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  • Big Sister
  • Beth Newman (bio)

Charlotte brontë, the eldest of the Brontë siblings that survived into adulthood, was also the longest-lived. She therefore found herself in the role of literary executor, a circumstance that has shaped the reception of the three sisters as writers and as human beings whose personal lives continue to fascinate. That is the current wisdom—and it is indisputably [End Page 258] true. But, with the last quarter century's scrutiny of the "Brontë myth," the eldest Brontë's unlooked-for power to construct her sisters' reputations for posterity has redounded negatively upon her. Salutary critical attention to the importance of Charlotte's role in the construction of the myth and to the inevitable tensions between the sisters during their lives has created an attitude of knowing impatience and exasperation with this bossy big sister. The bicentenary of her birth is a good time to explore this attitude and to consider the degree to which it may be an overreaction.

Tom Winnifrith sums up the general attitude in his 1988 biography of Charlotte: "Few can doubt her devotion to her sisters," he writes, "although relations cannot have always been easy in their lifetime, and after their death Charlotte does not seem to have been very sensitive to their work" (6). Juliet Barker, in her monumental biography of the Brontë family, is blunter. Charlotte, she writes, was "ruthless" in her self-serving plan to bring the unsuited Emily to Brussels (425), too absorbed in her own "largely self-inflicted" suffering over Monsieur Heger to sympathize with Anne's troubles (537), and so outraged over Branwell's failure to live up to her expectations of him that her handwriting in a letter about his death betrays a "spasm of barely suppressed savagery" (671). A reader not borne along on the tide of Barker's mounting exasperation might ask: Could not the spasm possibly have betrayed grief?1 Animus against Charlotte has also fuelled some of the novels of the considerable sub-genre that Patsy Stoneman calls "Brontë biographical fiction." Most notably, James Tully implicates the eldest sister in sibling murder in The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë (1999), and Chris Firth arraigns her for suppressing the identity of the true author of Wuthering Heights, which was Branwell (yes, that old canard!), in Branwell Brontë's Barber's Tale (2004).2 No wonder Marianne Thormählen has recently warned that a new myth of the villainous Charlotte Brontë threatens to spring up in the place of the old (3).

What concerns Thormählen is not the Brontë-inspired fiction but a tendency in the scholarship of the last decade of the twentieth century and beyond, which in turn colours popular reception. This scholarship has cast a cold eye on two important documents that Charlotte produced (as Currer Bell) for the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Her preface to Wuthering Heights depicts Emily as a "home-bred country girl" (xx) who "wrought" her novel "with a rude chisel" (xiv), while her "Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell" unflatteringly compares the "sweet, sincere pathos" of Anne's poems (viii) to Emily's more "vigorous" verse (ix). Worse still, she dismisses the choice of subject in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as an "entire mistake" (xii). Thormählen notes that these documents "made the younger Brontë sisters look less complex and serious in their artistry than present-day scholars can see that they were" and fueled a sense that Charlotte Brontë "deliberately concocted misleading images of her sisters and their work" in order to glorify herself at her sisters' expense (3). Tully and Firth, who know Brontë scholarship, have absorbed the anti-Charlotte [End Page 259] zeitgeist. The complaint that Charlotte damaged her siblings' receptions is reimagined in one case as sororicide and in the other as suppression of authorial identity. Firth, indeed, explicitly traces Charlotte's supposed conspiracy against Branwell to the "Biographical Notice."

On reflection, I do not think that the image of Charlotte Brontë as villain is likely to rise to the level of pervasive myth, whether in scholarship or in the popular imagination. I do, however, understand Thormählen's concern and, in...


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