Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Brontes and John Martin

I have been fascinated by the Brontes since my early twenties and have a number of biographies about them, as well as their novels. I have moved on since then and not re-read any of the biographies recently but their life stories are still there in my mind. Whilst I was in Yorkshire with my daughter, I was browsing the charity shops looking for something to replace my almost-finished book (I read to escape reality) and came across Bronte by Glyn Hughes, a novelist who died in May of this year. The book was published back in 1996, but I was heavily involved in my Archaeology degree course then, so I never did buy a copy. I have just finished it today, and think he did a very good job of fictionalizing this gifted quartet, although I felt that he was strongest when he wrote about Branwell, being sympathetic to the masculine strengths and weaknesses. I also felt he missed a trick with Emily, who is a little two-dimensional, and I think she was such a very intense person, whose wild soul belonged to the moors and the West wind . . .

I have to say, in some ways it was comforting to re-read a history already familiar to me, to see how the family were still as clear in my memory as when I first read about them. In Sheffield at the moment, there is an exhibition of the works of John Martin, and it gave me an understanding of how they lived in their imaginary world of Glasstown and Angria, peopling it with resplendent - if flawed - heroes and heroines who lived for the moment and when the children had plotted their merciless deaths, then morphed into new heroes and heroines whose lives and loves shadowed the intensity of their creators.

To see the gigantic canvases that Martin painted was to be alm
ost overwhelmed by their content. THIS LINK gives some idea of his paintings, but you need to see them close to to understand the theatricality, the terror, the apocalyptic scenes they depict. I felt dragged in, as if I was about to be devoured by the flames and cast into the fiery pit. Mr Bronte had bought prints of many of these dreadful scenes and the impact on his children was quite overwhelming. Their imagination was their comfort on dark winter days when the rain pelted the windows and spat in the fireplace and the East winds wuthered and moaned. In such an isolated and insular world, I would say that Martin's influence moulded the genius of the Bronte children and invoked the passions which Emily and Charlotte wrote about. It has given me an entirely different insight into how their minds were formed. Now I want to re-read all my books and their novels . . .

The painting at the top is copied from the Sheffield Museum website and my thanks/apologies are proffered. It shows "The Great Day of His Wrath" and if you look closely, you will see that the huge grey surge at the middle top of the painting is a vast city about to be hurled into the abyss . . .


  1. This painting is glorious; the chaos and strength and beauty of nature, fashioned by our Creator.
    Now you have stirred my interest in the Brontes. I am reading the delightful Emma by Jane Austen right now, and it is fun how she takes me back in time to her pastoral life and times.

  2. Oh gosh Terra - chalk and cheese between Miss Austen and Charlotte & Emily Bronte. You could be in for a rude awakening!

  3. Superb painting, and you have made me want to go to Sheffield (I don't live all that far away from the city) and see the exhibition straight away.

    Thanks for posting that. Apocalyptic themes seem to be all the rage at the moment(wonder why?!).

  4. GL - if you have the chance, GO. I was astounded by the - ferocity - of the paintings. Quite scarey, as I found I was truly being drawn into the paintings. How must the Brontes have felt?

  5. What I think of as your "literary posts" always inspire me. I read a short biography of the Brontes this summer--such gifted and yet somehow over-wrought young people. [I wonder if they were perhaps bi-polar?]
    Have also recently been reading just a bit about how the Apocalyptic themes have been used to terrorize people into a semblance of religious awakening--"great and terrible day of judgement" sort of thing. It would seem that theologians of the Bronte's time didn't present the balancing theme of a merciful Creator.
    One wonders how the Brontes' literary genius might have matured had they been given the years.

  6. Interesting what you said about the "merciful Creator" as Anne Bronte really struggled with that. After her mother's death, she was particularly close to her Aunt Branwell, a strict fire-and-brimstone Methodist who terrified her with tales of going to Hell for her "sins" (what sins? poor child). I think the Calvanistic beliefs - based on only being saved if God actually chose you to be saved - terrified her. She could be as free of sin as she could possibly be, but still be cast aside in His eyes (a predestination to damnation). She had leanings towards the Moravians, as they preached a more balanced version of Christianity in her eyes, and she felt happy visiting their brotherhood. The Reverend La Trobe gave her hope.

    Gosh, that's a deep bit of thinking for a Sunday morning!

  7. When the great tsunami struck Japan, that must have been like a John Martin painting. Terrifying images to have on the wall of a family home where sensitive and bereaved young children were growing.

    There are several John Martin paintings in the Tate in London. I wonder if these are among those visiting the Sheffield exhibition?