The Bronte Myth

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En lire plus En lire moins. Agnes Grey. Yet her journey from private individual to public persona was less straightforward than her naive twenty-year-old self might have hoped. She was so uninhibited in her portrayal of the female psyche that her heroines shocked many of her contemporaries and were accused of unwomanly assertion, morbid passion, and anti-Christian individualism. She found this shield in her social persona as the modest spinster daughter of a country parson, disingenuously insisting to those she met on the literary circuit that she bore no more than a fleeting external resemblance to the rebellious Jane Eyre.

One was the positive myth of female self-creation embodied by her autobiographical heroines, Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, who forge their own sense of selfhood in conflict with their social environment. Her youthful faith in writing as a route to immortal fame had been established early on in childhood. Because of the way her public image was molded after her death, her family has, over the past century and a half, been primarily remembered for its tragedies. But what made her able to transform herself into one of the major novelists of the nineteenth century was the fact that she grew up steeped in literature, defining herself as a writer from a very young age.

Yet within a year or so of these damaging experiences, Charlotte had recovered sufficiently to form an intense bond with her three surviving siblings, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, in boisterous imaginative games fueled by the literary tastes their father encouraged. In real life, death had intruded as an arbitrary force. In play, they could take control when, as four gigantic Genii, they held the power of life and death over the diminutive wooden men. Soon, they began to make tiny magazines for the soldiers, writing out their own compositions in microscopic script. This scribblemania continued long after they had outgrown the toys which had originally inspired it and eventually became a purely literary adventure.

Eventually, the siblings split off into two separate camps, Charlotte and Branwell chronicling the history of the imaginary kingdom of Angria while Emily and Anne invented their own fantasy world, Gondal. In one game, played when they were aged between seven and eleven, each had to pick an island and its chief men. Their chosen leaders included literary figures such as Sir Walter Scott, J.

Project MUSE - The Bronte Myth (review)

They offered an often highbrow mix of poetry, fiction, satire, criticism, philosophy, history, and political commentary, often sustained to booklike length. Steeped in the fallout from the Romantic movement, these magazines fostered the belief that poets were not mere linguistic craftsmen, but privileged souls whose personalities were as important as their actual literary output.

These alter egos were all, without exception, men. The conflict between her gender and her desire to write would only become explicit later, particularly when she made contact with the real-life world of professional letters. Something held her back from total engagement, except as a voyeur. When thirteen-year-old Branwell threw himself enthusiastically into the character of Young Soult, an inspired poet, fourteen-year-old Charlotte could only stand back and mock in a satirical drama, The Poetaster.

But here's the catch- that was when people thought the authors were men they'd written under masculine pseudonyms, as most of you already know. When word somehow got out that Currer, Acton, and Ellis were really Charlotte, Anne, and Emily, people didn't know what to think. They were horrified that women should have written works of such passion. It wasn't right. The authors, naturally, must have mental problems, which must be rooted in a tragic life.

Elizabeth Gaskell took this last theory and ran with it in her "Life of Charlotte Bronte," written after Charlotte's death. Gaskell wrote some excellent novels herself, and although rich in depth and societal criticism, fire-women like Cathy and Jane cannot be found in her books. She didn't think it was normal for such women to exist in the female imagination. This could only happen, she decided, because the Brontes had led such an oppressive life that writing disturbing novels became their drug.

It is undeniable that the Brontes had had serious tragedies in their lives- such as the loss of their mother, siblings, and of course, Branwell's famous descent into addiction. But their lives were also balanced with fun, companionship, and travel. Gaskell downplays or excludes ALL the positive in their lives. On top of that, she completely makes up horrifying and baseless stories about Patrick Bronte, the patriarch of the family and various other Bronte acquaintances, so that it seems that Charlotte, Emily, Anne were mere Cinderellas in a world that was one giant Wicked Stepmother.

It's interesting to note that Gaskell left town after the book's publication because she was afraid of the attack of libel lawyers. Well, the lawyers attacked anyway rightly so , and Gaskell was forced to revise the next editions of her book. But the damage was already done, and the myth had been created.

