The Brontė Sisters

Charlotte   (1816 – 1855),   Emily   (1818 – 1848),   Anne  (1820 – 1849)


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In search of a lost classic
(Filed: 04/07/2002)

When Charlotte Cory agreed to complete Charlotte Bronte's last unfinished novel, she found herself embarking on a literary mystery tour

Novels left unfinished when celebrated authors die mid-sentence - like Charles Dickens's Edwin Drood or Jane Austen's Sanditon - are always poignant. This is certainly true of Charlotte Bronte's last novel Emma, which, at only two chapters long, is a tantalising hint at the masterpiece that may have evolved had she lived.

Although deftly edited by her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls for publication in Thackeray's new Cornhill Magazine, the story is full of inconsistencies and puzzling inconsequentialities. Even the Emma of the title never appears. When I agreed to dramatise and finish Emma for Radio 4, I envisaged nothing more than a little lighthearted story telling.

Then something happened. Idly surfing the internet, I found some books that had once belonged to Arthur Bell Nicholls for sale by auction. I placed a bid, and, some time later, a package of three turgid liturgical volumes arrived, each signed and dated when Nicholls had been at Haworth as Patrick Bronte's curate.

I really had no use for the books, but then a photograph fell from one of them, together with a letter sent in 1970 to Winifred Gerin, Charlotte's 1960s biographer. The books had been sold by her estate.

The photograph, taken in 1904, depicted Arthur Bell Nicholls as an old man, standing with his dog Pincher and a little girl outside his house in Ireland. He had returned to his native country after Charlotte's death, taking with him the remaining Bronte dogs, servant and everything of sentimental value connected with her. Remarried, to his crippled cousin, he lived quietly at Hill House in the town of Banagher in Co Offaly, as a gentleman farmer.

The letter was from the girl (now aged 78), whose father had been the local rector before the First World War, congratulating Gerin on her biography: "The Nicholls were our nearest neighbours and dearest friends. I was devoted to Mr Nicholls and looked on him as a sort of extra grandfather."

I propped the picture on my desk and found myself increasingly haunted by this kindly old man whom Bronte mythologists have often treated badly. In Thackeray's introduction to "the last fragmentary sketch from the noble hand which wrote Jane Eyre", he quotes from Nicholls's account of the writing of Emma. One evening, at the close of 1854, as Charlotte sat with her husband by the fire, listening to the howling of the wind about the house, she suddenly said to him: "If you had not been with me, I must have been writing now." She then ran upstairs, and brought down and read aloud, the beginning of a new tale. When she had finished her husband said: "The critics will accuse you of repetition." She replied: "Oh, I shall alter that. I always begin two or three times before I can please myself."

It is typical that Thackeray's account, intended merely to emphasise the early stage of the work, has been frequently quoted out of context, to berate Nicholls for discouraging his wife's writing. Mrs Gaskell abused him because he did not give her everything she required for her intrusive biography; Charlotte's friend from schooldays, Ellen Nussey, resented his usurpation of her role as confidante and took every opportunity to paint him in a bad light.

Sadly, however, Charlotte herself was the cause of his greatest trial after her death. While going through her papers, he discovered letters from James Taylor, a Scot who worked at her publishers. He had called at Haworth to collect a manuscript and had asked Charlotte to marry him and accompany him to Bombay, where he was to go into business. Although she turned him down, she kept up a correspondence with him which ceased only when he stopped writing.

It was in pursuit of Taylor that I found myself taking a taxi across Bombay last autumn. I found his grave immediately in the old Christian cemetery. He had died in 1874, tripping over a billiard table at his club. For all the acres of print about the Brontes, I now had on my desk two unpublished pictures of the bearded taciturn men in Charlotte's life.

Finally, I visited Hill House and found it for sale. The land around it has sadly been sold off for a housing development. I wandered through the rooms, which proved an unnerving experience. It was here that an old man had lived with his memories, and it was funny to think that the manuscript of Emma was still in the house when the photograph was taken.

If only walls could speak. If only we could hear what had gone on in those rooms. But, oh, to have been in the Bronte parsonage that night, listening to the wind howling as the fire crackled and Charlotte read Arthur the unfinished Emma! That, though, is what radio drama permits us to do: tap into the walls of the imagination and hear.


How the Brontės Became Romantic Icons


Published: February 29, 2004

Has there ever been a background more marked by personal tragedy and literary ill omen than the one that produced the Brontė sisters? Charlotte, Emily and Anne: there was less than four years between them (their brother, Branwell, who dissipated his talents in drink and drugs, came between Charlotte and Emily), and it is tempting to think of the three, radically different as their personalities were, as linked to one another like a chain of paper-doll cutouts. None of them lived to 40: Emily and Anne died of consumption within five months of each other, the one at 30 and the other at 29 (Branwell died three months before Emily, at the age of 31), and Charlotte, the only one of the sisters to marry, was in the early months of pregnancy at the time of her death just short of 39. Yet their legacy is incomparable in the history of writer-siblings both for the degree of individual talent and for the triumph of imaginative vision over inhospitable circumstance that they personify.

The trio had much going against them: Branwell, the designated family genius, was educated in the classics by his father, and the money was found to send him to London to pursue his grand dreams of becoming an artist, but his sisters, in keeping with their genteelly impoverished lot, were forced to find humble employment as governesses and teachers. All three were unconventional in both their ambition and their independence of mind, and although Emily and Anne were not without feminine allure, they were none of them real beauties. (Thackeray, who gave a dinner in Charlotte's honor after she ''came out'' from behind the male pseudonym of ''Currer Bell,'' believed that what troubled her more than anything else was that she was not pretty enough to win a man.) And yet, despite the corseting assumptions of their time and place -- Victorian England at its most highhandedly patriarchal -- these three slightly built (Charlotte was under five feet) and psychologically delicate young women contrived to produce a clutch of novels that to this day retain the daring originality and riveting characterization that scandalized their contemporaries. (Anne's novels, ''Agnes Grey,'' and ''The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,'' which are as bold as her reputation is mild, have been routinely slighted in favor of her sisters', but when they came out they were thought to be even more shocking.) Two of the sisters' novels, Charlotte's ''Jane Eyre'' and Emily's ''Wuthering Heights,'' have entered the canon and can lay claim to equal status with the fiction of Dickens and George Eliot. (Actually, although ''Jane Eyre'' was originally billed as ''An Autobiography,'' it is ''Villette,'' Charlotte's most accomplished novel, that is also her most painfully self-revealing one.)

Lucasta Miller's ''Brontė Myth'' is a wonderfully entertaining and often spellbinding account of the ways in which the Brontė's ''lonely moorland lives'' lent themselves to the process of mythification even before the last sister had died. It helped that misfortune lurked in every nook and cranny of the family history: Charlotte was 5 when their mother died, and within four years, two elder sisters had died as well, at the ages of 11 and 10, as a result of the miserable conditions at a boarding school that would later be immortalized as the horrifying Lowood School in ''Jane Eyre.'' (Both Charlotte and Emily attended it briefly as well.) Patrick Brontė, the children's father, was the curate of Haworth; the village parsonage fronted on a graveyard and looked out in back on the Yorkshire moors. Looked after by a spinster aunt and a housekeeper, Tabby, and cut off from the local goings-on by virtue of their not entirely secure social class (Patrick Brontė, who attended Cambridge on a scholarship, had risen from humble Irish stock, changing his name along the way from the plebian Brunty to the more commanding Brontė, which is Greek for ''thunder''), the four remaining siblings looked to each other for companionship. (Patrick may not have been quite the deranged character he was made out to be until fairly recently, when his image was refurbished in Juliet Barker's heroically -- and sometimes myopically -- researched 1997 biography, ''The Brontės: A Life in Letters,'' but he was undeniably on the peculiar side -- preferring, among other habits, to take his meals alone.) The children entertained themselves by creating, in minuscule script on tiny scraps of paper, elaborate and gory fantasy worlds, the most enduring of which were Angria and Gondal. The origins of the sisters' literary gifts are clearly to be found in their juvenilia, but the remarkable fact is that they persevered in their scribblings despite so many obstacles, which included the sovereign fact that writing in the Brontė house was ''very much a male domain''; their being saddled with managing their father's household after the deaths of their aunt and housekeeper; anxieties as to the worth of their writing (Charlotte was particularly afflicted with doubts, which makes her entrepreneurship on behalf of herself and her sisters all the more moving); and discouragement from outsiders. Miller is particularly good on this last point, although she is blessedly free of the sort of dogmatic gender-study approach that takes a perverse pride in counting off the indignities inflicted by an obtuse male establishment. Among those who either responded negatively to Charlotte's work or advised her against pursuing it were Hartley Coleridge, son of the poet (who had earlier complimented Branwell on his poetry) and Robert Southey, the poet laureate, to whom she sent some of her poems while she was teaching at a boarding school. While conceding that she had ''the faculty of Verse,'' Southey solemnly admonished her: ''Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life: & it ought not to be.'' Resisting the impulse to wax irate on Charlotte's behalf, Miller prefers to understate the case, wondering mildly whether Southey ''might have considered a lust for fame more excusable in a young man than in a girl'' and noting that Charlotte hastened to reassure the poet of the self-extinguishing program she had put into effect: ''I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation, and eccentricity, which might lead those I live amongst to suspect the nature of my pursuits. . . . I try to deny myself.''

