Marianne Thormählen, ed. The Brontës in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-521-76186-4. Price: US$110.00/£65.00.[Record]

  • Gail Turley Houston

…more information

  • Gail Turley Houston
    University of New Mexico

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 …