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Gaskell's biography was the basis of all Bronte bios that followed through the years, so the myth remained s. The rest of the book follows the creation and attempted unraveling of this myth. Miller writes with humor and clarity- her prose is as lucid as if she were receiving direction from the Bronte sisters themselves. The book's one flaw is its lack of focus on Anne. Miller mentions in one page how sad it is that Anne has never gotten proper acknowledgement from biographers, and then does the same thing herself!

Honestly, that was the only thing keeping me from giving this book a full five stars. Nevertheless, Bronte fans must get their hands on this book. View 2 comments. Shortly afterwards, I discovered through my reading that Lucasta Miller had written an acclaimed book with the same title back in Predictably, I decided to Find Out More. In terms of brooding material, frankly I had struck gold.

However, Miller swiftly unmasks Charlotte as the first myth-maker, pointing out that far from being the innocent and unknowing parson's daughter who accidentally stumbled upon writing one of the finest novels in the English language, Charlotte was an ambitious writer who wrote as a teenager to the poet Robert Southey explaining her desire 'to be forever known'. We see Charlotte's myth-making in the biographical notice she wrote for each of her sisters, when she attempted to protect their reputations by claiming that they were too innocent to understand what they were writing and certainly intended no offence.

She play-acted as Currer Bell. Miller casts a dubious eye over the myth of Charlotte as socially anxious, pointing out that on one occasion, Charlotte was supposed to be shaking in terror after being introduced by Thackeray as the author of Jane Eyre, but to others it seemed as if she was in fact seething in rage. Mrs Gaskell here steps in.

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  • She seems to have had a strange fascination with the life of her 'friend', appearing even to befriend Charlotte only to find out more. Gaskell wanted the Parsonage to be a Gothic house of horrors, so that Charlotte only wrote unsettling books as a symptom of her suffering. Despite their friendship, Charlotte was irritated by the stories cast about by Gaskell and Harriet Martineau that she was sickly and suffering, claiming that in their eyes 'I shall be a sort of invalid' and Miller points out one biographer's theory that this was the reason that George Smith never proposed - he believed Gaskell's story-telling.

    What Arthur and Patrick seemed unaware of was that it was Mrs Gaskell who had started the rumours in the first place. They both learnt to their personal cost that it is unwise to put the biography in the hands of a novelist, particularly one like Mrs Gaskell. Unlike Charlotte, Mrs Gaskell's novels tend towards the 'morally improving' brand - Miller takes particular pleasure in ripping apart Ruth, whereby Gaskell seeks to draw sympathy to the fates of fallen women by writing a novel about one, but then is too afraid about the consequences to her own reputation to write her convincingly.

    Thus Ruth may be seduced, but it seems to happen without her noticing and she remains otherwise angelic. Miller's implication is clear - someone like Mrs Gaskell was never going to understand as complex and contradictory a being as Charlotte. Time and again, Miller points out how subsequent biographies follow her trail in 'walking up to the Parsonage', rich in purple prose describing the remote and grim setting.

    Visitors to the Parsonage were always surprised to find it a pleasant building in the middle of a thriving village, only a few steps away from the library and post office. Contrary to rumour, Charlotte could not look out the window and see the tragic graves of her siblings - they were buried inside the church. They also travelled and took part in local cultural activities.

    The Brontë myth

    Gaskell reported some of these facts but was always careful to point out that joy died for Charlotte at the age of nine when her sisters passed away. After that, according to Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, she never experienced a moment of happiness again. Miller emphasises how far this fits into the Victorian template of ideal heroine - a true saintly heroine dies at the end of the book. Gaskell rewrote Charlotte to being exactly one such, but one has to wonder how far she would have appreciated it.

    Charlotte was the creator of Jane Eyre, consummate survivor who abjured self-denial as foolish and insisted that God had not given her life to simply throw it away. I was reminded too of the attitude of Charlotte's best friend Mary Taylor - in Miss Miles, one of her heroines Dora complains of her situation that people would prefer it if she died as it would make a tidier story but she stubbornly refuses to do so and instead is determined to live on and thrive.

    Miller's distaste for this fashion is clear, particularly Gaskell's incredible insensitivity in publishing anecdotes about Charlotte's underwear size and private correspondence, none of which had been in the remit outlined by Patrick and Arthur. I was particularly disgusted by Gaskell's implication that Patrick's unpleasantness caused the death of his wife Maria - one cannot help but feel that cancer was more deserving of blame there. More than anything though, this fashion took away from Charlotte the novelist.

