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Emily was no dog-beater!
on 29 November 2009
Charlotte was the only one of the Brontë sisters to experience celebrity in her lifetime; two years after she died aged 38 she gravitated into legend when Mrs Gaskell published her sanitising and hugely influential portrait, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). While Charlotte was frank about her ambition to achieve public recognition, Emily and in some respects Anne were more reserved. Also less is known about Emily's character and appearance; along with the supposed coarseness of her only surviving novel and the extraordinary flights of her imagination, constructions of Emily being have proven more fantastical. It is on the two more famous sisters that Lucasta Miller focuses since Anne, the youngest and least commercially successful of the trio in the last century, "has never taken on the mythic stature of her sisters in her own right". It can't have helped her position in the mythologisation of the Brontë family that Anne died and is buried in Scarborough whereas all the other siblings, including Branwell, died in Haworth and were buried one after the other in the church vault (their aged father, Patrick Brontë, outlived all six of his children).
Miller is fascinating on the development of the Parsonage Museum over the years. The new owner Reverend John Wade replaced the small window panes with modern plate glass and added a new wing during the 1870s. Visitors to Haworth were barred from entering the parsonage until 1928 when a local benefactor bought it and donated it to the Brontë Society. In the last century Brontë has become a fully fledged brand, with souvenir shops, cafés, taxi companies and hairdressers in the county adopting the family's name, often for its recognition value alone. Nowadays when you walk up the cobbled path on Main Street towards the parsonage, you are greeted by strings of tacky Union Jack flags overhead, a Villette café on your left, and tiny shops with small rubbers, rulers, and tea-towels stacked in their front windows, all imprinted with the customary image of windswept, tempestuous moors and the Brontë name.
She's also good at showing how mythologisation of Charlotte as a masochistic martyr and parable of victimhood has obscured acknowledgment of her conscious artistry as well as her strength and determination. Miller reports with humour on how ridiculous some cultural projections onto Emily have been: "Readers would come away from Gaskell's demonised portrait with the impression that Emily devoted her life to beating up dogs...". Where she's less good is when she complains that it's the sisters' writing that "truly matters" rather than the icons they have become: Miller herself is clearly in thrall to the myth, even when working against it. Also, she argues against conflation of protagonist and author, but falls into the same trap herself when she likens Emily's fierce protection of her private sphere to Heathcliff's rebuttal of intrusions.