When I was in my late teens and early twenties I became obsessed with the Brontës. I read any and all opinionated book I could read on their lives. Of course my favorite Brontë was Emily. And the books slanted from Emily to Charlotte depending on the author’s preference.
Emily wrote poetry and a handful I find brilliant and of course she wrote the masterpiece Wurthering Heights. She was reclusive and had a great love for animals and her life at home. She shied away from polite society or any society at all. I related to her most of the three. It seems fitting that one of her only surviving drawings is of the hermit St. Simeon Stylites. Emily thrived on solitude and if she brooded it was when she was forced from her happy cocoon.
It’s easy to love Emily, she is often sainted and was played by the glorious Ida Lupino in the highly fictionalized movie Devotion. One of the last things she was able to do four days before she died was to feed and walk her favorite pet Keeper. Keeper was a pallbearer at her funeral, walking along the impossibly narrow casket which measured seventeen inches across. She still makes literary snobs, especially of the male gender, furious for writing Wurthering Heights. They still argue that poor bedeviled Branwell wrote it though he was deteriorated in mind and body from his alcoholism and opium addiction. You have to love the thorn in the side Emily was and remains to be. And the claim of her theft of Branwell’s writing as her own is all the more illogical because she demanded anonymity as a writer. Why bother stealing someone’s writing then?
Branwell Brontë was the only son and the great hope of the family While talented in several areas his addictions won out against any hope of success. Near the end of his life he slept with his aged father because his fits, possibly in part from epilepsy, were so violent and his nightmares so disturbing he need restraining and consolation. His writing at the time was far from stellar and he felt most profoundly the loss of his potential. No one knows why he painted over his image but he erased himself from the portrait he painted of himself and his sisters. A symbolic act of self-destruction? The visual of the distance between him and his sisters is a sad one.
Charlotte was the last of the children to survive but an early death came to her as well at 38. She did get a good taste of the fame she craved and got to enjoy married life for a brief time. Charlotte proved to be a cruel editor to her sister’s writings. She revised, amended and added to both Anne’s and Emily’s poems after their deaths and practically buried Anne’s work altogether. Not a hard thing to accomplish as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall dealt the lack of women’s rights in a marriage. An inflammatory issue to the powers of that time. Perhaps her insecurities fueled her criticism of her sisters and even Jane Austen writings. I do know I love her painting of Anne’s puppy Flossy, a gift from Anne’s charges as a governess, the Robinson children. I love it much, much more than the book Jane Eyre even with visualizing the wonderfully hammy Orson Wells as Mr. Rochester.
After Charlotte’s death her husband, Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, destroyed one of Branwell’s paintings because he didn’t like Charlotte’s likeness in it. He did, however, preserve a fragment of his sister-in-law Emily for unknown reasons.
The great thing about them as figures of literary history is the mystery. ( Did we really need to know all of that about Victor Hugo?) They wrote of everyday life without in-depth exploration of motives and emotions. They left more shadowy questions than definitive answers. With all the blanks to fill in we can make them as ordinary or romantic as we wish. The paintings reveal what is known, the real earthiness of Keeper tells us the artist is someone in love with the truth and beauty of nature. The romantic sweetness of Flossy seems to speak of the dreamy nature of Charlotte’s that same inclination seemed to be a source of Gothic themes and at times self-delusion. So in the end we are known in puppies and kittens and all we love and immortalize in our words and work. Judged alone by love as St. John of the Cross says. If so, none of the Brontës were any more or less than human. Well just an awfully lot more talented than the rest of us and blessed with lovely puppies. Arf!