January 2015

J P Poole

nonfiction

The Essence of the Brontės: A Compilation with Essays by Muriel Spark

The Brontės need no introduction -- but if a brief sketch were to be given, it might begin like so: Charlotte, alias Currer Bell (or pseudonym, rather), the eldest and most sociable, also the smallest at around four feet eight inches tall, best known for her first novel Jane Eyre (1847). Next in line is Emily, or Ellis Bell, the middle child, the most taciturn and reclusive one of the family, also the tallest of the girls at five feet seven inches, best known for her poetry and her only novel Wuthering Heights (1847). Last comes Anne, or Acton Bell, the youngest and sweetest tempered of the three, also petite in size, known predominantly -- but not as celebrated as her sisters -- for her first novel Agnes Grey (1847). And not to be forgotten, their brother Branwell, the second eldest, with flaming red hair and of medium build, also talented but too easily distracted by the temptations of gin, gambling, and married women to have the patience necessary for artistic pursuits.

But it is Branwell who we can thank for leaving behind one of the most revealing relics of the Brontė legacy, a drawing titled the "Brontė Group," depicting the four siblings seated at a table where a dead peasant lies on its back, legs and feet stiffened upward, Branwell positioned egotistically front and center, holding a hunting rifle proudly, his sisters on either side like bookends. The Brontė's passion for drama is self-evident in this staged drawing. As children, they would spend hours indoors, perpetually housebound at Haworth parsonage, writing stories and acting out plays, while the cold, wet Yorkshire weather lashed at their windows. Charlotte and Emily are the real focal point of the drawing, Anne is depicted in profile an aura of light surrounds their pale faces, and their dark eyes seem to foretell a message -- they would soon take the world of literature by storm.

This eye-glint of self-awareness, of patient waiting, is perhaps what Muriel Spark aimed to uncover when she wrote The Essence of the Brontės, first published in 1993. She is not interested in perpetuating the mythology or romance of the Brontės, her goal is to capture the core of their characters, warts and all. Unfortunately, her tactics don't make for a pleasurable reading experience. She plays the role of detective more so than critic, and, based on her essays, seems remarkably assured that her conclusions regarding the Brontės solve the case. Charlotte is overly dramatic and a "bitter" complainer. Anne is kind but talentless and "morosely religious." And Emily is a sort of sexless celibate, "chilled with melancholy." As Boyd Tonkin writes in his introduction, "Spark may love the Brontės and their work, but that does not mean she likes them very much."

Indeed, biography in the hands of a novelist is a precarious thing. Elizabeth Gaskell certainly added her fair share of slight embellishments in The Life of Charlotte Brontė, but she can be forgiven because the work is so masterfully executed that it makes other biographer's attempts, including Spark's, look like dashed off marginal notes.

The book's bulk is made up of Charlotte Brontė's letters compiled by Spark, peppered with a few epistles by the other Brontės, not out of neglect, but simply because, of all the siblings, Charlotte was the most prolific letter writer. She maintained a lifelong correspondence with Ellen Nussey, her friend from Roe Head School. Akin to an expert publicist, Charlotte handled all business correspondences and took charge of Ellis, Acton, and Currer's public images. But these letters can be found elsewhere, in a more scholarly arrangement. Spark's character assessments aren't entirely off base, yet the true value of this book has little to do with exposing the inner lives of Brontės; it is more an interesting peek into the mind of Muriel Spark. In fact, she deserves an introduction all her own.

Born in 1918 in a working class neighborhood of Edinburgh, Muriel Spark could herself be a heroine in a novel. She grew from being a plump teenager, at the top of her class, into a beautiful, stylish woman, who, at nineteen, married a thirty-two year old man, Sydney "Solly" Spark and moved with him to Africa where, according to Martin Stannard's biography Muriel Spark, "he promised her servants to leave her free to concentrate on poetry." The marriage was a nightmare; Solly was mentally unstable, and she endured great pains to leave him, including separation from her son Robin, who later ended up in her parents' care. Still very young, she turned to writing short stories and novels, and, over time, rose from the rank of nameless secretary to acclaimed writer, with an office reserved for her at The New Yorker and posh apartments in New York and Rome. For most of her literary career, which spanned from 1950 to 2006 (the year she died), Spark fought for recognition. The author of twenty-two books, her crown jewel is undoubtedly The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, ranked by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century, but her other novels -- aside from The Girls of Slender Means -- did not reach the level of acclaim that Brodie did, and she constantly jostled with Macmillan, her publisher, to keep her name relevant and her books in print.

Spark's love affair with the Brontės marks the beginning of her career as a writer. After being forced out of her position as General Secretary of the Poetry Society and editor of the Poetry Review due, in most part, to an affair turned sour, she quickly rebounded by proposing to edit the complete works of Anne Brontė in collaboration with Derek Stanford, her soon-to-be lover and collaborative companion. Stannard writes that in the late 1940s and early '50s, "Muriel was grindingly poor," but remained hopeful nevertheless that she would soon be able to write books -- in particular, novels -- full time. After starting a biography of all the Brontės, including the parents, both book deals fell through, and the Brontės came to represent her early days as a writer with "all the poverty, adventure, and hope that went with them."

