The Oxford Companion to the Brontës ed Christine Alexander & Margaret Smith

The perfect uterine sentence
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The Independent Culture

Last year's countdown of that TV abomination, BBC2's The Big Read, demonstrated that the Brontës retain their place in the nation's affections. Riding in at number 10 with Jane Eyre, Charlotte was the only 19th-century novelist apart from Jane Austen to make it into the upper reaches of the poll, while Emily's Wuthering Heights followed, close on its heels, at number 12 (despite a television adaptation in 1996 of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and various reassessments, Anne Brontë continues to be relegated to the literary equivalent of the back pantry).

Whether or not Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights actually continue to be read by large numbers, rather than sampled in film or TV versions, there is no doubting their continuing presence in our popular culture. Jane Eyre's influence as a romantic paradigm comes in all shapes and sizes, from Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca to The Sound of Music, while Emily's Heathcliff sticks immovably in the mind in the guise of Laurence Olivier or the refrain of Kate Bush's headache-inducing song.

The appearance of an Oxford Companion to the family's lives and works would seem then like sound commercial sense, were it not for that fact that OUP have shot themselves in the foot by pricing their modestly sized volume at a prohibitive £60. Written in large part by two esteemed Brontë scholars, Christine Alexander, the editor of Charlotte's juvenilia, and Margaret Smith, a veteran Brontë editor, most recently of Charlotte's letters, this book is both more serious and more inclusive than its competitors in the field, the rival Cambridge Companion, made up of a set of rather lacklustre essays, or Facts on File's The Brontës A to Z, which describes itself, a bit vaingloriously, as an essential reference guide. The Oxford Companion has entries on real-life and fictional characters, long feature essays on the contemporary reception of the novels and modern critical attitudes to them, on the state of Brontë biography, both before and after 1940, as well as articles on such background subjects as phrenology, theatre adaptations, and health and medicine.

Much of this, drawing on the huge secondary literature of recent years (it's estimated that since the Second World War the number of books and articles about the Brontës has doubled every decade), provides the basis for a very useful reference work. But something about the Companion's tone, occasional po-facedness, and even its price, serves as a reminder of the polar divide that has existed for decades between Brontë groupies, traditionally personified by the larger proportion of the membership of the Brontë Society, and members of the academic community whose stringent regard for scholarly standards has unquestionably contributed to our greater understanding of the family, taking their reputations out of lavender, finally and definitively.

It's worth remembering, though, that the academy came rather late to its appreciation of the Brontës, and that most of the spadework investigation - to say nothing of the accumulation of precious manuscripts - was done by enthusiasts, many of them making up for their lack of formal education with an overwhelming devotion to anything connected with the family. Just over a century ago, Mrs Humphry Ward gave the novels a varnish of critical respectability in her introductions to the Haworth edition where she asserted that Emily's genius was greater than Charlotte's. However, the rise of literary criticism in the universities did not bring with it the speedy admission of the Brontë novels into the canon. Far from it. F R Leavis sniffed patronisingly at Charlotte's works, merely stating that she had done something "interesting" with her personal experience, and he was obviously at a loss as to know how to begin to treat Wuthering Heights.

Alexander and Smith provide a breakdown of the diverse schools of critical theory that have tackled the Brontës - including a famous, and very productive, Marxist reading of the novels by Terry Eagleton - although they note that it was only with the arrival of feminist criticism that the Brontës' stock really began to rise. Anyone wanting to read a deliciously wry satire on Brontë academics should turn to Stevie Davies's 1996 novel, Four Dreamers and Emily. Davies includes a scene at a conference that sounds all too believable: "The Reverend Ron Hebblethwaite, the authority on the Reverend Patrick Brontë's Cottage Poems, sat in his dogcollar, sandwiched between two militant feminists from opposing schools of thought, Gillie Deneuve of Princeton, who believed Charlotte wrote the perfect ("uterine") female sentence, and Laurie Morgan of the New University of Chichester, who had deconstructed Wuthering Heights in a manner so brilliant that few could understand it and even fewer could fault it with conviction, though many burned to do so."

Readers of the Oxford Companion, even those well versed in Brontë lore, are bound to find some nugget of information that they were previously lacking. I delight now in knowledge of the Brontës' interest in pugilism: Branwell was a member of the local boxing club, while Charlotte's early writings reflect her brother's enthusiasm for the sport. True Brontë nerds will treasure the short biographies of family pets like Keeper (described by one Haworth inhabitant as "combining every species of English caninity from the turnspit to the sheepdog") and his predecessor Grasper, as well as the balanced accounts of crucial players in the Brontë story like Mrs Robinson (Branwell's Mrs Robinson, a possible cause of his downfall, not Simon and Garfunkel's). An entry on the Brontës' politics to accompany the one on their religion would have been welcome; while the absence of any mention of Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth, one of the more important general books about the Brontës of the last few years, is strange and worrying in a Companion that seeks to be authoritative.