Funny that a trio of nineteenth-century women writers should make me wax nostalgic -- but then Iíve had a weird life. Itís even funnier that these wild sisters of the moors should intrigue generation after generation of romantic biographers. Lucasta Millerís The Bronte Myth is an interesting exploration of the evolving Bronte legends that have more to do with the reviewer than the reviewed. Although anyone will appreciate this book, the Bronte aficionados will enjoy it the most. Donít scoff. Our numbers are legion.
You see, my mother was a great fan of the Bronte sisters. Whenever we wanted to buy her something special -- something guaranteed to please her -- a book by or about one of these ladies always fit the bill. Luckily, something new on the topic came out often enough for her to build a significant library of Bronte lore.
Mother introduced me to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the early Sixties. Jane and Rochester and Cathy and Heathcliff charmed me then just as they had her in the early Forties. Our enjoyment of those books was one of the enduring links between us over the years. Even so, I suspect we interpreted the Bronte passions differently. Charlotte, Emily and Anne are such enigmatic figures that their work can touch the same chords but play different tunes depending on the instrument.
In The Bronte Myth, Lucasta Miller discusses the Bronte reputation that evolved based on cultural and sexual mores of each generation. In the late 1850s, when the books appeared under the pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the literary and social world was stunned to realize that these authors werenít men, but three seemingly prim and proper spinsters living in a parsonage. Their images were at odds with the "racy" content of their books. This disparity has been the fodder for an ongoing series of interpretations of their art and their personal characters.
Charlotte herself got the ball rolling in an effort to protect herself and her sisters from the fires of societal disapproval. Mrs. Gaskell, one of the first Bronte biographers, obliged the Victorian sensibilities of the time and portrayed the three women as irreproachable Christian ladies. Future biographers continued the trend of misrepresentation, often confusing them with their characters. Over the years, as womenís roles changed, the Bronte image changed, too. Perhaps this was because the only true window into the hearts of these extraordinary writers is their work. Analysis relies on the point of view of the analyzer. Therefore, when the literary world enthused about the validity of Freudian symbolism, reviewers of the day interpreted the novels and poetry of the Brontes through that prism. It was a short step to painting the authors themselves with the same critical brush.
Lucasta Miller loves her subject. The prose is easy to read. The piece is historically accurate, and Millerís ideas are well-conceived and delivered. Okay, perhaps this material isnít for everyone. If you are into zombies or motorcycle zen or the history of the propeller, you might not rush home every night to thumb through The Bronte Myth. On the other hand, this academic foray into the virginal lives of these three creative sisters was like going home to me. I sat in my recliner and read it cover to cover -- thinking how much my mother would have loved it. It doesnít get any better than that.