Shallow Not Stupid

On April 21, Charlotte Brontë celebrated her 200th birthday. Of course the toothless dwarf who created Jane Eyre isn’t alive, but nearly two centuries after her death, her fans pore over her tiny shoes and size-zero dresses — recently displayed at Manolo Blahnik’s favorite London museum, Soane’s House.

It wasn’t considered ladylike to write fiction in the 19th century, so the Brontë sisters pretended to be men, submitting their manuscripts as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

The skinny sisters were ahead of their time in other ways, each manifesting signs of an eating disorder long before they died of consumption. Emily was the innovator, starving for days in order to levitate and be closer to God, or his evil twin, on the ceiling of her bedroom.

How did two nice virgins create beasts like Heathcliff and Rochester? Were they having secret affairs with bad men? Jesus could turn water into wine, but wine is full of carbs. Who wouldn’t prefer cal-free vodka with Satan?

Living in the Brontë parsonage, a claustrophobic house in the churchyard with a view of the cemetery, could easily provoke an obsession with the dark side. As the parson’s daughters, the Brontë sisters were unlikely to fantasize about running away with a clergyman.

Jane Eyre should be beaten with a Blahnik heel, simpering over Mr. Rochester yet too chicken to commit bigamy while his mad wife foamed in the attic. But she gets her own back by blinding Rochester so that he can’t see her plain puddle face.

In the 21st century it’s more usual to keep a noisy child or out-of-season swag in the attic, but women are still more likely to work as nannies or sex slaves than men.

Charlotte took a boat to Belgium to work at Monsieur Heger’s school for girls — a bold move at a time when ladies weren’t trusted to wear knickers with no padlock. But Charlotte went and spoiled her independent image by working herself into a frenzy over her boss, who was married to a big lady who could have flattened them both.

Back home at the parsonage, Charlotte wrote obsessively to Monsieur Heger, who didn’t answer. Mr. Vanity Fair, George Thackeray, was another target of the 19th-century stalker, who bombarded her victims with letters in her sinister spidery handwriting.

In real life the postman’s bestie was speechless when she had an opportunity to put the moves on her hero, the Duke of Wellington, who kicked Napoleon’s ass.

Charlotte, unlike her siblings, was a literary sensation when she was alive. Her younger, prettier sister Emily had to wait until after her death to be branded a genius.

Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff is the ultimate anti-hero, though it’s hard to accept Laurence Olivier loving Cathy to death in the famous Wuthering Heights movie, when he had an affair with Danny Kaye.

But while Rochester, a rich older man, is a stock fantasy, Emily, the taller and more talented sister who had all her own teeth, invented in Heathcliff an iconic demon who could give Dracula a run for his money.

There’s a theory that brother Branwell was the model for Heathcliff, given that he was the only man she had seen with his boots off. But Heathcliff isn’t her brother, he’s her own dark imagination.

Emily was the only one strong enough, mentally and physically, to drag her junkie brother to the very small bed he shared with his father. It’s maybe just as well Bran was up all night smoking opium and only needed the bed after the clergyman had got up at the crack of dawn to pray.

Branwell Brontë’s famous portrait of his sisters, hung in the National Portrait Gallery, shows a radiant Emily and a sour Charlotte, who tried to suppress Wuthering Heights after Emily’s death, on the grounds that it was a potboiler cashing in on her fame. The crease in the painting, from being folded on top of a wardrobe for years, creates a cracked line between Charlotte and Emily like the flawed love of sisters, loitering between envy and devotion.

When her siblings died in their twenties, Charlotte lived on with her literary fame and serial obsessions with men who didn’t fancy her. Now our secrets hide in plain sight, under the cloak of irony and implausibility. My supercool friend’s perverse fixation with the British PM, who looks like a pig, or my craze on the formerly fat Chancellor, demonized for his austerity diet, who now looks like Dracula’s anorexic brother after a year on the 5:2 diet.

Of course if they asked us out on a double date IRL, we’d laugh and run away. Poor Charlotte seemed to fall for every man who crossed her path, except her father’s curate, to whom she eventually gave in and married, promptly dying in childbirth.

Four of her gushy schoolgirl letters to Monsieur Heger have survived, ripped apart and taped back together. Maybe he wanted his descendants to eBay the anguished love letters? Perhaps he had some feelings for stunted Charlotte? Or he just didn’t get that much fan mail.

Charlotte’s emotional pornography is preserved in paper and ink, ripped apart and mended, on display for us to pore over, embarrassed for her but admiring little Charlotte who soldiered on alone in the Brontë parsonage after losing her siblings and her teeth, but still kept hold of her pen.

Charlotte Brontë exhibit at Soane Museum

Charlotte Brontë, by George Richmond (1850)

The Brontë sisters

Charlotte Brontë

Emily Brontë

Thought to be the Brontë sisters (1847)

If you like Shallow Not Stupid you will love Spying on Strange Men