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  • On the Brontëesque
  • Garrett Stewart (bio)

For all their differences, the narrative writing of the Brontë sisters has a kindred intensity and sibling linguistic pitch, drenched in a hyper-attention to diction and metaphor as well as in the dramatized exactions of [End Page 234] grammar. Their prose can be patient, even at times throttled, but never slack. And when plot writes one or another heroine into a corner, in some crisis either of her own making or not, a signature force is typically marked in the driven wedge of language itself—and as such. Unlike some Victorian novelists, the Brontës are not just storytellers but writers, risking even the tortuous and awkward rather than sacrificing all to the forward drive of plot. Yet the narrative spell they cast—precisely because of this writerly quality, I would (again) argue—tends to carry well beyond the grain of their individual stylistic texture into what Peter Brooks, in The Melodramatic Imagination (1986), with reference to Henry James rather than the Brontës in his subtitle's stress on the Mode of Excess, has called (in a chapter title) the very "melodrama of consciousness" (153–97) inherent in the forms of fictional characterization. George Eliot is the obvious precursor for James in this line of thought, this evolutionary model for the contours of thinking itself in fiction, but the Brontës are her own inescapable and more excessive predecessors.

Yes, again: a recurrent argument of mine is for the psychodrama of plot anchored in the "narratography" of style. For the Brontës have been for me a repeated touchstone, second only to Dickens and Eliot, in my investigations of the prose of prose fiction in the founding century of the modern English novel as we know it. Between "Reader, I married him" (395) and an implicit "Leave him unmourned and unburied, then, either drowned unrecovered at sea, or perhaps surviving: your call, Reader"—in other words, between the belatedly knotted marital closure of Jane Eyre and the split-ended indetermination of plot in Villette—Charlotte stabilized, and then later broke, a cardinal rule of genre in the courtship story. Operating across the separate phases of her one novel, Emily—fording a complex generational divide—first decimated, then reinstated, the marriage plot. In Anne's work, the telos of marriage is a delayed reward in Agnes Grey and, in its punishing form, an overcome hurdle to affection and future hope in the sadistic domesticity of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

In all cases, prose takes upon itself the burdens of emotional yearning and reversal in its own internalized pace, with its manic rhythms of slump and excitation, psychic caution and febrile outbreak. The Brontë novels emerge in this way as a textbook of the fictional book as text, as writing, where the syntactic course of true love never did run smooth, nor its diction slot readily into the norms of emotional acquiescence, nor its figuration toe any going line. It is for this reason that one may wish to elect the adjectival form Brontëesque, rather than Brontëan, for the frequently strained involutions of their narrative discourse in its fervid transmits, including the volatility of syllables themselves. There is, in short, a wildness of phrase as well as of vision in their work that no regimens of either literary lexicon or narrative convention can quite tame. Yet this in no way narrows their influence to a stylistic one. The Brontës have no successful imitators or epigones in the ranks of major writing. Rather, it is what style conveys in their work, what it [End Page 235] carries forward in and beyond the novels themselves—evincing the tumult and numbness, avidities and repressions, of the craving mind and body in English fiction—that makes their influence so indelible: so deeply inscribed in the same Great Tradition that, in F.R. Leavis's terms, would so decidedly exclude them, even when he belatedly and rather grudgingly added Dickens to the honour roll.

This is why one keeps coming back to the Brontës, as they to us in inherited form—via later writers modulating their vehemence. It is, however, no denying...


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