Emily Brontë



(...) Why did the Brontës become a literary industry-the parsonage shrine, the movies, the mugs? Why has their personal suffering been emphasized-their isolation, early deaths, and nutty brother Branwell and their professional achievements downplayed? To mute the radical nature of their work, Miller argues. Most intriguingly, she names Charlotte the original mythmaker and posits why she dumbed herself and her siblings down.

Disguise started with the sisters' male pseudonyms, when, in 1846, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne sent out a volume of poetry signed Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. They didn't want to sanitize their work, rather float it past censors, thinking that as men they'd have a better shot at being published and taken seriously. As their novels appeared, some reviewers questioned the masks and praised Jane Eyre, Withering Heights, and Anne's two books, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, if written by males and condemned them as too violent, passionate, and knowing if penned by women.

The Brontës are wild. Mad women run amuck. There is cross dressing and adulterous desire, and that's not the half of it. As kids in the Haworth parsonage, they'd cut their teeth on Shakespeare's bawdy comedies and on the high Romanticism of Byron's Don Juan, with its rough, sexy subject matter the Victorians pretended to be shocked by. The sisters' novels are intimate, especially Charlotte's narrators, who grab the reader by the lapels and profess what women really feel beneath corsets and lace. Charlotte grapples with power and work, critiquing Victorian society and inventing a new, incendiary figure in Jane Eyre: the obscure, working woman who refuses to die young or remain unhappy.

The Brontës reaped praise as well as reproach for their books, but the criticism raked up Charlotte's doubts. In response to a spate of attacks after 1848-when the Bells were known to be women-Charlotte went to work simplifying their image, in part to protect their publishing careers. In "A Biographical Notice" she wrote for the 1850 reissue of her sisters' books, she spun an image of herself as a pious minister's daughter and of her sisters as unsophisticated, accidental geniuses-Victorian versions of outsider artists. Emily and Anne, who from childhood wrote poems and stories about a mythical land called Gondal, were ambitious artists, as was Charlotte, who believed so ardently in her literary powers she feared she was stealing thunder from God. Emily and Anne couldn't protest Charlotte's version of them, because by the end of 1848 both were dead, as was drug-addled Branwell.

The cocktail of sex and anger that attracts readers to Charlotte compelled Charlotte to writing, though she was anything but easy with the brew. Miller's most incisive contribution to Brontë studies is showing how Charlotte's ambivalence toward creativity and sex worked its way into her treatment of Emily. What was in it for Charlotte to cast her sister as a primitive? According to Miller, she wanted to get Emily under control, just as she wanted to reign in her own ambitiousness and erotic imagination.

Frightened by her dependence on the escapist, Angrian fantasies she had written with her brother since childhood, Charlotte decided-before publishing Jane Eyre-that there were two kinds of creativity: the good kind (her novels) which had a divine source and glorified God, and the bad kind (the Angrian fantasies), which promoted dreaming, isolation, and self-absorption. The second kind had an idolatrous source that competed with God and had to go.

Charlotte left behind her letters, juvenilia, and four novels. Emily left far less. What we know, though, is that her intellect was a razor. She didn't care if her creativity was an offense to God, and she felt no need to relinquish her childhood fantasies. Her great novel, Wuthering Heights, is all about adults who won't surrender their polymorphously entwined childhood personas. In Miller's view, Emily operated in Charlotte's unconscious, and maybe not always so unconsciously, as a manifestation of Charlotte's appetites and drives -an id puppet-in much the way Heathcliff serves as Cathy's in Wuthering Heights and Rochester as Jane's in Jane Eyre.

Startlingly, Miller proposes that Charlotte was the one who destroyed Emily's and Anne's letters, as well as Emily's unpublished second novel and the Gondal works, and that Charlotte justified the acts-which had to have had a competitive component as well-as protection of her highly private sisters from the pecking eyes of posterity. The evidence? Charlotte bowdlerized one of Emily's poems.