Although Miller's style is vivid and graceful, a good deal of research and thinking has gone into this undertaking, which she accurately describes in her preface as ''not so much a biography of the Brontės as a book about biography, a metabiography.'' To this end she charts the emergence of a literary growth industry, one that is ''littered with examples of apocryphal stories and fantastical claims,'' and was characterized by Henry James as a ''beguiled infatuation'' that ''embodies, really, the most complete intellectual muddle, if the term be not extravagant, ever achieved, on a literary question, by our wonderful public.'' The muddle began with Charlotte herself, and the careful construction of her social persona as ''the modest spinster daughter of a country parson,'' which served, as Miller points out, as a kind of ''protective 'veil' to distract attention from the unacceptable elements of her fiction and deflect attacks on her personal morality.'' But the phenomenon that would eventually blossom into full-blown Brontėmania -- with a cadre of relic-worshipping fans (including an ex-Hell's Angel who interrupted a 1994 meeting of the Brontė Society to protest a newspaper article that described Charlotte as ugly) as well as the marketing of Emily Brontė soap (smelling of ''the elusive fragrance of the wild moors'') and Brontė Natural Spring Water -- was really set in motion with Elizabeth Gaskell's landmark ''Life of Charlotte Brontė.'' Published in 1857, two years after Charlotte's death, and written in a colorful, you-are-there style that eschews literary analysis for poetic descriptions and psychological portraits, it is, Miller writes, ''arguably the most famous English biography of the 19th century'' and one that ''set the agenda which would turn the Brontės into icons.''It became an immediate sensation, and although not quite an authorized version, the biographer's hagiographic view of events was colored throughout by her subject's participation and guidance; Gaskell was intent on playing up Charlotte's ''womanliness'' and her noble penchant for ''self-denial,'' as opposed to the fiery romantic and intellectual passions that had ruled her life.

The canonizing and sanitizing instincts that informed Gaskell's rehabilitative project inaugurated the ''purple heather school'' of Brontė biography and would lead to a century and a half of imitations, rebuttals, correctives and parodies, with the emphasis shifting in accordance with ideological fashions. There are now scads of biographies, critical studies, novels, plays, children's books, films and psychoanalytic inquiries (the last very much taken up with Charlotte's Electra complex, lack of self-esteem and overriding masochism, as well as with Emily's anorexia). All of them attempt to trace the source of the sisters' genius -- in spite of the critic J. Hillis Miller's wise observation about the most inscrutable of the Brontės' novels, written by the most impenetrable of the sisters: ''The secret truth about 'Wuthering Heights' is that there is no secret truth.'' Some of these Brontė interpretations were done in a spirit of fun (a satirical two-woman theater piece called ''Withering Looks'' and a novel called ''The Brontės Went to Woolworth's''); others with a heavy touch (a book called ''Charlotte Brontė's World of Death'' and a play called ''Divide the Desolation'') or a sensationalistic eye (''The Crimes of Charlotte Brontė'' wildly claimed that Emily was murdered after she was impregnated by Arthur Nicholls, the assistant curate who finally got to marry Charlotte after loyally hanging around for years).

Miller gives a hilarious account of the 1946 Warner Brothers movie ''Devotion,'' in which the reserved and very English Nicholls is played with ''a disconcerting Austrian accent by Paul Henreid'' and is given lines better suited to Rhett Butler, such as his declaration, after kissing Charlotte in the conservatory: ''There are two ways of dealing with young women of your perverse temperament. It is fortunate for you that I am not a woman-beater.'' But the funniest instances of the ''lurid legendmongering'' that passed for scholarship have to do with inflamed guesswork about the romantic life of Emily, who has been called ''the sphinx of English literature.'' With great relish Miller hauls up a 1936 biography of Emily by Virgina Moore, called ''The Life and Eager Death of Emily Brontė,'' which purported to be a rigorous examination in which ''especial and respectful'' attention had been paid to primary sources. In her zeal to bring new light to bear on the elusive Brontė's lost lover, Moore misread the title of one of her manuscript poems as ''Louis Parensell'' instead of ''Love's Farewell.'' Miller notes that the ''mythic Louis went on to spend a colorful speculative existence on the letters page of The Poetry Review,'' with one correspondent writing in with a suggestion as to where the two lovers might have met, based on a sleuthlike reading of a throwaway phrase in one of the diaries. Not content with her discovery, Moore excitedly went on to unearth another dark secret, proposing that Emily had been ''a member of that beset band of women who can find their pleasure only in women.''

There is little to find fault with in ''The Brontė Myth,'' except perhaps for its failure to bring the ghostly Anne out of the mists so as to give her the benefit of its respectful but vastly amused scrutiny. It suffers, too, from a somewhat tentative organizing principle, which slightly undercuts its ambitious agenda. But these are quibbles. The Brontės are an endlessly intriguing subject -- as a 1931 novel about them put it: ''What a family! Even if they'd never written a line, what a story!'' -- and Miller's book is a superbly unmuddled contribution to the continuing literary conversation.

Daphne Merkin is the author of ''Dreaming of Hitler,'' an essay collection, and a novel, ''Enchantment.'' She is working on a memoir about depression.



The Letters of Charlotte Brontė: Volume Three 1852-1855 ed Margaret Smith

A sorry tale of deceit, corruption and literary con men

By Mark Bostridge

22 February 2004

The appearance of this third and final volume of all Charlotte Brontė's surviving letters, with a selection of those by her friends and family, marks the culmination of a monumental publishing achievement. Roughly 950 letters written by Charlotte between 1829 and February 1855, a month before her untimely death in the early stages of pregnancy at the age of 39, have been located.

This is a poor tally when set against the collected correspondence of other Victorian literary giants, like Dickens or the Carlyles; but when compared with the extreme paucity of the surviving correspondence of the other Brontė siblings - about 50 letters from Branwell, five from Anne, and a mere three from Emily - their importance in our understanding of the Brontės' lives is immediately apparent.

In her opening volume, the editor Margaret Smith related something of the letters' history. Surrounding the attempts to publish them, in the decades following Charlotte's death, is a tale of deceit, which gives off a strong whiff of corruption. At the centre of it lies Ellen Nussey's disastrous decision to entrust her valuable cache of Charlotte's letters to the literary forger T J Wise. Ellen was a schoolgirl friend of Charlotte's from their days at Roe Head, and possessed the largest collection of her correspondence: 394 letters received from Charlotte over more than two decades.

Ellen had already prepared a private edition of the letters she owned in the late 1880s, but had got cold feet about the project and then destroyed practically all the sets of 30,000 printed sheets in a huge bonfire over many weeks, assisted by the minister of her local church. This left her as easy prey for Wise and his front man, the biographer and critic-about-town Clement Shorter. Together they extracted the originals from her for £125 and the promise that they would be preserved in the South Kensington Museum "to enhance the honour & reputation of their gloriously gifted writer". In fact, within a couple of years it became evident that Wise was selling the manuscripts piecemeal at auction.

With Charlotte's letters scattered to the four winds, and often untraceable, an authoritative edition of all the surviving correspondence became, as the years passed, increasingly unlikely. Margaret Smith, therefore, deserves the highest praise for the sheer doggedness with which she has pursued bits and pieces of letters through salerooms and private collections (most strikingly, she pieced together one letter, cut up for autograph hunters, from scraps in five separate locations). She is also a model editor. The standard of her annotations is superb, and no worthwhile cross-reference to the Brontės' lives or works is allowed to slip through her net.

