The Brontës’ Secret

No body of writing has engendered more other bodies of writing than the Bible, but the Brontë corpus comes alarmingly close. “Since 1857, when Elizabeth Gaskell published her famous Life of Charlotte Brontë, hardly a year has gone by without some form of biographical material on the Brontës appearing—from articles in newspapers to full-length lives, from images on tea towels to plays, films, and novelizations,” wrote Lucasta Miller in The Brontë Myth, her 2001 history of Brontëmania. This year the Brontë literary-industrial complex celebrates the bicentennial of Charlotte’s birth, and British and American publishers have been especially busy. In the U.S., there is a new Charlotte Brontë biography by Claire Harman; a Brontë-themed literary detective novel; a novelistic riff on Jane Eyre whose heroine is a serial killer; a collection of short stories inspired by that novel’s famous last line, “Reader, I married him”; and a fan-fiction-style “autobiography” of Nelly Dean, the servant-narrator of Wuthering Heights. Last year’s highlights included a young-adult novelization of Emily’s adolescence and a book of insightful essays called The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects, which uses items belonging to Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as wormholes to the 19th century and the lost texture of their existence. Don’t ask me to list the monographs.

I see no reason not to consider the Brontë cult a religion. What are Peoples of the Book, after all, if not irrepressible embroiderers of fetishized texts? The Jews have a word for the feverish imaginings that run like bright threads through their Torah commentaries: midrash, the spinning of gloriously weird backstories or fairy tales prompted by gaps or contradictions in the narratives. Midrash isn’t just a Jewish hermeneutic, by the way. You could call the Gospels a midrash on the Hebrew Bible, the lives of the saints a midrash on the Christ story, the Koran a midrash on all of the above.

Some Brontë fans—reader, I’m one of them—would happily work through stacks of Brontë midrash in search of answers to the mysterium tremendum, the awesome mystery, of the Brontës’ improbable sainthood. How did a poor and socially awkward ex-governess named Charlotte and her even more awkward sister, Emily, who kept house for their father in a parsonage on a Yorkshire moor far from the literary circles of London, come to write novels and poems that outshone nearly every other 19th-century British novel and poem by dint of being more alive? In an essay on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights published in 1925, Virginia Woolf bears witness to this miracle:
As we open Jane Eyre once more we cannot stifle the suspicion that we shall find her world of imagination as antiquated, mid-Victorian, and out of date as the parsonage on the moor, a place only to be visited by the curious, only preserved by the pious. So we open Jane Eyre; and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from our minds.
If Charlotte’s novels keep up a stiff wind, Emily’s one novel, Wuthering Heights, is a thunderstorm. Her characters, even the ghosts, Woolf writes, have “such a gust of life that they transcend reality.” (Like most readers, Woolf ignores the youngest Brontë sister, Anne, a lesser novelist and poet, and the Brontë brother, Branwell, a failed poet and artist turned alcoholic.) And just think, Woolf went on to write in a more famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, what Charlotte might have produced had Victorian mores not corseted her potential.

Woolf seizes on a passage in Jane Eyre in which she believes she hears Charlotte breaking out of Jane’s voice to lecture the reader about women’s exclusion from the “busy world” and “practical experience,” and to lament the confinement of their talents “to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.” According to Woolf, this shows that Charlotte’s imagination, however bold, is also constricted—that she “will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly.” Charlotte’s writing would have been even better, Woolf says, had she “possessed say three hundred [pounds] a year.”

But Woolf gets it exactly wrong, thereby missing what makes the Brontë story so satisfying. The sisters’ social and economic disadvantages didn’t hold them back. Charlotte and Emily explored—and exploited—the prison-house of gender with unprecedented clear-sightedness. It so happens that the sisters had a good deal of “practical experience,” and they didn’t like it one bit. Pushed out into the world, they came home as fast as they could, and in their retreat from society found the autonomy to cultivate their altogether original voices. Those forays into the marketplace of female labor, though, gave them their best material.

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