- Those Wild Yorkshire Girls:Body, Place, and History in the Brontës' Lives and Art1
I will borrow from Dickens and title the three sections of my forum essay "The Ghost of Brontë Scholarship Past"; "The Ghost of Brontë Scholarship Present"—including my own particular hauntings; and "The Ghost of Brontë Scholarship Future," or "How We Might Be the Revenants for Scholars Fifty Years from Now."
the ghost of brontë scholarship past
The art and lives of the Brontës have fascinated readers and scholars alike since Elizabeth Gaskell published The Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857. The story of the three sisters writing in isolation on the Yorkshire moors took deep root in literary history and has been irresistible to generations of Brontëans. Charlotte's own public and private writings on her sisters after their deaths, particularly her characterization of Emily (in the Editor's Preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey) as "a native and nursling of the moors" (xx), encouraged the Brontë mythos. Despite the occasional foray into myth-debunking—most recently and cogently represented by Lucasta Miller's 2004 The Brontë Myth—Brontë readers still feel an intense need to visit Haworth. They must see not only the wild moors (preferably when the heather blooms) and the churchyard, with its huge gravestones at oblique angles, but also Charlotte's impossibly small wedding dress, Emily's mastiff Keeper's brass collar, and the locks of Brontë hair, including those of the mother who died so tragically, leaving the six small Brontë children bereft. Charlotte's dress conjures up the smallness of the fictional Jane Eyre, the tiny figure of Lucy Snowe—and also the petite woman Charlotte Brontë herself, 4 feet 9 inches tall, who donned this dress to marry her father's Irish curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Her happy, brief marriage ended in her death from phthisis and severe nausea during pregnancy (now termed hyperemesis gravidarum, the condition from which the current Duchess of Cambridge suffered in her first pregnancy) less than nine months after that wedding day. The brass collar reminds Gaskell biography readers of her stories about Emily's intense relation to her fierce dog, Keeper, a possible canine prototype for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Emily's constant companion, and the subject of her best watercolour portrait, painted in 1838. Keeper was a part of Emily's funeral cortège, was allowed into Haworth Church for the burial sermon, and nearly wasted away pining outside Emily's door, yearning for his mistress to return—eerily, as Heathcliff starves himself in his final days before death, when he sees Catherine's face everywhere. The locks of hair [End Page 243] recall readers of Wuthering Heights to the light and dark tresses that Nelly twists before enclosing them in the locket on Catherine Earnshaw's dead body—that body that has just given birth to the second Cathy and that cleaves the novel. The locks of hair also recall the chiaroscuro of that second, now grown-up Cathy's hair with Hareton's as they lean together over their reading, and Nelly remarks, when they glance up, that both Hareton and Cathy have the eyes of Catherine Earnshaw. Readers and scholars equally besotted with George Eliot (and particularly with Middlemarch) do not feel the same urgent need to go to Nuneaton—although they might write books such as Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch or Barbara Hardy's Dorothea's Daughter, both compelling volumes. Brontë Studies has always been rooted in biography and located in a particular place, the moors of the West Riding Yorkshire.2
The problems with Brontë biography began with Gaskell's brilliant hagiographic portrait of Charlotte in The Life of Charlotte Brontë, with its suppression of the intense emotion Charlotte felt for Constantin Heger, the married Belgian schoolmaster and father with whom Charlotte fell in wild, unrequited love. Gaskell also misrepresented Patrick as wildly eccentric, offered a wholly negative portrayal of Branwell, and nearly elided Charlotte's two genius sisters, Emily and Anne. Since that germinal work was published, there have been several biographies that culminate in Juliet Barker's...