Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Brontes at home

Juliet Barker's The Brontes is satisfyingly rich in quotations, drawing on letters, diaries, later accounts by friends and neighbors, and, at length, the Bronte children's copious juvenilia. The selection that's pleased me most thus far is a diary entry by Emily and Anne commemorating the utterly ordinary day of November 24, 1834, when Emily was sixteen and Anne was fourteen. Written with Anne's "dreadful handwriting and spelling," which all the siblings seem to have shared, it skips and wanders through the day with the casual confidence of youth:
November the 24 1834 Monday Emily Jane Bronte Anne Bronte I fed Rainbow, Diamond, Snowflake Jasper phesant (alias this morning Branwell went down to Mr Drivers and brought news that Sir Robert peel was going to be invited to stand for Leeds Anne and I have been peeling Apples [for] Charlotte to make an apple pudding. and for Aunts and apple Charlotte said she made puddings perfectly and she was of a quick but lim[i]ted intellect Taby said just now come Anne pillopatate (IE pill a potato Aunt has come into the Kitchen just now and said where are you feet Anne Anne answered on the florr Aunt papa opened the parlour Door and gave Branwell a Letter saying here Branwell read this and show it to your Aunt and Charlotte--The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine Sally mosley is washing in the bak-KitchinIt is past Twelve o'clock Anne and I have not tid[i]ed ourselves, done our bed work or done our lessons and we want to go out to play We are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef Turnips potato's and applepudding the Kitchin is in a very untidy state Anne and I have not Done our music excercise which consists of b majer Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate I answered O Dear, O Dear, O Dear I will derictly that I get up, take a Knife and begin pilling.
All misspellings, misgrammarings, mispunctuatings are Emily's own, but the charm comes through, does it not? That feeling, familiar to anyone with siblings, of a closed, but permeable, shared universe? A sense that we're being given the play-by-play of a comfortable evening at home, with the world's cares far from the door? And would I be stretching a point to say that the people who rail against blogs and Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook &c. for being little but the record of our increasing self-obsession might look at this ephemera and, were they to be honest, acknowledge that it was always thus?

A few lines later, the diary entry turns unexpectedly, retrospectively sad:
I say I wonder what we shall be like if all be well and what we shall be and where we shall be if all goes on well in the year 1874--in which year I shall be in my 57th year Anne will be going in her 55th year Branwell will be going in his 58th year And Charlotte in her 59th year hoping we shall all be well at that time.
By 1874, there would be no Brontes in England. Branwell was the first to go, in September of 1848, followed by Emily in December and Anne the following March. Charlotte nearly made it, dying in March of 1855, just before her 39th birthday.


  1. How remarkable - to think that the author of Wuthering Heights could have reached not just the 1870s, but the 20th century without even being unreasonably old. Something I've never thought about from that angle before, and somehow oddly unsettling.

  2. Charlotte was nearly 39 when she died, not 59 (remember, she was pregnant!). So none of them came anywhere near Emily's dreams.

  3. Oops--thanks for pointing that out, Flicker. Typo fixed!

    And Muscato: I had a similar thought--the distance in time seems so much greater than that. (I always feel that way, too, when I see the one well-known photo of Tolstoy from early in the 20th century and realize that with just a bit better health (and living situation!) he could have been alive at the start of World War I--thinking about which nearly melts my brain.)