Juliet Gardiner: The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth.
A Life in Letters, Diaries and Writings
Collins & Brown 1992
We wove a web in childhood,
A web of sunny air;
We dug a spring in infancy
Of water pure and fair […]
For life is darkly shaded
And its joys fleet fast away!
— from ‘Retrospection’ by Charlotte Brontë (1835)
2017 marks the bicentenary of the birth of the least celebrated of the Brontë siblings, Branwell. As with the group portrait he painted of his surviving sisters and himself he appears as a ghostly figure, barely mentioned and then only with sadness. He left some poetry, youthful writings, a handful of paintings (on the evidence we have mostly of mediocre merit) and a record of a life wasted, an existence which brought him and those who knew him pain and distress.
But Branwell — for all his likely hidden talents — is not the gifted individual who springs to mind when the name Brontë is mentioned; more likely it will be Charlotte, Emily or Anne who commands our immediate attention. The World Within recounts the family history, from Patrick Brunty’s birth in County Down in 1777 to Charlotte Brontë’s death in 1855. There will be little I suspect to surprise Brontë fans so rather than give a synopsis of their lives and accomplishments I will merely point out what makes this title worth more than a brief look.
First of all what recommends The World Within is the variety of illustrations. Maps, portraits, photos, landscapes, prints, silhouettes — all bring the family’s existence into vivid focus. Particularly worthwhile are the sketches and paintings by the siblings, which to me show how much artistic talent Charlotte and Emily had, certainly in comparison to the pedestrian efforts of their brother Branwell.
Next are the copious quotations from the letters, diaries, poems and other writings that have survived from the siblings — particularly Charlotte, the longest living of the six children — and from their contemporaries such as biographer Mrs Gaskell and literary critics from various periodicals.
Finally, Juliet Gardiner’s own commentary lays out their story in strict chronology, serving to contrast the setbacks and tragedies with the accomplishments and triumphs. To the biographical details Gardiner adds a list of personages, relevant topographical sites in Yorkshire and suggestions of places for modern pilgrims to visit, along with an index, a list standard sources and acknowledgements of sources for illustrations, help and advice.
The title, by the way, is a quote from lines by Emily, rather poignant in its implications and perfectly pointing out how imagination was the lifeline that saved the sisters from drowning in a sea of cares and worries:
So hopeless is the world without
The world within I doubly prize.