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 almost 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 . . .