Monday, August 27, 2012

Things I've learned in just the first 200 pages of the new edition of Juliet Barker's The Brontes

1 That biographers are insane. Barker writes in her introduction:
I have made it a point of honour to go back to the original manuscripts of all my material wherever possible, quoting them in preference to printed versions.
And she did that despite the fact that the manuscripts are for the most part "written in the Brontes' minute and cramped hand," which they developed in order to mimic, as closely as possible with a quill pen, the small type they found in printed books.

Biographers are insane, and I'm endlessly grateful for that fact.

2 That February 28, 1810 was named a Day of National Humiliation in England in recognition of the nation's poor efforts against Napoleon and France. Patrick Bronte wrote a 265-line poem in honor of the day, but the day otherwise seems to have been more or less lost to the mists of time--or at least a quick Google search hasn't blown them away and revealed it.

The idea stood out for me if for no other reason than because I had a hard time imagining the United States ever making the same choice. Circumstances, I realize, are different--national humiliation would have a much different sense in a kingdom with an official establishment of religion than for a nation without an official religious (and thus penitential) tradition--but it was still difficult to picture a president or Congress telling the nation to bow its head for even a single day.

Yet my search unexpectedly turned up three American instances: May 11 1775 and May 15, 1776, in the early, dark days of the Revolutionary War, and April 30, 1863, five weeks before Gettysburg. Lincoln's shouldn't, I suppose, surprise us. As we know, he was not averse to casting the Civil War in biblical tones, and the suffering thereof as a judgment, as in the closing paragraphs of his Second Inaugural:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Still, it's hard to imagine such a day being declared in the present--even leaving aside the religious complications in a secular nation. America is not one to admit its mistakes or submit itself to judgment. Our besetting sin, stronger it seems every year, remains one that would be familiar to literary figures from Melville's Confidence-Man to Lewis's Babbitt: incessant, even frenzied boosterism. We only do good; we only are the best.

3 That Patrick Bronte was almost certainly a much more loving father than he's generally given credit for. Barker makes a convincing case for his involvement and interest in the lives of his children, and his concern for their welfare. Oh, and along the way she clears up the strange old story--told often as a mark of his temper or even mania--about him firing a pistol out the window of the parsonage every day: Haworth was at the time in the midst of a region unsettled by Luddite activity, often violent, and Bronte took to keeping a loaded pistol by his bedside at night. The gun, however, was so primitive that the only way to unload it was to fire it, which he did, apparently, rather than leave a loaded pistol in a house of six children. (But let's not pretend that he also didn't enjoy it--who wouldn't enjoy having the excuse to send a shot ringing harmlessly over the misty moors every morning?)

4 That in 1830, when Patrick, a minister, was sick in bed with a serious lung ailment, the following very strange incident occurred, which fourteen-year-old Charlotte wrote down:
Taby & I were alone in the Kitchen, about half past 9 anti-meridian. suddenly we heard a knock at the door, Taby rose & opened it, an old man appearing standing without, who accosted her thus,

OM does the parson live her?
T yes
OM I wish to see him,
T he is poorly in bed.
OM indeed I have [a] message for him.
T who from?
OM from the LORD.
T who?
OM, the LORD, he desires me to say that the bridegroom is coming & that he must prepare to meet him; that the cords are about to be loosed & the golden Bowl broken, the Pitcher broken at the fountain & the wheel stopped at the cistern.

here he concluded his discourse & abruptly went away. as Taby closed the door I asked her if she knew him, her reply was that she had never seen him before nor any one like him.
The man was surely, as Charlotte herself concluded, merely a religious fanatic--Patrick Bronte's Evangelical brethren were no strangers to apocalyptic talk--but the experience must nonetheless have been quite creepy. It's one I'll remember on Halloweens to come.

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