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  • Problematic Mythmaking
  • Barbara T. Gates (bio)

For the thirty years I have been teaching seminars in the work of the Brontës, I have been haunted by the so-called Brontë myth—the accretion of anecdotes, tales, memorabilia, and secondary texts that have come to comprise the Brontë story. This "myth" has always troubled me, less because it promotes bifurcated Brontës—Brontës with lives and Brontës with works—than because it entices students to read literary texts simply as places to look for partially concealed Brontë sisters. Of course canonization of the Brontës has been popular at least since Elizabeth Gaskell's remarkable Life of Charlotte Brontë appeared in 1858. This master text separated Charlotte Brontë, dutiful daughter and wife, from Currer Bell, professional writer, only to prompt subsequent readers to put the two back together again, rather like Humpty Dumpty.

When I began teaching, I used Gaskell's life-and-works model in an attempt to keep students focused on what I then called Brontë facts and Brontë fictions. I wanted them to learn the origins of the Brontë myth. I would have them read Gaskell; and Charlotte Brontë's words, "My sister Emily loved the moors"; and look into Matthew Arnold's "unquiet souls" in "Haworth Churchyard"; and read aloud Emily Dickinson on Charlotte Brontë's death: "Oh what an afternoon for Heaven, / When Brontë entered there." I would then talk about the founding of the Brontë Society in 1893, in part meant to eliminate the confusion surrounding the Brontës' lives and letters—which it decidedly did not. (The confusion was unstoppable then as now.) I would also discuss the continuing idealization of the sisters, including by the feminist movement—of which I have certainly been a part. And I would mention the purple-heather school of criticism—moors, moors, and more moors, Haworth as seat of Midlands darkness, and the next-door graveyard containing remains of most of the Brontës. In line with this, I would read [End Page 456] Henry James (1956: 101) on "the image of their dreary, their tragic history, their loneliness and poverty of life," which, he continued, "has been made to hang before us . . . with so sharp an accent that this accent has become for us the very tone of their united production." The trouble with all this is that the students loved it; I found I was perpetuating the myth wholesale. In evaluations, students singled out this part of the course for special praise. They wanted canonized Brontës, in every sense of the word canonize.

In the end, I surrendered as I asked students to find their own "purple heather" texts. I came to collect these in the forms of some quite unexpected, popular accounts of the sisters' lives and background. If nothing else, these showed just how the myth was self-perpetuating. My students were learning how authors were indeed made popular by journalism and other forms of writing, not just by professors and anthologies. Here are a few samples of the kinds of essays students have brought in over the years, these three forming a kind of set from the 1980s to the early 1990s. These all tell or allude to the tale of the Brontës coming to Haworth and their early years of tragedy there:

Under cold grey skies, seven heavily-laden carts of household goods lumbered up the cobbled main street of Haworth, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in February of 1820. With them went the new Anglican parson, the Rev Patrick Brontë, 34, his wife, Maria, and their six little children.

The entourage stopped at the very last house. This was the Haworth parsonage, a cheerless and gloomy two-storey stone building, built to fight the bitter local winter winds.

Just over a year later, the mother died, leaving the parson alone with Maria, 8, Elizabeth, 6, Charlotte, 5, Branwell, 4, Emily, 3 and Anne, 1. Tuberculosis took Maria at age 12 and Elizabeth at age 10. The remaining children lived on in isolated misery for years until the three girls unbelievably burst through to win universal fame as powerful novelists.

("The Brontës: Frail Sisters of...


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