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If “[i]t is no longer fashionable to think of the Brontës as isolated geniuses” (350), as Janis McLarren Caldwell suggests in the last chapter of The Brontës in Context, the concomitant understanding must be that they were embedded in their culture, a truth this book’s editor, Marianne Thormählen, intends to parse out. Meant for the general reader as well as for academic audiences, this text features forty-two essays organized under three major headings: “biographical matters,” “reception and critical fortunes,” and “historical and cultural phenomena” (1). With coverage of everything from “Dress” to prequels and sequels, from “Locations in northern England associated with the Brontës” to “Natural History” and “Careers for middle-class women,” this compendium of Brontë scholarship concisely lays out the material reality that produced the most extraordinary trinity of sibling writers to grace English literature (318, 27, 250, 303).
In the section on criticism, Sara J. Lodge notes that the introduction of New Historicism in the 1980s “stimulated a more forensic scholarly interest in the Brontës’ reading, juvenilia and letters” (196)—the term “forensic” echoing the methods of “close reading” and “thick description.” In keeping with this forensic approach, each of the short chapters in this comprehensive text couples historical matter about its titular topic with amplifications of how and where that matter is featured in the novels or the lives of the writer. Hence, we learn that Charlotte consulted The Author’s Printing and Publishing Assistant before sending out the sisters’ manuscripts to potential publishers. Fascinating details emerge, as, for example, that Emily cared not a stitch for fashion and embarrassed Charlotte with her odd, old-fashioned ways when they studied and taught at the pensionnat in Brussels. Nor does this contextualization of the sisters’ writing stint on aesthetic matters. Janet Gezari revisits Emily’s poetry, finding it at once informed by Stoic philosophy and mysticism of the kind that ignores the Christian desire for “union with a transcendent deity” (139) and seeks a “release into a state of undifferentiated being where subject and object are one” (139).
Thormählen is an exceptional scholar and her Brontë credentials sterling. One of her overarching editorial themes is the necessity to debunk the many myths that obscure our understanding of the Brontë sisters. She rightly contends that the more historical materials are available about the early Victorian period in general and the Brontës in particular, “the less inclined” scholars “will be to distort these authors’ work” (3). In keeping with this approach, Thormählen lambastes the current burgeoning myth that Charlotte “concocted misleading images of her sisters and their work for selfish purposes” (3); instead, says Thormählen, Charlotte’s “indomitable courage” and “dogged ambition” (4) should be recognized as ultimately initiating the sisters into literary fame, an approach I heartily endorse.
Important to the overall tone and trajectory of this substantive addition to the field is Thormählen’s assertion that “Another misleading notion which has attained semi-mythical status” is the “belief, often encountered in popular writing on the Brontës, that the works of the Brontë sisters are expressions of a rebellious attitude to Victorian values” (4). In her own chapter on “Marriage and family life,” Thormählen continues this theme, noting that in many ways the Brontës were more typical than unique. If it is important for scholars to decide if the Brontës were rebellious or not, I must admit that in my own scholarship I am of the devil’s party. Thus, I wonder if shifting the sisters out of the mythic and into the forensic may, in fact, lead to a less accurate account. Perhaps it is my expectation that anything Brontëan (even an encyclopedia devoted to them) will pulse with excess, passion, and rebellion that renders the tone of this tome so tame—so, well, dry-as-dust.
Indeed, small forensic details may lead us to the spectacular, the passionate, and the rebellious. To wit, in Ann Dinsdale’s section on domestic life in the Parsonage we are told that Patrick interdicted drapes from adorning the parsonage windows until 1850, when the flush author Charlotte added “crimson-coloured curtains” (20) to the dining room windows. We might miss something important if we do not make some kind of connection between this less than mythic historical anecdote and Jane Eyre’s literal interior state in the stifling Red Room with its crimson curtains—surely this detail suggests Charlotte’s interior design solution to her own often-agonizing internal emotional state after her siblings died.
Such connections to the passionate, unruly aspects of the fiction are unevenly made in this otherwise lush, informative compendium. It is the chapters and authors focusing on the rebellion and uniqueness that capture the sheer vitality of the Brontës’ voices, characters, and themes—their very timeliness and materiality. Likewise, it is the chapters that view the meaning of the Brontës as still in flux, still productive of anxiety, still contradictory—maddeningly staid and brilliantly defiant—that live.