It makes sense then that Spark -- who lived in austerity, in a small rented room with a twin bed and a folding card table, and who wrote for hours on top of working twelve-hour days -- did not have the greatest empathy for the Brontės' impoverishment or work load. In her essay "The Brontės as Teachers," she presumes that they played up their misery for the sake of dramatic effect. She writes "nothing, we are given to understand, could be worse than to be a private governance, a tutor or a school teacher..." As a nineteen year old instructor at Roe Head School, Charlotte wrote in her journal, "Am I to spend all the best parts of my life in this wretched bondage, forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness, the apathy, and the hyperbolical and most asinine stupidity of these fat-headed oafs...?" Spark sympathizes more so with the children saying, "I suggest that if anything could equal the misfortune of their lot as teachers it was the lot of the respective pupils and employers of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne." She had zero tolerance for complainers.

Charlotte writes of Emily's experience teaching at Law Hill School, where she is subjected to "hard labour from six in the morning until near eleven at night, with only one half-hour exercise in between." Again, Spark is unmoved, reasoning that if the Brontės had time to write letters, they probably had time to write other things.

In essence, Spark seems immune to Charlotte Brontė's charm and quick wit. Charlotte seems aware when she is being dramatic. In a letter to Ellen Nussey, she writes facetiously about the occupational options available to her:

I have quite a talent for cleaning, sweeping up hearths, dusting rooms, making beds, etc.; so, if everything else fails, I can turn my hand to that, if anybody will give me good wages for little labour. I won't be a cook; I hate cooking. I won't be a nursery-maid, nor a lady's maid, far less a lady's companion, or a mantua maker, or a straw bonnet maker, or a taker-in of plain work. I won't be anything but a housemaid.

Even her complaints are well composed; she toys with her sentences like a cat, playing with a ball of string.

According to Spark, Charlotte "exaggerated most things," and seized onto the drama whenever possible. But Charlotte, and her sisters also had a keen ability to recognize the comedy in life. They moved about in disguise -- half giggling at how ridiculous it was for men to assume that women only lived to serve.

To her friend Mary Taylor, Charlotte writes about a surprise visit she and Ann paid their publishers in 1848.

Neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Williams knew we were coming -- they had never seen us -- they did not know whether we were men or women, but had always written to us as men.... At last we were shown up to Mr. Smith. "Is it Mr. Smith?" I said, looking up through my spectacles at a tall young man. "It is." I then put his own letter into his hand directed to Currer Bell. He looked at it and then at me again. "Where did you get this?" he said. I laughed at his perplexity -- a recognition took place. I gave him my real name: Miss Brontė.

Even today, women writers would be hard pressed not to smirk proudly at this vindicating scene.

Of all the sisters, Spark prefers Emily, whose novel, Wuthering Heights, she contends is superior to Jane Eyre. In her long essay, "Emily Brontė: Her Life," Spark tries to locate the real Emily. She writes: "We have two pictures of Emily Bronte. One, of a shy, quiet country girl" and the other of a poet and novelist, who according to her former teacher M. Héger "should have been a man."

Emily's sexuality has long stupefied Brontė biographers. She is often described as masculine, even by her sisters (perhaps her height had something to do with it) and some speculate that she preferred women. Spark, however, claims that Emily was a natural born celibate:

We get no clue from her work that she ever experienced a love affair, far less that she ever entertained amorous feelings for a living person...there is no indication of her falling in love with anyone... she does not appear to have needed any object of amorous or sexual attention.

In making these claims, Spark seems to be looking to support her own artistic credo. "In order to be a truly great novelist, women writers have to give up something, and that something is a romantic love." After Spark converted to Catholicism, she became celibate. At one point, she even considered becoming a nun. Her relationship with Stanford skidded to a stop, she never remarried, and her one steady companion was her friend Penelope Jardine, whom she lived with in Italy until the end of her life. Spark called Emily's creative mind "entirely alien to [her] own," but it is evident that she was drawn to her for her sort of religious commitment to art.

Spark isn't completely immune to the mythology of Brontės. Her trip to Emily's grave. "At Emily Brontė's Grave, Haworth, April 1961," a transcription of a BBC TV recording, is the most engaging piece from Spark in the book. The Brontės' view out of their windows wasn't of merely a few lilting headstones, peppered like Halloween decorations, but a churchyard where roughly sixty thousand dead were laid to rest. Spark writes, "My first day here I tried to take a short-cut among the tombs, but I got lost in a sea of stones and when I found the path it was an odd experience -- a bit frightening in an enjoyable sort of way." She is resistant to the "Brontė pilgrim idea," but she can't help but be drawn in by the setting and natural elements that influenced their work.

In her attempts to bring the Brontės down to size, Spark's purgative essays can be difficult to endure. As Tokin writes in his introduction, "Spark's involvement with the Brontės as critic, editor, and fragmentary biographer does not take the form of simple homage or tribute. It serves instead as an exorcism... she has to get the sisters out of her system." After years of researching the Brontės, of being "haunted" by Emily in particular, Spark must have been quite eager to part ways.

The Essence of the Brontės: A Compilation with Essays by Muriel Spark
Carcanet Press, Ltd.
ISBN: 978-1847772466
328 pages