For roughly a century and a half, the Brontes have been the subject of biographies that, much like poor Branwell’s painting, cover up more than they reveal. When Barker’s monumental family biography of the Brontes was published in 1994, it was as though a skilled restorer had come along to work on the group portrait, gently rubbing off the lurid colors of myth and gossip, and revealing the bones of truth underneath.
Now, Barker has updated the biography — which has become the standard Bronte biography — with new material. The footnotes alone, in this new edition of The Brontes, run to 136 pages. It’s rare that I have occasion to say this, but, taken collectively, those footnotes are thrilling. Referencing sources as diverse and dry as the daily engagement diaries of obscure Bronte neighbors, Barker attests to the fact that with steady scholarly detective work, the truth of the past can slowly be approached.