Books About Books About the Brontës
Branwell’s portrait of his sisters c.1834 with a painted-over figure, presumably a self-portrait. The order is thought to be, from left to right, Anne, Emily, Charlotte.
There are far too many books about the Brontës, and books about books about the Brontës, for us to be able to track and arrange our knowledge exhaustively, to separate and rank the different sorts of knowledge we’ve acquired, though Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth (2001) did as much as one might reasonably hope (or wish) to read. Last year was the first of the Brontë children’s bicentenaries: Charlotte was born in 1816, Patrick Branwell in 1817, Emily in 1818 and Anne in 1820. The anniversary books are already many. There are luxury editions, befitting the occasion, and reprints of the novels and of the manuscript of Jane Eyre, updated selections of the letters, non-updated editions of Charlotte’s and Emily’s poetry, books about the novels (scholarly and not), books of essays, books about their belongings, about the parsonage and Haworth, comic books, volumes of artwork inspired by the novels, fictionalised biographical accounts, Brontë A-Zs (which one presumably needs to make sense of everything else).
The most significant book published to mark Charlotte’s 200th birthday was Claire Harman’s Life, the first serious new biography since Lyndall Gordon’s Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life in 1994 and Juliet Barker’s The Brontës from the same year (biographies seem to come in generational bursts). All writers on the Brontës now benefit from Margaret Smith’s magisterial – much overdue – edition of Charlotte’s extant letters, published by Oxford in three volumes between 1995 and 2004. Barker and Gordon have both made contributions to this anniversary season: Barker’s publishers have issued an updated version of her selection of Brontë letters and fragments, The Brontës: A Life in Letters; Gordon’s book, Outsiders – a group study of five women – takes Emily as one of its subjects, or rather ‘outsider insurgents’ (Woolf’s phrase), who ‘speak to us about our unseen selves’. Emily engenders that sort of thing more than Charlotte. Brontë books emerge fairly steadily, but the field expands rapidly at moments like these and the major and minor characters suddenly proliferate and reveal multiple selves, with new incarnations not only in books but in exhibitions, plays, TV shows, films. This multiplicity makes it hard to see them clearly: each time I opened a new book I got the feeling I had entered a room just as Charlotte was slipping out of it. But perhaps that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Perhaps each new contribution, while adding another layer to the original, distorting it in a new way, makes some outlines darker and firmer, adds shading or highlights, so that when we stand back the singular touches disappear and the picture begins to cohere.
I should make the first of what I hope need be only a few confessions. We are in the business of history, but also of opinion, of trying to read the characters of the dead. I am not a 19th-century scholar, a Brontë expert, a Brontë fan even. A year ago, I was not interested in Charlotte, or her mysterious sisters or feckless brother, or their eccentric father, and I was certainly not interested in her charming publisher or her upright critics. I was not interested in hearing what the Brontës were, what they have become, or what they were definitely, almost certainly, assuredly, not. I didn’t care to be told that they were actually sexed up and drugged up, and not unhappy or bereft at all. I wasn’t, nor am I, interested in dressing up as them, or seeing how they dressed, or looking at their trinkets. I could imagine myself stretching to reading their letters perhaps, but I had no desire to identify with or be encouraged to identify with them, or to read memoir-biographers doing so. I neither wished to imagine parallels between their lives and my own, nor to be sternly told not to. I didn’t want to play ‘what if?’ or ‘what would?’ games with them. I didn’t want to be told the names of their pets – or to come to realise I somehow knew the names of their pets – or for the stories about them not only to become known to me, but somehow to become part of me. I didn’t want lines of their poetry, or their letters or novels, to loose themselves, or find that others had loosed them and set them floating around to echo in other places, on mugs and T-shirts and gift cards. I certainly didn’t wish to take sides or settle scores. I did not want to visit Haworth.
This wasn’t because I’m not interested, in a historical, aesthetic, anthropological way, in Victorian dresses, or windswept moors, or stories of genius or depravity. I like anecdotes in history books, and sentiment in novels. I am sure that the pleasures of fiction involve some sort of identification, or imaginative sympathy, but I’ve been content to read and reread my favourite books without looking into their creators’ lives. We know a good deal about writers one way or another anyhow, and it might be risky to pry: what is at best a ‘benign literary parasitism’, to quote Tim Parks, could ruin a good novel or poem for ever. It’s not just a question of revelation, of sordid details. I never thought about the reasons I didn’t read biographies, I just didn’t, and now I see that I distrusted them (and still do), that I thought them incapable of dealing in what’s most interesting about people, and I believed that novels were the best renditions of consciousness, of human lives and relationships, and also the most pleasurable. ‘Biography,’ as Hermione Lee says, ‘has so much to do with blame.’ Biographers deal in the back and forth of accusations. I could sniff the mud clinging to them, and if I somehow knew they might bore or disgust me, it may be that I feared they might excite me too. But most of all I felt, still feel, instinctively nervous about putting words into people’s mouths where they have spoken so forcefully for themselves, and perhaps especially where they haven’t. Both things are true of Charlotte Brontë.