The date is 1824, and the six motherless Brontë children, ranging in age from four to ten, have already learned to people their lonely world by studying the magazines and newspapers that come to the Parsonage. Their father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, thinking his children know more than he has yet discovered they know, suggests a game "to make them speak with less timidity." Each is given a mask and told to "stand and speak boldly" from under its cover. First, he asks Anne, age four, what a child like her most wants. "Age and experience," she intones. It is impossible to say whether she has apprehended the ambiguity of her father's word "wants," which can mean both "desires" and "lacks." Next he asks Emily, nearly six, what to do with her brother, who is sometimes naughty. "Reason with him, and when he won't listen to reason, whip him." Seven- year-old Branwell has an equally ready response to the question of how to know the difference between the intellects of men and women: "By considering the difference between them as to their bodies.""What is the best book in the world?""The Bible," answers eight-year-old Charlotte. "And the next best?""The Book of Nature.""What is the best mode of education for a woman?""That which would make her rule her house well," says nine-year-old Elizabeth. Maria, age ten, has the last word. "What is the best mode of spending time?""By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity."
These are brilliantly dull answers, especially because the novels of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, the two most talented of the four who survived into adulthood, challenge the assumptions on which they are based. What is remarkable about the episode, apart from Patrick Brontë's pride in reporting it to E. C. Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë's first biographer, is its evidence of how well his children had already learned to arm themselves for and against adulthood.1 The mask, a device intended to release the originality of their fledgling spirits, reveals instead the very conditions of