In 1932, Rebecca West published an essay about Charlotte Brontė that remains one of the most eloquent appreciations ever written by one author about another. West expressed her profound sympathyóborn, doubtless, of common experienceówith Brontė's perpetual need to scramble in order to support herself and her family, a pressure that affected, and may even have distorted, her art. Throughout her article, West applauds the courage that inspired her literary predecessor to tell
the truth about matters concerning which the whole civilization round her had conspired to create a fiction. . . . She records oppressions practiced by the dowered on the dowerless, and by adults on children, and seems to many of her readers absurd and unpleasant when she does so; but that is perhaps not because such incidents never happen, but because we dislike admitting that they happen. There is hardly a more curious example of the gap we leave between life and literature than the surprise and incredulity recorded by successive generations of Brontėan commentators at the passages in the sisters' works which suggest that the well-to-do are sometimes uncivil to their employees.
Curiously, this tribute goes unmentioned in The Brontė Myth, Lucasta Miller's lucid and fascinating account of the ways in which generations of writers, readers, and critics have viewed the brilliant, if unfortunate, inhabitants of Haworth Parsonage. But perhaps it's not so surprising, since Miller's subject is not the perceptive and penetrating readings of the Brontė' novels that, apparently against all odds, have managed to emerge over time but rather the myriad ways in which their lives have been distorted and their work misinterpreted, most often in response to the changing prejudices and preconceptions of successive historical eras.
Miller begins by offering a succinct sketch of the driven, hardworking author who first published, in 1846, a volume of poems in collaboration with her two younger sisters. Charlotte disguised herself as Currer Bell; Anne chose Acton Bell as her nom de plume, while Emily went by the name of Ellis Bell, pseudonyms they retained when they began to publish fiction the following year. The sisters were responding preemptively to the mores of an era in which the poet laureate, Robert Southey, had already answered a letter from Charlotte (she had included some poems and mentioned her literary ambitions) by reminding her that "literature cannot be the business of a woman's life: & it ought not to be." Moreover, Charlotte intuitively understood how subversive their fiction was and how thoroughly Jane Eyre, which, as Miller points out, offered a "positive concept of the emerging female self in a society whose predominant models of middle-class femininity were self-denying, dutiful, and passion-free," might appall the delicate sensibilities of her easily shocked contemporaries.
Among those who found the novel unsettling was Charlotte's earliest biographer, fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, whose 1857 Life of Charlotte Brontė was "arguably the most famous English biography of the nineteenth century." I confess that I've always loved Mrs. Gaskell's Life, partly because it seems so much like the most romantic sort of nineteenth-century novel and partly because it is so powerfully affecting. (Some years ago, the novelist Diane Johnson told me that she stopped teaching the book because she could no longer stand bursting into tears in front of her class every time she reached the section about Anne Brontė's death.) What's more embarrassing to confess is that, before reading The Brontė Myth, I'd always naively accepted Gaskell's version as gospel, more or less. In fact, Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontė not only reads like fiction but is, in many ways, a work of the imagination. Like many writers of the timeóa company that, it must be said, included quite a few of Brontė's female contemporariesóGaskell was disturbed by the "coarseness" of Brontė's work and seems to have prohibited her own daughter from reading Jane Eyre until she was twenty. Acutely uncomfortable with her subject's portrayal of passion and ambition, as well as female anger (one of the most original and intriguing themes of Jane Eyre), Gaskell sought to explain these deviations from propriety and feminine virtue by exaggerating the pathology and privations of Charlotte's background, as if misery and suffering might excuse those aspects of the novels that Gaskell found so upsetting. She made Haworth Parsonage sound more isolated and desolate than it was and painted Charlotte's father, Patrick, as being harsher and her brother Branwell as more dissolute than the facts would suggest. Gaskell not only suppressed evidence concerning the novelist's infatuation with a Constantin Heger, a teacher she met during a sojourn in Belgium, but also (like so many of the biographers and critics who would later write about the Brontės) avoided, insofar as possible, talking about Charlotte's fiction at all. Thus Gaskell could be said to have founded, or at least contributed to, a tradition of portraying female artists so fragile, bloodless, neurasthenic, haunted, and suicidal that we can barely imagine how they could have produced the strong and demanding work they did.
Alas, Gaskell was hardly the last to propagate a view of the prodigiously talented sisters that had only the most tenuous relation to historical reality. In the first decades of this century, a number of authors reacted against the saintly Victorian angel depicted by the Brontės' early hagiographers, and, in works influenced by Freudian theory and by Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey's classic of biographical debunking, they portrayed Haworth Parsonage as a sort of roiling nuthouse inhabited by the hapless victims of repression, hysteria, and wall-clawing sexual frustration. A half century later, feminist critics continued to see the sisters as victims, this time of the "patriarchal forces which protect our economic structures." "Ironically," notes Miller, "the sort of feminist reading which stressed Charlotte's victimhood unintentionally reproduced the martyrology of the Victorians. Whether or not the women's movement of the 1970s genuinely liberated Charlotte from being trapped in a narrative of 'devotion to male destiny' seems a moot point when one reads of her being so oppressed by the men in her life . . . that it eventually killed her."
At the same time, as we might have expected, Hollywood did little to correct the popular view of the Brontės, whom the publicity material for the 1946 film DevotionóIda Lupino and Olivia de Havilland played Emily and Charlotte, respectivelyódescribed as follows: "Emily: she ruled in that strange quiet house! None could resist the force of her will! . . . Charlotte: the sweetness of love and the meaning of tormentóshe learned them both together!" Miller more briefly addresses the different case of Emily Brontė, whose demonic talent and amoral literary universe made even her own sister so uneasy that, in a preface to Wuthering Heights, Charlotte wrote, "Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do now know: I scarcely think it is."
Because Emily so much more rarely interacted with the outside world, because so little is known about her life, and because her masterpiece is so much more fiercely romantic and imaginative than her sisters', she has been the subject of even more fantastic interpretations, speculations, and rumors. It's been suggested, for example, that Charlotte destroyed Emily's unfinished second novel, that their brother Branwell was the true author of Wuthering Heights, and that Emily was a psychic with second sight and the ability to communicate with the dead. What's too often missing from accounts of her career, Miller writes, is a genuine appreciation of her conscious artistry, of the fact that she was not merely an untaught primitive running wild over the moors but rather a serious writer and a Latin scholar who translated Virgil and Horace. But that image is unlikely to appeal to the streams of pilgrims who regularly flock to Haworth Parsonage to visit the shrine of the three gifted sisters and to acquire the trinkets that, as Miller notes in one of the book's most telling passages, have come to symbolize our skewed vision of the Brontės. In the gift shops on Haworth's Main Street, one can buy "tea towels printed with the Brontės' faces," a flagon of Brontė Original Unique Liqueur, and an Emily Brontė soap that has the "elusive fragrance of the wild moors." What Miller persuasively argues is that we might want to forgo the tea towels and the trips to Haworth and stay home to read and reread the Brontės' great work, books that will provide us with a more accurate, complex, and nuanced picture of who they were and why they continue to matter more than all the myths and legends, the sentiment and souvenirs.
Francine Prose's new novel, A Changed Man, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2005.