Withering criticism and heights of praise

Each era reinvents the Brontë sisters to reflect its own feminine terrors or ideals

The Brontës and their books have been revered, reviled, and rewritten with a hunger - even rapaciousness - dating back to their earliest publications: the 1846 poems published under the noms de plume Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, and, especially, "Jane Eyre," by Currer Bell in 1847. From the beginning, there were furious whispers about the authors' identities - and horrified gasps at what was deemed the coarseness, vulgarity, and intimacy of "Jane Eyre."

Though the sisters chose pen names in hopes that their work might stand on its own merit, mystery fueled rumors, imbuing the authorial debate with questions of gender and class.

According to Lucasta Miller's new biography, "The Brontë Myth," when Charlotte revealed the Bell brothers' identities after the death of Anne and Emily, the defense she chose - depicting the sisters as timorous virgins whose stumbling innocence might exonerate them from their own vulgar works - only riled the public more.

Charlotte's first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, made a similar choice in 1857, striving for a book that would stir pity and forgiveness by revealing private woes. She depicted her as a paragon of femininity and distracted readers with a trove of trivial details down to Charlotte's comments on her lingerie.

Here, writes Miller, in this effort to silence critics and those who had stirred to tell Charlotte's story, began the Brontë myth. Even in the early years, it led to making such a fetish of Brontë memorabilia that Charlotte's father, Patrick, cut her letters into squares to meet a clamor for handwriting samples - a graphic illustration, writes Miller, of "how Charlotte's celebrity had the effect of sucking the meaning out of her."

Miller's interest lies not so much in debunking myths and rumors - like those of Patrick burning rugs in a domestic rampage and sawing the legs off chairs, or of Emily's brother Branwell as the author of "Wuthering Heights" - as in seeing those myths as a kaleidoscope of contemporary culture.

Roughly half of the book is devoted to Charlotte. In addition to a lucid, witty dissection of her legend and the range of plays and novels it inspired, Miller offers a deft reading of the shifts in biography and literary criticism.

Charlotte's fluid reputation reveals a growing freedom among biographers to explore depths and dark sides of subjects' lives. As early as 1858, psychobiography emerged (a reading of Charlotte's life appeared in a psychology journal that year) along with a gradual emphasis on the unconscious, including a move to read Charlotte's last illness as a death wish.

The flaw of such a critical bent, writes Miller, is the detachment of subjects from their web of cultural, social, and literary influences. Emphasis on an unconscious flow tended "to infantilize [Charlotte's] relationship to her work, crediting it with no more craft or conscious artistry than dreams." Equally perilous was a hunt for biographical shadows in the sisters' novels, "a mania" that conflated fact and fiction, spurring enthusiasts to read "Wuthering Heights" as a gold mine of biographical gems.

As feminist criticism and a more historicized approach gained ground in the mid-20th century, the emphasis shifted again - to patriarchal oppression, a view of Charlotte as an early feminist martyr, and, finally, a willingness to study the Brontës in their own cultural milieu.

Miller's later chapters focus on Emily, who was viewed as almost bestial for much of the 19th century and was vilified for subverting social norms. That changed with May Sinclair's 1912 biography casting her as "an icon of purity and spirituality." Emily became the preeminent sister for much of the 20th century, as the vision of a waif drifting over desolate moors gripped the popular imagination.

In one of the book's most compelling sections, Miller explores the Brontë myth's retranslation into personal legend, as when Ted Hughes made the women a scaffold for his own life. Co-opting the fates of "the three weird sisters" in his poems "Haworth Parsonage" and "Two Photographs of Top Withens," he constructed fatalistic emblems of his doomed marriage, weaving Brontë symbology into the pattern of his life.

Never losing sight of the Brontë books' groundbreaking takes on identity, Miller unravels the Brontë myth with tenacity, detail, and grace - from souvenir tea towels and Haworth Parsonage mugs to Hollywood visions of wind-swept moors. In the process, she restores life to Emily and Anne, and especially to Charlotte - a girl who taught herself to write with her eyes shut and had the temerity to write to England's poet laureate at age 20, confessing her ambition "to be forever known."

Christina McCarroll is an editor on the Monitor's national news desk.

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