“I only speak from hearsay”: Layered Narration and the Extension of the Brontë Myth in Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey

Kylie Dennis

Abstract


Criticism regarding the works of the Brontë sisters has historically been complicated by the inextricable weaving of the authoresses’ biographical information with over a century of compelling myth. Indeed, Elizabeth Gaskell’s intimate biography, which romanticizes select struggles of the Brontës and confines the sisters to crippling isolation at their father’s parsonage in Haworth, is perhaps more aptly termed a culprit of spinning fantasy than an objective history for the family. For Emily and Anne, the aura of ambiguity which shrouds their family’s history is made more difficult still by the style of narration that characterizes their major prose works, a complex interlacing of pseudonyms, primary narrators, and numerous sub-narrators within individual novels. This paper will argue that the technique of layered narration in both Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey is not only a device conceived to facilitate the progression of the narrative and the development of characters but also a protective extension of the Brontë myth, a means of diluting the social responsibility of revolutionary perspectives on romance, religion and proto-feminist values in their work.

This paper will consider the limitations on publishing opportunities for authoresses in the early to mid-nineteenth century, particularly as motivation for the outermost layer of narration in each novel–the masculine pseudonyms of the writers. It will argue that the use of layered narration in both novels creates the illusion of credible–and usually masculine–narrators privy to the unseemly events and ideas expressed in the narratives yet aware of the social constraints of their audiences. It will also discuss layered narration as a means of creating a forum of conflicting perspectives in which to deliberate moral issues, even those issues which argue radically against the foundations of Victorian culture and ideals of femininity.

In unraveling the intricate narrative style of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, this argument interrogates the perception of Emily and Anne Brontë as the quiet, isolated, and hyper-feminine daughters woven into the fabric of the Brontë myth, instead recognizing the young authoresses as bearing far greater resemblance to their impassioned and radical heroines. It suggests that yet another, separate narrative emerges from the seams of the sub-narrations of their major novels, the narrative of two Brontë authoresses and revolutionary proto-feminists keenly aware of their precarious position in the male-dominated literary world as well as the elusive narrative tactics required to voice their opinions.


Keywords


Brontë, Myth, Narration

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