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
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
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. …