Let’s return again in memory to Haworth, that isolated parsonage on the edge of the moors where the Bronte sisters lived their short and troubled lives.
It’s the 1840s; the weather is always bad. The father, Patrick, stays in his study most of the time, taking his meals alone. His wife is dead, and has been for a long time. Two of the older Bronte sisters are already in their graves. Four children grow up in this bleak place, subsisting on depression, tantrums and thin gruel.
Because, besides Charlotte (“Jane Eyre”) Bronte and Emily (“Wuthering Heights”) Bronte, there was also Anne, the youngest, who wrote “Agnes Grey” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” And a son--the favorite, naturally.
Branwell Bronte was set to be an artist, destined for great things, except that he never even registered in art school and ended up the town disgrace, living on laudanum and gin, and enlivening nights at the parsonage by setting his bed on fire, threatening suicide, and holding his pistol to his suffering father’s head.
Pause as you read this. Look up from the paper. Wherever you are, no matter how harassed and put-upon you feel, no matter how grim and unfeeling the people you live with, you’re better off than those Brontes. Taken as a whole, they were madder than a March Hare convention.
Katherine Frank, in explaining why she has undertaken a new biography--"A Chainless Soul"--of somebody already so well known, suggests that it has been 20 years since Emily Bronte’s life story was last written and that she offers a new interpretation of Emily’s behavior and even her death: Emily was anorexic, a hunger-artist, and in the end, she starved herself to death.
Now pause again. What’s the proper position of theory in biography? Surely it deserves to be there, especially in the retelling of a life so “thin” on facts.
These women, remember, grew up in that isolated parsonage. Their only trips were to boarding schools. The only profession open to them was governess. Their only journey abroad was to Brussels, where they labored in another school. Their lives were thwarted. In short, nothing happened to them except in a space of two or three years when their books came out.
What really “happened” to them was what they made up themselves. (Thus, the tantrums, the grudges, the pouts, the scenes, don’t require any external props. One little lady in one little room can make her own life excruciatingly miserable and take other people along with her, without the external aid of war, famine, fame or its loss.)
Katherine Frank adds the “fact” of anorexia nervosa to what we think we know about these people. But Frank, in a curious displacement, talks from the theory of “feminism.” Isn’t it ironic and peculiar, she asks at one point, that Branwell, bum that he was, made more money than his sisters ever could by teaching? Isn’t it ironic that despite their fame at the end, the sisters were still stuck with cooking and cleaning?
But the theory that might be most interestingly applied here is the material pertaining to anorexia nervosa, which is widely perceived to be a family disease. That is, if you “cure” a girl who is starving herself in a family, the dad may very well keel over and die, the mother go crazy, the brother break out in hives.
Reading the story of the Brontes once again, the reader is struck by their “modernity.” Branwell, the impossible drug addict. Emily, who--"Wuthering Heights” or not--stopped speaking and eating for months on end when she couldn’t get her way.
Charlotte, who chafed at her bonds and fell in love with a man who didn’t love her, and who by her own incredibly strong will engineered the short, amazing literary careers of all three sisters.
To say Emily didn’t “like” public life puts it mildly. She stopped eating and speaking, and died at the age of 30. The author calls Emily’s life an example of “amazing autonomy.” Well, you could call it that.
The space here is too short to examine all the neuroses of the Bronte Family.
But for readers who may ask, “How could those virginal sisters know so much about love?” the answer is: They probably didn’t.
They did know about sordid scenes and masculine tantrums and feminine sulks, and tension headaches and cruel silences that lasted for months and ended in death.
The really strange questions are:
Why did the English public fall in love with these novels in such a big way? Why is cruelty so much more fun than kindness? Why do men who act like Branwell so engage our imaginations? Why do we, as humans, love sulks and tantrums? Why does the author call Emily a “chainless soul,” when, by the facts here, her favorite pastime was jerking everybody else’s chain?
Where’s the theory to give meaning to this houseful of genius--and squalor?
Next: William J. Schull reviews “A Path Where No Man Thought” by Carl Sagan and Richard Turco (Random House Inc.).