The Cambridge Companion to the Brontes, and: Charlotte Bronte: The Imagination in History, and: "We Are Three Sisters": Self and Family in the Writing of the Brontes (review)
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The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës, edited by Heather Glen; pp. xvi + 251. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002, £45.00, £15.99 paper, $65.00, $23.99 paper.
Charlotte Brontë: The Imagination in History, by Heather Glen; pp. 314. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, £53.00, £14.99 paper, $90.00, $25.00 paper.
“We Are Three Sisters”: Self and Family in the Writing of the Brontës, by Drew Lamonica; pp. xi + 260. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003, $39.95.

In 1975 Terry Eagleton began Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës by remarking that it was "no longer fashionable to see the Brontës as a marooned, metaphysical trio, sublimely detached from their historical milieu" (1). It is now thirty years on, and Charlotte, Emily, and Anne have long since been carried safely back to history. Yet still we keep repeating to ourselves that they are not a marooned, metaphysical trio—almost as if we were afraid they might be inclined to maroon themselves again at the first opportunity. Here are some examples from the books under review: "The myth of the Brontës as isolated individual geniuses has partly depended on a firm belief in Haworth's remoteness from the world. But...Haworth in the early nineteenth century was not the 'remote moorland village' which Charlotte Brontë once called it, but an industrializing town" (Companion 3). Charlotte's was "not an imagination free of the constraints of history, or of transcendent, isolated genius," but emerged from "a lively group of children exploring the conventions of their culture and seizing the possibilities it offered at a particular historical moment" (Glen 4). "It is increasingly acknowledged that the Brontës did not write in a cultural or historical vacuum" (Lamonica 4). Why do we need to keep saying this? [End Page 131]

All three of these books attempt to break down—as Heather Glen's book on Charlotte does with its title's strategic preposition, "in"—the two polar coordinates of Brontë studies: "imagination" and "history." But the real problem may lie elsewhere, in the relationship between biography and history. Drew Lamonica, for instance, explores the "formative power" of the family in the sisters' creative development. The title of chapter 2, "Writing as Sibling Relationship" promises a biographical premise to her study, but after this brief discussion she stays well clear of the family lives of the Brontës, in the more secure and familiar socio-historical territory of fictions "as commentaries on mid- Victorian family life" (4). Family relations between the novels are no part of her subject, unfortunately, and each of the major text chapters in "We Are Three Sisters" deals discretely and in chronological order of publication with the Brontë canon, tracing a common pattern of movement in each novel "from a family that cannot accommodate the self to one that can" (7). The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës, on the other hand, makes the case from the outset for considering the Brontës together: most of the works "were written, literally, together: by three women living in close proximity" (2) who engaged in a "complex, creative dialogue with one another" (3). The Companion structures its discussions of the novels accordingly. Chapter 4 (by Stevie Davies) looks at The Professor (1857), Agnes Grey (1847), and Wuthering Heights (1847) together, and chapter 5 (by Jill Matus), at Jane Eyre (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). The aim, in Matus's words, is to show how the "common matrix" of the Brontë texts "produced novels of great individuality that are closely akin" (101). For Davies that task is considerably more challenging (as reflected in the chapter's title, "'Three Distinct and Unconnected Tales'"): Wuthering Heights shares certain concerns with The Professor and Agnes Grey, but what finally impresses Davies is "the diversity of the sisters' talents" (77) in those first efforts at full-length prose narratives. (The decision to restrict the coreadings in the Companion to novels written "literally, together," however, is to be regretted. Glen's discussion of Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853) in chapter 6 makes virtually...