This last volume opens at the beginning of 1852, and finds Charlotte writing her final novel and masterpiece, Villette, while fighting against lingering and depressive illness. Her letters reveal an intense loneliness, and a longing for company, which she suppresses on account of her work. "I am afraid of caring for you too much," she writes to Ellen, and as Smith observes, much of Villette's power derives "from similar fluctuations between suppression and the extreme emotion of all too brief fulfilment".

However, this is also a period in which Charlotte's tantalising epistolary relationship with her young publisher at Cornhill, George Smith, still flourishes, and in which her friendship with fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, founded on their mutual respect for each other as writers, finds expression on paper. The possibility that the link with Smith might grow beyond the boundaries of author and publisher is suddenly halted at the end of 1853, with the news of Smith's engagement to Elizabeth Blakeway and Charlotte's curt note of "congratulation". But standing in the wings is Charlotte's prospective husband, her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls.

One of Charlotte's most dramatic letters is her description to Ellen of Nicholls's sudden, unexpected proposal of marriage in December 1852: "He stopped in the passage: he tapped: like lightning it flashed on me what was coming. He entered - he stood before me... Shaking from head to foot, looking deadly pale, speaking low, vehemently yet with difficulty - he made me feel for the first time what it costs a man to declare affection where he doubts response." Slowly overcoming her own doubts, and her father's bitter refusal to countenance her marriage to his curate, Charlotte finally married Nicholls in June 1854. In a recently discovered fragment Charlotte describes her purchase of wedding-dress and veil. "If I must make a fool of myself", she says " - it shall be on an economical plan."

One can only regret that so many of Charlotte's letters have been destroyed, including her correspondence with Nicholls, who was "so tender, so good, helpful, patient" to his wife at the end. But this wonderful collection does allow us clearly to hear the impassioned voice of one of the greatest letter-writers in the language. Three cheers to Margaret Smith and the Clarendon Press for an immaculate edition.



Short Takes

By Amanda Heller, 2/29/2004

The Bront Myth

By Lucasta Miller

Knopf, 351 pp., illustrated, $26.95

Biography, being an art, not a science, is inevitably susceptible to cultural trends and personal agendas. Biographies of the Bront sisters, as Lucasta Miller shows in this insightful and entertaining study, have carried this tendency to an extreme, often hovering in a realm of make-believe totally disconnected from verifiable fact.

The godmother of the enduring "Bront myth" was Elizabeth Gaskell, whose sentimentalized and hugely popular 1857 "Life of Charlotte Bront" was facilitated by Charlotte's premature death just as Gaskell was getting under way, leaving her free to improve on reality. In order to depict the author of "Jane Eyre" as a demure Victorian homebody, Gaskell had to hide in plain sight the facts of Charlotte's life -- her literary sophistication, her experiences abroad, her determined courting of fame. Charlotte herself, says Miller, had performed a similar posthumous lobotomy on her sister Emily, reducing the creator of the turbulent masterpiece "Wuthering Heights" to an ethereal idiot savant, and incidentally initiating the Yorkshire Gothic school of Bront criticism.

The transformation of their family home into a maudlin tourist trap foreshadowed what would become of the Bronts at the mercy of Freudians, feminists, and Hollywood screenwriters, a long, strange trip to which Miller provides a shrewd and witty guidebook.


Sister Act
Three sisters and the rise of a cultural myth.

Reviewed by Dana Stevens

Sunday, March 14, 2004; Page BW09


By Lucasta Miller. Knopf. 351 pp. $26.95

A colleague of mine, on hearing that I was midway through The Brontė Myth, Lucasta Miller's juicy new biography of the Brontė sisters, observed that "those are two words you don't see connected that often: 'juicy' and 'Brontė sisters.' " In fact, he was wrong. They may not be Paris and Nicky Hilton, but in the nearly 150 years since Charlotte, the oldest and longest-lived of the three, died at age 38, these Victorian siblings have given rise to a cottage industry of speculation about their brief lives, their enigmatic work and their tantalizingly ambiguous status as female writers who, publishing under male pseudonyms, became bestsellers and household names in the age of Dickens and Thackeray. The atmosphere of tragic doom vaguely associated with the Brontė name arises in part, of course, from the truly tragic circumstances that befell the family in 1848-49. In the space of nine months, Charlotte lost all three of her living siblings: her brother Branwell, to alcohol and drug addiction at age 31; Emily, to tuberculosis at 30; and Anne, also to tuberculosis, at 29. The unjust brevity of the young women's lives is only compounded by the maddening scarcity of their literary output: Besides a small group volume of poetry, Charlotte produced three books in her short life, Anne two and Emily just one.

Countless novels, films and dramas, from William Wyler's 1939 version of Wuthering Heights to a "sub-Byronic" 1932 drama called "Empurpled Moors," have embroidered on the fantasy of the Brontės as a passionate, rustic family of unlettered geniuses, often collapsing the legends of the sisters' lives into those of their work. The Brontė home, Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, has long been a pilgrimage site for relic-seekers (who, as Miller takes pains to point out, are often surprised to find, in place of the remote, gothic moor village they expected, a bustling industrial township). Miller's book, which first appeared in England in 2001, is less a biography than a critical reception history (or as she calls it in the preface, a "meta-biography"). Her concern is not so much the oft-disputed facts of the Brontės' lives (which she summarily dispatches in the first chapter) as the way subsequent generations of readers, biographers and critics have used the work and life of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontė (a k a Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell) to justify and refract their own gender biases and cultural presumptions.

If Miller has a slant of her own, it goes like this: The Brontės (particularly Charlotte) were ambitious, talented, hardworking artists, self-conscious craftswomen who were fully aware of the impact of their fictions on the reading public, including the fiction of their pseudonymous identities and the carefully tended myth of rustic Yorkshire. To the modern ear, this may sound self-evident -- why would anyone doubt that two of the greatest novelists of the 19th century were conscious artists? -- but Miller's impeccably researched book shows us the extent to which the sisters have been deployed as ideological weathervanes, or (to use an image more appropriate to their much-discussed gender) handmaids of intellectual history. Miller's extraordinary second and third chapters recount how the Victorian social-realist novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, researching her highly influential The Life of Charlotte Brontė shortly after the subject's sudden death (the two of them had shared an uneasy literary friendship), went to great lengths to dispel the prevailing gossip about Jane Eyre's "coarseness" and unsuitability for respectable society. Gaskell's Charlotte was modest, quiet and domestic, a bread-baking household saint who was held back from "transcendent grandeur" only by her rough country upbringing, the "black shadow of remorse lying over [her home]." But Miller cleverly reads Gaskell against herself, noting that, even as the biographer approvingly quotes Charlotte complaining in a letter that "I wished critics would judge me as an author, not as a woman," Gaskell herself is engaged in precisely the opposite pursuit.

As the Victorian cult of domesticity reached its peak in the late 19th century, Charlotte, the creator of fiercely independent heroines such as Jane Eyre and Villette's Lucy Snowe, began to appear as a common figure in inspirational anthologies such as Stories of the Lives of Noble Women and Women of Worth, where she was lauded for the "high sense of duty which made [her] exertions through life a daily martyrdom." Just as quickly, with the rise of suffragism and psychoanalysis at the turn of the century and after, Charlotte's persona underwent a series of radical shifts, from temptress to neurasthenic to a negligible author of "conventional tastes and preference for writing about pretty-pretty heroines (who never spoke or acted 'coarsely')." But, of course, it was the supposed coarseness and plainness of Jane Eyre that had shocked English society in the first place. Miller ticks off these dizzying shifts in the Brontė Zeitgeist with great erudition and wit, although I wish she would pause more often over a particular text to deliver a closer reading -- the few times she does so, especially with Emily Brontė's rare "diary papers," are richly rewarding.

The Brontė Myth's last three chapters, which make up slightly more than one-third of the book, concern the critical afterlife of the far more elusive Emily Brontė, the author of Wuthering Heights, as well as of a body of dense, allusive poetry written in micro-script on tiny pieces of paper. It was only in the 1930s that Emily began to pull ahead of her more ambitious and prolific sister as the critically favored Brontė; today, such a mainstream reference volume as the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature blandly opines that she was "perhaps the greatest writer of the Brontė sisters."