    Gaskell steered well away from the 'upsetting' elements of her work, preferring to stick with stories about Charlotte peeling potatoes in secret so that the family servant Tabby did not have to. Even though it was Emily who mostly kept house, Gaskell recasts Charlotte as the ultimate dutiful daughter to a domestic tyrant - the angel in the house.

    Gaskell also completely omitted any reference to Charlotte's passion for her teacher Monsieur Heger, although she was clearly uneasy lest the correspondence ever come out, knowing that her version of events would be forever sullied. Gaskell put the blame for the 'coarseness' or 'morbidity' of the girls' writing on the effects of witnessing Branwell's behaviour. Indeed, she even made a very very thinly veiled attack on Lady Scott, erstwhile Mrs Robinson who had an affair with Branwell, claiming that in corrupting him, she not only hastened his end but also that of his sisters.

    The book even includes a call for her to repent. Lady Scott sued, Gaskell's husband settled and the section was removed in the next edition. The problem of Branwell, how to excuse him, how to explain him has persisted down the centuries - despite the paucity of his literary output, in this book he gets more coverage than does Anne. The interesting thing was how Charlotte could appear as an example for young girls in conduct books, but then her books themselves would be held as inappropriate.

    Charlotte was a saint not because of her literary talent, but because she stayed home and looked after her horrible father and her sufferings were so terrible that she was carried off to heaven. Yes she wrote some books but she could be forgiven for that.


    In discovering Charlotte had a passionate side, that she wrote of wanting recognition from Heger - for many of her devoted fans, this became a betrayal. For May Sinclair, who held passionately to her spinsterdom, her furious rejection of the evidence has the note of personal grief. By contrast, the myth-making around Emily tends towards painting her as a mystic. As such an innocent, utterly uneducated, surely she would have been incapable of writing a book like Wuthering Heights. It could only have come to her in a vision.

    Again, Miller is mildly sardonic as she recounts the varying accounts and theories, some of which render Emily as more animal than human, none of which seem to have stopped to recognise that she read books. A particularly purple passage has Emily walking with her family in the moors 'making noises' which those close to her know are expressive of 'joy' - no wonder the theory that Branwell wrote Wuthering Heights gained traction. Another popular theory had it that Emily must have had a lover to have inspired her work, culminating in a particularly hilarious incident in the s when biographer Virginia Moore was unable to read Emily's handwriting and so concluded that her poem 'Love's Farewell' was actually entitled 'Louis Parensall' - so Emily must, necessarily, have had a French lover.

    Deciding that Emily must have had assignations with him in Branwell's portrait studio in Bradford, the theory was doing fairly nicely until someone pointed out the obvious. This was another of those books where practically every page feels worthy of noting down.

    Having written in far shorter form and with only a fraction of the research on a similar topic, reading Miller's book felt like sitting down for coffee with a new friend and breathlessly agreeing with their every utterance. One pointed out that Charlotte died aged thirty-eight, the same age that her mother had passed away. Naturally this meant that subconsciously, Charlotte had never recovered from her mother's death and that she instead chose to die at the same age since she could not surpass her.

    Another theory held that Emily wrote Wuthering Heights with thirty-four chapters since that was the age that Jesus was when he died. At this point, Stella Gibbons' Mr Mybug begins to look quite normal. My only criticism would be how little the book had to say about Anne. It is true that very few of the myths touch on her - but that in itself is interesting. There is something in the power of three - if there had been only Charlotte and Emily, I do wonder if the myths would have grown so huge.

    Miller notes rather philosophically that Emily's true personality and presumably that of Anne as well may very well have been lost in the maelstrom of all of the biographies. It is risky even to read too much into their poetry given that so much of it was rooted in their imaginary world of Gondal. Yet Emily's star rose as Charlotte's fell - no longer a saint due to her passion for a married man, Charlotte became instead the cold-hearted spinster who wrote for commercial gain rather than due to a visitation of the creative muse.

