The Oxford Companion to the Brontës by Christine Alexander & Margaret Smith

The Oxford Companion to the Brontës: Anniversary Edition 
by Christine Alexander & Margaret Smith
Oxford University Press, 2018


As biographer and critic Claire Harman points out in her preface to the new “anniversary” edition of The Oxford Companion to the Brontës, readers are in the midst of a brace of dates the underscore that “anniversary” distinction: the “ongoing bicentenary” includes Charlotte in 2016, brother Branwell in 2017, Emily in 2018, and Anne in 2020.

Not that the Brontës ever required special occasions to seize and hold the attention of the reading public. Since their pseudonymous debuts in the literary world, they've been enlisting ardent fans. Those fans have been well-served by hundreds of accompanying books – biographies, literary studies, tour guides, and, since 2003, the Oxford Companion, combining an enormously wide ambit of inquiry with a first-rate roster of experts. As in previous editions, so too in this one: every conceivable Brontë topic heading – from education to hypochondria to pets to “verse drama by Branwell Brontë”  – is given its own careful investigation.

About Emily, for instance (“the least knowable of the siblings,” according to Harman), the sheer compression of erudition on display in even one paragraph is astonishing:

Before she was 30, Emily Brontë had produced a novel that is seen as Shakespearian in its dramatic scope and power. It is a tremendous feat, achieved by that single-minded purpose and intensity of concentration she fought so hard to preserve. Muriel Spark observed that 'All her “peculiarities” and prejudices and domestic considerations are explicable only if her work is placed in the centre of her existence' (Spark and Stanford, Emily Brontë: Her Life and Work (1953), 92). This helps us to understand a personality that might otherwise be thought of in terms of 'stern selfishness' (Gaskell's phrase from a deleted passage of the Life). Even as a child, Emily valued discipline and self-control. In the famous mask incident, related by Mr Brontë to Elizabeth Gaskell, the young Emily (under cover of a mask) was asked by her father what she might do with her brother Branwell when she was naughty. She confidently answered: 'reason with him, and when he won't listen to reason, whip him' (Gaskell, Life, 1.59). An early interest in the sadistic side of human nature, later to surface in Wuthering Heights, is found in the crude sketches of flagellation that accompany Emily's translation of Horace's Ars Poetica (Alexander & Sellars, p. 381).

Each Oxford Companion has supplanted the previous edition in scope and topicality, and this “anniversary” volume is the most extensive and the most attractively designed yet. It's a Brontë birthday gift to fans of the ongoing celebration.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is