In life, Emily's reclusiveness bordered on agoraphobia -- like their eccentric father, Patrick Brontė, she preferred to dine alone, and of the three sisters, she clung the most doggedly to her pseudonym, insisting that publishers address her as "Ellis Bell." Emily seems tougher to demythologize than Charlotte, whose own description of her younger sister's death struggle -- "torn conscious, panting, reluctant though resolute out of a happy life" -- cannot help but evoke the image of a Heathcliffian defiance of fate. Miller's reading of Emily attempts to correct for the accretions of popular legend that have turned her into a spectral, moor-bound mystic, exemplified by what Miller calls the "purple heather school" of Brontė scholarship.

Miller's own scholarship is formidable, her voice informal and fresh (at one point, she allows of a problematic biographer that "he did, however, put Charlotte-as-bitch on the map"). If I could have custom-ordered my own Brontė bio, I might have requested a chapter entirely devoted to the girls' fascinating juvenilia. It is widely known that, as children, the Brontės constructed complex imaginary worlds together, about which they wrote poems and stories. It's less known that, like the heroines of the great Peter Jackson film "Heavenly Creatures" (1994), they also played games in which they took on the roles of characters from these worlds. An 1845 diary entry of Emily's describes a trip with Anne, during which the two pretended to be (or, in Emily's significant phrasing, "were") "Ronald Macelgin, Henry Angora . . . Catherine Navarre and Cordelia Fitzphanold." When Miller points out that the two women were 25 and 27 at the time of this trip, the reader is keen to hear more about these wildly imaginative, if regressive, games. I also might have liked more attention to Anne, whose novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, though popular and scandalous in their time, are nearly unread today. That may be an apt judgment of their literary worth, but certainly a discussion of the output of the youngest Brontė would be a welcome addition to the ongoing re-discovery of this extraordinary trio of writing women. •

Dana Stevens (a k a Liz Penn) is a scholar of comparative literature. She writes about television for and on film and culture for the High Sign (


Picking Up Where Charlotte Bronte Left Off

By Aileen Jacobson
Tuesday, April 13, 2004; Page C09

Four years ago, novelist Clare Boylan innocently asked a question at a literary festival in England that led to, of all things, her co-authoring a book with Charlotte Bronte.

Yes, that Charlotte Bronte, the one who wrote "Jane Eyre" and died 149 years ago.

What Boylan, 55, asked was whether Bronte would have continued writing after her 1854 marriage if she hadn't died nine months later, at age 38.

In response, Bronte biographers Lyndall Gordon and Juliet Barker told her about a two-chapter manuscript Bronte wrote just before her marriage and might have completed had she lived longer.

"I was completely captivated," Boylan says, speaking by phone from her home in Ireland. The result was "Emma Brown," which has its U.S. release (Viking, $25.95) this week. Boylan will be unable to attend; because of chemotherapy for recently diagnosed ovarian cancer, she says, her doctor advised her not to travel. Boylan tracked down the novel fragment, which Bronte called "Emma," soon after the conference. "I was more than fascinated," she says. "Here was a plain girl again. . . . It's my belief that she wanted a theme similar to 'Jane Eyre.' She was 30 when she wrote 'Jane Eyre.' Now she was 37, and she wanted a more multi-layered story, a more mature viewpoint, as well as a passionate, youthful one."

Bronte was herself "small and plain," says Boylan, "and wanted to emphasize that there was more than met the eye to a small, plain, poor woman" in both this novel and in "Jane Eyre," which follows the orphaned Jane through boarding school and a troubled relationship with her employer, Mr. Rochester.

"Everything in those days depended on money and looks. It still does. There was nobody small and plain and poor in 'Sex and the City,' was there?" asks Boylan, who discovered that, in addition to sharing initials with Bronte, she also shares a birthday, April 21.

Then there was the page "that seemed to write itself" and the time Boylan "awoke in the night with the sense of somebody looking down on me." But she doesn't want to get "fanciful," as she puts it. "It was more a metaphorical presence," she says. "This is the only book I ever wrote that didn't feel lonely to write. This one had a sense of intimacy."

It seemed as though Bronte would "rap me on the knuckles if I indulged in a simile. Charlotte never used them. I think she wanted this book finished. I felt her as a slightly edgy presence, saying 'Get on with it,' or 'No, don't do that.'

"I couldn't be Charlotte Bronte," says Boylan, but she did try to "go along with" her Shakespearean rhythms, her blend of melodrama and irony, and what she calls Bronte's maternal storytelling, as though sharing nursery stories. Boylan has written other period novels, though most of her books have contemporary settings.

For "Emma Brown," she visited libraries, museums and the sites where the novel is set, including hiring a historian to take her on what turned out to be a 10-mile, 10-hour walking tour of London. "I gave her a step-by-step list and asked her to describe things as they were then," Boylan says of the historian, Jean Haynes, who was in her seventies. "My feet were actually bleeding" at the end, says Boylan. "She was fine."

The new "Emma Brown" focuses on a girl called Matilda who is dropped off at a provincial girls' school by a seemingly wealthy father who soon vanishes. The book starts with the two chapters Bronte wrote, which were published in a literary magazine after her death. The story continues, seamlessly, with Boylan's inventions.

Bronte introduces the major characters, including the sullen, solitary Matilda (who later finds she is named Emma); Isabel Chalfont, the intelligent, sympathetic widow who narrates the book; William Ellin, the single gentleman who helps to unravel the mystery of Emma's background; and the three slightly buffoonish sisters who run the school. Boylan thinks the sisters might be Bronte's inside-joke version of herself and her sisters Emily -- of "Wuthering Heights" fame -- and Anne, who tried to start a school once but couldn't get pupils.

Just as Boylan had completed the book, she says, she read "The Bronte Myth," a new biography by Lucasta Miller. Miller referred to another tale Bronte had started, about Willie Ellin, an abused boy who, apparently, became the Mr. Ellin who aids Emma. Boylan rewrote a section to incorporate it.

For Boylan, the book provides another sort of completion. She once wrote articles about "the homeless as individuals rather than as victims. It's funny how all your career seems to connect up."

And how her life connects with Bronte's.

Boylan is "very sorry not to go to America, because Charlotte would have loved to go. But perhaps it's fitting that since the person who started the book couldn't go, the person who completed it couldn't go, either."



May 2, 2004

'Emma Brown': Reader, She Finished It



A Novel From the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Bronte.

By Clare Boylan.
437 pp. New York: Viking. $25.95.

In 1852, when Charlotte Brontė was completing ''Villette,'' she told her London publisher that she could not write on the ''topics of the day; it is no use trying.'' But late the following year she began work on a book that addressed one of the most important of those topics, the Woman Question. She called it ''Emma.''

In November 1854, Brontė told Arthur Bell Nicholls, her husband of five months, that marriage was keeping her from writing. Invited to listen to the opening chapters of ''Emma'' later that same evening, he was dauntingly unenthusiastic. It was, he told her, a reworking of old themes, just another book about schools. Perhaps Nicholls was angered by what he felt to be a criticism of himself; after Brontė's death the following year, he took pains to edit ''Emma.'' Showing less prudery than his late wife, he restored a scene, removed by her, in which a distraught schoolgirl is carried to her bedroom by a man.

Brontė's first biographer and loyal advocate, Elizabeth Gaskell, accused Nicholls of having been actively opposed to the novel. He had, she wrote, ''always groaned'' when Brontė spoke of continuing it. This was mere hypothesis, since Gaskell had no contact with Brontė after her marriage. Nicholls had not, however, been encouraging. Part of the blame for his wife's failure to complete the book can be laid at his door.

The two authentic chapters of ''Emma'' foreshadow a more romantic tale, ''The Little Princess,'' by Frances Hodgson Burnett. As in Burnett's work, a richly dressed and withdrawn child arrives at a school that caters to wealthy patrons. Welcomed as an heiress, she is viewed with considerably less affection when it is discovered that her identity -- she has been presented as Miss Matilda Fitzgibbon -- is false and that no fees will be forthcoming. Unable to answer questions about her background and profoundly distressed by the schoolmistresses' sudden hostility, Matilda collapses and is taken to her room by kindly Mr. Ellin, the hero of another abandoned Brontė novel.

Modern revisions of half-finished works usually appeal to me as little as sequels that patently set out to exploit a famous name. (Jane Austen and Daphne du Maurier have both been mishandled in this pernicious genre.) But Clare Boylan's achievement is in another class. She has evidently steeped herself in Brontė's letters and writings; a short afterword expresses gratitude to some notable Brontė scholars.

