It's true that each generation re-imagines the Bronte--with ever-evolving conceptions of sexuality and personality. Controversy has surrounded the sisters since they first published their infamous novels under the assumed names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. But, with all the controversies of the past, the task of demythologizing the Brontes now seems more important than ever in this "golden age of Bronte scholarship." Of course, we must first understand the origins of the myth.
The Origins of the Bronte Myth
In her journey to demythologize the Bronte sisters, Miller focuses most closely on Charlotte Bronte, whose ambition from an early age was to be "forever known." Charlotte is notable not only for her publication of Jane Eyre under the pseudonym Currer Bell, but also for the ways in which she dramatically affected our present conception of the Bronte myth. She attempted to explain why she and her sisters had written their controversial novels.
It's evident that Charlotte was intent on shaping her own literary legacy, as well as that of her sisters. Miller even suggests that Charlotte may have destroyed some of her sisters' works. "After Emily died," Miller explains, "Charlotte took the reins and became the impresario of her posthumous reputation. Her attempts to rewrite her fiction, criticism, and biography, and as an editor, are often as obfuscating as they are revealing."
We cannot know how many documents were lost, nor can we know what those manuscripts might have revealed about the Bronte sisters. Although the destruction of those papers was not malicious, the loss of the material is nonetheless maddening.
With very few known papers from Emily and Anne, it's not surprising that writers have often focused on Charlotte, beginning with The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Elizabeth Gaskell (who had her eye on the drama of Charlotte's life). She freely re-imagined the facts, and depicted Charlotte as a tortured woman, largely disregarding her role as a writer and playing up Charlotte's role as a homemaker. Miller explains that Gaskell's "underlying anxieties about the Bronte novels prevented her from straightforwardly championing the authors for their intellectual or literary talents and ambitions.
Of course, Gaskell's biography was hugely successful, despite the many inaccuracies. What's certain is that Gaskell's work was one of the most famous biographies of the 19th century, and the book is still read today.
What More To Come?
Since the first publication of The Life of Charlotte Bronte, numerous books have speculated about the life and works of the Bronte, with varying degrees of success. "Although recent scholars have made enormous progress in reclaiming the factual circumstances and historical background of the Bronte experience," as Miller says:
Of course, writers have already made wild speculations. The ghostly images of the Brontes have appeared, and the sisters have appeared in plays, films and in numerous works of fiction. There has even been an authorship controversy related to Wuthering Heights, with fans some believing that Branwell Bronte was the author instead of Emily.
Now, what's left is to excavate the depths of Bronte scholarship--to begin restoring some of the concrete details that have been lost in the effort to sensationalize the story. Instead of imagining the Bronte sisters as sex-starved or saintly, we can now see three sisters who were "full of fun and merriment." Instead of seeing three uneducated women who were the parson's daughters, we now read a vivid portrayal of passionate women who embedded their fiction with some of the very stuff their lives were made of.