Mar 14, 2011

The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller

The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller

Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth is, as the author herself puts it, a metabiography of the Brontë sisters: rather than retelling their lives for the nth time, Miller chose to trace and analyse the history of the Brontës’ hold on the popular imagination. How exactly have the sisters come to be at least as popular as their literary creations? This is certainly not something that can be said of most writers. And even more interestingly, why has it happened? What does this process tell us about our history and culture?

To quote from the introduction,
This book (…) is not so much a biography of the Brontës but a book about biography, a metabiography. Occasionally, when focusing on the sentimental excess of the Brontë cult, it may even read more like an antibiography. But while I share Henry James’ anxiety about over-emphasis on the Brontë story, this is not to say that I reject the biographical approach per se. The Brontës’ lives are legitimately fascinating, but their value lies less in the simple rehearsal of the story – however melodramatic it has been made to seem – than in the way in which, as writers, these women transformed experience into art.
Because the myths surrounding the Brontës are very Charlotte-centric, with Emily being second in popularity and Anne being mostly overlooked, The Brontë Myth follows this same pattern. It wouldn’t make sense to analyse the cultural resonance of the three sisters without taking this imbalance into account, of course. Setting out to correct it is not a part of Miller’s aims, so if you’re an Anne fan I’m sorry to say this is not the book that will make you feel vindicated.

I really liked the fact that Lucasta Miller’s tone was never really unsympathetic or superior. On the one hand, she clearly sets out to do a detailed work of demythologisation, as well as to denounce the dehumanising effects that transforming a human being into a myth can have. Reading The Brontë Myth certainly validated the vague sense of unease I experienced with I visited Haworth earlier this year. But on the other hand, she’s not immune to the fascination the Brontës exert, and she definitely doesn’t look down on those who fall under its spell. She’s occasionally impatient with the most extreme Brontëphiles, but then again, it’s difficult not to be in the face of so much absurd speculation (and I promise you, you will blink in disbelief when you read some of those claims that have been made about the sisters over time). But fortunately Miller is also very much aware that there’s something very human about the way people have related to the Brontës over the centuries; about how they have unconsciously read and appropriated their story in ways that resonate with their own experiences, circumstances, worldviews and beliefs.

I now fully understand what Jenny was saying about how fascinating the changes in how we perceived historical figures over time are. They’re certainly revealing of the dominant values and ideology of each moment in time, and it’s interesting to think how malleable something supposedly factual like history and biography can in fact prove to be. The evolution of the way Charlotte has been perceived is especially interesting from a feminist perspective: she has been turned from a scandalous, “vulgar” woman to an icon of proper Victorian womanhood (via Elizabeth Gaskell) to a contemporary proto-feminist symbol. A turning point in this history was the appearance of her letters to her former teacher Constantin Héger in 1993: these letters created discomfort due to their frank acknowledgement of female desire even in the 1990’s, so one can only imagine how they would have been received in Victorian times. It is certainly no coincidence that Gaskell's biography made no reference to Charlotte’s feelings for her former teacher at all.

Another interesting thing to consider is how so many Brontë biographies have overemphasised the sister’s isolation in an attempt to render them both pitiable and harmless. This trend began with Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, which according to Miller was written in an apologetic, justificatory tone and attempted to purify Charlotte through suffering and sacrifice. I own a copy of Gaskell’s biography, and it will be very interesting to read it with Miller’s comments in mind. Again, I should say that her tone isn’t really accusatory – she portrays Gaskell sympathetically, and acknowledges that what she was doing was simply trying to rescue her friend’s reputation and writing from her own ideological perspective, which is what most of tend to do anyway.

What most nineteenth century takes on the Brontës have in common is the fact that they used their lives to try to explain away and defang their writing. Of Harriet Martineau’s take on Charlotte, for example, Miller says:
Martineau – like Gaskell after her – could only explain Charlotte’s failure to conform by assuming she had been completely cut off from cultural norms. In reality, Charlotte had, from childhood, been an avid follower of contemporary politics and current affairs in the press. But Martineau described her has ‘living among the wild Yorkshire hills… in a place where newspapers were never seen (or where she never saw any)’. She erroneously claimed that Charlotte was too feeble to walk out on the moors and that she looked out of her window directly on to her sister’s graves (in fact Anne was buried in Scarborough and the other Brontës inside the church).
This is a fascinating process, especially because as time passed the very same facts (or embellishments of facts) were presented in ways that supported the opposite ideological points. So much for neutrality. And obviously many of these people were not consciously manipulating the truth – they looked at the Brontës’ lives, or at what they thought they knew about them, and sincerely saw something entirely different than what their predecessors had seen.

The Brontë Myth is an excellent read. I recommend it not only to those interested in the Brontës, but also to anyone with an interest in history and biography in general. By tracing the history of the Brontës’ written portrayals, Miller also traces the history of literary biography, as well as of the changes in what readers expect of it and in how they relate to the writers they idolise. The result couldn’t be more fascinating.

