We Wove A Web In Childhood
The Brontes At Home
by Ruth Thomas
We Wove A Web In Childhood is a fictional work concerning the Bronte family. Much of the existing literature tends to focus exclusively on the sisters, but in undertaking a dramatic reconstruction of their lives Ruth Thomas has succeeded in bringing each family member to life, including their brilliant and volatile brother Branwell, and their scholarly and compassionate father, the Reverend Patrick Bronte. The individual lives of the Brontes are as full of interest and drama as any of the novels they produced, and the family continues to exert a fascination right across the spectrum from dedicated Bronte fans to more casual readers. The novel has been written with an attention to detail and historical veracity, and should appeal to anyone with a love of literature and an interest in the peculiar and tortuous mental processes by which it is shaped.
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We Wove A Web In Childhood is a fictional work concerning the Bronte family. The opening chapters are set in the period 1828 – 1836 when the children are growing up, and trace their formative years - their precocious interest in politics and literature, and absorption in the vivid inner world they have created - whilst their father Patrick campaigns tirelessly to improve living standards for his parishioners. Superficial life at Haworth parsonage - with its routine of instruction, mundane household chores, and sedate vicarage tea-parties - is brought into sharp collision with the wider world outside. Actual events are frequently mirrored in the “infernal” world of Angria - as the boisterous childhood games in which they enact imaginary battle scenes are set against a backdrop of agitation for political and social reform, of violent electioneering and local riots. The mirror starts to crack when Charlotte is sent away to school at Roe Head at 15, followed closely by Emily. In chapter two, their circle of acquaintance is widened to include Charlotte’s schoolfriend Ellen Nussey when she comes to stay at the parsonage. Real topographical markers such as the megalithic portal at the base of the crags near Top Withens - which has such mystical significance for Emily - triggers an out-of-body experience whilst the latter is a pupil at Roe Head. At a family outing to a local art exhibition Branwell meets the Halifax sculptor JB Leyland, and Chapter Three touches on his early ambitions to be an artist, following him on his first youthful foray into the capital where he frequents taverns of ill repute.
As they reach their teens and grow into adulthood, the literary partnership and sibling rivalry between Charlotte and Branwell becomes more pronounced as their frenzied “scribblomania” threatens to undermine their attempts to make their own way in the world. Whilst Anne and Charlotte bemoan their dependent situation as governesses in strange households, Emily is content to remain at the parsonage - sustained by her secretive writings and by the private idioverse (of Gondal) she has created. Fantasy frequently overlaps with reality, as when Branwell strives to recreate the learned symposiums (Noctes Ambrosianae) featured in Blackwell’s Magazine with his circle of artistic friends and convivial drinking sessions at local inns and taverns. Some of the escapades described are pure fiction, as when Emily disguises herself as a character from Angria and accompanies her brother to the Black Bull one evening. Others incorporate biographical detail, as when Branwell pays a visit to Coleridge’s nephew in the Lake District, where he is employed as private tutor. The elemental and metaphysical nature of Emily’s poetry begins to dominate her waking life, providing a sharp contrast to Charlotte and Branwell’s more overt literary ambitions and abortive attempts to get published. Pragmatic and determined, Charlotte wishes to venture into the wider world whereas Emily, equally wilful but reserved, desires to remain in the background and this ultimately leads to tensions between the sisters.
The differing perceptions and contradictory viewpoints arising from the family dynamics mean that family members are frequently at cross purposes, with privately expressed sentiments and assumptions being challenged or flatly contradicted in separate conversations between the others. Charlotte’s ambitious proposal to set up a school at the parsonage meets with opposition from her siblings, and later chapters chart the growing estrangement between Charlotte and Branwell, as they struggle to achieve recognition as writers. The sisters’ shocked dismay at Branwell’s scandalous entanglement with his employer’s wife is tempered by the wider understanding of their father, who is more experienced and wiser to the ways of the world. Chapter Seven explores the mental affinity and sympathetic bond between Emily and Branwell as they sit in the kitchen joking with the servants Tabby and Martha, and improvising scenes and dialogue for Wuthering Heights. Emily’s poetry takes on an immediacy and greater prescience as she witnesses the bodily and moral decline of her brother, and his growing addiction to opium – a direct result of his preoccupation and identification with the Romantic poets.
The final chapters focus on the claustrophobic atmosphere of the parsonage, where a bereft Charlotte - as the only surviving sibling - is left alone to confront her demons. Emily re-enters the narrative at this point as a disembodied spirit and Keeper of the house - but her unseen spectral presence only serves to terrify her sister. As was the case when she was alive, Emily’s powerful and occasionally dissenting voice serves as a counterbalance to Charlotte’s subjective reminiscences. Following Branwell’s sudden death, John Brown, sexton of Haworth church and a former drinking crony of Branwell’s, voices his suspicions concerning the sinister new curate Arthur Bell Nicholls to a fellow member of the Masonic lodge. Tensions mount between Patrick and his curate when the latter’s marriage proposal to Charlotte arouses his fury, and Patrick’s distrust of Nicholls’ motives – which appear disingenuous – is misconstrued by his daughter. As the atmosphere at the parsonage becomes increasingly fraught, Charlotte seeks solace with Ellen and with her newfound friend, the author Elizabeth Gaskell – both of whom are powerless to intervene, but can only watch from the sidelines as the tragedy unfolds.