This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.
“Virginia Woolf came to the conclusion that the facts of biography ‘are not like the facts of science–once they are discovered, always the same. They are subject to changes of opinion; opinions change as times change.’” This observation quoted from Lucasta Miller’s study of the ever changing image of the Bronte sisters may well serve as both a motto and the raison d’etre for her work. She is not so much concerned with getting at some ultimate truth of who the Bronte sisters were, what they were like, why they were able to accomplish so much, what it was that made them tick; that would be nice were it possible. The problem is that it is not possible. Most of the factual information is missing, but even if it were available, even if there were diaries and an abundance of letters and detailed reports of contemporaries, all that information would still be subject to vagaries of the biographer’s interpretation and the fashions of the day.
What is not possible is an objective portrait of the artist. What is possible is an examination of what other biographers and writers have done to try to determine just what their biases, cultural and individual may have been, to measure what they have done against the facts available, to see clearly the myth they have created.
And myth there has been aplenty.
Beginning with Charlotte’s own “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” which she wrote for the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights where she tried to defend her sister against the charges of coarseness by painting her as a country mouse unschooled in the ways of the more cultivated society. She allowed her readers the impression that Emily had never been beyond the Yorkshire moors that dominate the melancholy setting of her novel. She doesn’t mention that Emily accompanied her to Belgium, for example. Charlotte had an agenda, and she suited her portrait to that agenda.
Miller points out that the same can be said for Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell in her famous biography of Charlotte herself. Mrs. Gaskell, Miller argues, typically Victorian in her attitudes towards women and their role in society, was uncomfortable with the notion that a woman author could be solely a woman author, and this despite the fact that she was a well known novelist and critic herself. The Mrs. is the key. A woman may be a writer, but she must be a wife as well and a mother if possible. In her biography, she found it necessary to turn charlotte into a home body, a characteristic Victorian angel in the house, busy with all the little household chores and duties that filled the lives of ‘normal’ nineteenth century housewives. If she wrote novels, she did so in her spare time. Husband and family must be foremost in her life.
She created a Charlotte Bronte to meet her own expectations, as well as those of her contemporaries. She was more interested in Charlotte Bronte, the woman, than in Charlotte the novelist. She paints a picture of saintly woman giving up of herself to do her duty in the home, and it is this picture that gained currency through most of the rest of the nineteenth century. There is the story, for example, of the elderly servant who had grown too short sighted to peel potatoes adequately, and the selfless Charlotte breaking off from her writing to redo the peeling which Miller quotes from a collection of nineteenth century lives of women, Women of Worth (1859) to show the influence of Mrs. Gaskell’s work: “Every menial office in the establishment was exacted of the children, not more as a matter of necessity than of duty, and Charlotte continued to discharge them all until the year before her death, with the force of habit and the penchant of liking. Grates were scoured, furniture scrubbed, beds tossed, floors washed and swept, bread baked, and all sorts of plain cooking, done by these little, quiet, heartbroken-looking children, who did every one of the same things daily after they became celebrated women.”
This picture only began to change when the discovery of Charlotte’s letters to the Belgian schoolmaster, M. Heger, whom she fictionalized in her novel, Villette, was made. At that point and under the influence of the newly fashionable Freudian ideas about personality development, the portrait of Charlotte began to grow somewhat less saintly. The feminist revolution in the middle of the twentieth century marked still another change in the picture. For feminist critics and biographers, Charlotte was a woman ahead of her time and a victim to the prejudices of the society in which she lived. Post feminist criticism tended see her less as a victim and more as a forerunner of the modern woman–a feminist in the making. In essence, Miller shows that critics and biographers have cut Charlotte to fit the pattern of their preconceptions and created a woman that more than likely never really existed.
The same is true of Emily, and perhaps even more so, because there is even less factual material available–the less information, the easier to speculate, the easier to invent. Emily was the most reclusive of the sisters. Unlike Charlotte and Anne, she never seemed to seek the public eye; she never went out into the London literary society, dined with Thackeray or Mrs. Gaskell, corresponded with publishers and editors. Few letters are extant. Much of what we know about her comes from her novel and the juvenile tales she wrote together with Anne. And while there is much to be learned about a writer from her work, it is only too easy–and often only too wrong–to read biography from fiction.
If Charlotte began as the angel in the house, Emily was something quite different. She had produced a novel quite wild and unwomanly. Jane Eyre might have been a bit coarse, but Wuthering Heights was well nigh demonic. It was almost impossible to believe that a woman could have written such a disturbing book. Surely no woman could have done so–a more likely candidate was needed, and for many, one reared his head–the impassioned, alcoholic Bronte brother, Branwell. Surely he was more likely to have been the model for much of the book. Model? More likely he collaborated in its creation. Collaborated? Why not written it? This kind of wild speculation was characteristic of much of the work on Emily during the nineteenth century.
Later writers more impressed with her novel tended to focus on her literary forebears–seeing her novel as a result of her art rather than an imitation of her life experience or the experience of those around her. As more of her work became available–her poetry and the Gondal sagas– the Byronic elements and the Romantic mystical qualities began to be emphasized.
Like Charlotte, she became what her biographers and critics wanted her to be.
Lucasta Miller has written a well documented–every chapter has over a hundred footnotes–study of the Brontes as they have been perceived over the decades in scholarly works, in popular fiction and film, by academics and artists, by critics and editors. All too often these perceptions have been created out of whole cloth with little if anything to substantiate them.
One particular incident she mentions deserves note as an emblem of the Bronte myth and as perhaps the “greatest biographical gaffe in the history of Bronte studies.” Virginia Moore, in her 1936 biography, The Life and Eager Death of Emily Bronte claimed to have paid “special and respectful attention to primary sources.” In doing so, however, she had great difficulty with the crabbed handwriting of her manuscript sources and misread the title of the poem, “Love’s Farewell,” as “Louis Parensell.” From this she deduced a preciously unknown lover of that name. And although the editor of the poetry corrected the error in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, “the mythic Louis went on to spend a speculative existence in the letters page of the Poetry Review.”