They read it too: Aneca’s World

(You?)

28 comments:

  1. Must. Rush. Out. And buy!!!!! I am eternally fascinated by the idolisation/demonising of public figures. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

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  2. hmmm, looks like the wish list groweth once again!

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  3. This sounds fascinating! I've yet to read Anne, but have The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ready to go after the tbr dare ends. The Bronte Myth would be an excellent follow-up.

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  4. I do actually own this, but i have been reluctant to read it after my unfortunate experience with Wuthering Heights. I am intrigued by the sisters and really do want to know more.

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  5. This sounds so, so interesting. WANT!

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  6. It does sound as though the myth behind the Bronte sisters was very different than the reality. I have only read Emily and Charlotte, and have not tried Anne yet, but after reading one of her books I may have to check this out. They are a fascinating family for me, and the books I have read have been really wildly divergent, but also very interesting. Great review on this one, Anna!

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  7. After I get through the Brontës' bibliographies—I'm just starting with Jane Eyre at the moment—I think I'll pick this up. I think it's fascinating to see the bias of biographers through the years, especially when it comes to women writers…

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  8. Yeah you posted about it:) This sounds like a book for me because it is all about the Charlotte. Your description of the changes her character has gone through are fascinating, especially how her friend Elizabeth Gaskell tried to go to her aid.

    It would be fascinating to compare how other literary superstars have been reinvented over the years. A recent biography about Emily Dickinson is supposed to look at the way two factions of her family have presented her image in such different ways (I know, I never have titles for these things)but what about others (get's greedy look in her eyes). I imagine the changes in presentation are very telling and fascinating for the ladies of literature.

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  9. This sounds fascinating. I have never really read much from the Brontes, but I do enjoy history, so I might have to give this a read at some point. Great review!

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  10. I'm kind of embarrassed to say that I've never read any of the Brontes work, and don't really know much about them. I do love a good biography though, so this does interest me.

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  11. I'm pretty fascinated by issues of biography and authorial neutrality, and this sounds like a compelling read even aside from its Bronte-related subject matter (not that I don't have your standard level of interest in the Brontes). I loved Hermione Lee's discussion of Woolf's different biographers in her own bio, and how she does her best to acknowledge her own bias and the ways in which it might be informing her portrait of Woolf. Sarah Bakewell does the same thing in her recent Montaigne bio - a lot of attention paid to the ways in which different eras invented different "versions" of the author according to what they found in his work. Amazing how different those versions can be.

    Anyway, thanks for the tip on a fascinating-sounding read!

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  12. Okay, I'm sort of surprised to be saying this, but Damn, this sounds good! It's not so much that I'm enamored with the Brontes myself, but the whole "changing history" thing just sounds so utterly fascinating.

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  13. I've read it wen I first came to Brussels and also really enjoy it. I was especially interested in the role Elizabeth Gaskell had in creating the Bronte myth.

    A short time after this one I've read Gaskell's biog of Charlotte Bronte and was able to understand it better.

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  14. Nymeth, this was an excellent review. I want this book! As you know, I was at Haworth too, and I'm fascinated by how the Brontes image has changed over the past century. It's interesting what readers respond to in the writing, and then compare that to our ideas of what the women writers were like. i think they have been mixed together in the public imagination, as you point out, the cultural idea of them changing, and being changed by, the different eras. Seizing an image by the public, it's an interesting area, isn't it? Yes, I think I want to read this book. I also think bringing our own impressions of where they lived (those of us who have been to Haworth) as well as reading their stories, can help to sort out what is real about their books and what is imagined about the women and their writing. Very interesting post and book, Nymeth. Thank you for this lovely review!

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  15. This book is definitely going on my list. When I will get to it is another story though but it will eventually get done!

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  16. This book sounds really interesting! I'm not very conversant with the Bronte culture (I suppose you would call it), even though Jane Eyre is my absolute favorite book. It sounds as if they've become almost mythic figures, like Shakespeare.

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  17. Celine: You're most welcome! Enjoy!

    Deslily: It groweth every day, doesn't it? ;)

    JoAnn: I think I'm going to start Tenant myself very soon! I have yet to read anything by Anne too, but it's about time.

    Vivienne: I think you could definitely enjoy it despite not being a fan of Wuthering Heights - which I also didn't care for.

    Emily Jane: It really was!

    Zibilee: They are indeed fascinating, even when you separate the facts from the legend. I think this would be a great follow up to your recent good experience with Jane Eyre :)

    Clare: Yes, it absolutely is. It would be great to find a book that analysed that process with a number of them.

    Jodie: I imagine the same! Where are the other books about this? Surely they must exist. *gets greedy look too*

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  18. Kelly, I definitely think you'd enjoy this for the historical angle alone!

