Bronte's Domestic Uncanny
Elizabeth Gaskell begins her biography of Charlotte Bronte with a description of Haworth, the town where the family moved the day before Charlotte's fourth birthday, on April 21, 1820. Gaskell insists that we cannot understand the Brontean sensibility without comprehending the peculiarities of this north Yorkshire region, steeped as it was in a culture fixed and unyielding in spirit, and yet dynamic and adaptable to the rough demands of industrial development and expansion. Every region clutches and extrudes habits as it hurtles through time, but Yorkshire people apparently hold tighter and release more violently than others do. According to Gaskell, "For a right understanding of the life of my dear friend, Charlotte Bronte, it appears to me more necessary in her case than in most others, that the reader should be made acquainted with the peculiar forms of population and society amidst which her earliest years were passed, and from which both her own and her sisters' first impressions of human life must have been received" (60). Here--where rebellion and fixity were partners, where provinciality marched with vision--is where the Bronte children lived and died, and wrote the works that even now bring shivers to the spine, tempest to the soul, and yearning to the heart. But although Haworth was home to Charlotte Bronte, home in her works bore as much relation to Haworth as Wonderland or the Looking Glass world bear to Oxford in Carroll's Alice books. Not that Bronte fictionalizes Haworth; but for her (as for many others) hominess transcends the home from whence it was engendered and represents states of mind and associated spaces that continue to be as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago.
National identification is one acknowledged form of regionalism, as well as a familiar displacement of "home." Since the turn of the century, several notable analyses of Bronte's intricate dance between Britain and the rest of the world have generated important discussions about the relations between home (and its affective corollaries with engagement, proximity, familiarity) and foreign (with its corollaries in detachment, distance, and alienation). But no one has accounted adequately for the fizz or fear, the excitement or dread that attends contact between home and not-home in Bronte's fiction. This discussion addresses the convergence of familiarity with estrangement, which for Bronte occurs precisely in the home--not necessarily the building, but the mental space or structure identified with the concept of home--that convergence which, for other writers and theorists, occurs in the concept of the uncanny.
The uncanny is among the coziest of Freud's bequests--the lost-in-the-funhouse, thrill-a-minute eeriness, when the ghost walks and the flesh creeps, while memories return and fantasy blooms. It has had a lively after-history, not least in our own field, being a short essay with a long life. What is notable is scholars' confinement within the terms that psychoanalysis first outlined. Part of my work is to abrade the uncanny, to roughen up its edges, by bringing it close, bringing it "home" as it were, to...