That celebrated cat, Elizabeth Gaskell, has left us a picture of Patrick Bronte, father of the famous writing sisters:
Every morning, she wrote, the old boy would stalk out of the parsonage with two loaded pistols and fire them in the graveyard next door. This, she said, showed how irascible he was, how eccentric, how violent and rude. She went on from there to draw a singularly unattractive portrait of the man.
But last night Ray Handy, a Welsh verteran of stage and TV documentary, set the story to rights in his one-man show at the Library of Congress.
Dressed like someone's 18th-century ancestork, linens wrapped around his throat, he explained, in the rational manner of all so-called eccentrics (who are after all simply people immune to the opinions of strangers) that the pistols were loaded each night because it was a dangerous time, with Luddites roaming the countryside.
And the guns were fired off in the morning because he had six small children in the house. And what safer place than a graveyard?
Handy's gravel voice kept a restless audience still, at last, with the moving story of his life with his genius daughters and wastrel son. For he outlived them all. He recites their deaths, his wife at 38, then the children one by one, at 11, at 10, at 31 and 30 and 39 and 38. He reads love letters, chuckles over the heedlessly happy family life with small children, and the cats and dogs and the geese Victoria and Adelaide.
And at the end he charges Mrs. Gaskell to write a memoir of Charlotte, the last to die.He speaks from some strange future-in-the-past, for he knows already that the popular author wil not serve him well, that he will end up a witty footnote in the theses of English majors.
Perhaps the poigancy of the performance lay in Handy's ability to make us sharply aware of the bleak glory of a long life, a life that goes on beyond children, beyond friends, that glimpses he dusty oblivion beyond contemporary remembrance. And that yet continues.