The Bronte Sisters by Catherine Reef

The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne by Catherine Reef.

Brief, indeed. Emily was 30 years old in December 1848 when she died of tuberculosis. Anne died of tuberculosis a few months later in May 1849. She was 29 years old. Their older brother Branwell had predeceased them by a few months (September 1848). He was 31 years old.

Charlotte wrote: “A year ago–had a prophet warned me how I should stand in June 1849, had he foretold the autumn, the winter, the spring of sickness and suffering to be gone through—I should have thought–this can never be endured. It is over. Branwell—Emily—Anne are gone like dreams.”

Charlotte managed to outlive her siblings by a few years. She died at the age of 39—probably of tuberculosis. Oh, and by the way, the Brontes had two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died when they were young. Want to guess what killed them?

Therefore, one thing I learned from reading this tragic, true story of Victorian genius was that tuberculosis was (is?) really, really deadly, and I’m glad I didn’t live back then, before antibiotics. And I hope I don’t live to see a resurgence of TB, post-effective antibiotics.

I’ve alway found the Bronte family to be fascinating, even before I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I read a different book when I was just an elementary school student called The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke. Ms. Clarke’s fantasy about the Brontes’ toy soldiers who come to life and try to return to the Bronte home in Yorkshire won the Carnegie Medal in 1962 (British title The Twelve and the Genii). Anyway, I loved that book, and it’s the story about the Brontes as children and about the stories they told to each other that first got me interested in the Bronte family.

I didn’t actually read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with understanding and enjoyment until I was in college. And I also read Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte when I was in college. What an amazing family! Even Branwell, with his Heathcliff/Mr. Rochester/Byron alcoholic character, hold a certain fascination.

This biography by Catherine Reef was more than decent, and I did learn a lot about the Bronte family. The book mentions the toy soldiers, and the friendship between Charlotte and Mrs. Gaskell, and several other details that were familiar to me. I also gleaned some new information. For instance, I had forgotten that Charlotte married, after Emily, Anne, and Branwell died. And I never knew how very dissolute Branwell was.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure Ms. Reef really understood the Christian faith of Charlotte and Anne, and perhaps Emily, although Emily seems to have been more private and perhaps less orthodox. She writes several times about how “religious” Anne was and about how Charlotte’s faith was “unshaken.” But their faith comes across in the book as a kind of quaint Victorian notion, rather than a real conviction and solace in grief. The author does quote Charlotte’s reaction to atheist Harriet Maritneau’s apologetic for atheism, Letters on the Law of Man’s Social Nature and Development. Charlotte wrote in response to Ms. Martineau’s lack of faith in God:

“The strangest thing is that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank, to welcome this unutterable desolation as a pleasant state of freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do it if he could?”

Still, if this biography doesn’t capture the fullness of the Brontes’ faith, it does give a reasonably detailed picture of the life and times of this remarkable family suited to readers age 12 and up. After reading Ms. Reef’s biography, I am wanting to read Charlotte Bronte’s other novels, Villette and Shirley, and Anne’s two books, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I’d also like to re-read Wuthering Heights and The Return of the Twelves, but not until after Cybils season is over.

3 thoughts on “The Bronte Sisters by Catherine Reef

  1. Amy @ Hope Is the Word

    Well, I must add this one to my TBR list! I haven’t read Wuthering Heights since high school, so I’m sure I’d appreciate it much more now. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels.

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