O C T O B E R 1 9 9 5
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
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.
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.
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
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.