The Passionate Brontës
What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. (The Catcher in the Rye)
Over the last few months, I have read all seven novels, many of the poems, and selected bits of juvenilia by the three Brontë sisters — as well as several biographies, odds and ends of literary criticism, and a fascinating volume about the Brontë legend, which over the years has sometimes overshadowed the facts of their lives.
Right now I feel as if I know them as well as I know my own friends and family. I suspect that I would enjoy hanging around the Brontës' dining room table of an evening, discussing books, talking over current events, and being catty about the Haworth neighbors. I would probably not be at the Black Bull Tavern, drinking gin with dissolute brother Branwell — since I know nothing good would come of that relationship. While I'd like to think that their clergyman father, Patrick, would enjoy my company (as long as the subject of religion did not come up), he would certainly not regard a poor librarian as a suitable match for any of his talented daughters.
What is it about the Brontës that encourages such curious speculations?
I enjoy reading biographies, particularly about literary figures. These biographies usually follow a standard pattern: an author is born into a particular social context, struggles ensue, he or she overcomes the odds to achieve a goal, usually publication, fame ensues... and the final outcome is pretty much the same as the one that is in store for all of us. But what degree of personal intimacy should we expect from a literary biography? How close can a biographer really come to his or her subject? I can barely make sense of my own life, which I'm still muddling through; how might some stranger, many years down the line, arrange the facts of my existence, and what interpretations would be drawn from them?
Sometimes memories come in small random illuminations, like fireflies on a summer lawn. Other times, they have to be tricked up from the depths. What do I see when I peer back through the mists? I remember being on my brand new tricycle, scabby knees pedaling away until I was out of sight of my parents, and experiencing a first liberating sense of independence; that Christmas morning when I opened my Cape Canaveral playset with its little plastic missile launchers and set about creating an elaborate fantasy about alien invaders; being in class and casting my eyes furtively towards the girl at the desk alongside mine — not the first but certainly the most intense of schoolboy crushes — and being flooded with such a tide of unbearable yearning I thought I might die from it...
What do these few random moments signify? Do they bring you a greater sense of intimacy with their subject? Are they even true?
I am reminded of a Bernard Malamud novel, Dubin's Lives, about a biographer working on a life of D. H. Lawrence. He has a lot to say about the shaping and telling of people's lives. "There were several million facts of Lawrence's short life and long work, of which Dubin might master a sufficient quantity. He'd weave them together and say what they meant — that was the daring thing. You assimilated another man's experience and tried to arrange it into 'thoughtful centrality' — Samuel Johnson's phrase. In order to do that honestly well, you had to anchor yourself in a place of perspective; you had as a strategy to imagine you were the one you were writing about, even though it meant laying illusion on illusion." Dubin decides that there "is no life that can be recaptured wholly; as it was. Which is to say that all biography is ultimately fiction."
This mania for the Brontë family has been going strong since the novels were first published and has continued for more than a century and a half.
For anyone interested in the lives of the Brontës, I highly recommend The Brontë Myth, an account of all the strange twists and turns it took to change the Brontës from literary figures into cultural symbols. We know the most about Charlotte, since she was a prolific letter writer with a wider circle of acquaintances than the others, yet she is particularly susceptible to misrepresentation. Every generation seems to create the Charlotte it wants or needs: amoral rebel, suffering saint, domestic slave, neurotic, feminist icon. Emily, about whom we know the least, also comes in for her share of speculation about her private self: was she an untutored rustic, neglected genius, violence-prone sadist, or a pagan mystic? Was she a virginal spinster... or had she known a great heterosexual passion... or been involved in a lesbian relationship... or an incestuous one? (All of these are twentieth century interpretations lacking any scrap of evidence.) The reputation of Anne, the youngest, suffered almost from the first, when she she was transformed into the stereotype of the gentle, weak, complacent kid sister... even though her novels, especially The Tenant of Wildfell Hall provoked more public outrage than any other of the Brontë sisters' published works.
The legendary aspects of the Brontë myth seem to have started with Charlotte herself, in her "Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell," written soon after the deaths of all her siblings The piece is a curious mixture of love and condescension, written largely to protect her sisters' reputations from the critics who had branded them as coarse and brutal. It is here that we first encounter the portraits of Emily as a wild child whose books and poems came out of nowhere and Anne as a meek little creature whose savage novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charlotte called a "mistake." Then, only two years after Charlotte's death, Elizabeth Gaskell produced The Life of Charlotte Brontë with very much the same intention, to redeem her friend's reputation from that stuffy Victorian community who believed that a woman could not and should not produce such amoral stuff as Jane Eyre. Gaskell's depiction of Charlotte suffering through the most unthinkable of tragedies, remaining above all a martyr to her domestic duties, and squeezing out her novels only in the scraps of time between the more vital chores of cooking, housework, and tending to her ailing Papa, was so effective that it became the standard portrait until well into the middle of the twentieth century.
It is probably true that a life can never be captured completely in a biography, no matter how dense or factual. The written word is such a slippery thing. Facts are difficult enough to convey, but experience and emotion are so complex it's hard to know where you stand. In addition, with the Brontës, new evidence is always being unearthed in letters, manuscript pages, juvenilia — all of which tend alter the picture. Only last December, the Paris Museum won a bidding war for an unpublished manuscript by Charlotte Brontë.
Thanks to The Bronte Myth, I was led to some unusual factual, fictional, and dramatic works which paint odd pictures of the Brontës' lives. Fortunately these books were still to be found in the library's stacks, and I was able to gratify my transitory whim by having a look at them. Women of Worth: A Book for Girls is an anthology of role models for girls which characterizes Charlotte as a model of Victorian respectability and daughterly duty. The Brontës in Ireland: Facts Stranger Than Fiction sets out to prove the unlikely point that Wuthering Heights has its basis in the actual history of Patrick Brontë's poverty-stricken Irish ancestors. The premise of The Crimes of Charlotte Bronte, a 1999 historical novel, is that it was Charlotte's reserved curate husband (of only nine months) who impregnated Emily and then murdered her to hide his guilty secret. There are many more instances of such outrages recorded in this book, but if they have little to tell us about the actual Bronte family, they provide a fascinating example of the mutability of truth and the fluctuating nature of reality. Biographies will continue to be written. People will still be fascinated by the three genius sisters isolated on the Yorkshire moors. At least, so far, no one seems to have written Jane Eyre and the Zombies — and if they have, please don't let me know about it.
If you are inclined to pursue the lives of the the Brontës, there are several excellent choices. The best recent biographies of Charlotte Brontë would be Rebecca Fraser's The Brontës: Charlotte Bronte and Her Family, a fair, richly textured assessment, and Lyndall Gordon's Charlotte Brontë, a Passionate Life, a beautifully written psychological portrait. The definitive life of the the Brontës as a family, whose focus encompasses each of its members, is Juliet Baker's The Brontës, a massive and indispensible work which will soon be coming out in an expanded second edition titled The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of Three Sisters.
I will be having my own fling with the Brontës when I present a talk, The Passionate Brontës: The Life and Works of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, in the South Court auditorium on September 14 and November 9 at 2:15pm.