In an 1850 reissue of "The Prisoner" (an earlier version had been published in the sisters' joint 1846 volume), Charlotte cut some text from Emily's poem and added eight lines of her own, presenting them as Emily's. Emily's poem is a dramatic monologue, spoken by a Gondal character. Charlotte turned the speaker into Emily herself and made the visitor in the poem (originally the character's lover) a personification of genius. Emily viewed the artist as a far more active and independent agent than Charlotte did, and Charlotte's goal in rewriting the poem was to kosher up her sister's ideas.

Miller introduces another puzzle piece that came to light in 1996: a series of doodles Emily left on a translation of Horace she made while studying in Brussels. A facsimile of one sketch appears in Miller's book, showing a man holding a little boy by the hair, about to beat him, while another figure watches. Miller describes the others: "A row of books tips over domino-style. Another man is flogged next to a heap of what seem to be corpses, while a further aggressive figure brandishes a club." Asks Miller, "Are these vibrant images of violence comic or tragic? What do they mean? They don't seem to bear any direct relation to the text. Except that, a few lines above, Emily has just been translating a section on drama in which Horace argues that horrors such as Medea killing her children or Atreus cooking human flesh should not directly be represented on the stage. Are Emily's pictures-which explicitly show acts of sadism-a sort of witty rebellion against his injunction? Or do they say something darker about the imagination which would go on to produce Wuthering Heights?"

Dark Emily and light Emily? Sounds like good creativity and bad creativity. The power of Emily is that she's a furnace of competing combustibles, braiding comic and tragic elements together. She sees sadistic and tender feelings alternating in human hearts, not quarantined off from each another. The Horace doodles are witty, rebellious, and mean, as is Withering Heights, where young Hareton murders puppies by hanging them over a chair, Heathcliff manipulates Hindley's fortune away from him and goads him to drink himself to death, Heathcliff and Cathy exult in adulterous, quasi-incestuous passion, and Heathcliff marries Isabella Linton just to torture her. Charlotte's friend and biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, reports two famous anecdotes about Emily that, even if exaggerated or apocryphal, seem apt. In one, she punishes her pet bulldog by beating him with her fists until his eyes are bloody, then she gently nurses the whimpering beast. In the second story, she cauterizes her own wound with a red-hot poker.

Many readers prefer Emily to Charlotte, fancying enigma over unbosoming. They like Emily's exploration of the liminal space between dream and wakefulness and between inarticulation and speech more than Charlotte's studies of self. They prefer Cathy's boundary-blurring declaration: "I am Heathcliff" to Jane's identity-marking disclosure: "Reader, I married him." It's easy to understand the appeal of Emily, who does seem the more postmodern of the two-at home with shifting versions of reality. Wuthering Heights, with its nest of stories within stories, boasts two unreliable narrators.

But in the way that Charlotte's personal life marks her fiction, we see something of how myths get made-the way knowledge is gained and disavowed, again and again, inside individuals and inside cultures. Each time a subject is cleaned up, it's because the changes a vision summons feel too cataclysmic to address. This is especially salient to Charlotte's belittling of her own and her sisters' work and to the way, sometimes, she throws her novels off course.

The Brontës' novels grapple with still-salient questions about what a man is and what a woman is and what the erotic connections between them can amount to, given their social roles. Jane Eyre, Withering Heights, and Villette send up flares around male/female relations, because the intense yearning depicted in these books combined with their unsatisfactory endings dramatize impossibility. Rochester is blinded, maimed, and tamed. Cathy and Heathcliff unite most consummately in over-the-top brutality. Lucy Snowe's lover drowns. (Charlotte wisecracked in a letter to her publisher that Paul was better off dead than tethered to the difficult heroine of Villette.) The setup of the sexes doesn't work, the books say. The authors may not have intended this declaration, but readers have understood in either a delighted or frightened way what they announce. Hence, the Bronte industry, at times heralding and at times denying their bite. And hence Charlotte protecting and disowning what she was exploring.

