More stuff to fuel a myth of spinsters

The Brontë Myth
March 16, 2001

This book is no tired rehash of the now-hackneyed Brontë story: the isolated vicarage on the wind-swept moor; the drunken, morally bankrupt brother; and the repressive patriarch. Here is a writer who is as fascinated by the nature of biography as she is by her subjects. In Lucasta Miller's own words, she has written a "metabiography". This is not to say that she dismisses the worth of biography per se . Rather, like Virgina Woolf, to whom she makes constant reference, she is absorbed by that "bastard... impure art". For Miller, biography is an essentially flawed and oxymoronic art form. It can never fully resurrect its subject. It can only ever be an amalgam of the projected personality of the biographee, the preoccupations of the biographer and the prevailing ethos of the period in which it is written. Anyway, a full biographical account is impossible because we do not possess a single identity, but many selves, which biography can only draw together - "torn bits of stuff, stuff with raw edges".

If this is beginning to sound like Roland Barthes's "death of the author", fear not. Miller's style is anything but heavy-going. She writes lucidly, imparting an almost overwhelming amount of knowledge, while remaining accessible to the expert and relative novice alike. If you have ever had a spark of interest in the Brontë sisters, watched a television adaptation of a Brontë novel, or actually read one, there is something for you in this book.

Miller's primary concern is to establish how the Brontë sisters have turned from historical figures into cultural icons. As Henry James complained in 1905, the Brontës and their work had become confused in the mind of the public; and the person who started the process, Miller argues, was Charlotte Brontë herself. She reminds us that the novels of the Brontë sisters were some of the most controversial of their day, revolutionary in their rendering of the authentic female voice. While they had their admirers, the novels' detractors were obviously a strong enough contingent for Charlotte to feel compelled to write a "biographical notice" in the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights that essentially presents an apologia for the work of the Brontës. Here she plays up a picture of herself as an "isolated country spinster" for all it is worth, but what began as a tactic to make the novel respectable, was then taken seriously by almost all of her subsequent biographers - leading to an abiding ambiguity about the voice of Jane Eyre and that of her creator.

A key strength of The Brontë Myth is that it includes so many wildly differing biographical interpretations. The first and most important is Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë . Miller thoroughly examines Gaskell's biographical technique, explores her suspect use of narrative prolepsis, and ultimately exposes Gaskell's own didactic agenda. So concerned with sanitising the Brontës was she that she created a legend, a Charlotte who by the end of the Victorian era would be held up as a paragon of female virtue and domesticity, a polar opposite of Jane Eyre.

Another strength is that Miller crowds her pages with so many fascinating cranks, fanatics and sentimentalists. They lead her to consider John Malham-Dembleby's "art as direct copy of life" theory, and Robert Keefe's reductive pseudo-psychoanalytical approach. In keeping with their subject, the theories surrounding the mysterious Emily are even wilder than those surrounding Charlotte, for example William Dearden's unshakeable conviction that Branwell must be the author of Wuthering Heights . Interpretations such as these must be what leads Miller to her final clarion call: "Put the writings first."

The scope of her research is dizzying. She shows us a vista of biographies, novelistic interpretations and adaptations on both stage and film. And most of these conspirators in the myth are quite sane! Its sheer breadth serves to remind us that the Brontës will never permit us to gain full knowledge of them. Thus this book is not the ultimate Brontë biography, bringing together every possible "bit of stuff" - could there ever be such a thing? - but it is certainly an excellent history of the aura that surrounds their works.

Anna Thomson is books assistant, The THES .

The Brontë Myth

Author - Lucasta Miller
ISBN - 0 224 03745 5
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £18.99
Pages - 320

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