    Kathy: This is a good place to start learning about them! And as for reading them, can't go wrong with Jane Eyre :)

    Emily: I'm glad to hear this is something Lee explores in her Woolf bio - I really have to read it! And yes, it's amazing how much those versions vary and change over time.

    Debi, you'd love it! I really think you would.

    Alexandra: It will be very interesting to read the Gaskell bio after this! I kind of wonder what I'd have made of it otherwise :P

    Susan: Aw, thank you! This is indeed a fascinating thing to think about when it comes to any historical figure, and especially so when it comes to the Brontës. You definitely DO want to read it! I'd love to hear your take on it :)

    Mystica: Haha, story of my life, that :P

    Heidenkind: After reading this, I suspect that the most extreme fringes of Brontë culture are actually scary :S People get quite intense about them. And yes, it would be fascinating to read a book of this kind about Shakespeare!

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  19. This does soudns wonderful. I've always been interested in the Bronte sisters. Great review!

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  20. ooo this sounds so interesting. I haven't read many of the Bronte's books, but I intend to. Also, curious to read Gaskell's too.

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  21. Oh, glorious! I am not captivated by the Bronte's actual biographies, but metabiographies (which is what I shall call them hereafter, yay for new words!) are unfailingly (so far) captivating. I need to get this straight away! I think there's a similar thing about Jane Austen floating around too -- Jane's Fame?

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  22. This sounds wonderful and it looks like you really enjoyed it:) I'm particularly interested in the changing perceptions of the Brontes and I suspect it will go on changing with succeeding biographers. I think that is one of the interesting things about historiography that no matter how unbiased researchers try to be, it's inevitable that the context within which you are researching will leach into your perceptions. Fascinating stuff!

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  23. I feel like I want to read all of the work produced by the Brontes and then read this book.

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  24. What an interesting concept for a book! I think I'd have to read one of the works mentioned by Miller before reading it though as my knowledge at the moment is limited to Wikipedia and blogs.

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  25. I really enjoy cultural histories of the perceptions of authors and the like. And you knew I wanted to read this anyway ;) It sounds like I need to read this book ASAP.

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  26. I'm glad to hear that the book doesn't look down on people's mythmaking, per se (though it does seem to point out with no particular fondness, the excesses of this tendency). I have to admit with a lot of my favorite authors - the Brontes among them - my relationship with their work and my relationship with the idea of themas humans in my head is difficult to separate, and if I WERE to write, say, a Bronte biography, it would be horribly mythological.

    Maybe horrible is the wrong word. I guess... I think there is a place in the world for mythologizing. Really, ANY bioraphy tells a story from some particular viewpoint, and while nonfiction certainly ought to favor fact over imagination, of course, I think that we understand something different about a person when we weave a story around them, versus when we force ourselves to read the facts of their existence straight, as it were - I was writing about this today in my review of Zoe Heller, actually. This isn't to say that we should stop trying to tell the truth in biographies, of course. Or to voice an opposition to this book (it sounds wonderful. As an Emily Dickinson fan (if you want to talk about authors with obsessive mythologizing around them), I have read more than my share of biographers that tell us more about the biographer than the biographee - but in some sense, these have their place, and in some sense, I wonder if the prevailing biography style of the present, in which we seem intent on deflating heroes, and showing the essential sameness of everyone, is simply another generation's mythologizing - we need to believe that our heroes weren't all that heroic, in some ways, you know? Again, this isn't to say this style of biography isn't TRUE - but the presentation of facts tells us more about the biographer and his/her culture, than it does abotu the biographee.

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  27. This sounds fascinating to me for the discussion on biographies and how our perceptions can change over time through history with different people emphasizing different traits in their biographies of famous people.

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  28. Avid Reader: I think you'd definitely enjoy it!

    Rebecca: Me neither, actually - just Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. But this was fascinating anyway!

    Jenny: Isn't it an excellent word? :D And I didn't know there was one on Austen! Must see if the library has it.

    Sakura: Yes, very true - they're probably going to continue to change as time passes and the things we value and prioritise change.

    Kathleen: And I want to return to it when I've read more of their work!

    Charlie: I'm honestly a bit on the ignorant side myself, and it was a great read anyway :P But I imagine that the more you know, the more enjoyable it is.

    Iris: You definitely do!

    Jason: Yes, I completely agree that these mythologised stories have their places, and that the process is far from being a bad thing in itself - it's just such a human thing to do that I have a hard time imagining a world where we don't. Or, I can imagine it, but it would also be a world in which we're reluctant to tell stories, period. And I also agree with this: "the presentation of facts tells us more about the biographer and his/her culture, than it does about the biographees." It's why cataloguing Victorian biographies for my internship has been so fascinating. Even the way they're structured speaks volumes.

    Amy: Yes, exactly! That was why I loved it.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.