What Emily knows, she sticks by. She floats above us, a flinty-eyed clown, able to see the end of things even as they are blooming, aware of immanence and indifferent to process. We don't get to see Heathcliff and Cathy tested with the sexual politics of marriage and work. They don't even have sex. They are eternally outlaw lovers, in mutual revolt against the social ere sex and class do, in fact, defeat them.

In Charlotte, though, we see the workings of disavowal and how it drives mythmaking: the way the mind apprehends and then puts aside knowledge too scary to swallow whole. She's our recording instrument, revolutionary one moment, oblivious and ashamed the next, as are her characters, who test themselves in the social world. In her novels, Charlotte speaks with unprecedented acuity-if not always conscious intention-about the tensions between women's yearnings for independence and their pleasure in submission. She strove for candor, but she was not at peace with being a professional, creative, money-earning woman and she was unable to accept that her anger made her a dissident female. She was at odds with her desires for sex and art. In the very act of creation, remorse seizes her, most calamitously at the end of Jane Eyre-derailing the novel as it fleshes out our anthropology of mythmaking.

Edward Rochester gets a dirty deal after Bertha's crazy fire. There he is at Ferndean, virile and raven-haired still, but minus a hand, blind, and converted to God! When he says God has punished him, the novel falls apart. The contest Jane Eyre has staged isn't between man and God but between man and woman, and up until now it's been rollicking. How are Jane and Rochester going to live? What roles will they play? Nothing works. Teaching and being a governess bore Jane. Missionary work will kill her, and we're glad when later it's reported that her tempter to this life, St. John Rivers, is dying in India. Jane can't be economically dependent, because that would give Rochester too much power, the wrong kind, anyway, though she's turned on by his bossing, and she turns herself on keeping him at arm's length. She can't be a conventional wife, because it amounts to being a mistress. Rochester is fatally attracted to whorish beauties, then wonders why they want his money. As soon as he imagines life with a woman, he thinks of turning her into a trophy, and Jane has seen the contempt this instils in him afterward. On and on the two go, pushing and pulling, as the fabric of Victorian society comes unstitched.

Early in the book, standing atop Thornfield Hall, Jane gazes at far-off towns and has a vision of fulfillment-of travelling and intercourse with a variety of like-minded spirits. At the end of the novel, this picture is traded for a life with Rochester that the reader is assured is a marriage of equals.

Charlotte doesn't know what this looks like. (Does anyone?) Instead, she joins a dependent man and an economically independent woman. Newly rich and returned to Rochester, Jane sees his condition and is over the moon about being caretaker to, as she puts it, "this royal eagle, chained to a perch." She's found something to do that doesn't bore her or threaten her life. "He saw nature-he saw books through me," she trills, unfazed by the implication that for her to serve, he must be dependent.

Charlotte understood that men learn that maleness depends on possessing a beautiful woman. But she didn't see its counterpart: female vanity, the way women learn that femaleness depends on serving. Although Rochester's sight is eventually restored, he is blind when Jane marries him-blindness being the plain woman's revenge on the beauty-addicted man. By taming Rochester, Charlotte was able at once to trip out on voluptuous sex and chastise the sex-besotted artist in herself. In Jane Eyre, only one sex has to change, and in that glance away-that refusal to see, that wish to gain control-we witness the birth of myth.

In the early days of the feminist second wave, we cast around for women who wanted things, did things, tanked their way into the world ambivalent or not, who the hell cared. They defied pieties about female limits, raised a fist, even if a tiny one-Charlotte's doll-sized gloves sit in a case in the parsonage! While she was shuffling in print about being a humble this or that, she went off to London as often as she could, swanning around in her fashion as a literary celebrity, and she had a bitchy, biting sense of humor that chomps along in the fiction, too. In graduate school, I found it touching and frustrating that she apologised for the parts of her that found her times too small. She was always standing atop Thornfield Hall, imagining women somewhere else. We live there, now, though maybe not with all that greater sense of entitlement. Finally, we still read Charlotte for her driving, erotic connection to words. She kept churning them out, regardless of what people would make of them.

(from Laurie Stone. Literary Review. Madison: Spring 2006.Vol. 49, Iss. 3; pg. 63)