Withering Criticism and Heights of Praise ; Each Era Reinvents the Brontee Sisters to Reflect Its Own Feminine Terrors or Ideals

Article excerpt

The Brontees and their books have been revered, reviled, and rewritten with a hunger - even rapaciousness - dating back to their earliest publications: the 1846 poems published under the noms de plume Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, and, especially, "Jane Eyre," by Currer Bell in 1847. From the beginning, there were furious whispers about the authors' identities - and horrified gasps at what was deemed the coarseness, vulgarity, and intimacy of "Jane Eyre."

Though the sisters chose pen names in hopes that their work might stand on its own merit, mystery fueled rumors, imbuing the authorial debate with questions of gender and class.

According to Lucasta Miller's new biography, "The Brontee Myth," when Charlotte revealed the Bell brothers' identities after the death of Anne and Emily, the defense she chose - depicting the sisters as timorous virgins whose stumbling innocence might exonerate them from their own vulgar works - only riled the public more.

Charlotte's first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, made a similar choice in 1857, striving for a book that would stir pity and forgiveness by revealing private woes. She depicted her as a paragon of femininity and distracted readers with a trove of trivial details down to Charlotte's comments on her lingerie.

Here, writes Miller, in this effort to silence critics and those who had stirred to tell Charlotte's story, began the Brontee myth. Even in the early years, it led to making such a fetish of Brontee memorabilia that Charlotte's father, Patrick, cut her letters into squares to meet a clamor for handwriting samples - a graphic illustration, writes Miller, of "how Charlotte's celebrity had the effect of sucking the meaning out of her."

Miller's interest lies not so much in debunking myths and rumors - like those of Patrick burning rugs in a domestic rampage and sawing the legs off chairs, or of Emily's brother Branwell as the author of "Wuthering Heights" - as in seeing those myths as a kaleidoscope of contemporary culture.

Roughly half of the book is devoted to Charlotte. In addition to a lucid, witty dissection of her legend and the range of plays and novels it inspired, Miller offers a deft reading of the shifts in biography and literary criticism.

Charlotte's fluid reputation reveals a growing freedom among biographers to explore depths and dark sides of subjects' lives. As early as 1858, psychobiography emerged (a reading of Charlotte's life appeared in a psychology journal that year) along with a gradual emphasis on the unconscious, including a move to read Charlotte's last illness as a death wish. …