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The Bronte Myth
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This is not the story of the Bronte sisters, but more the story of how their books were received on publication and the extraordinary opprobrium that was rained down - especially on Charlotte Bronte, whose novel, Jane Eyre, caused an almighty scandal and much heartache for the writer. Miller remarks: "As her novels show, she believed that being a woman in her society often involved putting on a social mask to hide the deeper self." It is this mask that hides how much Charlotte in particular felt a need for social acceptance, particularly in the female literary community. It was these needs that drove Charlotte to take up various other poses in reaction to much of the opprobrium. It is understandable that Charlotte looked for support from this section of her readers, but many of the women writers who commented on her work took the line that it was vulgar, coarse, too closely allied, is the sub-text, to love as a passionate aspect of human nature.

Elizabeth Gaskell, CB's first biographer never really engaged with the powerful intensity of her writing and she had reservations about Jane Eyre from the beginning. As a result Gaskell's life of CB was stripped of all sense of the living human being and turned her into a kind of paragon of suffering, a misunderstood saint, rather than the real, caustic, often witty and passionate person she really was. This book goes over in detail Charlotte's arguments with people such as William Thackeray, and female writers such as Harriet Martineau. The reaction to all the Bronte sister's books varied from the vituperative to the coldly dismissive and this is where Miller labours to uncover some of the truth.

My one criticism is related to the little amount we know about Anne Bronte, whose books broke at least as many unsung taboos as Charlotte's. There is rather more said about Emily, but as she mostly did not care to answer her critics, the little we do know adds to the wildly romantic caricature of her own persona at the time. This book does it's best to dig beneath the surface and find the real flesh and blood women of their time.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
The previous review is too good to improve on, but I would like to say that this is one of the best biographies I've read since Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task. The biography of biographies might seem arid and over-scholarly to the general reader but this is witty, shrewd, unsnobbish and full of insight. Hugely impressive and enjoyable.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
This book is for those who have been seduced by Gaskell's image of a miserable Charlotte Bronte shuffling along the cobbled streets in her clogs, and have found it difficult to reconcile this idea with the sensuality of her novels. Lucasta Miller strips away nearly 150 years of myth and downright nonsense and describes with wit and lucidity how the sisters' reputations have fallen victim to the attitudes and interpretations of successive generations.
More than just another book about the Brontes, this work examines the art of biography and the changing trends in this genre. As with many other writers, the sisters have become public property and, as such, there is a tendency for us to become focussed on the authors rather than their literary canon. Lucasta Miller urges us to return to the novels in order to learn about these enigmatic women, and that is exactly what I intend to do.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 3 February 2001
Our expectation of books about the Brontes is that they will be biographies, literary studies or contributions to the Haworth heritage industry. The Bronte Myth is none of these, but offers a subtle and challenging exploration of the territory that lies between. As soon as the sisters first published (under their Bell pseudonyms), the speculation began about who they were, initially a simple matter of identity and gender, but very soon creating myths about their nature and significance. Emily and Anne being almost instantly removed from the scene, the first creators of the Bronte Myth were Charlotte herself and, after her death, her biographer Mrs. Gaskell. A century and a half later, the sisters have been re-created to suit successive generations and philosophies and the myth renews itself in film, popular song, coach trips, tea rooms and country biscuits. This powerful and changing myth is explored with scholarship and wit by Lucasta Miller whose range of reference is indicated by 40 pages of notes (to 250 pages of text), largely source acknowledgements. Countless biographies (from the astute to the absurd) are examined with forbearance and/or irony and popular culture is not neglected. It's refreshing to find a scholarly account giving mentions to Lip Service's disingenuous Bronte parody, Withering Looks, and the Bronte Society's canine look-alike competition (post-modernist irony, surely?). Inferences and connections are unfailingly revealing, with a shrewd examination of Stella Gibbons' comic masterpiece, Cold Comfort Farm, as a reaction to 1920s passionate nature myths of Emily Bronte, and the bold decision to finish the book with the effect of the Bronte myth on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, 'in the public mind...the Cathy and Heathcliff of their generation'. I missed a comment on James Kirkups witty and apposite poem, A Visit to Bronteland', but otherwise the range of cultural reference is overwhelming. Not that 'overwhelming' is a word that can be readily applied to a book that makes the academic accessible to the general reder. For a study that depends largely on a fascinatng deconstruction of Gaskell's 1857 biography, it is also impressively up-to-date, incorporating Shared Experience's 1997/99 theatre version of Jane Eyre (though I cannot share Miller's enthusiasm for the production) and even a passing reference to Michael Berkeley's 2000 opera which similarly finds some identification between Jane and the first Mrs. Rochester. A pity that the still-underrrated Anne Bronte gets so little of Lucasta Miller's attention, but the book is about the Bronte Myth and in that myth Anne is always the sister in the kitchen making the tea.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2010
This book reads a little like an academic thesis, and is predominantly focused on Charlotte. Rather repetitive on some points and not an 'easy' read. If you are looking for relaxing bedtime reading then it's not for you, serious adherents of the subject will find a lot of in-depth information and perspectives, but I had to keep forcing myself to pick it up and continue to plow through it. Not my best buy.
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on 3 January 2014
this is the only book that i'm aware of that sees the Bronte's in light of a feminist perspective. this view challenges all other books written and helps to give an historical perspective 'edge'. Context is all when looking at such a prolific family of great talent
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on 16 December 2013
It's an interesting read for Bronte fans as it explains quite a lot about society's thoughts and feelings towards professional women
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on 17 March 2015
Love it! All info easy to read and accurate. Will recommend it to everyone.
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