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These images tell us that a person existed, that the stories and achievements, the books and the paintings, were located here – in this figure.

Does it matter if it isn’t really a portrait of them, or doesn’t look like them, so long as we know what it stands for? After all, they don’t exist as people – not legally, not physically.

Richmond’s portrait probably doesn’t look much like her either; it certainly doesn’t look like any of the women in Branwell’s group portrait of his sisters.

Every year, it seems, a different 19th-century photograph is said to represent the Brontës, though there’s no record of them ever having sat for one.

’ She did so with remarkable alacrity: in the 18 months after Charlotte’s death in 1855 she read hundreds of letters and interviewed scores of friends and acquaintances, from whom all sorts of interesting tales derive, including the accusation that Patrick Brontë not only took pot-shots out of his bedroom window but also deprived his children of meat (a serious charge given their ill health) and puritanically burned or ripped to shreds any brightly coloured clothes. One of the best-known and most picturesque Brontë legends comes from Patrick himself.He told Gaskell (she quotes his letter) that when Anne, the youngest sibling, was four, he played a game with the children, giving each in turn a mask to wear, and telling them to answer his questions freely from behind it.To Anne he asked:what a child like her most wanted; she answered, ‘Age and experience.’ I asked the next (Emily, afterwards Ellis Bell) what I had best do with her brother Branwell, who was sometimes a naughty boy; she answered, ‘Reason with him, and when he won’t listen to reason, whip him.’ I asked Branwell what was the best way of knowing the difference between the intellect of men and women, he answered, ‘By considering the difference between them as to their bodies.’ I then asked Charlotte what was the best book in the world; she answered, ‘The Bible.’ And what was the next best; she answered, ‘The Book of Nature.’The most interesting and valuable source of Brontë stories is their own writings.Many of the stories in Gaskell are now familiar to any Brontë fan – they are told in every new book, though always slightly differently: quoted by one writer, dramatised by another, paraphrased by a third, contested, exaggerated.At the end of the manuscript of the Life, Gaskell had two sheets of quotations, written out, it seems, to guide her.

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