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Robert Barnard, Louise Barnard, A Brontë Encyclopedia

Yves Laberge
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Robert Barnard, Louise Barnard, A Brontë Encyclopedia. Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2013 [2007], xii + 397 pp. £29.99 Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-118-49206-2

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1Now available in paperback (and different price), this impressive Brontë Encyclopedia offers about 2000 short entries — usually of one paragraph length each: mostly names and titles, taken from the Brontë family's universe: their works, their characters, their friends and relatives, the English society and the numerous places where they lived. As a complement, some 95 small illustrations (portraits, art works, manuscripts, photographs), mostly black and white, are included. Both authors of this Brontë Encyclopedia are prolific scholars: Robert Barnard chaired the Brontë Society during two terms, while Louise Barnard is a university librarian.

2I was a little surprised to note that, in their short preface, the authors do not acknowledge (or at least mention) a previous, similar reference: The Oxford Companion to the Brontës (2003), co-edited by Christine Alexander and Margaret Smith: a hefty A-Z book. However, this major reference title is included in the final, much too short four-page bibliography of this Encyclopedia. In a topic where an abundant number of references already exist, it is always appropriate to situate a newer publication and announce the new avenues and perspectives that are being brought compared to the previous resources.

3Interestingly, we find in this Brontë Encyclopedia an article for the novel Jane Eyre, but also a separate entry for "Eyre, Jane", which then refers to the character itself, who "had never seemed less than a triumph of psychological insight and sympathetic understanding" (p. 105). Oddly, the entry on the novel Jane Eyre neglects to mention the name of its author, Charlotte Brontë (pp. 168-169). There are as well an entry for "Wuthering Heights" (the novel) and a separate one for "Wuthering Heights" (the farmhouse). On the other hand, there are no entries as such for general themes like "love" or "death"; but the longest entry dedicated to "Juvenilia" tells about many of the lesser-known plays invented by the young Brontë sisters, long before they became famous (pp. 172-179). Of course, some fundamental topics are much more detailed than the average: for example, Charlotte Brontë gets almost five pages, Emily Brontë’s covers three pages; their father, Rev. Patrick Brontë, gets a five page entry as well. Other members of the family are given their own entry: Anne, Elisabeth, Maria Branwell Brontë, Maria, and Patrick Branwell Brontë.

4Among countless instructive pages, I appreciated the historical categories and political inclinations brought in the entries related to the 19th century press, for example in the entry on "Blackwood's Magazine", presented as a "High Tory periodical originating in Edinburgh as a rival to the Whig Edinburgh Review" (p. 29). Students doing comparative studies will probably appreciate the inclusion of some short entries related to many "great men" of the Victorian age (Dickens, Balzac, Victor Hugo, even Beethoven and Haydn); in each case, we are informed about their reciprocal influences, opinions, and sometimes meetings or correspondence with the Brontës. We find of course a half-page entry on William Shakespeare, one of the most quoted authors by the Brontës. An odd detail: the entry on "Queen Victoria" indicates that the young Brontës had christened their goose after the monarch; the comment deducts that it was a sign of attachment and respect for the young Queen (p. 360). I specially liked the detailed entry on "Poetry", which provides the title of numerous, sometimes obscure works published under pseudonyms by the Brontës: "Pilate's Wife's Dream" to "The Old Stoic" and "Fluctuations" (pp. 265-266). In order to measure the numerous details included here, we even discover an entry about the 1824 book "A Description of London", by William Darton, which represented for Branwell Brontë "one of the sources for his prodigious knowledge of London" (p. 88). We also find an entry on "devoirs", which explains that the Brontës did exercises as homework on various topics while in Brussels, and that pedagogic term is often imperfectly translated into "essays" or "exercises" (p. 89). Elsewhere, the entry related to the "Devonshire Arms Hotel" attests that the Brontës stayed there, but the comment adds as well that this place is "still surviving" (p. 89). There is always something instructive in most entries.

5One could perhaps wonder how complete is this A Brontë Encyclopedia ? Although I learned a lot whenever re-reading it, I have to say I was a little disappointed not to find any specific entry related to the numerous movies made from the works by the Brontës. Furthermore, there are no mentions about the many adaptations and countless translations made from their novels in the entries related to "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights". No mention either about the famous Kate Bush song from 1978 ("Wuthering Heights") that was based on the Brontës' universe, or the unique biographical movie made in France by André Téchiné in 1979 ("Les soeurs Brontë"). However, in their preface, the authors explain they did not want to include entries related to films or any related work made after 1861, which is the year of Patrick's death (p. ix). Therefore, this book focuses almost exclusively on the Brontës' century, which as such is quite wide as a spectrum. My only other quibble would be the lack of an index, which seems essential in any encyclopaedia because usually, a name does not only appear in its own entry. Nevertheless, there are some — although not enough — cross-references from an entry to another ("See also:"), but the system used here is neither complete, nor perfect; for example the entry on "Belgium" refers to the entry on "Brussels", but not on the other way round (p. 61).

6In sum, this A Brontë Encyclopedia brings a great variety of contexts to the Brontës' infinite world. In my eyes, I do not see this Brontë Encyclopedia as the perfect entry door to their universe — the Brontës' works by themselves would be the more logical choices for newcomers — and this book is probably not an indispensable companion for the casual reader as prerequisite to appreciate one of their novels; but it would rather serve as a reference tool for teachers and graduate students in English literature, 19th century studies, for public libraries in English-speaking countries, and of course for all the Brontë fans.

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Christine Alexander and Margaret Smith (eds.), The Oxford Companion to the Brontës. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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Yves Laberge, « Robert Barnard, Louise Barnard, A Brontë Encyclopedia »Amerika [En ligne], 19 | 2019, mis en ligne le 20 février 2020, consulté le 23 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Yves Laberge

Ph.D. Centre ÉRE - UQAM, Québec, Canada 

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