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Demythologizing the Brontes

Distorted pictures of their lives have not served the sisters well

March 26, 2004|Lucasta Miller

The response to the film "Sylvia," recently out in Britain, was marked by some extraordinary invective. Although critics were engaged by the popular retelling of Sylvia Plath's tragic story, they seemed compelled to deride her poetry as adolescent and overrated. Similarly, every filmgoer and memoir addict now knows about Iris Murdoch's Alzheimer's, but hardly anyone will confess to having read her novels. An obsession with writers' lives -- perhaps particularly with female writers' lives -- seems inevitably to overwhelm their literary reputations.

This was something that worried Henry James, writing in 1904 on the Bronte sisters. Public obsession with Charlotte and Emily had, he felt, "elbowed out" understanding of their books, causing "the most complete intellectual muddle ... ever achieved, on a literary question, by our wonderful public." Somehow, the Brontes' lonely existence and romantic early deaths had become a far more potent "story" than "Jane Eyre" or "Wuthering Heights."

If James had been in the business of blame, he would have realized that this "beguiled infatuation" did not occur by accident. It was, in fact, the result of a biographer's calculated attempt to turn the public's attention away from the sisters' novels. We hear so much today about spin-doctoring and media management. But the way in which the Brontes' private lives made it into the public domain 150 years ago exemplifies the art of image manipulation at its most sophisticated.

When the Bronte sisters published their first novels in 1847, they hid their true identities under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell because they feared reviewers' prejudice against women authors. This anxiety turned out to have been justified. "Jane Eyre" may have been an instant bestseller and "Wuthering Heights" may have been praised for its power and originality, but as soon as it was suspected that the authors were female, a critical backlash ensued. That reaction intensified after the publication of Anne's novel, "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," with its coruscating portrait of a woman's marriage to an abusive alcoholic. The novels were attacked as "revolting," "unfeminine" and "anti-Christian."

After the deaths of Emily (at 30) and Anne (at 29), Charlotte attempted, as she put it, to "wipe the dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil" by publishing a "biographical notice" in which she disingenuously presented these well-read, knowing novelists as country girls who didn't really know what they were doing when they wrote their shocking books. Yet it wasn't until after Charlotte's death in 1855 that the cleanup job would be fully effected. In the hands of biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, whose "Life of Charlotte Bronte" appeared in 1857, the unwholesome author of "Jane Eyre" was repackaged for a Victorian readership as a "valiant woman made perfect by sufferings."

Although she was a personal acquaintance of Charlotte's, Gaskell had her own reservations about the morality of the Bronte novels, whose "coarseness" she explained away by forming an exaggerated view of the trials the sisters had endured -- untimely death (including their mother's), isolation, a supposedly ferocious father. Explicitly refusing to analyze the works, she concentrated instead on the tragedies, real and imagined, in Charlotte's domestic life.

As a brilliant novelist herself (though with a very different literary sensibility), Gaskell was attempting to construct a morally uplifting story so dramatic that it could compete with the impure Bronte novels and win -- which indeed, by the time James made his complaint, it had.

Derivative Victorian portraits of Charlotte Bronte, domestic martyr and perfect housewife, almost failed to mention that she had written books at all. Future generations continued to take up Gaskell's highly colored portrait, spawning a whole genre of fictional Bronte biography.

"Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" had by then become staples of popular culture, conventionalized by Hollywood and deprived of their bite. The sisters' lives received the same romanticizing treatment, as in the 1940s film "Devotion," for example, which has Emily -- bizarrely -- dying of love for Charlotte's fiance, Arthur Nicholls, before being taken off to the next world by a ghostly man on a large black horse.

In a more intellectual mode, 20th century psychoanalysts and feminists did the sisters few favors, presenting them as mere victims of their own neuroses or of patriarchy. More recently, historical scholarship has made huge strides in recovering the real Brontes. But the urge to fictionalize and sentimentalize their lives remains. There are rumors of another biopic, this one with Steven Spielberg's name attached to it.

And that means that James' "beguiled infatuation" shows no sign of abatement. Charlotte Bronte once wrote that she wished to be judged as an author, not as a woman. Yet it seems that, whatever feminism may have achieved in the last 150 years, souped-up emotional accounts of the life may still have the power to win out over dispassionate intellectual analysis of the work.

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Lucasta Miller's "The Bronte Myth" (Knopf) was recently published in the United States.

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