On My Bookshelf – The Marxist Brontes?

Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes by Terry Eagleton, published in 1975. Quite what this book is doing on my bookshelf I have no idea. I must have acquired it long, long ago judging by the antique fashion in literary criticism it represents. Back in the 1960’s when I was educated at an English university the term “dialectical materialism” was tossed around with abandon by anyone wishing to seem a true intellectual. Marx was dragged into analysis of just about anything. But the Brontes? Surely not. The wild romantic moors of Yorkshire seem a world away from theories of an oppressed proletariat and dominant bourgeoisie locked in class struggle. Or are they? I don’t remember reading the book in the past but I decided to dig in and see if Marx can really shed light on the Bronte novels.

As I plowed my way through a dense thicket of political and literary academic jargon, I confess I longed for the more accessible prose of the Brontes themselves. But Eagleton’s approach was interesting. In the introduction he explains Marxist literary theory thus:

“Criticism should be able to give some intelligible account of the relation of literature to the social order.”

So he aims to interpret the Bronte novels in the light of a Marxist analysis of the historical conditions in which it was produced:

“What relationship holds between the imaginative fiction of the Brontes and the society of their time? We may first dispel … the myth of the three weird sisters deposited on the Yorkshire moors from some metaphysical outer space. The Brontes home, Haworth, was close to the center of the West Riding woollen area; and their lifetime there coincided with some of the fiercest class-struggles in English society.”

Home Weavers

Eagleton goes on to relate the disruptive social changes that the Brontes lived through and would have observed in their immediate environs. The displacement of thousands of home-based weavers by industrial mills, resulting in episodes of machine-breaking and destitute country people flocking to the towns for work. This was a period that Marx described in Das Capital as the most horrible tragedy in English history. He saw the relationship between the landed gentry and the new industrial classes, landed and industrial capital, as the essential economic struggle of the age. 

The Brontes occupied an ambiguous position in this social order. Their father Patrick had risen from Irish peasant poverty, working as a blacksmith and linen-weaver before making his way to Cambridge and taking Anglican orders. He was a clergyman but an outsider who did not have the financial security to free his daughters from the need to make a living. The romantic freedom of their lives as children, living in their imaginations, was abruptly halted when they were sent away to school and faced the harsh realities and expectations of society. In life, like characters in their novels, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne all had to take work as governesses, a social position that placed them just above the servants but not the equals of their employers.

The awkward social position of the Victorian governess portrayed by Rebecca Solomon

Eagleton identifies this tension between romanticism and realism as the underlying structure of the Bronte novels, a fictional analog to the Marxist class struggle. For example in Wuthering Heights Catherine Earnshaw’s choice between Heathcliff and Edgar Linton is based on class. Her rejection of Heathcliff because he is socially inferior leads to destruction and spiritual suicide. Social conflict in the novel pits the labor of the Earnshaws against the idle gentry who benefit from it, the Lintons. When Heathcliff returns, having made his fortune, he represents the victory of capitalist property-dealing over the traditional yeoman economy. 

All right, at this point you may be forgiven for wanting to swoon over the romantic figure of Heathcliff again instead of interrogating his role in the evils of capitalism!

Anyway Marxist literary theory was soon eclipsed by new fashions in literary criticism. There was the Age of Deconstruction originated by Jacques Derrida in which the text and the text alone was privileged over the author’s biography and whatever the author intended. Feminist literary theory was ushered in with another book referencing the Brontes, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: the woman writer and the nineteenth century literary imagination published in 1977. Since then we’ve had gender studies and queer theory, ethnic studies and post-colonial criticism, and I’m sure there are more incubating in academia that I haven’t heard of yet.  

The most recent literary criticism of Wuthering Heights analyzes the novel through the lens of racial studies. Heathcliff was a foundling from the streets of Liverpool, a center of the slave trade at the time. He is described as a gypsy and dark skinned, and at one point Nelly says to him “if you were a regular black…” It is suggested that he was bi-racial, perhaps the illegitimate son of Mr. Earnshaw by an African woman. Unquestionably his identity in the novel is that of “the other,” an outsider whose behavior is portrayed as brutish and savage. Heathcliff has been portrayed on the screen many times, notably by Lawrence Olivier. But in a film of Wuthering Heights directed by Andrea Arnold in 2011 the part of Heathcliff is played by the black actor James Howson. The film had a mixed reception with some questioning the casting. But historians point out that there was a presence of black people in Yorkshire at the time. Whether Emily Bronte intended Heathcliff to be black can only be conjectured from her descriptions of him. On this topic neither Marx nor Terry Eagleton had anything to say.

James Howson as Heathcliff

Returning to Myths of Power I am struck anew by the cover. The portrait of Karl Marx looms large over the three Bronte sisters. Their smaller portraits are arrayed beneath him in a subservient role just as in life they were confined to the subservient roles of daughter and governess. But I believe their genius cannot be confined by any literary theory and will outlast them all.

2 thoughts on “On My Bookshelf – The Marxist Brontes?

  1. As well as being a Marxist academic, Terry Eagleton remains a devout Roman Catholic. You may have to reread the book in the light of this.


  2. Thank you for this delightful romp through changing fashions in literary criticism! Funnily enough, I too was immediately struck by the awkward-looking cover of Myths of Power. Admittedly, there aren’t many portraits of the Brontes to choose from, but their arrangement and relative position to Marx is visually strange… not to mention the ‘vintage’ typography, which looks like it belongs to a Barbara Cartland novel or the credit sequence for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. I guess sometimes you CAN judge a book by it’s cover!


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