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Winifred Gérin

Biographer of the Brontës

Helen MacEwan studied modern languages at Oxford University. A translator and former teacher, she is the author of The Brontës in Brussels, an exploration of Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time at the Pensionnat Heger, and Down the Belliard Steps: Discovering the Brontës in Brussels

The biographer Winifred Gérin (1901–81), who wrote the lives of all four Brontë siblings, stumbled on her literary vocation on a visit to Haworth, after a difficult decade following the death of her first husband. On the same visit she met her second husband, a Brontë enthusiast twenty years her junior. Together they turned their backs on London to live within sight of the Parsonage, Gérin believing that full understanding of the Brontës required total immersion in their environment.

Gérin’s childhood and youth, like the Brontës’, was characterised by a cultured home and an intense imaginative life shared with her sister and two brothers, and by family tragedies (the loss of two siblings in early life). Strong cultural influences formed the children’s imagination: polyglot parents, French history, the Crystal Palace, Old Vic productions. Winifred’s years at Newnham College, Cambridge were enlivened by such eccentric characters as the legendary lecturer Arthur Quiller-Couch (‘Q’), Lytton Strachey’s sister Pernel, and Bloomsbury’s favourite philosopher, G.E. Moore.

Her happy life in Paris with her Belgian cellist husband, Eugène Gérin, was brought to an abrupt end by the Second World War, during which the couple had many adventures: fleeing occupied Belgium, saving Jews in Vichy France, and escaping through Spain and Portugal to England, where they did secret war work for the Political Intelligence Department near Bletchley Park. After Eugène’s death in 1945 Winifred coped with bereavement by writing poetry and plays until discovering her true literary metier on her visit to Haworth. She also wrote about Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Thackeray Ritchie and Fanny Burney. This book is based on her letters and on her unpublished memoir.

Papberack ISBN: 978-1-84519-743-8
Paperback Price: £19.95 / $29.99
Release Date: November 2015
Page Extent / Format: 256 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


List of Illustrations

1 Norwood: Childhood and the end of childhood
2 Paris 1913: ‘The most splendid adventure’
3 Sydenham: The Great War years
4 Cambridge: ‘Bill’ and ‘Q’
5 Holidays in France: ‘Plom’ and Cannes
6 Paris Idyll: 1932–1939
7 Flight from Brussels: The summer of 1940
8 Nice: The pit of darkness
9 Aspley Guise: Political intelligence
10 West Cromwell Road:Tthe long road back
11 Haworth: ‘Brontë atmosphere’
12 Haworth: Recognition at last
13 Kensington: The final fifteen years


In an original and revealing biography ... Helen MacEwan presents not just a fascinating study of Gérin’s long and at times very personal preoccupation with the Brontës, but the story of a highly individual character ... Using much previously unknown and unpublished material, MacEwan has painstakingly put together a portrait of one woman and her times that adds significantly to Brontë studies and literary biography, while her deftly-told narrative brings Gérin’s private, feeling, thoughtful character to life with unerring sympathy.
Claire Harman, biographer and critic, author of the major new biography Charlotte Brontë: A Life and of Jane’s Fame.

In this beautifully written and carefully researched biography of a biographer, Helen MacEwan shows us something of the European dimension of Gérin’s experience and understanding, as well as revealing the deeply emotional character of her subject, in her joys, passions and losses ... Helen MacEwan shines a fascinating light, not only on a remarkable woman of letters, but on a reader and writer of exceptional integrity.
Stevie Davies, critic and novelist, author of Emily Brontë: Heretic and Four Dreamers and Emily.

For anyone, like me, who knows Winifred Gérin only as the biographer of the Brontës, this book will come as a revelation. Not only did Gérin have an astonishingly adventurous life, but Helen MacEwan has brought it before us in vivid and enthralling detail ... MacEwan’s book draws on extensive original research into unpublished papers and records, but she wears her erudition lightly and always gives a sense of the lived moment rather than the dry facts. She achieves, in fact, that balance between sense and sensibility which friends appreciated in Gérin’s own work. This is a thrilling book to read, a page-turner, offering through specific vignettes important glimpses into the social history of the twentieth century. It will appeal to an audience well beyond Brontë devotees.
Patsy Stoneman, Emeritus Reader in English, University of Hull, and Acting President of the Brontë Society. Author of Charlotte Brontë in the Writers and their Work series, Northcote House Publishers.

