Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

A Costly Morality: Dependency Care and Mental Difference in the Novels of the Brontë Sisters

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

A Costly Morality: Dependency Care and Mental Difference in the Novels of the Brontë Sisters

Article excerpt

The article investigates four fictional accounts of the complications involved in providing dependency care for one with a compromised mind-difficulties the authors knew well due to their father's decision to keep his alcohol- and opium-addicted son Branwell at home instead of institutionalizing him. Charlotte and Anne create fictional heroes who struggle to compassionately manage individuals dealing with drug addiction, mental illness, and cognitive disability, while Emily indicts the domestic sphere in the creation of such conditions.

The early Victorian period witnessed a marked increase in the public's willingness to deposit family members diagnosed with mental illness, cognitive disability, or drug addiction inside Britain's growing number of government- and charity-run asylums. By bucking this trend and refusing to relegate the care of his drug-addicted son to professionals, the Reverend Patrick Brontë unwittingly acquainted his daughters Anne, Emily, and Charlotte with the challenges involved in private supervision of a disordered mind. A despondent and selfdestructive Branwell-once the impetus behind the siblings' adolescent storytelling- would assume in his final years the role of those dissolute antiheroes he and Charlotte had so energetically detailed in their juvenilia. As this was the period in which his sisters were shaping their masterpieces, the frequency with which Branwell's troubles infiltrate their respective plots comes as no surprise. What does bear reexamination is the remarkable accordance between each sister's personal response to Branwell's addiction and her respective, fictional incarnation of his dysfunction and its management.

In Inventing the Addict (2008), Susan Zieger investigates nineteenth-century representations of drug use and the frequency with which questions about an addiction's genesis generate a storytelling impulse that becomes "the principle discursive mode of addiction in a failed but irresistible bid to identify its origin" (3). Lennard Davis discovers the same impulse in the public's approach to mental and physical difference: we wish to know where and when a disability emerged so that we can spin a comforting and manageable-usually sentimental- tale about its progress and social impact (3-4). The Brontës' works anticipate these critics' shared rubric relatively well, though some novels demonstrate greater interest in a disability's or disease's progress and treatment than its inception, and each successive story's posture toward caregiving shifts with respect to the author's temperament and her attitude toward Branwell. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), Anne, the youngest and most consistently dutiful of the sisters (Barker 330, 434), casts the family's experience with Branwell in the guise of a didactic and decidedly unsentimental, tragic romance: her brother's drug-addled years find equivalence in the dissipated behavior of the alcoholic Arthur Huntingdon, while his victimized wife recalls Branwell's longsuffering sisters. Charlotte, bound more closely to the writing partner whose imagination had once traipsed with hers through the paracosm of Angria, provides more complex, conflicted portraits of the family's experience with Branwell. What biographer Juliet Barker calls the "two rocks of duty and conscience" (516) war with Charlotte's old affection for her brother, creating a tension which informs both the troubled marriage relationship of Edward Rochester and the mentally ill Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre (1847) and, following Branwell's death, the uncomfortable custodian-ward association which briefly binds Lucy Snow to her intellectually disabled charge in Villette (1853). Lacking Anne's sense of duty and Charlotte's emotional investment, Emily remains the least involved in attempts to reverse Branwell's slow trek "to the edge of insanity" (Barker 237, 455, 496). Fortuitously, this distance fosters an objectivity which allows her to examine the synergy of environment factors sometimes involved in the emergence of mental difference. …

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