“Books About the Brontës” by Georgette Heyer

In 1958, UK magazine Punch featured this short piece by Georgette Heyer, with her thoughts about the proliferation of biographies about the Brontë family, including her own vision of what one of her own might look like.

With typical wit, obvious in-depth knowledge and more than a little exasperation, Heyer breaks down the facets of a successful Brontë-based scholarly work, while also weighing in with her opinion of the Brontës themselves…


Originally published in Punch, 1954

A CERTAIN author, being engaged at the time in research into the life of Shakespeare, once remarked to me that there seemed to be something about Shakespeare which sends people slightly mad. The appearance of yet another Book about the Brontës has set me wondering whether the same observation might not apply equally well to this family. There is no end to the books about them, no end to the theories about them, and no end to the readers of the books. I will confess at once that I read them myself, although (and I tremble with terror as I the these words) the only member of the family whose work I really admire is Emily.

I find Anne’s books unreadable; and while I appreciate the rich melodrama of Jane Eyre, I cannot away with The Professor, or Shirley, and find Villette not quite my cup of tea. I admire Charlotte for having written a splendid best-seller, but when I am asked to place her alongside the Olympians I can’t do it. Nor do I find her, as she reveals herself in her correspondence; sympathetic. Only one of her biographers succeeded in diminishing my dislike of her, and he did this by making me see how funny she was. Which is heresy.

I have no interest in Bramwell, or in Patrick; my appreciation of Emily’s work doesn’t imbue me with a desire to discover whether she really was any of the things various biographers have decided she must have been; and as for Sweet Little Anne, who could find nothing better to do than to use her own brother as a model for a book designed to warn young men of the evils of drink, drugs, and falling in love with other men’s wives, I can only say that her particular brand of piety makes me feel unwell.

So why do I still read Books about the Brontës? Obviously, because they had more compelling personalities than even their most ardent worshippers realize.

I have read so many books about them that if only I had a New Theory to advance I could write one myself. I know the rules, and I have been made familiar with the facts.

The rule for the Charlotte-biographer is that whatever she wrote or said must be taken to be strictly true, and not a self-dramatization, or the truth merely as her imagination saw it. Not even when she states that she and Emily and Anne walked the parlour floor night after night, dis-cussing the books each was writing, must her accuracy be doubted. And, indeed, I don’t doubt that this is what she thought they did; and to suggest that neither Emily nor Anne ever got a word in edgeways, or that no novelist, writing with the passionate absorption of Charlotte and Emily, ever took more than a perfunctory interest in the books other people happened to be writing, will not do at all. Only when Charlotte’s words seem to contradict one’s own theory must they be in any way impugned. When this occurs they can be reinterpreted.

Emily’s biographer can dismiss Charlotte’s testimony by explaining that although she wrote in good faith she was ignorant of certain circum-stances, and so is not to be believed. Of course, if she said anything that supports the New Theory, that is to be believed. In fact, for Emily’s biographer no holds are barred, and there are infinite opportunities for the free exercise of one’s imagination. Almost anything can be read into her poems.

When I write my Book about the Brontës it will be a book to Clear Up All Doubts, so that no one need write another. I shall start by discussing in a very temperate way every previous biography; but before I have progressed far those mysterious, dead personalities will have acquired a grip on me. Rage will begin to possess my soul, and with far more fervour than temperateness I shall expose the errors of my predecessors. I shall deprecate the tendency of others to idealize, or to read too much into stray lines; and I shall laugh at those who have invested the Brontës with extraordinary characteristics. I shall be quite sincere about this, but the Brontës will get me into their thrall, and when I have flattened out all previous biographers I shall urge with passion and conviction a new and even more fantastic theory.

And then someone will be moved by the spirit to write another Book about the Brontës, utterly demolishing mine, and so it will go on. And if, wheresoever they may be, the Brontës have developed senses of humour, what fun they must be having! Who can doubt, in face of all the wildly conflicting theories they have put into our heads, that they are having fun? And who would grudge it to them?

SOURCE: Heyer, Georgette. “Books about the Brontës.” Punch, 31 Mar. 1954, p. 414.

NOW AVAILABLE! Acting on Impulse — Contemporary Short Stories by Georgette Heyer.


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