read is largely to do with writing style, for me – I can’t read page after page of dry, boring facts. Rayner writes this in a way that makes it feel like a story, and it made it enjoyable to read despite the repetition.
The Bronte sisters were incredible writers. When you really understand their lives and how their childhood shaped them into the women they became, their books become even more fascinating. If you’re at all interested in the Bronte sisters, or you know someone that is, I would highly recommend it.