First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m an author and journalist, a career that’s given me a fabulous life because you don’t have to be posh to play. You’re allowed anywhere armed with a pen, pad and dollop of curiosity. I was born in Bradford, went to St Joseph’s College in Manningham and then the University of Liverpool to study politics. I started out as a local reporter in Keighley then went from the West Riding to the West Country, the reverse of Maria’s journey in 1812. Like her, I fell for someone from a different place. Reader, I married him, though we spend a lot of time in Yorkshire. Friends and relatives visit London to aid my vital educational work, such as insisting people eat Christmas cake with cheese.
Although you grew up in Bradford, you had quite a late introduction to the Brontës – can you tell us about how you finally discovered them?
I always had my nose in a Bradford Library book as a child, but it wasn’t a Brontë one. My awareness of the Brontë sisters growing up was shaped more by Hollywood depictions of moorland melodrama. It’s tempting to pretend I was swept away by Cathy and Heathcliff as a sensitive girl, but it wouldn’t be true. I first read and loved the novels as an adult.
I’m a journalist and started out as a cub reporter on the local paper that covered Haworth. So it was actually the newsworthy moorland melodrama of the Brontë Society that introduced me to the local lasses made good – and why they remain a hot topic for every generation. The facts of their lives, the truth of their times and the reality of what they mean to people fascinates me. And with Mrs Brontë, the truth was out there. I just had to go looking for it.
What encouraged you to write a biography about Maria?
It was about time, don’t you think? Maria Branwell Brontë gave us the most gifted literary siblings the world has ever known – then vanished from history for 200 years.
What to you is the most interesting part about her life?
All of it, frankly, but also that it remained so unexplored for so long. She was born into a wealthy family of Penzance merchants and grew up amid Enlightenment thinking, religious revival, political turmoil and gothic stories, not to mention notorious smugglers. Then came a perilous journey across Regency England to Yorkshire, where she found poor but passionate Irish curate Patrick Brontë at Woodhouse Grove School in Apperley Bridge. Their world-changing love story produced a family like no other, riven by both genius and heartbreak. I was particularly interested in her Thornton years, as a society bluestocking with her own literary ambitions in between giving birth to Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne. Her death from cancer at 38, too, is important when considering her legacy. The grim, protracted end, the overwhelming grief of her husband so movingly expressed, and the lasting impact on her six children. Honestly, it’s delightful to make her centre stage for once.
What was the hardest part about researching and writing your book?
Starting from scratch and ignoring received wisdom about Maria being lost to us. Luckily, I was armed with all my skills as an investigative reporter. I embarked on an eye-opening journey across Britain in search of mysterious Mrs Brontë. Countless hours were spent in specialist archives, still more walking in her footsteps and exploring the houses and places she called home, analysing her own words, understanding her world. I met some wonderful people along the way, all as excited by my quest as I was. It has been one of the joys of my life to return Maria to the very heart of the Brontë story. What is hard (and can leave you open to a degree of snootiness) is conveying meticulous, original research in an engaging style, but I have always written for a broad and inclusive audience. The Brontës belong to everyone and I never tire of meeting lovely, appreciative readers at book events.
Can you choose a favourite novel by the Brontë sisters?
I can’t, no. I love different ones for different reasons. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is astonishing, not least because Anne Brontë takes an unblinking look at what it’s really like to be shackled to a hard-drinking bully in an era when women – and especially mothers – had very, very few options for escape. The exhibition called Anne Brontë: ‘Amid the brave and strong’ at the Brontë Parsonage Museum to mark her bicentenary is deeply moving, and I feel so lucky to have viewed it before the pandemic closures. Once this is all over, I’d urge people to visit. Anne’s courage feels especially poignant as we all confront issues of mortality.
Then wild, ferocious Wuthering Heights is magnetic because Emily Brontë herself remains such a closed book. I love Villette because it’s Charlotte Brontë at her most complicated and bitter. Paul Emanuel is my favourite Brontë hero.
Who are some of your other favourite authors?
As a non-fiction author, I’m a great fan of the witty, acute observations and clear style of Barbara Ehrenreich and Jon Ronson. I picked up Lean Out by Dawn Foster in a bookshop the other day and thought, thank goodness someone has written this! It is a superb riposte to the infuriating Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I also love the work of Rebecca Fraser, including The Mayflower Generation. Plus, I’ve been hoovering up George Orwell essays, reminding myself of the power and clarity of his journalism. For fiction, no-one beats Marina Lewycka for combining comedy and compassion in her unforgettable novels. Good reading for Coronavirus lockdowns…
What do you miss most about living in Bradford?
The starlings at dusk, though I doubt they still gather in such numbers. Also the landscape, especially around Haworth, Stanbury and over the tops to Calderdale. It’s all so beautiful and familiar I can never stay away for long. I hope I don’t have to.