Thinking of diving into the enchanting fictional worlds dreamt up by the Brontë sisters? Samantha Ellis, author of How to be a Heroine, shows us where to get started from Wuthering Heights and beyond
I caught the Brontë bug early. I loved the novels but I was also fascinated by the story of how they were written, by three clergyman’s daughters in a cramped house in a remote Yorkshire village. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë were expected to be dutiful, self-sacrificing Victorian girls. They lost their mother young, and then their two older sisters died after being neglected at school. (Charlotte was at the school too, watching but unable to help, and when she wrote about it in Jane Eyre, she said she had to tone it down, because the truth was so shocking that no one would believe it.) Thrown on their resources, the sisters, and their brother Branwell, made up imaginary worlds called Angria and Gondal. They mapped their worlds, peopled them with exotic characters, and wrote tiny books made of odd scraps of paper, which they painstakingly sewed together.
For me, this explains why these three women who lived such cramped and thwarted lives, and who died so young (Emily at 30, Anne at 29, and Charlotte at 38), wrote such huge, capacious, anarchic books about passion, about injustice, about how to live. Even as adults they refused to give up their sense of wonder, they didn’t conform, they stayed strange. The Brontës’s lives and work prove that there are no limits to the imagination.
Emily’s only novel feels like the best place to start, as it is probably the iconic Brontë novel, with its depiction of tempestuous, eternal, doomed love on the wild, elemental moors. Cathy Earnshaw is a 'wild, wick slip' of a girl whose life changes forever when her father brings home a ragged orphan boy called Heathcliff. They become inseparable, roaming the moors day and night together. But as Cathy grows up, she is pressured into settling down with a more conventional man. Her choice tears her apart and makes Heathcliff wreak vengeance on the next generation. It was the love story that got me when I first read the novel as a teenager, but now it seems less about love than about obsession, haunting and how society treats outsiders. It’s unsettling, tumultuous and exhilarating, and few writers have captured a landscape better, or looked harder at the darker side of love.
You’re either Team Cathy or Team Jane, and although for a long time I was a Wuthering Heights girl, I’ve come to love Charlotte’s novel too. I’ve put it next because it might just be the most accessible Brontë novel. You could précis Jane Eyre as the story of a good orphan girl who marries her boss but that would be missing the point. Jane speaks to the reader in her own, clear, truculent voice. An orphan, she is constantly told by her cruel relatives and the brutal hypocrites who run her school that she is wicked and will amount to nothing. But she boldly, stubbornly follows her own way. She becomes a governess in a house straight out of the Gothic, with battlements, forbidden rooms, dark secrets, strange laughter in the night, fire and lightning. But the biggest drama comes out of her decision between passion and self-worth.
Anne wrote this novel before Jane Eyre but it was published afterwards and has never got quite the same attention. It is also much less typical of what we think the Brontës write about, which is why I’ve put it third. It’s also the story of a poor, plain governess who finds fulfilment. But the focus isn’t on Agnes’s love story, it's on her career. The children Agnes teaches are nasty. At her first job, she has to crush a nest of baby birds to save them from being tortured by her horrible pupil. At her next, her employer is desperate to marry off her daughters, to anyone, including older, and morally questionable, men, so long as they are rich. Agnes observes all this mercilessly. It’s like Jane Austen gone mean. Which makes it all the more touching when Agnes opens her heart to love. There is no melodrama here. You could film the whole thing without once having recourse to a candelabra or a smoke machine. And it’s all the more powerful for that.
I read this novel too early and didn’t understand it. But on a second read, it floored me. Deeply controversial in its time, it is about a woman who leaves her abusive husband to start a new life, as a single mother and an artist. It’s a breath of fresh air. Which is perhaps an odd thing to say about a book that relentlessly describes what it is like to live with a self-destructive alcoholic. Although there is a touch of the Gothic—a mysterious heroine, a ruined house, windswept moorland trysts, and fantastical yet sinister topiary—I’ve put this near the end because the novel is a conscious critique of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Anne wanted to know why her sisters had made violent, hard-drinking men so attractive. She also wanted to smash the Victorian idea that a woman should be an angel in the house.
'I, Lucy Snowe, was calm.' This is a massive lie. The heroine of Charlotte’s last novel is not at all calm. She is seething with rage, lust and ambition. But she is always trying to suppress her feelings. And she won’t open her heart to anyone, not even the reader. I’ve put this complex book last because it was the last to be written and it feels like a novel by a survivor; Charlotte wrote it, after she lost Branwell, Emily and Anne, and it reflects on all the Brontë novels that have gone before. Its heroine Lucy is a survivor too, of a tragedy she won’t talk about. She travels to Villette (a city based on Brussels) to make her own way. She gets a job as a teacher, she falls for not one but two men, and she slowly starts to let go of her self-control and allow herself to love again, though she is equally passionate about her career. Perhaps the most complex of the Brontës’ novels, Villette is a slow burn...with fireworks (literal and metaphorical) at the end.
And if you want to keep on reading...
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a provocative perspective-flip that imagines a prequel to Jane Eyre. It takes the madwoman out of the attic and back to her stormy childhood in Jamaica. The volatile, fragile Creole heiress comes apart at the seams when she is married off to cold, unsympathetic Rochester.
Nelly Dean by Alison Case is another reimagining of a Brontë novel, this time Wuthering Heights. The housekeeper is now the heroine, and she proves to have just as stormy a life as Cathy ever did. You can enjoy this whether you love or hate Wuthering Heights.
The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne Du Maurier is an attempt to rescue Branwell’s reputation, by an author whose obsession with the Brontës inspired some of her most indelible novels. Her Branwell is not just a drinker but a dreamer, and this is a wonderful book about the pleasures and perils of imagination.
And if you want to know more about the Brontës...
Samantha Ellis is author of How to be a Heroine and is currently working on Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, which will be published in January 2017.