By making sporadic use of Brontė's own phrases, Boylan succeeds in creating a book that is convincing in voice even while it tells a vivid, dramatic and richly absorbing story. Her sense of the period is both precise and evocative; the characters Brontė had briefly but confidently sparked into life are plausibly developed, while their histories are artfully entwined. Brontė's profound concern with social conditions, awkwardly realized in her flawed political novel, ''Shirley,'' is never forgotten.

In her original text, Brontė had introduced a narrating figure, the widowed Mrs. Chalfont, who, in Boylan's continuation, takes the mysterious schoolgirl (eventually renamed Emma Brown) under her roof. ''Young girls do not own their own lives,'' Mrs. Chalfont explains, and her own past demonstrates this truth. A former governess, forced apart from a romantic attachment to her employer's son, Finch, she makes the best of life as the young wife of a kind and ambitious grocer, whose death enables her to live in prosperous independence -- and to take charge of the schoolgirl outcast.

Mrs. Chalfont's neighbor, Mr. Ellin, a meticulous lawyer and resolute bachelor, also finds his chilly heart warmed by the pathos of Emma's situation, while his sharp mind welcomes a challenge. His role is that of the amateur detective who sets out to discover the mystery of Emma's past and track her down when she runs away.

Emma Brown is properly placed at the center of this elaborate construct. Brontė's own chapters had shown that she was still absorbed by the dual nature she had successfully revealed in the tormented heroine of ''Villette.'' Emma too was meant to be a passionate soul in rebellion against convention. Brontė describes her as fiercely solitary; indeed, she remains quivering and silent when asked to explain herself: ''Who are you?'' Following the child's own search for the answer, Boylan takes us into the underworld of London on a journey that echoes Brontė's concerns.

Charlotte Brontė's letters record her dismayed response to the filthy prisons of Pentonville and Newgate. (Scholars will relish the pleasure of guessing whether it was Boylan or Brontė who wrote that ''the dome of St. Paul's rose behind the prison like a hopeful moon.'') Intuiting the scenes that might most have angered a female reformist, Boylan breathes life into a world of busy, hard-edged poverty:

''The whole of the river seemed akin to a strange insect world, the sails of the boats and barges making white butterflies, the tugs and steamers bobbing like large and small beetles. The side of the river was a city of mud in which pitiful creatures with hungry, hunted eyes and gaunt bodies dangling scraps of rags tried to make their living. . . . Most were boys as young as, and younger than herself, but there were little children, too, and old women, their arms delving into the filth.''

More impressive still, Boylan manages to capture Brontė's sardonic humor. The unpleasant sisters who run the school to which Emma is first sent provide a perfect target, as does the sanctimonious clergyman who enslaves Emma as a housekeeper and offers marriage as a way of saving on her wages. The only false note is struck in Boylan's presentation of Jenny Drew, a tiny street child whom Emma befriends and who, with her hacking cough and her macabre taste for carrying about dead babies instead of dolls, seems better suited to Dickens in one of his mawkish fits than to the sternly unsentimental Brontė.

But this is a small flaw. ''Emma Brown'' is a powerful and magnificently written novel that does ample justice to the two brief chapters from which it sprang.

Miranda Seymour is the author of biographies of Mary Shelley and Ottoline Morrell. Her book ''Bugatti Queen: In Search of a French Racing Legend,'' will be published in December.



Women’s Review of Books


 July 2004

Brontės through the ages

Emma Brown by Clare Boylan and Charlotte Brontė. New York: Viking, 2004, 437 pp., $25.95 hardcover.
The Brontė Myth by Lucasta Miller. New York: Knopf, 2004, 351 pp., $25.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz

ON MARCH 31, 1855, a 39-year-old woman died in Haworth, Yorkshire. We don't know why she died. It may have been typhoid or consumption, or perhaps complications of early pregnancy. She left behind her father and her husband of a few months; her mother, brother, and four sisters were already dead. Her death was nothing out of the ordinary for mid-Victorian England. Dozens of women probably died in similar circumstances that very day, hundreds that week.

The woman, of course, was Charlotte Brontė, and Emma Brown and The Brontė Myth ask us to consider why we still care about her. Clare Boylan is an accomplished author in her own right, yet for her eighth novel she chose to share authorial credit and write Emma Brown, in her publisher's words, "a novel from the unfinished manuscript by Charlotte Brontė." In The Brontė Myth, Lucasta Miller, former deputy literary editor of The Independent, traces the afterlife of Charlotte Brontė and her sisters Anne and Emily through 150 years of biography, criticism, literature, and film. Both books raise the question of what the Brontės mean to us today, and though they raise it quite differently, they generate similar answers.

When Charlotte Brontė died, she left behind two chapters of a new novel, which are now the opening chapters of Emma Brown. In them, the widowed Mrs. Chalfont describes the arrival of heiress Matilda Fitzgibbon at a girls' school kept by three genteel but impoverished sisters, and the subsequent discovery that Matilda is not what she seems; indeed, that nobody, including Matilda, knows who she really is. It's a classic Brontė beginning (her own husband suggested critics might find it repetitive): Both Jane Eyre and Villette feature orphans, girls' schools, and poor gentlewomen reduced to teaching.

Boylan takes over in chapter three, and the novel quickly broadens its focus. Isabel Chalfont tells three stories: her own; the subsequent adventures of Matilda, who turns out to be the novel's eponymous Emma Brown; and the efforts of Mr. Ellin, a gentleman neighbor, to trace Emma's past. In the course of it all we encounter country estates and London slums, poor governesses and malicious employers, tragic love affairs and mercenary marriages, crusading journalists and avaricious procuresses, not to mention a significant number of coincidences. Just about everyone arrives at a happy ending, though not before enduring significant travails.

The neo-Victorian novel is a popular genre these days. Whether rewriting Victorian classics from the perspectives of minor characters or creating their own Victorian worlds, its practitioners get to display their historical and literary knowledge while writing unapologetically descriptive and dramatic fiction that reveals what we think the Victorians wanted to hide. Readers get to read thickly satisfying novels, usually with a good dollop of sex and crime, and feel smart for recognizing how Victorian it all is.

EMMA BROWN IS A QUINTESSENTIAL NEO-VICTORIAN NOVEL. Boylan knows her Victorian fashion, geography, and scandalous history. Isabel mends not just lace but "Honiton guipure." Newly arrived in London, Emma finds herself in the slum market at Seven Dials, "a seething junction where seven different roads converged and each of these a heaving stew of humanity." The secret at the heart of the novel derives directly from journalist William Stead's purchase of a young girl for five pounds, documented in "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," his 1885 exposé of child prostitution.

Boylan also knows her literary models. Emma Brown is full of birds, variously caged and free, a favorite Victorian metaphor for femininity. Fuschia Lodge, the school where we first meet Matilda/Emma has echoes of Vanity Fair and A Little Princess, as well as of Brontė's earlier novels. Her London slums and Thames shores are Dickensian, and her hypocritical preacher is straight out of Wilkie Collins. Jenny, the eight-year-old orphan who picks up dead babies from the gutter and carries them around for company until they begin to decompose, is at once a Dickensian grotesque and the Victorian archetype of the saintly young dying girl (Little Nell, Beth March) who proffers salvation to those around her--in this case Emma, who finds meaning in life by creating a home for Jenny.

But accomplished as she clearly is, Clare Boylan is no Charlotte Brontė. She has an unfortunate penchant for anachronistic gastronomical metaphors--the "alliance" between the sisters who run Fuschia Lodge is "a thin sisterly soup," and as a governess, Isabel is "compressed in this sandwich of the social order, as stifled as a wilting leaf of lettuce." The conceit that Isabel narrates the entire novel frequently falls apart in long passages that detail events and thoughts she could not possibly know about. Brontė is often didactic and unquestionably ideological, but when Boylan's characters tackle issues of class and gender injustice, they sound more like feminist literary critics and historians than Victorian characters.

But even as the reviewer in me bristled at these faults, the reader in me was seduced. To my surprise, I found myself tearing up a bit over Jenny and her dead babies and rapidly turning the pages to discover what would happen to Emma as she navigated the treacherous shoals of Victorian London. I never had much interest in Isabel, especially once her story shifted from tragic melodrama to comfortable domesticity, but I eagerly followed Mr. Ellin as he followed Emma's trail, and I happily congratulated myself when my suspicions of connections between characters proved true. Once I forgot that Emma Brown was supposed to be a Charlotte Brontė novel, I quite enjoyed it, happy to be just an obedient neo-Victorian-novel reader.

