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The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte,…

The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë (and… (2016)

by John Sutherland

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341500,630 (3.88)4
The essential miscellany for all Bronte fans.



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This A-Z of the Brontes is an interesting mixture of biographical detail, literary criticism and personal reflections. This was the first book I’d read by this author, John Sutherland, who is an emeritus professor of English literature and a specialist in the Victorian period.

Each alphabetised entry looks at an aspect of the Brontes’ life and work, often focussing on small details from the texts or the Brontes’ lives or explaining unusual theories about the novels. In one section of the book John Sutherland mentions the 1950s generation of literary critics and the popularity of New Criticism, which involved extremely close reading of the text, almost like cracking a code. It seems as if his work is influenced by this approach, in that he discovers interesting details in the novels that may have gone unnoticed but then often uses historical knowledge to look at how those details relate to daily life in the Victorian era and how this can result in new or unexpected interpretations of the work. One interesting example was when he investigated what Mr Earnshaw might have been doing during his unexplained walk from Yorkshire to Liverpool, where he finds Heathcliff. Elsewhere he looks at ghosts and vampires in the Brontes' works, relating them to the cultural context of the time. I found these sections of the book very absorbing.

I found his approach less appealing when he suggests major changes to a novel's plot as it is generally understood, for example his belief that Rochester was responsible for the death of Bertha in Jane Eyre. Maybe it’s just my attachment to the love story in Jane Eyre but for me a suggestion like that intrudes too much on the pleasure of reading the novel and I don’t find the ‘evidence’ very convincing. Nevertheless, I found one of these readings very intriguing: a 1950s critic called James Hafley argued that Nelly Dean is the real villain in Wuthering Heights. It provided an interesting explanation for why I find Nelly to be an ambiguous character, a sensible narrator who is also closely involved with the protagonists and who has ambivalent attitudes towards them. It’s partly because we hear her often strong opinions (expressed to Lockwood) but don’t know much about her past life or private thoughts that I find her rather mysterious.

As in this case, Sutherland often mentions the work of other critics with a variety of approaches and alludes to how interpretations of the novels have changed over time. I find this one of the most fascinating aspects of literature and it was one reason I really enjoyed this book, as it ranges from Mrs Gaskell's biography of Charlotte to a modern-day writer who claims to have communed with Emily Bronte's spirit. It is clear which critics he likes and which he is slightly disparaging towards, so if you are a big fan of modern literary theory you may not like this book quite as much, since his attitude towards modern theories is basically curmudgeonly. Personally I was slightly put off by his dislike of feminist literary theory. Occasionally I also felt that in the biographical sections there were some un-feminist attitudes (for example, in his description of Branwell's affair with Lydia Robinson). However I still found the book enjoyable to read although I was arguing with its attitudes at times.

Although I’m sure most of the biographical facts would be familiar to people who have read a lot of books about the Brontes, I found out lots of interesting information and he usually links it to the Brontes’ works in some way. If you're looking for a proper biography, this isn't it (in this case I would highly recommend Claire Harman’s Charlotte Bronte as it’s very empathetic and really explores Bronte’s experiences and personality). Sutherland’s book is more about interesting little snippets of biography than in-depth exploration. He definitely doesn’t treat the Brontes with too much reverence – it could be said he occasionally goes too far in demystifying them or maybe he is just affectionately mocking them like old friends. It definitely comes across that he has a long-standing passion for the Brontes’ work. Some parts of the book I particularly liked were when he described his own experiences of discovering Wuthering Heights or The Professor, as these passages really expressed the joy and wonder of reading at a young age and feeling that certain books are a secret known to you alone.

Overall I’d recommend this book as an entertaining and absorbing read for those who love the Brontes’ works.
3 vote papercat | Feb 7, 2017 |
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Like most, I suspect, who read Wuthering Heights early in life, the novel has smouldered in my mind ever since - rekindled by regular rereading.
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