(Recently I read The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller, and wrote this. It’s a review mixed in with ramblings of my personal history with the Bronte sisters.)
I was twelve the first time I picked up Wuthering Heights. I read it twice in a row, and afterwards felt as if I had been changed is some inexplicable way- for better or worse I couldn’t quite say, but I knew I was affected nonetheless. After my journey through the moors was complete, I flipped to the front of the book and read the introduction. And yes, I was fascinated to read and analysis of Wuthering Heights, but what really caught my attention was Emily. Her supposedly dark and dreary childhood, filling her time in an imaginary world she created with her siblings, publishing a groundbreaking novel under a male pseudonym, I was hooked. Never before I had been so fascinated by an author. I read Charlotte’s biographical notice of her sisters, then her preface to Wuthering Heights, and made a snap second decision that I despised her. At twelve I wasn’t quite able to grasp why Charlotte would be practically apologizing for both of her sisters’ works, and as a young budding feminist with a twenty first century mind and morals, I was appalled. It was obvious Charlotte didn’t quite understand Wuthering Heights, and found the work morally uncomfortable, which in turn made me uncomfortable with Charlotte. I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which I adored), and you can imagine my horror when I discovered Charlotte had refused its republication after Anne’s death- that cemented my dislike of Charlotte for years to come.
I did of course read Jane Eyre, and I of course loved it. But I had some strange separation in my mind, refusing to acknowledge that if Charlotte could write such an amazing work of art (and create the character Jane!), then perhaps she wasn’t all that bad. Even when I read biographies, articles, whatever new Bronte thing I could get my hands on (and there was always something new), I was never able to like her. The Bronte Myth was able to open my eyes. It was able to finally get me to let go of twelve-year-old judgment I stubbornly refused to let go of, and acknowledge the reasons she had to appear like an upstanding Victorian in order to survive, and protect her reputation. Not everyone can be Mary Shelley, or George Elliot, and you can’t expect all women to be so ahead of their time. Charlotte in her writing was radical, but in reality she was very much a prim and proper Victorian lady- and while I would never want that for myself, it’s not something to condemn Charlotte for.
My fascination with the Brontes was never new of unique. The Bronte sisters have captured the public’s interest since they’re identities as three spinsters were revealed (even before the big revelation, as is discussed), and The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller looks into that ongoing cultural fascination, and how our perception of the Brontes has evolved over the years. The first 184 pages discusses Charlotte, and how the myths surrounding her have evolved, and how she herself created many of them in order to shield her and her sisters from public scrutiny. The remaining 103 pages take a look at Emily, and mainly different biographers takes on her through the years, and how her elusiveness has helped her gain the mythic status she currently possesses. Unfortunately the author does not deem Anne a subject worthy of discussion, which is incredibly disappointing. I can understand to a certain extant- Anne is not as well known, well read, or as well beloved as her other two sisters, and therefore does not have the same cultural wealth surrounding her- but I think she was worth at least a chapter or two! A chapter discussing the reasons why she is not as well known would have been interesting! (When Miller discusses how Charlotte’s portrayal of Emily as an uneducated provincial girl, both helped and hindered her sister’s legacy, it would have been the perfect time to discuss how Charlotte outright destroyed Anne’s own legacy. Anne’s clear masterpiece was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Charlotte preventing its republication after Anne’s death, was a terrible, and disgusting act, that I believe hurt Anne in the long run. Though in the short term it was an act to help save her sister’s reputation.) I found the parts showing how Charlotte herself shaped the image of Emily after her death a wonderful discussion to be had, and it will likely be of interest to any major Wuthering Heights fans. Miller, more then any other author I’ve come across, delved into the rich intellectual life Emily must have had, and I found that gratifying. To often Wuthering Heights is portrayed as an accidental masterpiece, when it was in fact painstakingly crafted by a well-read genius, very much aware of what she was creating.
The book, as stated previously, is separated in two, the first half being Charlotte’s. When I picked this up I was unaware of the separation and was worried the book only discussed Charlotte- so just be aware that you won’t get much Emily until later. As someone who prefers Emily over Charlotte, it is only natural I found Emily’s half more intriguing, as I imagine anyone more interested in Charlotte would find the first half to be the superior. The entire thing however is great. Charlotte’s half is a bit more thorough I believe, and documenting how Charlotte herself created the myths surrounding her family was fascinating.
I have a few criticisms (in an ironic twist, during the chapter Miller is discussing the lies of psychobiography, she does a bit of psychoanalyzing herself, and I felt the evidence she provided- really there was none- was insufficient), but only one that I think hindered the book in the long run. The book does what it says on the tin- discussing the legacy of the Brontes. However, I think it would have been beneficial to discuss how perceptions of the novels (mainly Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights) have evolved through the ages. She does this a bit with Wuthering Heights, but not with Jane Eyre, and it was disappointing. Jane Eyre has such a rich history surrounding it, and not exploring it more thoroughly is simple a crime.
So do I recommend this book? Yes- but only to Bronte enthusiasts. It is not just necessary to have read their novels; you have to be well and truly obsessed with the Bronte’s to get this book completely. If you are a budding Bronte enthusiast read some biographies on them, and only after accumulating some knowledge (and perhaps holding some of your own misconceptions, as is almost inevitable) do I suggest picking this up. This is a book for people belonging to the Bronte cult- and while I think someone with a basic knowledge of the sisters could read an enjoy this; I don’t think they will get the full experience out of this book as the ones more obsessed.