(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

As Lucasta Miller shows, the story of the Brontë family rivals the fiction they produced. It is important to remember that their work appeared at the end of the Romantic period, when the personality of the writer was as important to readers as the work itself. All of the Brontës found the Byronic hero—not only the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, himself but also the characters in his poetry—immensely fascinating. The three sisters and brother produced juvenilia that clearly embodied a Romantic world of heroes and villains and of strong personalities who dominated the make-believe kingdoms the Brontës built for them in stories and poems. Moreover, the figures of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847) and Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre (1847) called to mind the fearful yet seductive and tormented heroes of Byron's great poems such as Manfred (1817) andChilde Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818).

Branwell never fulfilled his promise—dying young after losing his battle with drug addiction—but he left behind a famous painting of his three sisters and other drawings and writings that make him part of the myth. He is also part of the myth because of his Byronic propensities and because his friends perpetuated the rumor that he, in fact, had authored Wuthering Heights. While there is no merit in the rumor, in terms of the myth it makes sense, as readers found it hard to believe that the reclusive Emily could have created such an intense and violent work. Women, in general, were thought not to have the imagination to create such bold literature.

The Brontë myth began with the very fact that the three sisters first published their work under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, implying that they were men who had no wish to make themselves better known to the public. Of course, the reticent Bells provoked curiosity among the reading public and critics who wished to know more about these new literary voices.

In itself, the adoption of a male pseudonym was hardly unprecedented. Mary Ann Evans, for example, wrote under the name George Eliot, and Amadine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin became George Sand. The Brontë sisters were concerned that their father, a parson, not be embarrassed. They lived in a small town, Haworth, in Yorkshire and kept the secret of their writing largely to themselves. Even their father, who had published poetry and encouraged his children's literary activity, did not learn of how committed the sisters were to their writing until they had produced work of considerable value.

Charlotte was clearly the sister who most wished to reach the public with her writing, and more is known about her than the modest Anne or the reclusive and enigmatic Emily. Because of Charlotte's contacts with publishers, and her trips to London—and then the enormous success ofJane Eyre—the Bell pseudonyms could not be maintained. Then Branwell died, followed by Emily and Anne shortly thereafter, and Charlotte and her father remained to assess how to deal with the public's fascination with, but also criticism of, the lives and works of the Brontës. Charlotte, in particular, was even censured for her “coarseness”—that is, her creation of violent characters full of intense passion. The character Jane Eyre did not seem ladylike; her emotions, if not her actions, defied Victorian conventions. Even other women writers such as Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell had their reservations about novels that seem to exult in a woman's will to have her own way or in male characters who ridiculed polite society.

Lucasta Miller tells this much of a familiar story quickly and well. What intrigues her is how the Brontë myth coalesced in two signal events: Charlotte's memoir of her sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte. In the memoir, Charlotte confected a sentimental story that appealed to Victorians. She emphasized Haworth as a remote parsonage and the sisters as isolated individuals, with the implication that they could not be judged by societal standards. The story of Charlotte, the sole survivor, won the hearts of many who had deplored the Brontës’ writings. In short, she wrote to make the Brontës respectable.

Gaskell built on Charlotte's story by making Charlotte herself a dutiful daughter, a participant in her father's charitable work, and, near the end of her life, an...

(The entire section is 1785 words.)