    Even Juliet Barker's seminal biography is rather unsympathetic towards her - the reader has learnt to distrust Charlotte's version of events. Yet, the aim of biography itself has shifted. Increasingly it is recognised that nobody has but one self, indeed many of us have thousands. Those who lauded Charlotte as paragon may have been misled, but surely it is equally erroneous to label her a harridan. Even where a theory is light on evidence, Miller is willing to be charitable if the author has shown a genuine attempt to connect with their subject.

    With the final lines, Miller urges us to 'turn the tables' and consider the novels first. Through this week, I have realised that I am as guilty as the next reader of disregarding the texts - I have been biased against Charlotte because as a five year-old, I thought she looked bossy in her portrait.

    I preferred Anne perhaps for simply being the youngest. May 12, Kathleen Flynn added it Shelves: bronte-businesss. This is a well-written, erudite, informative and often very funny book. It was one of the earliest I read back in when I first had a notion of writing something about the Brontes. It's still one of the best. Is there such a thing as metabiograhy? If so, this is a fine example. It discusses not so much the Brontes primarily Charlotte and Emily; sorry, Anne per as as the history of how they have been written about in the century and a half since their death.

    It explores many of the wackier This is a well-written, erudite, informative and often very funny book. It explores many of the wackier theories surrounding them particularly the elusive Emily as well as surveying some of the fiction, movies, plays and poetry inspired by the Brontes' lives and works. As the title suggests, the Brontes have become larger than life, and for many years they were more famous for their life stories highly fictionalized and overheated, thanks to Mrs. Gaskell and those who followed than for their novels.

    A paradoxical outcome, since it was the books that made them famous in the first place. Dec 29, Joanna rated it it was amazing Shelves: bronteana , history , tbr-i-own. It took me quite literally two years to hunker down and read this book, but I am glad I finally got around to it. There's a lot of Bronte-stuff floating around, books, plays, movies, weird things on Etsy, and I am very guilty of loving of all of them. But in this book Lucasta Miller goes to great lengths to detail how reactions to the Brontes were shaped, and how they have evolved through the changes from the Victorian era to modernity.

    She writes with very accessible prose very effectively abou It took me quite literally two years to hunker down and read this book, but I am glad I finally got around to it. She writes with very accessible prose very effectively about a fairly large period of time. The first half of the book is dedicated to Charlotte's reputation, especially how it is shaped by both Charlotte herself and Elizabeth Gaskell.

    The second half focuses on Emily's reputation, especially within the 20th century. There is very, very little focus on Anne which is fairly typical of biographies that claim to cover all the Brontes , and a little bit of Patrick and Branwell are sprinkled in, though of course their cultural portrayals depend upon the portrayals of the sisters. And that Emily Bronte's genius was somehow divinely inspired or she was anorexic and a lesbian.

    Miller makes a valid point of Anne being unfairly overshadowed by her older sisters and yet she goes on to devote only few paragraphs to her? Apr 26, Jennifer rated it liked it Shelves: non-fiction. I picked this book up thinking it would be an accurate biography of the Bronte sisters, instead it's a critique of every biography written about Charlotte and Emily nobody seems to care much about Anne from just after Charlotte's death to almost the date of publish.

    I thought I knew something about Charlotte but most of a what I knew was incorrect. They were outright lies and misdirections deliberately spread around by her first biographer. Later biographers twisted the sisters in every way I picked this book up thinking it would be an accurate biography of the Bronte sisters, instead it's a critique of every biography written about Charlotte and Emily nobody seems to care much about Anne from just after Charlotte's death to almost the date of publish. Later biographers twisted the sisters in every way, making them sound like sad, shrunken women, resigned to their fate of dying slowly of consumption while watching their father burn rugs and their brother turn into an opium fiend.

    It was sad to see how from the very beginning her intelligence and creativity were shelved and replaced with the "wanderer of the moor" who wrote by some mystical process that bypassed the brain completely. This book was not the biography I was expecting, instead it's serious academic work that manages to be entertaining, not a bad trade off.

    View all 7 comments. It's fascinating stuff, starting with Charlotte's shaping of herself and of her sisters through her comments on their books, her rewriting of Emily's poems, and the stories she told Gaskell. I did wish for more material on Anne, the oft-neglected sister who wrote perhaps the most scandalous and underrated of all their novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ; perhaps some enterprising scholar will continue Miller's work with more on Anne.