OF COURSE, IF EMMA BROWN WASN'T SUPPOSED TO BE a Charlotte Brontė novel, I probably wouldn't be reviewing it. It's a good read, but it offers nothing new, nothing that makes you think "I've never read this before," like Sarah Waters' late-Victorian transvestite actresses in Tipping the Velvet (1999) or Michel Faber's intensely sensory London of 1874 in The Crimson Petal and the White (2002). What Emma Brown offers instead is the not-quite-kept promise that we can get more of something old: Charlotte Brontė. Why we would want more Charlotte Brontė is a question The Brontė Myth helps us answer.

The myth of the Brontės is as well known as their novels: Three sisters in a lonely parsonage on the moors spend their motherless childhood in a fantasy world and grow up to write incendiary novels that shock Victorian readers with their wild passion and rebellious feminism. In a staggering display of scholarship, Miller sets out to trace the development of this myth and its effects through hundreds of reviews, biographies, and fictional representations. She argues forcefully that, enchanted with their own images of the Brontės' lives, successive generations of readers and writers have transformed the Brontės into ideological avatars, in the process neglecting the literary mastery that is the source of their power. As a "metabiography," The Brontė Myth thus demonstrates how biography has been used as a tool to neutralize women artists, ironically often by other women determined to protect them.

Miller begins with Charlotte herself who, "torn between the desire to rebel and the need to conform and be accepted," played out the one in her fiction and the other in her life, creating a demure public persona to counter the charges of coarseness and subversion that her fiction engendered. But the real villain of this book is Charlotte's first biographer, Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell who, in an effort to defend her friend, turned Charlotte into a domestic martyr, her life as fascinating for its tragic isolation as its literary achievement. Miller is brilliant in her reading of The Life of Charlotte Brontė, rightly hailing Gaskell for creating a new model of intimate feminine biography while also revealing how she transformed Charlotte's life into a novelistic narrative of loss and duty based as much upon Victorian domestic ideology as the available biographical evidence.

Just as Gaskell's opening panorama of the Haworth parsonage became the standard beginning for Brontė biographies, so subsequent biographers followed her lead in subordinating the works to the lives and the facts to their own agendas. Miller convincingly demonstrates that the Brontės did not spring out of nowhere, but rather were highly purposeful artists, steeped in the literature of their day, especially the Romanticism of their childhoods, and involved in the life of Haworth which was, contrary to popular belief, a bustling industrial town, not a romantic moors outpost. But biographers have resolutely stuck to the more appealing and ideologically useful myth, tweaking it to reflect the Zeitgeist, as Charlotte evolved from Victorian moral exemplar to the repressed spinster of early 20th-century psychobiography to late 20th-century feminist heroine. Emily, about whom we have hardly any real information, emerged from her own writing and her sisters' accounts as first a Victorian nature-child savant, then the mystic of the moors.

I occasionally got a bit impatient with Miller. The confidence with which she asserts what Charlotte "was beginning to feel" or "sensed" seems out of place in a book about the hubris of biographers, and her narrative occasionally threatens to devolve into one biographical plot summary after another, each inadequate for its own biases. But her research is so thorough, her evidence of appalling biographies so entertaining, and her argument so sure-footed that I kept getting pulled back in.

One of the ironies of both the neo-Victorian novel and The Brontė Myth is that in setting out to uncover the delusions of the past from the enlightened vantage point of the present, they succumb to a progressive narrative that is itself deeply Victorian. Luckily, Miller, at least, is aware of this paradox. Even as she claims that "we are now living in a golden age for Brontė scholarship" when "it seems that progress really has been made in the journey toward rediscovering the real Charlotte," she acknowledges that "Any history which presents itself in terms of progress rather than process should be treated with a certain amount of suspicion," and "we will never arrive at the end of that journey." Her self-consciousness confirms what a sophisticated and thoughtful book The Brontė Myth really is.

Ultimately, Miller's point, which she asserts repeatedly, is that what matters about the Brontės is not their life but their literature, that first and foremost they were great artists. A dozen years ago, her argument might have been condemned as retrogressive and elitist, but aesthetics and value judgments are back in fashion, and, I have to admit, Emma Brown supports her case. We'll read Emma Brown because we're entranced by the name on its cover, but we'll re-read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights because they are great novels.


March 18, 2004, 11:40AM

Mythic sisters

Writer explores how the Brontė legend has grown


By Lucasta Miller.
Knopf, 351pp., $26.95.

the yale review of books


Volume 8, n.ŗ 1

Reality Check

Who were the Bronte sisters?

The Bronte Myth
Lucasta Miller
Knopf, 368 pp, $26.95

reviewed by Julia Wallace


Read these articles, here                                             


N Z Z  Online

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 15. April 2004, Ressort Feuilleton

Verwandte Geister

Muriel Sparks Essays über die Brontė-Schwestern

Muriel Spark: In sturmzerzauster Welt. Die Brontės. Aus dem Englischen von Gottfried Röckelein. Diogenes-Verlag, Zürich 2003. 557 S., Fr. 51.90.

Seit der Veröffentlichung ihrer frühen Romane - insbesondere seit «Memento Mori» (1959) und «Die Blütezeit der Miss Jean Brodie» (1961) - gilt die schottische Schriftstellerin Muriel Spark als eine der bedeutenden Autorinnen der britischen Nachkriegsliteratur. Sie ist die Verfasserin von mehr als vierzig Kurzgeschichten, darunter moderne Klassiker wie «Die Schwarze Madonna» und «Portobello Road»; «The Finishing School», der zweiundzwanzigste Roman der mittlerweile 86-jährigen Schriftstellerin, ist unlängst im englischen Verlag Viking erschienen.

Bevor Spark sich jedoch einen Namen als Romanautorin machte, debütierte sie als Lyrikerin und Literaturkritikerin. Sie war von 1947 bis 1949 Herausgeberin der «Poetry Review», schrieb (zum Teil unter einem Pseudonym) für verschiedene Zeitungen und Zeitschriften und gab 1950, gemeinsam mit dem Kritiker Derek Stanford, ihr erstes Buch heraus, eine Festschrift zu Ehren William Wordsworths, der ein Jahr später Sparks frühe Fassung ihrer Biografie über Mary Shelley folgte. «In sturmzerzauster Welt» - «The Essence of the Brontės», so der etwas ungezwungenere Titel des 1993 erschienenen englischen Originals - hat seinen Ursprung in den von Spark zusammengestellten Anthologien «A Selection of Poems by Emily Brontė» (1952) und «The Brontė Letters» (1953) sowie in dem 1953 erschienenen Buch «Emily Brontė: Her Life and Work», für das Derek Stanford den literaturkritischen und Muriel Spark den biografischen Teil verfasste. Dieser hervorragend geschriebene biografische Abriss bildet das Herzstück von «In sturmzerzauster Welt»; weiter sind darin eine Auswahl von Gedichten sowie Sparks Momentaufnahme eines Besuchs am Grab Emily Brontės und ein abschliessender kurzer Beitrag über Heathcliff, den dämonischen Helden aus Emily Brontės einzigem Roman, versammelt.

Das Leben als Kunstwerk

«Ich wurde in der Schule schon sehr früh an die Brontės herangeführt, massgeblich mittels ihrer sonderbaren Lebensgeschichten», so Muriel Spark auf die Frage nach ihrem anhaltenden Interesse an den Werken der «taubengrauen Schwestern» (Arno Schmidt) aus Haworth. Sparks eigenes Werk ist von der literarischen Moderne geprägt, zu ihren Einflüssen zählt die Schriftstellerin unter anderen Marcel Proust und die geistreich glänzenden Gesellschaftssatiren Max Beerbohms. Die melodramatischen Gefühlslandschaften des viktorianischen Romans lassen sich allenfalls in den von der Autorin weithin ausgeblendeten Randgebieten ihres urbanen und gänzlich unsentimentalen literarischen Werks erahnen. «Drei unabhängige Mädchen im Norden von England, die in einem Pfarrhaus wohnten und kontinuierlich schrieben: In Schottland, wo ich lebte», so Muriel Spark im Interview, «hatten wir für die unabhängigeren Frauen aus Nordengland viel übrig. Die aussergewöhnlichen Biografien der Brontės glichen selbst schon Romanen.»

