This is a preface to a poem by Patrick Brontë, clergyman, author and father of novelists Emily, Charlotte and Anne. The Phenomenon was intended as a reward for children who excelled in their Sunday School classes. From early on in his life, Patrick had written and published a range of poetry and sermons, although none ever achieved critical acclaim.
Across these two pages, Brontë sets out a harsh, unforgiving lesson about what and how children should read:
If you read the Scriptures and other good books only, your souls will be edified and comforted; but if you read every tract that is put into your hands by cunning and designing people, or eagerly search out for, and peruse such tracts and books as you know before to be bad, then you are sure to be corrupted and misled, and your talent of reading will become a source of sin and misery to yourselves and others
This moralistic view strikes us as odd when compared with what we know of his children’s reading experiences. They not only read freely, but their juvenilia is made up of richly imaginative, often dark and violent stories. In fact, as described by Christine Alexander in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Unlike most middle-class Victorian households, there was little censorship of reading in the Brontë parsonage. The Bible was staple fare; yet Patrick Brontë also encouraged an eclectic diet of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Milton, Pope, Johnson, Gibbon, Cowper, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Southey, and Byron…