The Brontes

The Brontes

The Brontes

The Brontes

Synopsis

The novels of Charlotte and Emily Bronte have become canonical texts for the application of twentieth century literary and cultural theory. Along with the work of their sister, Anne, their texts are regarded as a sources of diversity in themselves, full of conflictual material which different schools of criticism have analysed and interpreted. This book shows how the Brontes writings engage with the major issues which dominate twentieth century theoretical work. The essays are grouped under broad schools of theory- biographical; feminist; marxist; psychoanalytical and postcolonial.

Excerpt

In the past fifty years, interpretation of the Brontës’ work has effortlessly accommodated aspects of modern criticism which would have been unintelligible to the earliest reviewers. Feminist, Marxist, postcolonialist, psychological and postmodernist critics have all found issues that resonate with their concerns. The early reviews, by contrast, seem innocent in their approach. If closely examined, however, in the social context of the 1840s they reveal that the reviewers recognise in the texts issues that later critics have since unpacked with varying degrees of skill. Such reviewers were working without a clear sense of the nature of the genre but with a perceived need to rank works for the benefit of the reader according to well-understood conventions as to the sayable and the unspeakable. In an elitist society, ranking was the natural thing for the elite to provide; and in a patriarchal society it was equally natural that different standards prevailed for women and men as authors.

From the first there was much curiosity as to the identity of the ‘Bells’ with their deliberately androgynous first names, Currer, Ellis and Acton. This began an interest in the authorship of the novels which was to blossom later in a variety of forms. While their identity was still unknown, Elizabeth Rigby remarked when reviewing Jane Eyre that it must be by a man because it gets domestic details wrong. If it is written by a woman ‘we have no alternative but to ascribe it to one who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex’. Her comment hints at sexual misdemeanour and presumably makes inferences from Jane’s passion for Rochester. When G.H. Lewes only guessed that the author was a woman, he praised it extravagantly as ‘soul speaking to soul’. Once he knew it was by a woman, he changed his mind: ‘A more masculine book, in the sense of vigour, was never written … Indeed that vigour often amounts to coarseness … That same over masculine vigour is found in Shirley’. Another reviewer solved the problem by deciding that ‘the said Currer … divides the authorship … with a brother and sister’.

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