I haven’t read a Brontë biography in a while (well, three months but that’s a long time for me), so I was desperately needing my fix. Catherine Reef’s The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne was the only unread biography sat on my shelf, so it was my only option. I picked this lovely little book up last October when I visited the Parsonage in Haworth. My family always take me here as a pick-me-up (they know me so well), and I can never resist buying a book whilst I’m there. My mum actually bought this biography for me, and I’m so thankful she did because I loved it.
As the title suggests, this book is a very brief overview of the sisters’ lives. Although it states ‘Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’, Reef expands on the lives of Branwell and Patrick as well. If you’re someone looking to read into the Brontë family, then I’d definitely recommend starting here. Reef gives you all the necessary detail and focuses on all the main events of their lives; she persistently uses quotes and wider reading to ground her writing. If you’re someone already glued up on the family, then you won’t read anything you didn’t already know. Reef just covers the basics. However, it is still a fun read. So if you’ve already read the same recycled story and are yet to get bored (like me), then you’ll love this. It’s so different from all the other biographies I’ve read.
The best thing about this biography is that you can read it all in one sitting. The writing style and the amount of detail included makes it such an easy read. I flew through this, and I would have probably finished it in one night if I hadn’t started it so late. I cannot stress how wonderful this book is. It was such a comforting read. Despite not overloading us with detail, what Reef supplied us with was enough. I managed to laugh, cry and feel so cosy whilst reading it. It was humbling, I guess you could say. The sisters were so interesting; there was always something new happening in their lives, and the fact they led a double life adds to this fascination. It’s fun getting to unpick and learn more about the sisters through biographies such as this, so I’d definitely recommend reading one.
Despite enjoying it so much, I did find some difficulties with it. Firstly, the reliability. To begin with, it read like a novel. I have never read a biography written in such a style before, so this was new and interesting to me. I actually really liked this, and would definitely like to find some more biographies written in this style. However, with this choice of writing style came some issues. Firstly, it seemed like Reef was fictionalising their lives, even though she wasn’t. With the metaphorical and flowery language, you can’t help but question what she was saying. As I’m already aware of their lives, I knew I was reading the truth, but this may have caused some doubt for people who aren’t as aware.
This was made worst by the lack of footnotes. Reef did include references towards the back of the novel, but she didn’t include footnotes, which made finding out where the quotes came from a difficult task. As someone who is writing my dissertation on the sisters, this would have come in handy. In addition to this, there were multiple times when Reef provided a quote but never told us the name of who wrote it. She always referred to them as “the reviewer”, “the critic” or the “ladies magazine”. As someone who is constantly told to write the name of my secondary sources in full, this was frustrating (I now know how my lecturers feel). It just added to the unreliable feeling of the book, which isn’t a feeling one wants when reading non-fiction.
Another thing I wanted to point out was Reef’s detailed spoilers of the books. Now, I know this is a biography; authors are expected to discuss the novels, but she went a little overboard. I have read biographies, such as Juliet Barker’s The Brontës and even Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, where authors spare all the details, only giving a glimpse into the narrative. Reef explained the entirety of their plots. So if you’re yet to read any of their novels and don’t want to be spoiled, I’d suggest waiting until you have read them before jumping into this. I thought I would address this just in case it applies to any of you. However, saying this, Reef seems to neglect the families’ juvenilia and poetry. These were fundamental starting points for the family’s literary career, and definitely needed more attention. A fleeting reference wasn’t enough. Their juvenilia can be quite tricky to understand at times, and a biography could have cleared this up wonderfully.
Despite those few criticisms of the biography, I actually really enjoyed it. Although I didn’t learn anything new about the family (which has nothing to do with Reef or the biography), I did learn some new information on Victorian society. For example, I learnt a lot about governesses. I already knew they were basically classless in society, but I didn’t know that a lot of the time they were above their employees. Governesses tended to be women who were born into a comfortable living but unfortunately lost it, whereas their employees found their wealth through trade. The fact the governess was a working woman lowered them into this in-between class. Not only this, but I learnt some interesting facts about Victorian society and culture. This was an informative yet highly enjoyable read.
I’d definitely recommend this. I think this is a biography I’ll read again when I’m wanting to refresh my memory on the family’s lives, but am not willing to dedicate my time to a 1000 page biography (I’m looking at you, Barker). This was a super lovely read, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I finished it.
4.5 out of 5 stars.
Thanks for reading, Lauren X