Something is rotten in the state of literary criticism, says scholar Lucasta Miller in The Bronte Myth, her refreshingly honest book about her own field.
For some reason, the plots of the Bronte sisters' mid-19th century novels are the last places some scandal-starved critics look when cataloging the Bronte legacy. Instead, they search the writers' lives.
Tackling "Brontemania" with a mix of gusto and intense scholarship, Ms. Miller offers an astounding panorama of Bronte research that should serve scholars well, and excite and educate all.
Over the years, Ms. Miller says, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte and their fictional characters have been called spinsters, lesbians, old maids, oversexed tarts, psychotics, dangerous pagans, virtual demons and saints. In reality, the sisters led quiet lives and died young.
Since the publication of Emily's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte's Jane Eyre, these women have been molded and remolded to fit shifting ideas regarding the 19th-century female writer, Ms. Miller says.
Historical clues about the Brontes have been limited yet looted, Ms. Miller says. "Facts, then, can become mythic through the way in which they are packaged and perceived." The portrait that remains of the Brontes is one of "three lonely sisters playing out their tragic destiny on top of a windswept moor."
Many 19th-century readers were moved by their passionate novels. Others were outraged by their gutsy heroines. Ms. Miller focuses mainly on Charlotte and Emily, though reviewers also bristled at Anne's "morbid" tale of an abusive husband, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
The sisters used male pseudonyms - Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell - but readers soon suspected their gender and Charlotte later acknowledged it.
Contemporary critics considered Wuthering Heights vulgar. Only a "damaged" woman could conceive such bedlam, they said. Gossipy critics continue to suspect affairs, secret authors and seances as sources of inspiration for Emily's untamable Heathcliff. Sparse clues also fuel conspiracy theories, Ms. Miller says. All that remains from Emily's short life is this one novel and a few minor writings.
Charlotte's spirited heroine, Jane Eyre, also was controversial. Critics said she was immoral and not feminine. Yet soon after Charlotte's death in 1855, an influential biography by Elizabeth Gaskell argued that Charlotte was very passive and "ladylike." The public soon allowed that perhaps Charlotte was indeed a dutiful daughter, capital housekeeper and "good spinster," though she married shortly before her death. They began to fear her a little less. These tidy labels have been hard to shake, Ms. Miller says.
The funny thing is that Charlotte is partly to blame, she says. Charlotte wrote a virtual apology in a reissue of their books. She painted her sisters as naive farm girls, limited by locale. Ms. Miller writes: "If Wuthering Heights was at all coarse, Charlotte blamed these people, whose rough manners and unbridled passions, she claimed, were the only examples of humanity Emily had had to draw on."
After this, some readers saw the books as "naughtier" than ever. Fascination endures for these "reclusive girls" said to write "coarse" books.
Ms. Miller manages to include the gossipy details we love to read. Her combination of passion, wit and intensive research is engaging.
This scholarly book is intense at times. Readers frequently have to interpret the interpretations of others. Ms. Miller rejects simple labels. She insists the Brontes are more than just the "three weird sisters" that poet and fellow Yorkshireman Ted Hughes once labeled them.