«Sogar wenn man ihr schriftstellerisches Wirken ausklammert», schreibt Muriel Spark in ihrem Vorwort zu «In sturmzerzauster Welt» über Charlotte, Emily und Anne Brontė, «bilden ihre Lebensgeschichten für sich genommen autonome Kunstwerke.» Sparks Buch ist denn auch weniger eine literaturkritische Werkbetrachtung als der Versuch, in biografischen Zeugnissen jenen Energien nachzuspüren, die das schmale Œuvre der Brontės bewegt haben. Spark begreift die Familie des Pfarrers Patrick Brontė dabei zwar als «dramatische Einheit», macht aus ihren Sympathien und Antipathien für die einzelnen Geschwister andererseits kein Hehl: Sie bescheinigt Branwell Brontė, dem Bruder der Schriftstellerinnen, dessen literarische Ambitionen weitgehend unerfüllt blieben, ein «wüstes, nutzlos vertanes Leben» - obwohl die stereotype Darstellung Branwells als Taugenichts und verschwenderischer Trinker seit dem Erscheinen von Winifred Gérins Biografie im Jahr 1961 in ihrer Eindimensionalität kaum mehr haltbar sein dürfte. Sie drängt Anne Brontė, die Autorin von «Agnes Grey» und «Die Herrin von Wildfell Hall», als «das literarische Pendant zu einer jener handwerklich soliden Aquarellmalerinnen, wie es sie zu der Zeit dutzendweise gab», in ihrer Betrachtung allzu bereitwillig an den Rand.

«In sturmzerzauster Welt» zeichnet folglich kein ausgewogenes oder unvoreingenommenes Familienporträt der Brontės und steht zudem neben zahlreichen anderen Darstellungen älteren Datums im imposanten Schatten von Juliet Barkers vor zehn Jahren erschienener Biografie, in der die Familiengeschichte der Brontės detailreich im hellen Licht der neuesten Forschungsergebnisse erstrahlt. Was Muriel Sparks Buch aber dennoch zu einem grossen Lesevergnügen macht, ist die distanzierte, den kreativen Prozess reflektierende Emphase, eine auch ihrem literarischen Schaffen eigene Methode, mit der die Schriftstellerin in «In sturmzerzauster Welt» am Beispiel der Brontės die Dynamik des schöpferischen Geistes freilegt.

«Meine Arbeit als Kritikerin hat zweifellos Einfluss auf meine Arbeit als Romanschriftstellerin genommen», so Muriel Spark im Interview. «Während des Schreibens von Romanen bin ich mir nicht nur eines kreativen Prozesses bewusst, sondern auch eines kritischen.» Sparks literarischer Stil - das Understatement ihrer emotionslosen und scheinbar unbeteiligten Prosa, die Ökonomie der meist kurzen Romane, die despotische Autorität ihrer auktorialen Erzähler - ist von der wachen Sensibilität eines Kritikers, der unbeirrt sachlich seinen Gegenstand untersucht. «Die eigene Erfahrung wirkt sich unweigerlich auf die Gedanken aus, die man sich über andere Schriftsteller macht. Ich glaube, dass die meisten erfolgreichen Schriftsteller Erfolg haben, weil sie eine angeborene Begabung für diese Arbeit besitzen und niemals andere Dinge ebenso gut tun könnten. Mir sind Leute suspekt, die behaupten, sowohl Romane schreiben zu können, als auch Kleider zu entwerfen, Musik zu komponieren, an den Olympischen Spielen teilzunehmen, und ihre Verdienste in allen erdenklichen anderen Richtungen unter Beweis zu stellen versuchen. Sie sind möglicherweise begabt, aber nicht sehr begabt.»

Charlotte als Hauptperson

In dem kurzen Essay «Die Brontės: Lehrer und Gouvernanten», der die Textfolge von «In sturmzerzauster Welt» eröffnet, beschreibt Spark das «Martyrium» der Ausflüge, die Charlotte, Branwell, Emily und Anne Brontė ins Lehrfach unternahmen, das klägliche Scheitern einer bürgerlichen Existenz, an dem sich die literarische Berufung der Geschwister erst offenbarte: «Vielleicht sollte jeder Schriftsteller mit eisernem Willen, aber fehlender Gelegenheit zum Schreiben, daraus die Lehre ziehen, dass man sich immer zuerst selbst beweisen muss, dass man zu nichts sonst taugt.» Der Entfaltung der «genialen Anlagen» sind die folgenden Teile des Buchs gewidmet, in denen sich bald schon Emily Brontė als Sparks eigentliche Protagonistin erweist. Zwar lässt die Auswahl von einhundertdreissig Briefen, die etwa die Hälfte des Buchs ausmachen und einen privaten Blick auf den Alltag der Brontės erlauben, zunächst Charlotte Brontė als prominenteste Figur erscheinen, zumal die meisten der überlieferten Briefe aus ihrer Feder stammen; doch in der zweiten Hälfte richtet Muriel Spark ihr ganzes Augenmerk auf die Autorin der «Sturmhöhe».

Im Gegensatz zu Branwell und Anne, die als blosse Schatten ihrer selbst in Sparks Buch präsent sind; im Gegensatz zu der lebenstauglichen, der Welt zugewandten Charlotte, die sich schliesslich nicht nur mit Verlegern, sondern auch mit einem Ehemann arrangieren konnte, scheint Emily Brontė für Muriel Spark den schöpferischen Geist in seiner kompromisslosen und reinsten Form zu verkörpern. Die Verabsolutierung der schriftstellerischen Arbeit, die zielgenaue Ausrichtung ihres Lebens auf das, «was sie als ihre individuelle Berufung ansah», macht Emily Brontė zu einer der wahrhaftigsten Schriftstellerinnen der britischen Literatur. Muriel Spark ist, zumindest in dieser Hinsicht, ihre Schwester im Geiste.

Thomas David


Reader, I shagged him

Since her death 150 years ago, Charlotte Brontė has been sanitised as a dull, Gothic drudge. Far from it, says Tanya Gold; the author was a filthy, frustrated, sex-obsessed genius

Friday March 25, 2005
The Guardian

Elizabeth Gaskell is a literary criminal, who, in 1857, perpetrated a heinous act of grave-robbing. Gaskell took Charlotte Brontė, the author of Jane Eyre, the dirtiest, darkest, most depraved fantasy of all time, and, like an angel murdering a succubus, trod on her. In a "biography" called The Life of Charlotte Brontė, published just two years after the author's death, Gaskell stripped Charlotte of her genius and transformed her into a sexless, death-stalked saint.

As the 150th anniversary of her death on March 31 1855 approaches, it is time to rescue Charlotte Brontė. She has been chained, weeping, to a radiator in the Haworth Parsonage, Yorkshire, for too long. Enough of Gaskell's fake miserabilia. Enough of the Brontė industry's veneration of coffins, bonnets and tuberculosis. It is time to exhume the real Charlotte - filthy bitch, grandmother of chick-lit, and friend.

When I first read her at the age of 13, I thought she was another boring Gothic drudge who got lucky. When I returned to her 10 years later, I recognised her. Charlotte was an obscure, ugly parson's daughter, a sometime governess and schoolmistress. Her father Patrick had fought his way from Ireland into Cambridge University and the church. She was toothless, almost penniless and - to Victorian society - worthless. But she dared to transcend her background and her situation. In her novel Jane Eyre, a dark Cinderella tale of a plain, orphaned governess, she dared, baldly, to state her lust.

After I had reread Jane Eyre, I wanted to know what dark genius created this world. I turned to Elizabeth Gaskell's Life, but I could not recognise the sanitised Charlotte she conjured up. Gaskell befriended Charlotte when the novelist was 34 and already a star. Contemporary critics had been appalled by Jane Eyre's "coarseness", but the public was thrilled and Charlotte was a celebrity. Gaskell waspishly described her first sight of Charlotte in a letter: "She is underdeveloped, thin and more than half a head shorter than I ... [with] a reddish face, large mouth and many teeth gone; altogether plain."

Gaskell described her encounters with Charlotte to friends in long, gossipy, gawking letters. "I have so much to say I don't know where to begin ..." And Charlotte noticed Gaskell's need to weaken and infantilise her, writing to her publisher, George Smith, "she seems determined that I shall be a sort of invalid. Why may I not be well like other people?" Gaskell was already hungrily plotting the biography, which she convinced herself was an act of charity. She wanted to rescue her friend from the accusations of "coarseness" and she did not have to wait long: Charlotte died in 1855, nine months after her wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls.

