Catherine Rayner, a life member of the Brontë Society, has combined facts with imagined incidents and dialogue to produce a delightfully detailed picture of the childhoods of the famous Brontës.
When the family moved to the Haworth Parsonage in April 1820 there were six young children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily, Bramwell and Anne – all under 7 years old.
Although the Reverend Brontë was moving to a larger parish and the family would have a bigger house, finances were still limited. The church and the parsonage stood at the top of the village on the edge of the moors which provided a splendid vista but also meant it was exposed to the often cold and bleak Yorkshire weather. Sadly, Mrs Brontë died the following year and the widower made several ill-judged proposals of marriage to secure a step mother before his wife’s sister gave up her independent life to care for the children.
Reverend Brontë came from humble beginnings in Ireland but had achieved a Cambridge degree and believed that education was the path to a better future for his children. He was unusual in that he educated his daughters beyond basic reading, writing and household management by encouraging them to read widely and take an interest in current affairs and politics. All the daughters spent some time as teachers or governesses.
Rayner writes movingly of the harsh conditions and cruel treatment the girls experienced on being sent away to school and it is difficult to understand why, if accurate, their father would not have insisted on seeing them when he came to the school to bring another daughter or, eventually, take home a seriously ill Maria. The girls all came home following Maria’s death and soon after, the death of Elizabeth. Bramwell also suffered from seizures which may have been epilepsy. Probably because of this and the death of his sisters, he was educated at home.
The events in the book may be imaginary but they all seem to contain at least a grain of truth. Charlotte, on becoming the oldest child, is portrayed as the leader of the group and an early writer producing a tiny birthday book for Anne. Bramwell, who probably was a spoilt brat, always wanted to be the centre of attention and richly deserving of Emily’s ire. The reader gains a wonderful picture of Victorian childhood as the Brontë children make up their own games and amusements, often based around Bramwell’s toy soldiers. Such imaginations clearly stood them in good stead for their future literary endeavours.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8