Thursday 3 May 2018

More on the April 21st talks - Lucasta Miller

Before she spoke to the Brussels Brontë Group on April 21, Lucasta Miller visited the Cathédrale Saint-Michel et Sainte-Gudule. It was her first trip to Belgium and she wanted to see where Charlotte Brontë made her dramatic confession to a Catholic priest during the distraught summer of 1843 – an incident she related to her sister Emily in a letter and later fictionalized in her last novel, Villette.*

Legend has it that Charlotte used the second confessional on the left, though we don’t know for sure. Lucasta reported that the confessionals are ``quite intimidating -- huge, dark wood carved with vast angels,’’ adding that she ``almost felt anarchic enough’’ to move the security rope and go inside. ``But I didn’t quite dare. I don’t know – if I was Emily, maybe I might have done,’’ she said.

``I didn’t quite dare. I don’t know – if I was Emily, maybe I might have done.’’

Lucasta, author of The Brontë Myth, came to talk to us about the mythology that has surrounded the Brontë family virtually since the sisters’ ground-breaking works were first published more than 150 years ago – with a special focus on Emily since this year we are celebrating her bicentenary. Not only have the Brontës’ novels ``broken loose from the original books’’, but the history of their lives ``has become a story like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and that too has been culturally disseminated’’ far and wide, she said. She pointed to an observation by Henry James, who felt that the public’s fascination with the Brontës’ lives was getting in the way of literary criticism of their works. Lucasta herself mixed up fiction and biography later in her talk, referring to ``Emily’s diary’’ in Wuthering Heights, but she quickly realized her ``Brontë-maniac Freudian slip’’.

This mythologizing of the Brontës’ lives means that even things that are factually true can take on the aura of myth. It’s perfectly true that there were three literary Brontë sisters, but when the poet Ted Hughes calls them the ``three weird sisters’’, he makes them mythic characters by turning them into the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lucasta said. His characterization taps into misogynistic conceptions about scary women and female creativity as a form of sorcery.  ``Scary women’’ is in fact the way some Victorian critics imagined the Brontës even before they knew for sure who they were, she said.

Of all the Brontës, Emily has been the most mythologized, Lucasta said. This is partly out of necessity, since there is so little material remaining from Emily’s life – most of having been lost or destroyed. Whereas there are three volumes of Charlotte’s letters and the vast bulk of her juvenilia, there remain only a few short letters by Emily and none of the Gondal prose from her childhood. All we have to go on are those brief letters, a couple Latin translations, a few sketches, four short diary papers and the French essays that she wrote for her teacher here in Brussels. No wonder Lucasta called her one of the most intractable subjects in all of English literature. ``There really isn’t another canonical nineteenth-century writer about whom we know less than Emily,’’ she said.

Perhaps because of this, Emily is frequently portrayed ``not really as a writer, but as a force of nature, or in fact a freak of nature,’’ Lucasta said. But she stressed that ``even the most eccentric interpretations of Emily have something to tell us about the lure of Emily Brontë.’’

That lure brought Lucasta to the story of Cathy and Heathcliff as a teenager.

``I remember I was shocked – shocked, baffled, confused – when I first read Wuthering Heights when I was maybe 13, because it wasn’t really what I was anticipating,’’ Lucasta said. ``Emily’s spare, muscular prose and amoral outlook are a shock to anyone who would prefer a sentimental love story.‘’

Lucasta proceeded to give a fascinating analysis of Wuthering Heights compared with Jane Eyre and their authors. While Charlotte was extremely ambitious to become a famous writer, Emily never sought public acclaim – she resisted the publication of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell and the disclosure of Ellis Bell’s true identity.

In their novels, ``Emily’s prose is qualitatively different from either of her sisters’ writing,’’ Lucasta said. ``She’s much less wordy than Charlotte and she certainly never addresses her reader on intimate terms.’’ Charlotte is ``the most powerful first-person fiction writer in the English language,’’ while in Wuthering Heights, with its complicated structure and multiple narrators, ``everything is always held at a distance. Emily doesn't inhabit any particular character,’’ she said.

Whereas ``Reader, I married him’’ emphasizes the narrator’s identity in Jane Eyre, the most famous line in Emily’s novel does the opposite. ``When Cathy says `I am Heathcliff’ – that also undermines the very sense of individual identity,’’ Lucasta said. ``Charlotte’s sense of her embattled individuality is so crucial’’ to her life and her art, she said. ``But Emily is not like that at all.’’ It is a ``sense of non-self’’ that comes out of the Emily fragments that remain, she said.

The first biography of Emily wasn’t written until the 1880s, by which time a lot of material about her life had disappeared. That lack of information has challenged biographers ever since.

``The thing about Emily is that however much you try to demythologize her, she just remains this uncanny, enigmatic creature,’’ Lucasta said. ``She’s sort of forever out of reach, like the ghost of Cathy.’’


*Claire Harman, who spoke to our group in 2015, used this incident as the opening scene in her biography of Charlotte Brontë.

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