Gaskell portrays Charlotte as Victim Supreme. She begins to sew her shroud from her first chapter, when she copies out the Brontė grave tablet in Haworth church, voluptuously listing those who died of consumption: Charlotte's mother, Maria, her sisters Maria, Elizabeth, Anne and Emily, and her brother Branwell. Charlotte, Anne and Emily were "shy of meeting even familiar faces". They "never faced their kind voluntarily". The Brontės are shown, with understated relish, as lonely, half-mad spinsters, surrounded by insufferable yokels and the unmentionable stench of death. Under Gaskell's pen, they become the three witches of Haworth and she hurls on the Gothic gloom, ravaging the moorlands and the town for appropriate props. She has a particular fondness for the graveyard outside their front door: "It is," she notes, "terribly full of upright tombstones." She is bewildered by the Brontės. She could never accept they were, quite simply, talented. There had to be a magical mystery at work on those moors ...

Gaskell carefully fillets the letters to match her agenda. Any hint of Charlotte as a sexual being is tossed on to the historical furnace. Charlotte's correspondence with the (married) love of her life, Monsieur Heger of Brussels, is ignored, as is her thwarted romance with George Smith. Gaskell could hardly leave out Charlotte's marriage to Arthur Nicholls - but no doubt she would have liked to. Her biography is the ultimate piece of feminine passive-aggression, a mediocre writer's attempt to reduce the brilliant Miss Brontė to poor, pitiful Miss Brontė. Gaskell wrote the Life as a tragedy, not a triumph. But if Charlotte Brontė's life is a tragedy, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Let me introduce you to the real Charlotte Brontė. She was not a wallflower in mourning. She always wanted to be famous; she pined to be "forever known". Aged 20, she wrote boldly to the Poet Laureate Robert Southey, asking for his opinion of her talents. He replied: "You evidently possess and in no inconsiderable degree what Wordsworth calls 'the faculty of verse'." Then he chides her: "There is a danger of which I would ... warn you. The daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind. Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life and it ought not to be." Charlotte ignored Southey but Gaskell couldn't believe it. She concluded the correspondence "made her put aside, for a time, all idea of literary enterprise".

Charlotte continued in her position as a schoolteacher, which she had already held for a year. But she hated her profession and heartily despised the aggravating brats she was forced to teach. As the children at Roe Head School did their lessons, she wrote in her journal: "I had been toiling for nearly an hour. I sat sinking from irritation and weariness into a kind of lethargy. The thought came over me: am I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage, forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness, the apathy and the hyperbolic and most asinine stupidity of these fat headed oafs and on compulsion assuming an air of kindness, patience and assiduity? Must I from day to day sit chained to this chair prisoned within these four bare walls, while the glorious summer suns are burning in heaven and the year is revolving in its richest glow and declaring at the close of every summer day the time I am losing will never come again? Just then a dolt came up with a lesson. I thought I should have vomited." Note to Mrs Gaskell: Charlotte didn't want to kiss those children; she wanted to vomit on them.

Charlotte did not only feel passionate hatred for small children; she felt passionate love for men. Unlike the female eunuch created by Gaskell, she was obsessed with her sensuality. She wrote to a friend: "If you knew my thoughts; the dreams that absorb me; and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up ... you would pity and I daresay despise me." The thwarted lust of a parson's daughter? Gaskell dismisses it as "traces of despondency". In Brussels, studying to become a governess at Heger's school, the virgin became ever more lustful. She wrote obsessive letters to him, begging for his attention. "I would write a book and dedicate it to my literature master - to the only master I have ever had - to you Monsieur." Later she writes: "Day or night I find neither rest nor peace. If I sleep I have tortured dreams in which I see you always severe, always gloomy and annoyed with me. I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to every kind of reproach - all that I know - is that I cannot - that I will not resign myself to losing the friendship of my master completely - I would rather undergo the greatest physical sufferings. If my master withdraws his friendship entirely from me I will be completely without hope ... I cling on to preserving that little interest - I cling on to it as I cling on to life."

When Gaskell heard of these letters she panicked. "I cannot tell you how I should deprecate anything leading to the publication of these letters," she clucked to her publisher.

Charlotte's "master" did not return her love, but Jane Eyre's did. Charlotte's fixation with sex could not be realised in truth - so she realised it in fiction. Jane Eyre has spawned a thousand luscious anti-heroes, and a million Pills & Swoon paperbacks. Her prose is dribbling, watchful and erotic. It's much better than The Story of O, or Naked Plumbers Fix Your Tap. In Jane Eyre she created the men she could not have in the sack: rude, rich, besotted Edward Rochester and beautiful, sadistic St-John Rivers. Both, naturally, beg to marry Jane and Charlotte draws every sigh and blush and wince exquisitely. She writes long, detailed scenarios for her paper lovers. Jane loves to argue with them and she always comes out on top. In the throbbing, climactic scene, after Rochester has teased her (lovingly, of course), she pouts: "Do you think, because I am poor, plain, obscure and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you and full as much heart. And if God have gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh - it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed though the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal - as we are."

Rochester melts. "'As we are!' repeated Mr Rochester - 'so,' he added, enclosing me in his arms, gathering me to his breast, pressing his lips on my lips: 'so, Jane!'" The St-John fantasies are filthier yet, as Charlotte's masochism oozes on to the page. "Know me to be what I am," he tells Jane. "A cold, hard man." Jane watches St-John admire a painting of a beautiful woman and the voyeurism excites her; "he breathed low and fast; I stood silent". I know Charlotte had an orgasm as she wiped the ink from her fingers and went to take her father his spectacles.

Charlotte was not only randy; she was rude. She was sent a copy of Jane Austen's Emma and spouted bile all over it. "[Austen] ruffles her reader with nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound," she bitches. "The passions are perfectly unknown to her ... the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death - this Miss Austen ignores." Later she smacks her more firmly over the bonnet. "Miss Austen is not a poetess. Can there ever be a great artist without poetry?" If Charlotte slagged off Austen - her only real rival in the canon of superb, sex-starved writers - what would she have made of Gaskell's blackwash? I suspect she would have seen it for what it was - the one parasitic shot at immortality of a second-rate writer.

I decide to visit Saint Central - the parsonage museum at Haworth - to see if anything of the real Charlotte remains. Might a leg, or an arm or a finger be sticking out from under Gaskell's smiling tombstone? It doesn't look good for Charlotte. Just nine months after the 150th anniversary of her wedding (there was a mock ceremony, with a shop manager as Mr Nicholls and the villagers as the villagers) the Brontė groupies are excitedly preparing the "celebrations" for the 150th anniversary of her death. A "light installation" is projecting a shadowy grim reaper. Yes - it is Death. It crawls across Patrick's pillows, returns and crawls again. Pictures of the "Brontė waterfall" are gushing noisily over the front of the parsonage. Inside the house are the relics, pristine and pornographic. Charlotte's clothing is imprisoned behind glass: her ghastly wedding bonnet, covered with lace; her gloves; her bag; her spectacles. I can see from the dress that she was a dwarf. A genius indeed, but a dwarf.

In the shop, Gaskell, again, has won. There is every Brontė-branded item the mother of the cult could wish, except, perhaps, enormous golden Bs. I choose a gold fridge magnet, a tea-towel that says "Brontė genius - love, life and literature" and a toy sheep stamped with the word "Brontė". There is a Jane Eyre mouse mat that says, "I am no bird and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will." This souvenir disgusts me, but no doubt Mrs Gaskell would love it. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte wrote "independent human being". She did not write "independent mouse mat".

I can find no remnant of the breathing, brilliant novelist in Haworth; it is merely the site of a death cult that weirdly resents its god. I wander up the road to the moors and am surprised they haven't packaged the mud - "Real Brontė Mud!" As the taxi bumps down the famous cobbled street, past the Brontė tea-rooms, the Villette coffee shop, Thornfield sheltered housing (imagine 50 creaking Mr Rochesters) and the Brontė Balti (Brontė special - Chicken Tikka; it's true), I yearn to rip the road signs down and torch the parsonage. This shrine needs desecrating, and I want to watch it burn. I want to see the fridge magnets melt, the tea-towels explode and the wedding bonnet wither. Somewhere, glistening in the ashes, there might remain a copy of Jane Eyre. That is all of Charlotte Brontė that need loiter here.