Stephen Prickett’s dynamic discussion about the philosophical-intellectual context is exemplary. In a meta-textual move, he asks what the “weasel[ly]” term “context” means, wondering if it is “that in which authors believed themselves to be writing, or is it rather that which we now, with benefit of hindsight, attribute to them?” (224). He goes on to suggest that since England was probably “the world’s first pluralistic society, it would take two or three generations before social and intellectual commentators were able to grasp that diversity and polarization were thenceforth an integral part of any British society” (224). As Prickett explains Owen Barfield, this context of diversity and polarization allows for the historical “long process of individuation” to reach “fruition” (228) in the Romantic poets and the Brontës. For example: Jane Eyre’s self-examination, “Who in the world cares for you?” Earthshaking Brontëan response: “I care for myself.” Prickett then refers to Walter Davis’s statement that “[i]nwardness develops not by escaping or resolving but by deepening the conflicts that define it” (229; emphasis in original)—and that is the breathtaking matter of a Brontë novel.
Similarly, Simon Avery’s overview of the Brontës and politics begins with the assertion that this family “lived through some of the most politically volatile decades of modern history, and traces of those turbulent times are everywhere in their writings” (261). Arguing that Emily “sought to write a new poetry of radical political theory and war” (263), Avery finds that the focus in Emily’s poems on “the right to a voice and resistance to identities associated with imposed social roles” (263) makes her work “highly political” (263). Pulling no punches, Avery concludes that “as political fervor . . . bubbled in Europe” (264), the three sisters “shook the very foundations” (264) of Victorian society by “framing, through angry and frustrated individuals, dysfunctional families and in-fighting communities, a vision of the wider world on the brink of political revolution” (264). No wonder Dante Gabriel Rossetti stated that Wuthering Heights was “‘laid in Hell’”—it is a tale of revolution. And no wonder Mary Taylor said that the Brontës were “‘furious politicians’” (265, 267).
Elizabeth Langland’s analyses of class is also invigorating, recognizing as it does that Patrick and the children were impelled by the “enormous fluidity in class status that was transforming Britain” (296)—“the harsh realities of social-class expectations” (302) made up the “strictures under which the genius of the three gifted sisters had to emerge” (302). Jill Matus frankly investigates the Brontës’ relatively extensive sexual knowledge (which so many critics complained was “‘coarse’” (330)) and concludes that, “Voracious reading appetites account in part for the Brontë sisters’ knowledge of sexuality” (331). For example, growing up during the decadent Regency period, they read Thomas Moore’s Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (1830), which included anecdotes about “rakes, debauchery and scandals” (331). Forensically minded and attuned to the mythic, Matus notes that the Brontës were fascinated by the “interrelations” of “sex and power,” putting them under “keen scrutiny” in their novels (332).
Thormählen’s own chapter belies her sturdy attempts to break down the myths. Indeed, after suggesting that the children had a relatively normal, typical childhood, she states that considering their typical upbringing, “It is the more noteworthy that so much of the Brontës’ fiction is set in unhappy, sometimes hellish, homes” (312). Despite the recuperation of Patrick’s skills as a father, and the arguments that the children may not have been as neglected as we think, there is still something to be said about why the children created fantasy worlds no one else could enter and which threatened to overwhelm the “typical” real world they inhabited (311). Passion and rebelliousness were typical for the children. And, after all, some myths are true.
Chair of the English Department at the University of New Mexico, Professor Gail Turley Houston publishes on Dickens, Victorian women writers, and the Gothic. Her books include Victorian Women Writers, Radical Grandmothers and the Gendering of God (2013); From Dickens to Dracula: Economics, Gothic, and Victorian Fiction (2005); Royalties: The Queen and Victorian Writers (1999); and Consuming Fictions: Gender, Class, and Hunger in Dickens’s Novels (1994). She also published “‘Pray don’t forget me my sweet little thing’: Charlotte Brontë’s Relationship with Ann Cook” in Brontë Studies in 2011.