Chainless souls are a bit like stray dogs; you feel sympathy for them in theory but you don’t really want to be landed with them for very long. Katherine Frank’s A Chainless Soul, the first biography of Emily Brontë for twenty years, does underline very clearly how regularly Emily and her brother and sisters were returned to sender when they made their rare sorties from home. Poetry may be delicate and sensitive, endearing and appealing, the poet quite other. Meeting one’s favourite in the flesh isn’t always a riotous success. Not that this is Frank’s theme. Like most biographers she has grown close to her subject – in fact these two portraits of nineteenth-century novelist and twentieth-century biographer, on front and back cover, display a striking likeness between the two; something about the set of the head and the intensity of the gaze links them. Frank’s particular theme and ‘discovery’ – unattractively and unaccountably advertised on the inside cover as ‘feminist perspective’ – is the suggestion that Emily was anorexic. The immediate anxiety that this is going to be an unbalanced and overstated interpretation is unfounded. The preface shows her standpoint to be carefully argued, confident and somehow convincing. In fact it is remarkably down-to-earth, as it considers the possibility that Emily’s often-quoted mysticism may have been the distorted consciousness induced by fasting. Frank has also wisely decided that Charlotte Brontë is not an unbiased witness and she tries to interpret Emily from a variety of sources: her poetry, her novels, her fantasy writings, the comments of others.
The prologue presents a well-researched picture of Haworth as the Brontës lived it, the journey there as they would have travelled it, the climb up the cobbled hill, and, after that long haul, the graveyard, the parsonage, and nothing more.
Most people with any interest in the Brontës will have an