Patrick Bronte: Father of Genius by Dudley Green

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Patrick Bronte: Father of Genius by Dudley Green

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the Irish-born curate of Haworth and father of the renowned family of novelists.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: May 2010
Publisher: The History Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-0752454450

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There have been many biographies about Charlotte Brontë and her siblings, but very little about their father. It is tempting to speculate whether he would be quite so deserving of one if he had not been the father of such a famous family. Yet Dudley Green, a retired Classics teacher, has demonstrated here that he did lead an interesting life himself. Born in rural Ireland in 1777, he spent his early years there before arriving in England in 1802 and settled in Yorkshire seven years later, where he remained the rest of his days.

Naturally much of this book focuses on his family life, a marriage which produced six children in as many years. His wife Maria died when the youngest, Ann, was little more than a year old, and he made a few half-hearted, ultimately unsuccessful efforts to find a second wife and stepmother for them. One of these was with Mary Burder, a young woman to whom it appears he had been briefly engaged many years before, but then broke it off in possibly acrimonious circumstances. She made her displeasure plain at being approached again.

In addition to his clerical duties, Patrick was mildly involved in the political issues of the day. Although his sympathies seem to have been pro-Tory and anti-Whig, and very much on the side of law and order, after his experience of poverty in Ireland during childhood he was in principle sympathetic to the grievances of the Luddites. Nevertheless he strongly disapproved of the rioters who attacked property, destroyed machinery and threatened the lives of the mill owners. As there was much pro-Luddite feeling in his parish, he was aware that there might be reprisals against himself and the church if he did not take care to remain as impartial as he could. For many years he kept a loaded pistol in the house at night.

Nevertheless, for me the most interesting part of the story came with the development of his children's literary gifts. The two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, both gave early promise which was tragically cut short by their deaths from consumption soon after being brought back from Cowan Bridge School, later thinly disguised as Lowood in 'Jane Eyre'. While the regime at this establishment may have been partly responsible, the author paints a vivid picture of the unhealthy conditions in Haworth and the subsequent short life expectancy of many of those who lived there. (Patrick, who lived into his eighties, obviously had a very strong constitution). The pivotal years of 1847-9, which covered the publication of the first novels by Charlotte and Ann, as well as the only one by Emily, the tragedy of brother Branwell's descent into alcoholism and death, speedily followed by the demise of Emily and then Ann, and Patrick's involvement, are all covered in poignant detail. All this was followed by a period of intense loneliness for Patrick and Charlotte, the only survivor. It was complicated when she fell in love with his curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, and a good deal of persuasion was required for his consent to allow them to marry. Their union was cut cruelly short by her pregnancy and death within less than a year.

As a man of the cloth, his faith sustained him to the end. It is difficult not to be moved by the thought of an elderly man in uncertain health who had the grave misfortune of outliving not only his wife but all his children, at least two of them extremely gifted, by so many years.

Green is the editor of the first complete collection of Patrick Brontë's letters. His research has been thorough, and he has succeeded in bringing what could have been a rather dry subject to life. He has certainly done his subject's reputation a service in laying to rest some of the misconceptions of his character – of an unworldly, eccentric, uncaring husband and father. While Patrick may have been a little selfish in initially opposing the marriage of Charlotte and his curate, surely many a father of the age in such a position would have felt similarly possessive, and others might have been less inclined to change their minds and graciously bow to the inevitable after all.

I would be disinclined to recommend this book as an introduction to the Brontë family. It will certainly be of far greater appeal to anyone who has already read at least one biography of one of Patrick's children, and I myself have read several of Charlotte, as well as one of Branwell. Yet for a further insight into what was surely Victorian England's most famous and perhaps most tragic literary family, this is certainly a must-read.

One word of caution - about the size of the print. While I cannot speak for the hardback version, the font in the paperback is rather small, and the extracts from letters quoted (of which there are many) even smaller still. A strong light is essential!

For a life of his most famous daughter, may we recommend Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon.

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