    View 1 comment. Oct 17, Beverly rated it really liked it. This biography about the Brontes, brings forth how the prejudice of their time has kept them from being understood at the great writers they are. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are unique, original masterpieces that the Victorians were unwilling to accept as written by women and if they were, that there was something horribly wrong with them.

    Dec 07, Charles Matthews rated it really liked it. This review originally ran in the San Jose Mercury News on January 25, You probably think of ''Jane Eyre'' as the kind of novel you'd feel safe in recommending to a year-old girl if you know a year-old girl who'd read a novel about a Victorian governess instead of the latest dish about Paris Hilton.

    But as the British critic Lucasta Miller tells us in her provocative history of the reputation of the Bronte sisters and their work, when Charlotte Bronte's novel was published in , This review originally ran in the San Jose Mercury News on January 25, You probably think of ''Jane Eyre'' as the kind of novel you'd feel safe in recommending to a year-old girl if you know a year-old girl who'd read a novel about a Victorian governess instead of the latest dish about Paris Hilton.

    But as the British critic Lucasta Miller tells us in her provocative history of the reputation of the Bronte sisters and their work, when Charlotte Bronte's novel was published in , readers were shocked, shocked by it which means, naturally, that it sold a lot of copies. It was vilified with those curious Victorian epithets ''coarse'' and ''morbid'' -- indications that it was sexier and psychologically more unsettling than the readers were used to. Charlotte wasn't the only Bronte to shock the Victorians. Anne, now the least famous of the sisters, may have caused the most scandal with her novel ''The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,'' because it took direct aim at the subjugation of women -- the novel's heroine flees from her marriage to a dissolute and abusive man.

    Conventional fiction would have shown her patiently suffering the marriage and converting him with the example of her virtue, just as conventional fiction would have had Jane Eyre marry St. John Rivers and go off to do missionary work in India instead of returning to Mr. The author was denounced for a ''morbid love for the coarse, not to say the brutal'' and the book was called ''revolting.

    It was also called ''too odiously and abominably pagan to be palatable even to the most vitiated class of English readers. The novels were published under male pseudonyms -- Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell -- but even when it became known that the Bells were really the Bronte sisters the criticism was not modulated.

    Quite a few people felt ''that women were naturally debarred by their limited abilities from the 'properly masculine power of writing books,' '' says Miller, quoting the minor Victorian poet Coventry Patmore, the author of a treacly and hugely popular sequence of poems about married bliss called ''The Angel in the House.

    Brooding About The Brontës: The Bronte Myth

    But she continued to write, publishing two more novels, ''Shirley'' in and ''Villette'' in , still under the guise of ''Currer Bell. She argued that her sisters were innocent girls, inhabitants of a 'remote district where education had made little progress. Gaskell was a fine novelist -- ''Cranford'' is highly readable, and her novels about the working class, such as ''Mary Barton'' and ''North and South,'' drew fire from conservatives for their portrayal of factory owners -- and ''The Life of Charlotte Bronte'' is as skillfully told as any of her works of fiction.

    But domestic respectability was uppermost among the values of awoman who published as ''Mrs. Gaskell, a happily married mother of four surviving children, implicitly defines the spinster Miss Bronte as a victim. Gaskell ''coped with the disturbing passion and intensity of Charlotte's work by regarding it as morbid, the sad consequence of a mind made sick by a life of continual suffering and deprivation. As a novelist herself, Gaskell could hardly join people like Patmore in classing novel-writing as an ''unfeminine'' pursuit, so she tried to make sure that Charlotte didn't come across as ''unduly ambitious and pushy in her quest to become an author.

    Gaskell's biography succeeded in putting a whole new spin on Charlotte's life, and it colored the reaction to her novels. Fontaine's Jane Eyre is almost indistinguishable from the character she played in ''Rebecca'' -- not surprising, since the Daphne du Maurier novel is one of the many romantic knockoffs of ''Jane Eyre. Home Contact us Help Free delivery worldwide. Free delivery worldwide. Bestselling Series.

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    Harry Potter. Popular Features. New Releases. The Bronte Myth. Description Since , hardly a year has gone by without some sort of Bronte 'biography' appearing.