Obsession—Beginning with the Brontës: A Revisitation (excerpt)

by Kenneth King

Published in the Spring 2015 issue of The Antioch Review, about the world’s most famous literary first family.


A classical case study of obsession could be devoted to the Brontës, who, with their strangely imaginative and enigmatic novels, equally obsess readers. Four precocious siblings, three sisters with their wayward brother, writing novels between 1844 and 1849, changed the course of English literature. The ethos of their living in a bleak, chilly, damp parsonage on the lonely Yorkshire moors surrounded on three sides by a cemetery, “a dreary, dreary place, being literally paved with rain-blackened tombstones” (Mrs. Gaskell) still reverberates with many mysteries.

The Brontës are the world’s most famous literary family.  In descending order of age: Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Their mother died while the children were very young. The brother, Branwell, a poet and portrait painter succumbed to alcohol and drug abuse. Two older sisters, gifted Maria and Elizabeth, died at ages eleven and twelve respectively, family ghosts.

The enigma is how the three surviving sisters, living desolate, short, and solitary lives with little schooling, but who were prodigious readers, came to write seven extraordinarily sophisticated novels that have had an unprecedented impact on literary history. They wrote anonymously and kept their authorship secret from everyone, including their father and brother, even after they were published.

Obsessions are as devious and devouring as fetishes are insistent and possessive. They’re aligned with dissolution and decreation, with an unrequited otherness coexistent with the hallucinatory realm of phantoms and the undead. Today, in contrast, the pace of life is so much more accelerated than in nineteenth century Yorkshire, England—the speed and rapidity of change increases the intensity, amplitude, and fascination with obsessions.

The Brontës lived without plumbing, running water, electricity, bathrooms, or any of the amenities we take for granted. The water supply was polluted and inadequate, exacerbating mortality. There were over thirteen hundred burials in the churchyard between 1840 and 1850, the average age was twenty-five years, and forty-one percent of babies died before their sixth birthday. When death is omnipresent or overproduced, people obsess. And when the window of loss is rendered transparent, as it is in the affecting surcharge of narrative release, the ineffable is revealed.

Today our obsessions revolve around power, pleasure, instant gratification, commodities, sex, food, politics, movies, disasters, electronic gizmos, digital connectivity, and the immediate hyperactive dissemination and circulation of the word—messaging. Revisiting the Brontës is like unearthing a hidden underground theater, an archeological site where the rarified elements of obsession and haunting can be espied as if through a looking glass. Their novels belie the secret inscriptions of a psychic time warp.

© Kenneth King. For permission to reprint, contact kkingmedia@gmail.com

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