This lovingly researched biography of a biographer is a fitting tribute to Winifred Gerin’s passionate commitment to the Brontës and offers a slice of twentieth century history through the prism of one remarkable woman’s experiences.
Lucasta Miller, author of The Brontë Myth

This thoughtful account of Gérin’s life is as much a portrait of a tumultuous century as of a biographer whose “narrative skills, warmth and detailed evocation of the Brontës’ environment brought the family closer than any biography since Mrs Gaskell’s a century earlier”. Drawing on letters and an unpublished memoir, MacEwan considers her subject’s imaginative life as a child, her time at Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to the cellist Eugène Gérin, their flight from occupied Belgium and then work for the Political Intelligence Department near Bletchley Park. From the ashes of bereavement came a new literary vocation: on a visit to Haworth after Gérin’s death, she met a fellow Brontë admirer, John Lock, who would become her second husband.
Karen Shook, Books Editor, Times Higher Education, 14 January 2015

Although, Winifred Gérin is most widely known for her biographies of the Brontë siblings, her own life was far more adventurous than that of the genteel literary clan she chronicled. Born into an educated and cultured home, Gérin’s early life, complete with the tragic death of two siblings, mirrored those of the Brontë sisters. Eventually marrying a Belgian cellist and moving to Europe, Gérin became involved in the Belgian resistance, helped save Jews in Vichy France, and ultimately escaped to England through Spain. Inspired by a visit to the Brontë’s home in Haworth, Gérin found her literary voice as the chronicler the Brontë clan. To get a more intimate understanding of the Brontës, Gerin immersed herself in their environment by living in a house with a view of the Brontë Parsonage. MacEwan, who has also penned biographies about the Brontë family, gleaned Gérin’s life story from her letters and the unfinished manuscript of Gérin’s unpublished autobiography.

This biography of a biographer … is meticulously researched, perceptive and really surprising … Until I read Helen MacEwan’s revelations about her, I knew Gérin simply as the author of Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius, about which the Times reviewer of the time (1967) wrote ‘… her book holds the reader as closely as a novel.’ The same could be said about this one … ‘Winifred always wrote about people with whom she felt an emotional connection and affinity,’ states MacEwan in her Preface. The same applies to Helen MacEwan: Winifred Gérin is brought very close to the readers of this book.
Richard Wilcocks, Brontë Parsonage Blog, 4 January 2016

Helen MacEwan – a Brontë scholar living in Brussels – draws (a) nuanced portrait of the biographer. Gérin has been criticised for portraying the Brontës from the fictions they created; MacEwan seeks to discover whether those vivid characterisations were also influenced by Gérin’s own colourful life. The parallels, skilfully drawn by MacEwan, are inescapable ... Precocious literary accomplishments, early bereavements and mental instability argue a tempting case for Winifred’s sense of affinity with the Brontë family. Winifred’s link to Charlotte, in particular, strengthened when she married Eugène Gérin, a ... cellist whose family lived in Brussels, a city that Winifred came to know almost as intimately as does her own biographer.
Miranda Seymour, Times Literary Supplement, 12 February 2016

Born in 1901 and living a life that almost spanned the whole of the 20th century ... Winifred Gérin's romance with her Belgian musician first husband Eugène Gérin, their ... escape from occupied France during World War 2 and of course her life in Haworth with her second husband researching her biographies all make for a truly engrossing read, brilliantly told by Helen MacEwan, who has managed to piece together the widely-scattered writings by Winifred Gérin from all these different periods of her life. Helen MacEwan's success is in her untiring research and her vivid storytelling, which combined make Winifred Gérin and her entourage really leap off the pages of this biography ... What a well-done and well-deserved tribute this is.
Bronteblog, 26 January 2016

MacEwan writes with ease and information is conveyed free of theory and jargon. The research has been thorough and MacEwan is at home with her subject. Brontë scholars Claire Harman, Stevie Davies and Patsy Stoneman provide laudatory reviews on the half-title page: ‘original and revealing’, ‘beautifully written and carefully researched’ and ‘gives a sense of the lived moment rather than dry fact’, to quote a phrase from each. While this does rather pre-empt anything I can say, I have no hesitation in endorsing these views. Even before reading the book, I was impressed by its smart production and the wide range of the author’s sources evidenced in the ‘peripherals’: forty illustrations, many from Gérin’s family and friends; the help acknowledged by an impressive range of descendants, archivists, local historians, genealogists, librarians, tourist office staff and other authors; the four-part bibliography; and the impressively full yet clear index. The bibliographies augment the brief references in the page footnotes. The selection of quotes, from Gérin’s own works, published and unpublished, and from other people, are well chosen. Translations are provided where needed. This is an overall impressive production.
... With Winifred Gérin, Helen MacEwan has established herself as a serious and exciting presence in Brontë scholarship.
Brontë Studies, Vol. 41, No. 4, November 2016, 361–371

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