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Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
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A-BronteMythWere the Brontë sisters domestic saints wandering desolate moors, or creative individuals fully conscious of their literary impact and reputation? According to Miller, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, who both met and defied social expectations, cultivated personas about their tragic and "lonely moorland lives" to distract society from their scandalous novels. Others, including Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, quickly transformed the sisters from wild romantics into cultural icons (and proper women) during their short lifetimes. Over the next two centuries, more "apocryphal stories and fantastical claims" shifted the Brontës’ lives and work from the "level of history onto that of myth." Here, Miller reclaims that history.
Knopf. 351 pages. $26.95.

NY Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Although the book is heavily indebted to recent Brontë scholarship (most notably Lyndall Gordon’s superb 1994 biography Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life), Ms. Miller writes with such lucidity, wit and plain common sense that she is able to shed new light on the Brontës and the Brontë industry, while at the same time raising important questions about changing fashions in biography writing and academic scholarship." Michiko Kakutani

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"There is little to find fault with in The Brontë Myth, except perhaps for its failure to bring the ghostly Anne out of the mists so as to give her the benefit of its respectful but vastly amused scrutiny." Daphne Merkin

Orlando Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"…Miller explodes myths couched as facts and illustrates the importance of conducting such literary autopsies on historical figures. … And, like Eminent Victorians, The Brontë Myth will survive as a landmark book." L. Elisabeth Beattie

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Her concern is not so much the oft-disputed facts of the Brontës’ lives … as the way subsequent generations of readers, biographers and critics have used the work and life of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë … to justify and refract their own gender biases and cultural presumptions." Dana Stevens

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In her zeal to scrape away the accumulated varnish that has overlain the lives and writings of the Brontë sisters, Miller at times gets carried away and makes extravagant claims. … Nevertheless, Miller’s book is an important and much-needed corrective to many of the suppositions, prejudices, fanciful interpretations and downright inaccuracies that have often obliterated the real achievements of the real Brontës." Earl L. Dachslager

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although it’s difficult at times to understand Miller’s perspective because of her academic language and tendency to overwrite, she presents a sympathetic picture of the sisters, believing they were inspired by their reading, especially of poets like Scott, Byron and Coleridge." Diane Scharper

Critical Summary

Miller, a British literary critic, has cracked the Brontë cottage industry. In tracing depictions of the sisters from Victorian writers to modern-day Hollywood producers, this impressive "metabiography" shows how the Brontë personas evolved as our own cultural values changed (including, of course, sexual mores). Some academic jargon notwithstanding, Miller writes with humor, sympathy, and clarity. A few minor complaints? She ignores the sisters’ Juvenalia, and never fully awakens Anne from the dead. But despite overall praise, critics remain divided on the most important question of all. Will The Brontë Myth change our long-held myths about the sisters—or will, as the Houston Chronicle asks, "the legendary Brontë sisters … remain exactly that—legendary"?

Supplementary Reading

A-CharlotteBronte.epsCharlotte Bronte A Passionate Life | Lyndall Gordon (1994): Charlotte from a modern, feminist perspective. "Gordon’s insights into the correspondence and the fiction uncover a more complex Bronte than we have ever met." New Yorker

A-EminentVictorians.epsEminent Victorians | Lytton Strachey (1918): Cited by the Orlando Sentinel, this landmark biographical work chronicled the lives of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, General Charles Gordon, and Rugby headmaster Thomas Arnold without the air of adulation and hagiography that was the norm for life histories to that point. Picture a highbrow Kitty Kelly.