Remarkably Detailed Family Biography: The Brontës, by Juliet Barker

While I'm not a fast reader, I typically finish a book in days or weeks, not months. But The Brontës is no typical book. The paperback version I read runs for 1,158 pages (including 179 pages of footnotes and other end-of-book references).

This massive biographical work boasts a fairly massive subtitle: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family. From the start, it lives up to its "family" claim by scrutinizing at length the Cambridge education and early religious career of Patrick Brontë, father of the famous sisters. Not until page 68 is his and his wife Maria's first child (also named Maria) born; the sixth and final one (Anne) arrives only on page 99.

For chapter after chapter, the reader learns a seemingly impossible amount about the four youngest siblings' juvenile writings, their school careers, their early forays into the world of work, and their relations with each other and with outsiders before and after three of them write novels that become classics. It is staggering to see how many well-referenced facts, descriptions, and quotations were accessible to the author as she wrote the first edition (published in 1994) and how she located further materials when creating this second edition (2010). I salute all of the Brontë contemporaries who wrote down their impressions, kept correspondence, and otherwise made their world so accessible to us nearly two centuries later.

It takes a special kind of Brontë fan to maintain interest through a thousand pages of historical reports. I eventually became overwhelmed to the point where I began skimming rather than reading word for word. (After Anne's passing leaves Charlotte as the last living child, there are about 200 pages of "Charlotte is sad; she writes to friends; they persuade her to visit; she visits, or maybe cancels her visit; she grows sad at home again; repeat, repeat, repeat.")

But don't let my short attention span dissuade you from immersing yourself in Barker's sea of information. If you ever wondered about, or wanted to know more about, any aspect of the Brontës' lives or writing careers, Barker's book has your answers.