The beguiling Bronte sisters.

Reading between the lines.
March 1 2004 3:48 PM

Moor, Please

New books on the Bronte phenomenon.

Book cover

Since 1857, when Elizabeth Gaskell published The Life of Charlotte Bronte, the legend of Charlotte and Emily Bronte as tragically stifled geniuses has grown to compete with the popularity of their fictional heroines, Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw. (The third sister, Anne, has never achieved mythic status.) Indeed, Lucasta Miller notes in her fascinating history of the phenomenon, The Bronte Myth, that some people have even asked her whether the Bronte sisters were fictional characters themselves. By now, the Bronte industry rivals the Shakespeare industry and has moved through stages of moral biography, to romantic sensation story (Was Emily gay? Did Charlotte have an affair?), to psychobiography, feminist tract, and post-feminist revisionism. The 1990s saw what Miller calls "a golden age" of demythologizing Bronte scholarship, including biographies by Lyndall Gordon and Juliet Barker.

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Of course Miller herself cannot help contributing to the perpetuation of this critical cycle. In the process of creating the myth, first comes literature, then death, then biography, then popular culture, and then cultural history, or, as Miller calls it, meta-biography. A similar fate has befallen Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, whose lives and works have also become the starting points for new meta-biographical studies by Brenda Silver and Janet Malcolm, as well as for new novels by Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and Kate Moses (Wintering). But demythologizing serves only to modify the myth, not end it. Charlotte and Emily Bronte, among the first women writers to have become celebrities and icons, have already inspired other novelists to reimagine the lives of their characters; Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea and various fictions about the life of Heathcliff are examples. But only now has a novelist attempted to impersonate a Bronte by completing one of her unfinished books: Emma Brown, written by Clare Boylan and based on Charlotte Bronte's posthumously published fragment Emma. Although Bronte had written only two chapters, she was writing from the sophisticated perspective of a married woman, and her choice of a widow as her narrator of the mystery story promised psychosexual insights more mature than those of her earlier romantic fiction.

To Miller's mind, it is a kind of literary demotion for a woman artist to become a legend; she laments that the Brontes are known mainly for their lives whereas George Eliot is known mainly for her mind and work. Because the Brontes are legends, she concludes, they "are still effectively barred from entering the male bastion of literary achievement." I don't agree. Like Woolf and Plath, Charlotte led an exceptionally documented and reflective life that bore iconic relation to myths of female creativity and destiny. As early as 1857, Louisa May Alcott noted in her journal: "Read Charlotte Bronte's life. A very interesting, but sad one. So full of talent; and after working long, just as success, love, and happiness comes, she dies." The Alcott sisters saw themselves as American Brontes and were both inspired and chilled by their thwarted example. Though Miller does not want to impose her own version of the Brontes or correct the mistakes of the past, she is a product of the post-feminist age. And so her richly detailed study stresses the willed and creative side of Charlotte Bronte, arguing that her life was not simply one of "unremitting martyrdom" as Gaskell and many other biographers have insisted, but also, perhaps more so, of "toughness, ambition, and creative boldness."

Miller shrewdly emphasizes the ways in which biographies of women writers differ from those of men. She also points out the historical and cultural shifts in interpretation since the 1960s, which have led to a focus on women writers' artistic apprenticeship—the Brontes' Byronism, for example—rather than their love lives. I would add that there is a difference between the British and American versions of the Brontes. From very early on, the Brontes had a special iconic status for American women writers and tourists. By the 1880s, the pilgrimage to Haworth, the Brontes' home, was an expected stage of American tourism abroad. The Bronte Museum opened there in 1895, and Sarah Orne Jewett went to see it with her friend Annie Field, extolling the Brontes' "light of genius like candles flaring in a cave." If these provincial women artists could prevail, so perhaps could humble literary aspirants from Maine and Florida.

It wasn't just Americans who were buying the real and manufactured relics of the sisters. Yet the British assumption was that Americans were the most vulgar and ignorant idolaters. In 1904, Virginia Woolf worried that admiration of the relics might detract from Charlotte's standing as "a great writer." (Little did Woolf know that she herself would later adorn a T-shirt.) Clement Shorter, who edited the Brontes' letters, met an American man who claimed to be Mr. Rochester's younger brother; the British playwright Rachel Ferguson, in a play from 1933, has American tourists at Haworth demanding "rock-bottom souvenirs." By the time Hollywood got to Haworth, with movies like Devotion in 1946, the American role in sensationalizing the Bronte heritage seemed well-established. In it, Emily, played by Ida Lupino, dies for unrequited love of Charlotte's husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls ("Emily: She ruled in that strange quiet house! None could resist the force of her will!") Who knew what heresies might follow?

But the latest "heretic," Boylan, is Irish, and in Emma Brown she stays firmly within the framework and social assumptions of 19th-century Britain, an imaginative fidelity that is both Emma Brown's strength and its weakness. In the two chapters Bronte left at her death, a little girl dressed in elaborate finery is deposited at the Misses Wilcox School at Fuchsia Lodge by a man who calls himself her father, Conway Fitzgibbon, heir to May Park. The teachers soon discover that there is no May Park, and the child is a cuckoo or a fraud.

Boylan picks up the story by trying to solve the mystery of Emma's identity and gives us an elaborate tale of the darkest London and the maiden tribute of modern Babylon—in the genre of other recent Victoriana by Michel Faber, Sarah Waters, and Valerie Martin. But these novels, while saturated in the lurid facts, thrilling plots, and hypnotic fictions of Dickens and Collins and the crusading journalism of Mayhew and Stead, do not attempt to recreate the style of a particular writer; their Victorianism is clearly a modern construct. Boylan has her hands full: Close stylistic imitation is difficult with Charlotte Bronte, whose prose style was idiosyncratic and uneven, especially when writing about the upper class. "Knave, do my bidding!" Bronte's Lady Blanche commands a servant while Boylan's Miss Adelaide reflects that Emma's clothes are too fine for the "paltry scrap who inhabited them." More important, Bronte in the 1850s would never have ventured to describe the London underworld of child labor and child prostitution that became public in the 1880s. Once Boylan takes this much historical license, why does she have to keep Emma in London—why not really break loose and send Emma to New York, Dublin, or Wellington?

But these caveats should not deter Bronte lovers from reading Emma Brown as an independent work of fiction and admiring the skill with which Boylan has expanded every clue, maintained narrative momentum, and constructed a plausible solution to Bronte's mystery. The Brontes are secure in their literary achievement, and we can enjoy all the relics without fussing about harming them.

Elaine Showalter is professor of English and Avalon Foundation professor of the humanities at Princeton University and the author of A Literature of Their Own and Inventing Herself, among other books.

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