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O C T O B E R   1 9 9 5

Books
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


The Brontes

by Juliet Barker.

St. Martin's, 1,004 pages, $40.00.

The author begins with a realistic acknowledgment: "Yet another biography of the Brontes requires an apology, or at least an explanation." The apology is unnecessary, for the book itself provides the explanation and justifies Ms. Barker's extensive and unusual research. Her work is directed at correcting what she sees as an inaccurate, limited view of the actual circumstances of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell, who are generally perceived as isolated provincials carelessly brought up by a grimly reclusive eccentric with no thought for their welfare. Ms. Barker therefore begins with the Reverend Patrick Bronte, who has to have been a decidedly likable and intelligent man, for he made it to Cambridge and ordination as an Anglican minister in the days when an Irishman without money or connections was not expected to beat his way out of a bog. As a parent he was, according to local witnesses, conscientious, sympathetic, and concerned for his children's education. He came to be highly regarded by his flock--and Haworth was a notoriously recalcitrant parish. The town itself had been for years an active point in the Yorkshire wool trade. It harbored mills, schools, non-Anglican churches, shops, pubs, a hotel, and a society that imported lecturers and concert performers. It also had rail connections. What it did not have was a good water supply; throughout his incumbency Patrick Bronte agitated for a proper, cleanly system. (The parsonage had one of the town's few private wells.) Misrepresentation of Haworth began with Charlotte Bronte, who regularly assured correspondents that she had nothing to report from her lonely backwater. Misrepresentation of Charlotte's father began with her friend and first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs. Gaskell knew Patrick Bronte only briefly, in his semi-invalid old age. She knew Branwell only by hearsay--that is, through Charlotte's complaints about him. She did know that Haworth was no wilderness outpost, but chose to present the town in Charlotte's terms, just as she presented the Bronte siblings--Emily the stoic warrior, Anne the humble follower, Branwell the drunken deserter. Ms. Barker's description of the maneuvers behind the Gaskell life is a detailed and rather alarming revelation of the operations of an emotionally biased biographer. Ms. Barker admits to her own mild bias in favor of the Reverend Patrick, Branwell, and the town of Haworth. In correcting their bad press she has added vitality and social solidity to the world in which that brilliant, short-lived family moved.



A Long Fatal Love Chase

by Louisa May Alcott.

Random House, 256 pages, $21.00.

Alcott wrote pot-boiling fiction before the great success of Little Women. Those early works were largely pseudonymous, and this one was never published. It was considered too sensational. Kent Bicknell, the principal of the Sant Bani School, in Sanbornton, New Hampshire, has somehow obtained the original manuscript, which is now presented as an erotic thriller for adult readers. It contains a scoundrelly hero, a spirited heroine, an inordinate number of adjectives, and plenty of action. It also provides the reader with an excuse for speculation about its rejection by Alcott's publisher. Could the objection have been simply that the heroine, on discovering that she has been duped into a false marriage with a murderer, fails to collapse and die of shame? Instead she scoops up the available jewels, flees by night through a window, and repudiates any guilt in the affair. Perfectly sensible of her--but perhaps not what readers of Victorian light literature were prepared to approve.

See our "Flashbacks" package of Louisa May Alcott's short stories.



Four Ways to Forgiveness

by Ursula K. Le Guin.

HarperPrism, 240 pages, $20.00.

Ms. Le Guin's four interlocking stories report affairs in the former slave colony of Yeowe and its parent planet, Werel. Events in these imaginary worlds are intricate and sometimes bloody, and always resemble those in our own. Ms. Le Guin is presenting human history in a distorting mirror, while presenting the human desire for peace and love directly. The contrast is piquant and the writing is splendid.



Panama

by Eric Zencey.

Farrar Straus & Giroux, 384 pages, $24.00.

Nobody, nowadays, can count on remaining quietly unmolested in the grave--at least nobody with a recognizable name. Mr. Zencey's novel resurrects Henry Adams, broadening his education through amateur detective work with the Paris police in 1892. The book is much more than a simple mystery story. The author draws on Adams's life and ideas for digressions on art, historical study, and the early stages of technological society. He describes the French development of fingerprinting. He creates a convincingly noisy Paris and some convincingly idiosyncratic citizens. The action into which Adams blunders arises from the scandal over the disastrous French attempt at a Panama canal, which was entirely real and becomes an effective historical vignette with politicians howling, the government falling, and the United States, in the person of Adams's friend John Hay, hovering like a patient vulture to scavenge the remains. The principal plot involves the disappearance of a young American woman and reaches an explosive, properly surprising conclusion. Mr. Zencey has written a multilayered, intelligent, interesting novel that reaches well beyond a mystery's normal territory.



The Neandertal Enigma

by James Shreeve.

Morrow, 320 pages, $25.00.

Mr. Shreeve is a science writer. Not himself a paleoanthropologist, he assembles and describes the theories of the professionals in that field. It is a field in which pure objectivity is impossible, for a cracked bone can mean one observer's cannibal and another's hyena, with both observers defending their positions furiously. Shouting matches are not unknown. Mr. Shreeve's attempt to explain why we are here and Neandertals are not winds through the whole development of paleoanthropological studies, and does it with admirable clarity and fairness. His conclusion is, like everything else in this steadily progressing area, speculative.



Sabbath's Theater

by Philip Roth.

Houghton Mifflin, 384 pages, $24.95.

As a protest against inevitable death, sexual excess is as futile as any other. Mr. Roth's latest novel makes it tiresome as well.



Writing and Life

by Michael Lydon.

University Press of New England, 112 pages, $9.95.

Several of the essays in this book first appeared in The Atlantic.



Jihad vs. McWorld

by Benjamin R. Barber.

Times Books, 381 pages, $25.00.

This book grew out of the Atlantic cover story for March, 1992.



The Palmer Method

by E.S. Goldman.

John Daniel, 320 pages, $22.95/$14.95.

Several of the short stories in this collection first appeared in The Atlantic.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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