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The Bronte Myth Paperback – 3 Jan 2002
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The Bronte Myth traces the various ways the Brontes have been interpreted by an ever-increasing and increasingly dotty fanbase from their own lifetimes through the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. The book treats first Charlotte then Emily, leaving Anne pretty much out of the picture, since (Miller argues) she has "never taken on the mythic stature of her sisters in her own right", which is hard luck for any dedicated Anne-fans; but Miller certainly finds many absorbing things to say about the other two sisters.
The point of the study is to examine the way interpretations of these two women have shifted so kaleidoscopically over the last century-and-a-half. Charlotte is seen in Gaskell's Life as "paragon of womanhood", then, as the century ends and the vogue for self-improvement takes hold, as a self-taught writer who had risen from obscurity. The 20th century brought the revelation of her thwarted passion for a Belgian schoolteacher, and she became an embodiment of smouldering unfulfilled sexual intensity. Emily, more neglected earlier on, came into her own in the latter part of the last century, revered as "the mystic of the moors". Both women of course were icons of the feminist literary movement in the 1960s, and their popularity continues today in the academy; but they are loved outside the university as well, appealing (says Miller) particularly to shy, lonely, bookish children.
Miller skilfully weaves a narrative of the developing Bronte myth, paralleling it with the development of the art of biography itself, allowing the two to illuminate one another. Sometimes, reading through the trivia (Bronte chocolate and biscuits, D-grade critical studies and so on) the reader might wonder if the subject really merits such in-depth treatment. But in tracing this story, Miller has good points to make about the way a biography is always, to one degree or another, a fiction, reflecting the concerns of the age in which it is produced. For anybody interested in the Brontes, or interested in what Virginia Woolf called the "bastard, impure art of biography" there is a great deal here of interest. --Adam Roberts --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"A brilliant and riveting examination of the Bronte phenomenon" (Daily Mail)
"Brilliant...written with wit and relish, and packed with irresistible detail" (The Times)
"Sharply intelligent, original and witty... Literary history is seldom related with such a pleasant combination of brio and erudition" (Sunday Times)
"Crisply written and witty... Lucasta Miller...sends the reader straight back to the wonderful novels that inspired such hommages" (Michele Roberts Independent on Sunday)
"A sharp-witted study in literary reputation... Miller supplies a deft and immaculately detailed tracing of the many 'constructions' of Charlotte Bronte" (Joanna Griffiths Observer)
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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.
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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