Mythic Lives of Austen, Shelley, and the Brontes in Biography, Literature and Film


May 2023


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This dissertation considers the impact that nineteenth-century British authors Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë have exerted in the British and American imagination over time through the creation of their “mythic life stories” in biography, literature, and film. Each of these authors has attained a degree of acclaim and popularity since their time through the repeated theatrical, literary, and cinematic adaptations of their famous novels. Likewise, their very life stories, retold through numerous biographies and biopics, have become larger-than-life in our cultural consciousness, and I focus particularly on these life accounts. I find that biographical accounts function in much the same way as literary and cinematic adaptations. That is, they are also products of a particular creator’s time and culture, they are formed according to principles of intertextuality, and they also create “powerful emotional, aesthetic, and ideological resonances” in a particular culture’s psyche, as biographical critic Lucasta Miller describes it. An examination of the mythic life evolution of these four authors merits attention because we find particular critical approaches or orientations at play that reveal how literary and biographical products create and sustain mythic power. In the case of these four authors, their mythic life representations are best understood in relation to both Romanticism and feminism. These authors are very often interpreted as “Romantic authors” who transmute their personal life experiences into the creation of their work. Furthermore, as women living in early nineteenth-century England where gender roles dictated they live quiet domestic lives outside of the public realm, early biographical accounts build a picture of these women as domestic saints, as self-effacing sufferers, as passive receptacles of creativity. What I discover to be characteristic of subsequent biographical representations is that these earlier nineteenth-century Romantic and gender views have continued to powerfully shape the “mythic lives” of each of these authors. In more recent decades, twentieth-century feminism has changed the landscape for how these female authors have been perceived and depicted in biographical accounts, and though due attention has been given to the way gender ideology may have restricted their thought and their literary activity, not as much attention is given to the complexity of these women’s lives. For instance, many of these female authors found ways for meaningful self-expression within the gender ideology of their time, despite their time period’s restrictions on such expression. In my study I affirm the danger of what most often occurs in biographical representations: the tendency to over-simplify and romanticize a subject’s life. A focus on molding these writers, or any artist, into the image of the “Romantic author” is a simplification of the authorial process, just as seeing them as models of the ideal nineteenth-century woman is a distortion of their complex personalities and desires. Likewise, a recasting of their lives and personalities according to modern feminist views is a misrepresentation of the nuanced and contradictory nature of their life views. Can we become better consumers of literary and biographical works through a greater effort to acknowledge and understand the complexity of a human life as well as the creative process of an artist? I hope my study will shed light on this topic and its important relevancy today.



Cinema, Gender Studies, Biography, Literature, English, Women's Studies