How Brontë came to be a brand of biscuit

The lives of literature's most famous sisters have been mythologised in books, films and souvenirs. Lucasta Miller on the origins of a legend
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The Independent Culture

The first time I went to Haworth, as a student, I couldn't help feeling mildly disappointed. The way up Main Street was as steep as I had imagined, but it was lined with souvenir shops which gave the bleak Yorkshire village the incongruous feel of some Catholic pilgrimage site. Yet it wasn't just that the place seemed disfigured by commercialism. Despite everything I had read about the Brontës, I realised I had had over-romantic expectations of the parsonage where they had lived, somehow supposing it to have been more isolated amid the windswept moors than it in fact was. Even in the Brontës' day, it had been mere seconds from the nearest pub and post office, and although the moors behind had a suitably wuthering wildness, the landscape down towards Keighley had been dotted with factory chimneys. I began to wonder where my misconceptions had originally sprung from and, years later, tried to puzzle out how it was that the Brontës had spawned such an intense personality cult, and why their popular image was

The first time I went to Haworth, as a student, I couldn't help feeling mildly disappointed. The way up Main Street was as steep as I had imagined, but it was lined with souvenir shops which gave the bleak Yorkshire village the incongruous feel of some Catholic pilgrimage site. Yet it wasn't just that the place seemed disfigured by commercialism. Despite everything I had read about the Brontës, I realised I had had over-romantic expectations of the parsonage where they had lived, somehow supposing it to have been more isolated amid the windswept moors than it in fact was. Even in the Brontës' day, it had been mere seconds from the nearest pub and post office, and although the moors behind had a suitably wuthering wildness, the landscape down towards Keighley had been dotted with factory chimneys. I began to wonder where my misconceptions had originally sprung from and, years later, tried to puzzle out how it was that the Brontës had spawned such an intense personality cult, and why their popular image was so frequently a distortion of reality.

I soon discovered that the walk up Main Street was not so culturally "innocent" as I had assumed - that no pilgrim could trudge up those cobbles without taking part, consciously or not, in the mythopoeia which has evolved around the "three weird sisters" (as Ted Hughes called them). The journey to the parsonage - which the Brontë family first made when they arrived in Haworth in 1820 - has become the standard opening for Brontë biographies. Like one of the narrative building blocks of a folk tale, it has been used and reused by the generations of writers who have been drawn, again and again, to retell the Brontë story and shift it from the level of history to that of myth.

The image of Haworth was originally given shape by the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, whose famous Life of Charlotte Brontë came out in 1857, only two years after her subject's death. Yet when she wrote her first description of the parsonage, back in 1850, she had not yet been to see the village for herself. Having met Charlotte at a house party in the Lake District, she was fascinated by any gossip she could unearth, and transformed what she picked up about the village into a romantic set-piece description which she repeated in letters to friends. The device of opening a story with a bird's eye view of a place before homing in on the protagonists was a literary trick of hers. When she used it in her Life, as a way of drawing the reader into her imaginatively reconstructed version of Haworth, she inevitably set the village on the way to becoming a shrine.

The biography sparked an immediate influx of visitors who found Brontë souvenirs on sale even then (in 1861, one pilgrim wrote home on note-paper printed with a picture of the parsonage). Yet some were as disappointed by the large town as I was more than a century later. Gaskell had exaggerated the wildness of the area. A busy industrial township had been made to seem like a far-flung outpost on the fringes of civilisation inhabited by a breed of brutal illiterates, bloodthirsty and sexually corrupt. But if she had over-played the cultural isolation of Haworth, it was because the Life was written with a very particular public relations purpose in mind. At the time of her premature death, Charlotte's work was not merely famous but notorious. Though admired by some for their literary brilliance, the Brontë novels had developed a reputation for "coarseness" and improper passion which had intensified when critics began to suspect that the authors - who had published under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell - were in fact women. Even after Charlotte dropped her disguise and became a celebrity, her literary reputation remained morally dubious, despite her attempts to appear as meek and ladylike as possible whenever she appeared in public.

As a novelist herself, Gaskell was keen to promote the image of women writers and she was determined to secure public forgiveness for the author of the shocking book Jane Eyre. Her method was to make Charlotte's life seem as miserable as possible. The coarseness of her work could thus be explained away as the tragic side-effect of having been brought up in an isolated social environment deprived of civilised values, and as a morbid response to the sufferings she had endured.

Instead of celebrating the artistry of Jane Eyre or Villette, and the extraordinary - even arrogant - ambition which had impelled Charlotte to seek literary success, Gaskell wanted to distract attention from them. She did this by focusing on personal sorrows - not just the appalling bereavements Charlotte had endured, but the sexual misdemeanours of her alcoholic brother (which could excuse the knowledge of "vice" which had made his sisters' books so shocking), and the alleged violence and eccentricity of her father (a fantasy based on the spiteful gossip of a sacked servant which, once in the public arena, reemerged time and again in derivative biographies).

The Charlotte Gaskell created became an icon of suffering femininity, a household goddess peeling potatoes for the myopic old servant and embracing martyrdom in a spirit of virtuous self-denial. Lesser writers immediately picked up on this aspect of Gaskell's vision and simplified it further. Charlotte - who had in fact written passionately about women's need for wider intellectual and emotional fulfilment - began to appear as a role model in educational works for girls which taught that a woman's place was in the home (the olde worlde tea-towels and miniature warming-pans on sale in Haworth today are the bastard descendents of this domestic image). Even late Victorian feminists felt squeamish about the eroticism of the Brontë novels and idealised Charlotte and Emily as spiritual beings.

Charlotte in particular had become a secular saint, appearing to spiritualists in seances, and prompting a huge demand for relics. One admirer claimed she would be the happiest girl in America if only she could have the finger of an old glove once worn by Charlotte; another Haworth visitor rejoiced in getting possession of something rather bulkier: the whole lower sash of Charlotte's bedroom window.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Henry James was complaining that the Brontë story had become a "beguiled infatuation". The result, he felt, was that the literary value of the novels had been obscured. He would not have had much comfort had he known what excesses of fantasising and misrepresentation the sisters would yet have to endure. As Victorian prudery gave way to more modern obsessions, the sisters were repackaged by psychobiographers as a sex-starved hysteric (Charlotte) and a probable lesbian (Emily). The Brontë story was retold as fiction in melodramatic plays which had Branwell storming the stage with a pistol and Emily going into paranormal trances. In the Thirties and Forties, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were reinterpreted by Hollywood and were soon followed by a film of the Brontë story, Devotion, starring Olivia de Havilland as Charlotte and Ida Lupino as Emily, which reached new levels of travesty. Charlotte's Belgian teacher, Constantin Heger, became a lecherous French roué who took her to the local funfair to teach her a thing or two in the tunnel of love, while Emily, bizarrely, died of love for Arthur Nicholls, the curate who in real life married Charlotte, and was eventually taken off to the next world by a misty man on a large black horse.

Beginning in the Sixties and influenced both by feminism and a new historicism, the Brontës did, however, begin to attract more accurate biographers. In the last decade or so a new standard of scholarship has been set. Writers such as Lyndall Gordon, Juliet Barker, and the recent editor of Charlotte's correspondence Margaret Smith, have tried to recover the true cultural context in which the sisters wrote. When the 20-year-old Charlotte Brontë affirmed her ambition to be "for ever known", she imagined her name on the covers of books, not on biscuit packets. As long as we remain in thrall to the sentimental excesses of Brontëmania it will be hard to read the Brontë novels with the seriousness they deserve.

' The Brontë Myth', by Lucasta Miller, (Cape) is published on 18 January

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