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Book Review 

by Sheri Boggs

Although they were a good 40 or so years younger, the three Bront & euml; sisters - Anne, Emily and Charlotte - have not aged nearly as well as Jane Austen.

For decades, the popularity of the wildly imagined Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights ran neck and neck with the more genteel charms of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. In recent years, however, the Bront & euml;s have slipped unnoticed back to the moors. It's hard to say why exactly, but one wonders if the Bront & euml;s' works have been so co-opted by countless gothic romances, Kate Bush songs and bad movie remakes that their original astonishing power has been all but lost. Where once readers thrilled to encounter badly behaving heroes and willful, impassioned heroines throwing their emotions all over the place and making everyone around them suffer, we now - with the benefit of more than a hundred years of psychotherapy - find such behavior tiresome and unpleasant. To modern readers, even the famous line from Jane Eyre, in which the poor, shy governess rebukes her employer-and-would-be-paramour ("Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart!") seems hilarious. It's as if we, reading this while enjoying all the benefits of third wave feminism, finally have the luxury of saying "girl, you gotta relax!"

Lucasta Miller, Oxford-educated literary scholar and critic, approaches the Bront & euml;s from this mildly-amused-yet-fascinated perspective. The Bront & euml; Myth delves into the lives of these three gifted women, who grew up next to a lonely graveyard with only the servants and their mercurial brother and half-blind father for company. Miller points out that not only did these shy, geographically isolated young women create some of the most remarkable works in English literature, they have themselves come to be seen like characters in a novel, or figments of some obscure fairy tale with no happy ending. She examines not only the climate in which the Bront & euml;s lived (Victorian, repressive) but also how each generation has seemingly discovered and reinvented the Bront & euml;s for themselves (often with unintentionally comedic results). But perhaps most important, she rescues the Bront & euml;s from 150 years' worth of psychological and literary baggage, showing them to be still vital, still relevant and still worth appreciating. They may have lacked Austen's self-restraint and wickedly funny musings, but they were, in their own way, just as powerfully observant, imaginative and influential.

Publication date: 04/15/04

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