The Brontes were a very private family, admitting only a handful of friends into their inner circle, and they had chosen pseudonyms to preserve that privacy. “What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible?” Charlotte remarked to her publisher. “One is thereby enabled to keep a quiet mind.” (Brontës, 546) But when Mrs. Gaskell’s famous biography of Charlotte Bronte appeared in 1857, the three sisters lost their privacy forever. Today, their humble home in Haworth is one of the most visited literary shrines in the world. (Ghnassia, xi)
When a family about whom very little is known suddenly becomes famous, every scrap of information assumes tremendous significance. A casual rumor becomes fact. A single portrait becomes the only record of someone’s features. A single impression recorded in a diary becomes the way the person must have behaved for decades. Imagine how distorted the picture of our lives would be if one stranger’s impression of us during one family visit became the basis for understanding our entire family dynamic: Engage in a rare, inconsequential quarrel on that day, and we go down in history as quarrelsome. Feel a bit under the weather, and we go down in history as quiet or puny.
But in the case of the Brontes, quite a bit of the distortion was not accidental but deliberate. They wrote in Victorian England. Their writings were controversial. Their earliest admirers did not hesitate to misread the few facts they had gathered in order to “protect” the three sisters’ reputations, and scholars have found their own reasons for doing so since. Emily Bronte, the most private of the three, about whom almost nothing is known, has received the lion’s share of the Bronte mythmaking.
Charlotte Bronte herself began this mythmaking after Emily’s death.
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