Building a Library

The Brontës

In 1905, Henry James complained that a "beguiled infatuation" with the lives of the Brontë sisters made critical analysis of their work virtually impossible. The obsession with their biography, he wrote, "covers and supplants their matter, their spirit, their style, their talent". A century later, that still holds true. The Brontës' "matter" is still obscured. I have male friends who have never read those three great works, Jane Eyre, Villette, and Wuthering Heights. Even bookish women friends can be hesitant: they'll confess to a passion for the novels as adolescents, but they regard re-reading them as a form of regression. The Brontë myth is to blame. So my first plea would be: re-read the novels in the order they were written, yes, even The Professor. All seven inter-relate, cross-refer, react and respond to each other.

Next, biographies: there are countless numbers of them, some hagiography, some demented, and many plodding; I would restrict the list severely. The first, Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, is the book that launched a thousand myths.

The Bronte Sisters

Among modern works, Rebecca Fraser's Charlotte Brontë and Lyndall Gordon's Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life are both well researched and written. They have superseded Winifred Gérin's three separate biographies of the sisters, though Gérin still repays reading, especially on the subject of Anne Brontë. Biographies of Emily are problematic: the sphinx of English literature left few records of her life. This has not prevented biographers from inventing and extrapolating: an exception is Stevie Davies's superb Emily Brontë: Heretic - its analysis of Wuthering Heights is unrivalled. Finally, Juliet Barker's massive The Brontës is an indispensable work of reference.

Among a million critical studies, Terry Eagleton's Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës is fiery and thought provoking. Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth (2001), a witty, erudite history of the Brontë literary industry, is an excellent antidote to past and present critical idiocies. The sections on the Brontës in Gilbert and Gubar's The Mad Woman in the Attic and in Elaine Showalter's A Literarture of their Own reclaim the novels in the light of feminist criticism, and are essential. Earlier studies, especially Fannie E Ratchford's The Brontës' Web of Childhood, the first examination of Angria and Gondal, and C.P. Sanger's ground-breaking The Structure of 'Wuthering Heights', remain relevant and interesting.

Finally, The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, edited by Margaret Smith. These three definitive volumes are a work of profound scholarship. They are wondrous. They lay bare a writer's psychopathology. Angry, conflicted, jealous, unstable, Charlotte Brontë can be monstrous - especially when tinkering with the posthumous reputations of her sisters. But she writes prose of the highest intellectual order: contentious, deeply moving, it reveals heartbreak, and an indomitable spirit.

Sally Beauman

The Independent On Sunday, 20.2.05