Focus should be on writers' works, not their lives

 

The lives of the Brontë sisters have been fictionalised andsentimentalised over generations. Talk now of a Spielberg biopic fillsLucasta Miller with dread

The response to the recent film Sylvia was marked by some extraordinary invective. Although critics were engaged by the popular retelling of Sylvia Plath's tragic story, they seemed compelled to deride her poetry as adolescent and overrated.

Similarly, every filmgoer and memoir addict now knows about Iris Murdoch's Alzheimer's, but hardly anyone will confess to having read her novels. An obsession with writers' lives - perhaps particularly with female writers' lives - seems inevitably to overwhelm their literary reputations.

This was something that worried Henry James, writing in 1904 on the Brontë sisters. Public obsession with Charlotte and Emily had, he felt, "elbowed out" understanding of their books, causing "the most complete intellectual muddle ... ever achieved, on a literary question, by our wonderful public". Somehow, the Brontës' lonely existence and romantic early deaths had become a far more potent "story" than Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

This "beguiled infatuation" did not occur by accident. It was, in fact, the result of a biographer's calculated attempt to turn the public's attention away from the sisters' novels. The way in which the Brontës' private lives made it into the public domain 150 years ago exemplifies the art of image manipulation at its most sophisticated.

When the Brontë sisters published their first novels in 1847, they hid their true identities under male pseudonyms because they feared reviewers' prejudice against women. This anxiety turned out to have been justified. Jane Eyre may have been an instant bestseller and Wuthering Heights may have been praised for its power and originality, but as soon as it was suspected that the authors were female, a critical backlash ensued.

That reaction intensified after the publication of Anne Brontë's novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, with its portrait of a woman's marriage to an abusive alcoholic. The novels were attacked as "revolting", "unfeminine" and "anti-Christian".

After the deaths of Emily (at 30) and Anne (at 29), Charlotte attempted, as she put it, to "wipe the dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil" by publishing a "biographical notice" in which she disingenuously presented these well-read, knowing novelists as country girls who didn't really know what they were doing when they wrote their books.

Yet it wasn't until after Charlotte's death in 1855 that the clean-up job would be fully effected. In the hands of biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, whose Life of Charlotte Brontë appeared in 1857, the author of Jane Eyre was repackaged for a Victorian readership as a "valiant woman made perfect by sufferings".

Although she was a personal acquaintance of Charlotte's, Gaskell had her own reservations about the morality of the Brontë novels, whose "coarseness" she explained away by forming an exaggerated view of the trials the sisters had endured - untimely death (including their mother's), isolation, a supposedly ferocious father. Explicitly refusing to analyse the works, she concentrated instead on the tragedies, real and imagined, in Charlotte's domestic life. Gaskell was attempting to construct a morally uplifting story so dramatic that it could compete with the impure Brontë novels and win - which indeed, by the time James made his complaint, it had.

Future generations continued to take up Gaskell's highly coloured portrait, spawning a whole genre of fictional Brontë biography.

Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights had by then become staples of popular culture, conventionalised by Hollywood and deprived of their bite. In a more intellectual mode, 20th century psychoanalysts and feminists did the sisters few favours, presenting them as victims of their own neuroses or of patriarchy.

More recently, historical scholarship has made huge strides in recovering the real Brontës. But the urge to fictionalise and sentimentalise their lives remains. There are rumours of another biopic, this one with Steven Spielberg's name attached to it.

Charlotte Brontë wished to be judged as an author, not as a woman. Yet it seems that, whatever feminism may have achieved, souped-up emotional accounts of the life may still have the power to win out over dispassionate intellectual analysis of the work.

Lucasta Miller's The Bronte Myth was recently published in the US.

- (LA Times-Washington Post Service)