Nothing Nice about Them

Terry Eagleton

  • The Brontës: Tales of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal edited by Christine Alexander
    Oxford, 620 pp, £12.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 282763 0

Many authors begin writing in childhood, but that the Brontës did so seems peculiarly apt. There is something childlike about their sensibility, with its merging of fantasy and reality, its mixture of rebelliousness and awe at authority, its blending of submission and self-assertion. Like the Brontës, children can be passionate and impulsive, but they also crave a certain discipline and appreciate the need for order. If they can be anarchic, they can also be brutally authoritarian. They like to know who is in charge, even if it is only to calculate what they can get away with. They can also be violent, and the sisters’ novels are laced with a sometimes murderous aggression. Almost all relationships in their world are power struggles, spiced from time to time with a sadistic delight in making others suffer and a masochistic drive to self-immolation. Charlotte’s Villette is full of such erotic perversities.

Apart from Anne Brontë’s writings, there is nothing moderate or middle of the road about these extremist fictions. They do not fit easily with the mainstream English novel from Austen and Thackeray to George Eliot and Henry James. The Brontës are a long way from the genial, civilised, ironic tones of that tradition. Perhaps this is partly because they were only half English, and their father came from a country whose literature was always more Gothic or Romantic than realist. They are closer in sensibility to the histrionic, hyperbolic Dickens, who took the games he played with his children with alarming seriousness.

The violence set in early with the Brontës. In a fragment by Charlotte reprinted here, the protagonist, irritated by the presence of a grubby urchin in a house to which he has been invited to tea, suddenly seizes a poker and strikes him to the ground, even though the child had merely been standing gormlessly about. ‘The scream that he set up was tremendous, but it only increased my anger. I kicked him several times and dashed his head against the floor, hoping to stun him.’ This kind of thing would pass almost unnoticed by the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. When the child’s horrified family come running in, the hero, anxious to stay in the house a little longer for his own selfish reasons, coolly lies through his teeth, informing them that their ‘sweet little boy’ fell down as they were playing together.

That his wrath springs from a very Charlotte-like contempt for the unwashed hordes around Haworth is confirmed by the provincial, distastefully plebeian quality of the dinner (roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes) that is then served. As the family, who are clearly half-famished, fall eagerly on their food, the narrator feels ‘a strong inclination to set the house on fire and consume the senseless gluttons’, despite the fact that they can ill afford to share their meal with him. There is nothing nice about the Brontës, as there is about Elizabeth Gaskell, for example. They have the voracious demand and implacable sense of entitlement of emotionally deprived children, which in some ways is what they were.

Children can find ambivalence hard to handle, loving their parents but also raging against them, and some of the Brontës’ fury and frustration arose from their own Janus-like situation. They were English but also Irish, the offspring of a father who had blazed a remarkable trail from a poverty-stricken Ulster cabin to Cambridge and Anglican orders. ‘Brontë country’ for the Irish is the stretch of County Down where he was born, and Branwell, the feckless, drunken, stage-Irish brother whose first name was actually Patrick, was once burned in effigy by the plain people of Haworth with a potato in his hand.[*] The Brontës may have tried to become plus anglais que les anglais, in a long tradition of literary emigration to these shores, but their neighbours weren’t fooled.

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[*] Terry Eagleton wrote about Branwell in the LRB of 8 July 1993.