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Paul O’Flinn

Myths of Power

(May 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.78, May 1975, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes
Terry Eagleton
Macmillan, £6.95.

THE BRONTE sisters wrote most of their novels during the Hungry Forties, some of the most disturbed years in European history. While Charlotte was writing The Professor and Jane Eyre in 1845-7, a million of her father’s Irish countrymen and women were being murdered by that cheery operation of capitalist economics called famine. In 1847, as Emily’s Wuthering Heights was running off the presses, the US Consul in Amsterdam surveyed riots in Glasgow, peasant unrest in Russia, serf risings in Austria and civil war in Switzerland and wrote to his government that

‘the present crisis is so deeply interwoven in the events of the present period that it is but the commencement of that great Revolution which ... sooner or later is to dissolve the present constitution of things.’

The lid blew off France in 1848, Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto and Anne finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall just as a giant Chartist march, carrying a petition with two million signatures, was turned away from a parliament elected by well under a million men.

What you make of these coinciding events depends on who you are. Most literary critics don’t make anything of them at all. The Brontes are ‘beyond time and space, immortal, primeval and elemental’, one of them claims, which sounds alright as a prayer, I suppose, but isn’t much use in understanding what goes on in their novels. Marxists have in the past over-reacted against rubbish of that sort. In 1947, David Wilson argued that in Wuthering Heights, for example, Heathcliff equals the workers of the 1840s, Catherine is the liberal bourgeoisie and the novel is a parable about the class struggle.

Terry Eagleton’s Myths of Power enters this debate and tries to rescue the Brontes from mystified pieties on the one hand and crude reductions on the other. He starts with an acute definition of the sisters’ position:

‘They were, to begin with, placed at a painfully ambiguous point in the social structure, as the daughters of a clergyman with the inferior status of ‘perpetual curate’ who had thrust his way up from poverty; they strove as a family to maintain reasonably “genteel” standards in a traditionally rough-and-ready environment. They were, moreover, socially insecure women – members of a cruelly oppressed group whose victimised condition reflected a more widespread exploitation. And they were educated women, trapped in an almost intolerable deadlock between culture and economics-between imaginative aspiration and the cold truth of a society which could use them merely as ‘higher’servants. They were isolated educated women, socially and geographically remote from a world with which they nonetheless maintained close intellectual touch, and so driven back on themselves in solitary emotional hungering.’

Eagleton then moves on to show how these factors helped shape the novels and their form and gave them both insight and limitation.

Myths of Power is an important book because Terry Eagleton is a Marxist literary critic of a kind rare in Britain. There are plenty of fat, sad men around prepared to lecture at the drop of a hat and a 30 guinea cheque on ‘How I risked all to subscribe to the Left Book Club in 1937 but have since found true peace in the arms of my good lady wife and transcendental meditation.’ There are also a few earnest figures beavering away in obscurity on where Georg Lukacs got it all wrong about the later novels of Conrad Meyer. Terry Eagleton is none of these but is rather a man active in the day-to-day work of socialist politics and organisation and a man prepared to write with the sense that work creates about authors people actually read – Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes, Graham Greene, Orwell. This gives his books both a genuine authority and a real vulnerability – vulnerability, for example, to the kind of thin, personal and essentially mindless attacks of which Philip Toynbee’s recent review of Myths of Power in the Observer is a particularly good, or, rather, particularly bad instance.

Myths of Power isn’t an easy read and if there is a criticism of it it is that Eagleton’s expression seems to be taking on a density that wasn’t there in earlier books like Exiles and Emigrés and that does at times make understanding difficult. But it’s still a must for anyone interested in coming to terms with the Brontes. If that doesn’t include you at least make sure your library orders it; there’s always the chance that a couple of bright kids working on their A-Levels will stumble across it and have their well-trained young minds productively messed up.

A last thought. There are 138 pages of text and the book costs £6.95. The author probably realises with some gloom that that works out at about a bob a page and effectively excludes some people he might have hoped to reach. This is known amongst publishers as the combined effects of soaring labour costs, the rising price of raw materials, Arab blackmail and Wedgwood Benn. It’s also known as a bloody rip-off.

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