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Words and pictures

The Art of the Brontes, By Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars. Cambridge University Press#163;55. 0 521 43248 0, #163;19.95. 0 521 43841 1.

This is the first major study of the influence of visual arts on the imaginations of the Bronte family. The authors have catalogued more than 400 examples of Bronte drawings and paintings with comments, and there are chapters in which they examine the art that the Brontes were exposed to and the place of art in their literature.

Christine Alexander, an Australian academic, and Jane Sellars, the director of Haworth Parsonage Museum, have unearthed and verified many previously unknown Bronte drawings. They offer firm evidence that Charlotte Bronte was at one time considering a career as an artist, even going so far as to exhibit some work.

A strong case is made for the importance of art in the development of the sisters as writers, with extracts from Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre demonstrating a powerful visual awareness.

The placing of portraits in some novels is highlighted and the authors suggest that characters and landscapes were described with an artist's eye.Perhaps so, but it has to be said that had the Bronte sisters not achieved literary distinction their paintings could not have been given away. Words best expressed their thoughts, language shaped their imaginings. Poor Charlotte never did sell a painting.

Such a detailed and absorbing book will be welcomed by Bronte scholars, but interest will not necessarily be confined to them. The Art of the Brontes is also valuable as a study of 19th century art, society and literature.

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