The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller
I think I’ve mentioned it in passing, but my senior thesis focuses on Jane Eyre and its derivative works. This is a fancy, academic way of saying “it’s about Jane Eyre fanfiction”. (I actually considered Pride and Prejudice, but I think I would have drowned.) I have been rereading Jane Eyre, but my readings are too close together for much personal enjoyment, and I do want to get onto the derivative works as soon as possible. So, to keep my chin up, I decided to pick up The Brontë Myth to give myself something new to look at in the first week or so of my research.
The Brontë Myth is not a biography of the Brontë sisters by any means. Rather, it’s an examination of the legends and mythos that have sprung up around the women from Haworth from Charlotte’s lifetime to the late nineties (despite its publication date of 2004). From Charlotte’s own publicly published notes on her sisters to the biography written by friend and contemporary Elizabeth Gaskell to fictionalized depictions of the Brontës, Miller examines how and why these sisters have long persisted in cultural memory, while attention to their actual literary works have persisted somewhat less.
As a kid, I think I was vaguely aware of the Brontës in the context of Jane Eyre; it blew my mind a little to discover that Wuthering Heights was written by Emily Brontë instead of Charlotte Brontë—I’d assumed she was the Brontë. But even that thin memory kind of proves Miller’s first point—an obsession with the Brontës that’s specifically aimed at Charlotte and, to a lesser extent, Emily. Anne (otherwise known as the one Brontë sister not into jerks, thank you, Kate Beaton) gets a short shrift in the Brontë mythology; in fact, she even gets short shrift here. But Miller isn’t writing a biography; while she sketches Charlotte’s life in the first few chapters in order to discuss what facts were twisted or ignored in the creation of the Brontë myth, this book is about its creation and perpetuation, especially in regards to Charlotte and Emily.
The Brontë mythology includes a vast variety of ideas, from the concept of the sisters as isolated, innocent daughters whose shocking writing came from being cruelly exposed to masculine vices through their brother and father to the image of the lonely, windswept moors the feminist reclamation of Charlotte. Fascinatingly, Charlotte appears to be complicit in the creation of the Brontë myth. After the publication of Jane Eyre under the pseudonym of Currer Bell (the sisters chose androgynous pen names, anxious about actually lying) shocked audiences, Charlotte, Miller argues, became more sensitive to maintaining her public image, especially after her identity was revealed. Miller includes anecdotes of dinner parties where guests expect to be astounded by the brilliance of Currer Bell, but are instead faced with a retiring Charlotte Brontë. And she wasn’t content to maintain just her own image, but also that of her sisters. After the deaths of Emily and Anne, Charlotte, in a preface to a new edition collecting Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, wrote a biographical notice where she apologized for and excused her sisters for writing the way they did about the subjects that they did, framing them as innocent, thoughtless mistakes. Of course, this didn’t end with the sisters themselves; Elizabeth Gaskell’s famous biography of Charlotte, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, focused a great deal on her personal life in order to explain away or even ignore her subversive writings. Of course, a lot of these details were fabricated, like their father’s seeming abuse of the children, but they’ve perpetuated to this day.
But ultimately, I’m fascinated by how the myth deprives the sisters of creative agency. The idea that Emily, supposedly prone to visions and fainting fits, wrote Wuthering Heights in a fit of inspiration denies the fact that Emily spent a great deal of time and effort working on her craft. The idea that the supposed “coarseness” of the novels is due to the depravity of Branwell, their brother denies the grasp of humanity the sisters had. But the idea that had the most resonance was this: ‘[readers] could not resist the temptation to turn him into flesh and blood and, in the process, to bring the ethereal Emily down to earth by eroticizing her” (267). I’ve long railed against films and novels that propose that authors were inspired by oddly specific events in their own lives, such as Shakespeare in Love, Moliere, and Becoming Jane (I actually really love that last one, but that is more because I’m fond of watching Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy make out in period garb than anything else). Reading that was the first time I understood why this tact is taken over and over again. I need to worry it a bit before formulating why it upsets me a little, especially in Charlotte and Emily’s case, but it’s a start I’m grateful for.
Bottom line: The Brontë Myth engagingly explores the mythology surrounding the women of Haworth, from the way Charlotte perpetuated it herself to modern interpretations of their lives. It’s a fascinating look at how seemingly objective facts can tell very different stories. Very well done.
I rented this book from the public library.