The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller

(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.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years.

This book has spellbound me. Naomi Novik has created a beautiful story, and it ensnared me like The Woods she writes of. But first…
I want to start off by stating that I really enjoyed this book. I found it incredibly fun, and incredibly endearing. Overall it was a simply charming fairytale, and it hooked me. That doesn’t mean I’m blind to its faults, and it does have faults. I went in having read two kinds of reviews with little in-between. One kind of review being a glowing five star, singing Uprooted all the praises they could think to bestow upon it- one even called it a masterpiece. The second kind was a one star review taking about how this was one of the worst novels they had ever read, and how they wished they hadn’t wasted their time reading it. I read one angry rant that was quite startling in is clear visceral hatred. So naturally when I began reading I was hesitant as to what I would find- and ultimately I think I’m one of the rarer people who falls in-between of the two extreme viewpoints.

There was a song in this forest, too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage.

Firstly you have to remember jumping in that while this book is a fantasy, it is first and foremost a fairytale. And despite the similarities, those two things are quite different. The characters aren’t very well developed, the magic system is pretty shallow compared to the kinds of magic I read in most fantasies, and the plot is fast (so fast I got whiplash with how quickly things progressed). I’m not saying all fairytales are like this, especially nowadays with the more in depth retellings, but in my mind this was an old style fairytale. I found the characters and the magic (as thin as they were) incredibly fun, so while I could intellectually see the flaws and why some people would be annoyed, I didn’t care because I was having to good a time.

It starts of with a familiar tale. There is a man in a tower who every ten years takes on of the village girls in tithe to come live with him. He releases them after the ten years is up, free to do whatever they please, and dowry to help them. Nobody knows what happens up there. The girls never come back to the village to live, they all pack up and leave.

Agnieszka is a dragon born girl, but she is certain she will not be picked. She clumsy, not that beautiful, she doesn’t not have the markers of a heroine. Her best friend Kasia however does, and everybody believes she will be the chosen one. However since Agnieszka is our main character, she is of course chosen. It’s a story rooted in Slavic fairytale, though it also has the familiar Beauty and the Beast story we are all accustomed to.

The unraveled threads of my magic were gradually coiling back into my skin.

The magic system, despite lacking in detail, was enchanting (HA! See what I did there? Only funny to me? Okay, sorry, moving on…), and the dichotomy between the two different ways of wielding magic, and how it came together was a real payoff, and made up for a lot. Not to mention Novik’s beautiful description of characters weaving their spells. Still I found Agnieszka came into her abilities much to rapidly for my taste, and more explanation would have been nice. The use of Jaga (Baba Yaga), or the shadow of her really, was well done- though I longed for her to appear, and not just lurk between the pages. Though in the end that was probably a more effective way of telling the story, and my wanting is a symptom of the skillful use of this device.

He was a thing of books and alembics to me, library and laboratory.

Despite having borderline one-dimensional characters, I found the dimensions they did posses enjoyable. Agnieszka and the Dragon’s interactions were super fun- I’m a sucker for love hate relationships, and the banter between the two was great. Some may not like the relationship between the two, but I felt it developed nicely, and surprisingly steadily, considering how hyper fast everything else in the novel moved along. The captor/captee aspect was dealt with smoothly, so there was not any kind of ick factor in regards to the progression of their relationship. I didn’t care a whit about Kasia though. Usually I’m all for strong female friendships, but I felt no attachment to Agnieszka and Kasia’s friendship whatsoever. There isn’t much of a basis for the friendship- the reader is just kind of told they’re best friends, but the reasons for it are simply not shown. And more to the point, I found Kasia boring and wanted her out of the way. Characters who are written to be perfect are probably my biggest pet peeve, and while Kasia did not send me into a rage as some other characters have before, I couldn’t make myself like her either. I was just ambivalent towards her- longing for her to get out of the way, or at least have the decency to develop a few flaws if she was so determined to stick around. Agnieszka to has a bit of the same problem as Kasia. It’s not that Agnieszka is perfect- it’s that she has a serious case of being the “special one”. It didn’t become annoying until abut halfway through the novel when I just felt she had become far to special- far to “different”- to be believable, and it quite honestly took some of the enjoyment away from me.

I wanted to rub handprints through his dust.

The fast paced plot was jarring to me at times. I would have appreciated more quiet moments, more introspection- but perhaps that is just me trying to make the novel into something it was never meant to be. The concept of The Woods was a great one, and did not just add to the atmosphere of the fairytale, but was a unique antagonist, that could have been cheesy if written poorly, but in this case felt like an honest threat. All in all I would highly recommend this book, despite its faults. It’s a lighthearted, fairytale romp- but if you go in expecting Catherynne M. Valente you are going to be disappointed. Think more Howl’s Moving Castle, which I believe is a fairly apt comparison, though in truth I would have to say Howl’s Moving Castle is by far the superior of the two. But really, despite the criticisms I gave, I truly enjoyed Uprooted. I was completely enamored, and liked it enough to go out and buy a hard copy despite the fact that I bought it initially as an eBook. I also created a Pinterest mood board for Uprooted because I was so taken by the story. That’s a pretty good sign, I think.