From Publishers Weekly
Even in their lifetimes, the Bronte sistersCharlotte, Emily and Annewere remarkable figures whose literary reputations were often shrouded in a web of myth and lies that to some degree still endures. In this volume, Miller, a literary critic and former deputy literary editor of The Independent, presents a markedly intelligent "metabiography" that sorts through these half-truths to give a fresh, original portrait of three exceptional writers. Celebrated by some of their 19th century readers as literary heroes and castigated by others as reckless and immoral, the Brontes defied conventions even as they tried to live within them: "revolutionizing the imaginative presentation of womens inner lives" even as they cultivated the social persona of "the modest spinster daughter." Miller traces the trajectory of their careers, particularly Charlottes, from their childhood games to the stunning success of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Drawing on a wealth of letters and scholarly works, Miller succeeds in carefully revealing how the rumors that portrayed the Brontes as gothic creatures, saints and martyrs became more important than the womens novels, "covering and supplanting," as Henry James said, "their matter, their spirit, their style, their talent, their taste." Miller touches on everyone from Elizabeth Gaskell, whose famous Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857) "marked the birth of the Brontes as cultural icons," to Ted Hughes, and thus illuminates not only the lives of the sisters, but the significance and import of their work. Ultimately, such literary reclamation is what Miller is after: to clear up the clutter of history, to bring to light the genius and artistry of the novels and to let the Brontes speak for themselves.
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Although a collaborative first book of poems sold only two copies, the Brontë sisters were in their own time subject to the kind of cult fascination that persists today, with thousands of pilgrims journeying every year to the Brontë home, in Yorkshire. Miller's ingenious book traces this fascination, beginning with Mrs. Gaskell's famous 1857 biography, which sought to excuse the "coarseness" of novels like "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" by embellishing details of the authors' gothically miserable childhood. Miller provides a corrective—a biography of a biography—showing how successive generations, including Stracheyan, Freudian, feminist, and poststructural critics, remolded the Brontës to fit their own agendas. Like Mrs. Gaskell's, these treatments often focussed more on the authors' lives than on their work, in spite of Charlotte's plea: "I wished critics would judge me as an author, not as a woman."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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