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  • Writer's pictureLydia Craig

Academic Conspiracy Theories

While researching sources for different literary authors' lives, I've run across several "quack" books that taught me a lot about what NOT to do as a scholar and writer. Even when my research process starts with a "hunch," it's important to keep second-guessing that original idea, especially if the evidence starts contradicting or disproving it. But being wrong doesn't stop some writers, unfortunately, from peddling rather wild theories about my favorite writers.

While researching the lives and works of the Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, I encountered this gem: The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë, A Novel (2012), which paints Charlotte as the murderer of her entire surviving family, except for her father, Patrick. Obviously, this purports to be a work of fiction, so I wouldn't be overly concerned with its claims were it not for the fact that author James Tully originally and unsuccessfully submitted this to publishers as a factual academic argument. He advanced the premise that Reverend Patrick Brontë's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, whom Charlotte later married, firstly convinced her to murder Branwell, Emily, and Anne in order to marry him and, secondly, killed her and Patrick as well in order to inherit the family's fortunes. When his manuscript was rejected by disbelieving academic editors, Tully published this book as a novel.

In seeing the siblings' rapid deaths as suspicious, Tully overlooks the high mortality rate in Haworth and the parsonage's close proximity to the church graveyard that was proved to be poisoning the city's water supply as rainwater dripped across and underneath the gravestones, collected diseases from the corpses, and flowed down the steep hill. He ignores the notably bad health of the siblings for several years leading up to their deaths as well as the early childhood deaths of the two oldest Brontë siblings Maria and Elizabeth. Furthermore, he passes over the grief expressed by Charlotte concerning the loss of her siblings in multiple letters from 1848 until her death in 1855, the fact that the Brontë siblings did not possess extensive fortunes besides what Elizabeth Branwell left them in her will and the sum resulting from each novel's publication; they did not foresee the enduring value of their work in a financial as well as literary sense. Charlotte did have investments, but legally Nicholls could have pressed his marital right to them as her husband - he made a point of not doing so after their marriage. Finally, Nicholls lived with and cared for an ailing father Patrick for several years following Charlotte's death due to complications of pregnancy, as is well-documented. There is absolutely no evidence for this claim - not even circumstantial evidence!

Another delightful conspiracy theory is outlined in Nicholas Ennos' grandly titled Jane Austen: A New Revelation (2017). Ennos argues that Jane Austen's works could not have been written by such an "uneducated" woman as Austen, ignoring the possibility that Jane achieved the "improvement of her mind by extensive reading," becoming an excellent writer by imitating her favorite authors...and then doing them one better by being far more witty and interesting as a prose stylist and innovator. Instead, Ennos claims that Austen's worldly-wise, Continental, and fascinating cousin (and later sister-in-law) Eliza de Feuillide was the true author of Austen's works - AS WELL AS FANNY BURNEY'S! Basically, his only "proof" is that all three women were occasionally in the same country at the same time. So were a lot of other women - millions. He also disregards the extraordinarily hilarious letters by Austen to her sister and others that possess the same sarcasm and witticisms that appear in her works; Eliza's letters, by contrast, are well-written, but dull. Clearly, wealth and beauty aren't EVERYTHING.

Some equally cringe-worthy conspiracy theories: Branwell Brontë stopped drinking long enough to write Wuthering Heights (1847), which his sister Emily then stole from him. This idea was started by one of Branwell's friends, George McCraw, some years after the famous siblings had all died. McCraw claimed that Branwell had read him part of the beginning, an encounter he then described in a POEM for the Halifax Courier in 1861. Not the best genre to use when trying to establish a claim! Stella Gibbons' hilarious Gothic spoof Cold Comfort Farm (1932) contains an academic buffoon, the lecherous Mr Meyerburg, whose life work is to prove Branwell Brontë wrote his sister's novels. More recently, Chris Firth has fictionally investigated this theory in Branwell Brontë's Tale (2014), which still finds some takers, since WH is occasionally still thought to be "too masculine" in tone for a woman to write. The Victorian gender distinctions die hard. Another enjoyable theory is that Mary Shelley was not the author of Frankenstein (1818). Following the interesting trend of calling into question female authorship of "good" books, John Lauritsen made this contention in The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (2007), claiming that her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, is the true writer, but that he allowed the book to be attributed to Mary...because he didn't want to be connected to it. Strange.

And then, of course, some have trouble believing that a young man who loved books and history and worked his way up from a minor actor of a drama company to the position of dramaturg and major investor, clearly hobnobbed with the intelligentsia of London, and was commemorated with a folio put together by actors and collaborators after his death...was actually the author of "Shakespeare's plays." If he was noble, had been to Oxford or Cambridge, or had achieved or inherited a title, poor William Shakespeare of Straford-upon-Avon might enjoy his attributions in peace. No one questions that Sir Walter Raleigh wrote what he did - though he was born a commoner and gained his title later in life. These snobbish theories fail to acknowledge the arguable fact that the best of English literature, the major classics that have survived the centuries until now, were mostly written by middle-class authors who did not attend the best universities...and in many cases, did not attend much school at all!

These researchers and writers who have veered off on the wrong tack have usually done so by falling into at least one of the following methodological errors:

1) refusing to search for, or ignoring any contrary evidence encountered in letters, writing, or the historical record,

2) presenting some part of the contrary evidence in their writing, but ignoring the obvious conclusions that should be reached concerning it,

3) falsifying data or presenting generalizations, theories, and sentimental guesswork as biographical truth, or,

4) Ignoring personal reasons that might make them WANT to believe a false hypothesis (political opinions, life experiences, emotional traumas, etc.).

In order to do the most valuable research, I constantly must reaccess the evidence and entertain the possibility that I could be WRONG in my hypotheses.

Even if I'd rather not be!

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