- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

In a preface to “The Bronte Myth,” Lucasta Miller states that her portrait of the legendary family “is not so much a biography of the Brontes as it is a book about biography, a metabiography.” But it is much more. Pass over the infelicity of that (not inaccurate) bit of academy-speak and find that the lives of Charlotte and Emily Bronte have rarely seemed more sensibly treated or their surpassing novels more carefully considered.

The biographer begins by asserting that the “tragic story” of the Bronte family continues to be retold in “endless new configurations.” And she brings these up to date:

“Cliff Richard may have starred as Heathcliff, but Sinead O’Connor has played Emily Bronte. ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and more recently ‘Jane Eyre,’ may have been adapted as operas, but the lives of their original creators have inspired ballets and a musical. George Eliot has never rivaled Maggie Tulliver in the imagination of readers. Thomas Hardy does not compete with Tess. Yet the Brontes of Haworth have become popular characters on a level with Jane Eyre and Rochester, Cathy and Heathcliff.”

So it is that in this book, the author shows that popular culture in the form of Victorian accounts, Freudian psychotherapies, psychobiographies, films, ballets and tourist brochures — more than history or literary criticism — became an industry that turned the Brontes and their work into the stuff of legend.

The biographer avoids affixing a feminist agenda to the lives of the Bronte sisters, but she makes the point that in their time, sheltered upbringing aside, the opportunities for women — especially spirited women — to publish were few. It is within this context she explains how the sisters first came to write their books and then publish them pseudonymously.

One of Charlotte’s early ambitions was “to be forever known.” But as she matured and put her first words to paper and noticed that her sisters Emily and Anne were also so inclined, she became aware that Emily’s writing in particular inspired “a deep conviction that these were not the common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write.” It was on those grounds that their pseudonym was born. Charlotte, Emily and Anne became Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. In 1846, their first publication “Poems” sold just two copies. In the summer of 1847, there followed Emily’s “Wuthering Heights,” Anne’s “Agnes Grey,” and Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre,” all received to a mix of acclaim and controversy.

Though Charlotte early on wanted “to remain concealed beneath the veil of Currer Bell,” this was not possible. The moment when she and Emily slowly reveal themselves as the authors of the already well-known novels is one of the most affecting in the book. But this is a rare moment. The emphasis here is the evolution of the myth and for that reason we may learn that Charlotte had bad teeth or that Emily was quiet, but Ms. Miller has a few axes to grind — starting with early Bronte biographers.

With the publication of “The Life of Charlotte Bronte” a mere two years after the death of Charlotte at the age of 39, Elizabeth Gaskell became the first biographer to set the family record on its odd and oddly distorted course, casting Charlotte as a victim of a violent father who kept his gifted daughter locked in misery at Haworth, their remote parsonage in Yorkshire.

But even while Charlotte was still alive, there were those who simply misunderstood her and her work. There was Harriet Martineau, who according to Charlotte herself, seemed [along with Mrs. Gaskell] “determined between them that I shall be a sort of invalid.” Later, otherwise upstanding Victorian men of letters such as William Thackeray and G.H. Lewes focused some puerile attention on what they perceived to be the “naughtiness” of “Jane Eyre.” But psychoanalyst Lucille Dooley, writing in the 1920s, wins the prize for the dreariest assessment, citing Charlotte for being “essentially neurotic.”

In this book, Charlotte is painted as the sturdier sister, with Emily being shown to be the more mysterious of the two. The book is roughly divided in half with observations about Charlotte taking up the first, Emily, the second. Ms. Miller demonstrates how “Wuthering Heights” was perceived to be more alarming in its way than “Jane Eyre,” and much time is spent trying to get to the heart of Emily’s mythic remoteness and mystery, furthered by the novelist May Sinclair who believed Emily to be possessed of “rare spiritual gifts.”

Throughout the book, it is Charlotte and Emily on whom the biographer keeps her eye trained. Anne, though not anonymous, is given less attention than her sisters. And Branwell, their brother, who in other books about the sisters has had more of his share of the stage, here operates as little more than an irritating footnote to the history and the myth.

Along with the poets, novelists, publishers, teachers, friends and relatives who appear to have had their say, it was not least of all the generations of readers who projected their passions and fears onto the remote, mysterious and gifted women from Haworth that helped shape the multifaceted Bronte myth.

It is difficult to know what to make of the myths once they are identified and revealed. They are, in sum, benign enough and certainly understandable within the context of the times in which they sprung.

There is no doubt that the words and enduring stories that the Brontes created are bigger than the myths that surround them. And in Emily’s case in particular, the biographer makes the compelling case that her work should not be harvested for clues to the nature she was so careful to conceal. Even the most “mystical” passages cited in her poem “The Prisoner” may have more to do with what she was reading (Byron) than the suicidal tendencies they were assumed to expose.

The Bronte myths do grip, and it is hard to believe as the biographer asserts that the sisters were “as cheerful and full of spirits as possible.” But it is clear that no mythmaker can say with certainty anything about what the sisters knew, who they loved or what they thought about sex. And idolators beware. Here is how Ms. Miller handles what one starry-eyed, rhapsodic biographer wrote in 1876 about a Bronte family outing:

“‘Emily Bronte does not talk so much as the rest of the party, but her wonderful eyes, brilliant and unfathomable as the pool at the foot of a waterfall, but radiant also with a wealth of tenderness and warmth show how her soul is expanding under the influences of the scene; … she utters at times a strange, deep guttural sound which those who know her best interpret as the language of a joy too deep for articulate expression.’”

Lucasta Miller’s observation of this passage? “Unable to communicate in animal grunts, it is hard to see how this Emily could have written anything at all.”

In this exhaustive study, no good myth goes unexamined.

THE BRONTE MYTH

By Lucasta Miller

Knopf, $26.95, 351 pages, illus.

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