Friday 27 March 2020

Review: The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick, Sharon Wright (2019)

Three sisters living at the edge of a Yorkshire moor, with their widowed father and troubled brother—this is the legend we’re used to hearing about the Brontës. But in her wonderful recent biography, The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick, Sharon Wright shines a light on that other member of the family—the mother, who gave Branwell Brontë (the Brontë sibling most central to my forthcoming novel) his name.

Maria Branwell, who was, from 1812 until her early death in 1821, Mrs Brontë, has always been a shadowy figure. Anne Brontë, the youngest of the famous siblings, had no memory of her. Charlotte, Branwell, and Emily were, respectively, five, four, and three at her death. But here she comes to life, as does her sprawling, successful family, enterprising business people from bustling Cornish Penzance.

In the early chapters of her biography, Wright charts the fortunes of the Branwell family (who shared with Patrick Brontë an unfortunate habit of frequently changing the spelling of their last name). Later, our focus is more securely on Maria—on her move from Cornwall to Yorkshire, her whirlwind romance with the Reverend Brontë, and her life as a young wife, giving birth to six children within seven years.

I rate my knowledge of the Brontës pretty highly (I did a LOT of research into the family, especially Branwell and Anne, for my novel, Brontë’s Mistress), but the biography still taught me lots I didn’t know. I’d never, for instance, spent time with Maria’s surviving letters (published here in full in the appendix), or realised that she had writing aspirations of her own, even as she went through multiple pregnancies in quick succession.

More than anything the book left me with an impression of how connected the Brontës were—to a large family of Cornish relatives, and to middle class society in Thornton, where the young couple set up their first family home. Our prevailing view of the Brontës is often one centred on isolation. The Brontë parsonage, sited as it is at the edge of Haworth, gives us the impression of the family as having existed on the outskirts of the world.

There’s a romance to isolation that many of us might have believed in (at least until the last few weeks). The Brontës’ physical distance from the (publishing) world and their motherlessness are both factors that have contributed to the establishment of the Brontë myth. But Maria existed, and her influence on her children—on their friendships, reading taste, and personalities—seems to have extended long after her death.

If you, like me, love the Brontës, I’d highly recommend checking out Sharon Wright’s book. And if you’re a reader of fiction, as well as non-fiction, you might want to read more about my novel, Brontë’s Mistress, here.

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