I finally finished all seven novels by the British Brontë sisters. For those who don’t know, the Brontës were a family of much talent and more tragedy. The patriarch outlived his wife, his sister-in-law, and all six of his children by a good deal.
So, first, a brief history lesson. Or you can skip this part and head straight to Wikipedia. Patrick Bronte was an Anglican clergyman who married a woman named Maria Branwell and they had six children – Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, (Patrick) Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Maria the elder died at 38 of cancer, and her sister Elizabeth came to help out with the family while Patrick tried to get remarried (he never did). As an aside, Maria the elder also had a sister named Charlotte, so her first three daughters were named after her own family members. This is not confusing at all.
The girls were sent to school, but Maria and Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis, and died before age 13, so the other girls were withdrawn from school, mostly home-schooled, but eventually sent to a new school that was not riddled with disease; unfortunately all the wells in their home town were downstream of the church graveyard so ill-health plagued them for their entire lives. The remaining four kids were extremely creative and got along very well. As they got older, Charlotte travelled to Belgium and got into a bit of a love triangle with a teacher that ended badly. She and Anne were governesses for a while, which was both bad and good. Aunt Elizabeth died of bowel obstruction but left the girls enough money to clear their debts. Branwell was an artist and never settled down and ended up in trouble with drinking, gambling, and a scandal involving a married woman (who was Anne’s employer at the time). He ended up dying of tuberculosis and complications from alcoholism at age 31. Soon after, Emily and Anne both got sick and ended up dying of tuberculosis at the ages of 30 and 29, respectively. Charlotte lost all her siblings within a single year. At age 38, Charlotte married Alfred Bell Nicholls, a local clergyman and friend of the family. Then she died of tuberculosis and pregnancy-related complications. Patrick Brontë lived to be 84 years old.
Obviously their short life experiences were major sources of inspiration for their writing (all the novels could be considered semi-autobiographical). The three sisters ended up publishing seven novels between them and some poetry. Understanding the gender politics of their time, they published under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (this is well before Charlotte got married). One common thread of all the novels is the small cast of characters. This small cast requires certain coincidences to have them all interact with each other, but such coincidences (which do push into the realm of contrivance occasionally) are part and parcel of novels of this time. This narrative conceit is present in pretty much all soap operas and most long-running serial drama media.
Charlotte, being the longest-lived, published the most. Here are my recommendations in order from worst to best (in my opinion anyway):
4) The Professor – A first-person story about an Englishman forced to seek a living overseas and ends up teaching in all-girls boarding school in Belgium. The main character is young, arrogant, and seems to have no respect and only disdain for his pupils because they are a) Catholic and b) Belgian. He eventually marries one of the other teachers, but it turns out she’s actually half English and only wants to go back to England. Eventually he abandons uncouth Belgium for his native shores with his new wife. I don’t recommend this one. It’s bitter and not an easy read, and I can’t tell if it’s meant to be satirical, or if it’s just prejudiced. Given Charlotte’s life experiences, I think it’s prejudiced.
3) Villette – A first-person story about Lucy Snowe, an Englishwoman who suffers many hardships and lands a job teaching English at a boarding school in Villette, a town in Belgium. Lucy has much less disdain for the natives than the professor above, but is a lot more down on Catholics. One of the central conflicts is the effort of a priest attempting to convert her to Catholicism in a time of crisis and the stress of trying to have a relationship with a lapsed Jesuit. Lucy spends a lot of time suffering, and some of it is her own fault because she’s decided she’s just meant to suffer, and there’s a lot of praying to God. The novel is the second longest, the ending is unsatisfactory, and the praise for Protestantism gets a bit tiresome. There is some good writing here, but I wouldn’t recommend this except for the hardcore British literature fan.
2) Shirley – Despite the title, the character “Shirley” doesn’t appear for the first third of the story (and this is the longest of Charlotte’s novels). The story could be more accurately titled “Caroline” as she is really the main character. This story is also not told in first-person. She’s a pastor’s niece (her degenerate father having died and her mother given her up) in a small rural town moving to a more industrial town. This is set during the Napoleonic wars, so industry is hurting and therefore many people have lost their jobs and are starving. Caroline has the misfortune of being too educated to be happy where she is but not educated enough to go elsewhere and get a job. She’s also suffering from a case of unrequited love. Shirley, a rich heiress, enters when Caroline is at her most depressed and the rest of the novel concerns their friendship, love-lives, and some of the unpleasant town politics. Also, this was probably more shocking when it was written because once upon a time “Shirley” was a boy’s name. So consider if the main character was named “Dave” and turned out to be a woman. This one is an easier read, has a more satisfactory ending than the above (if a bit predictable), dramatic but not melodramatic, and I’d recommend this one to a casual Brit lit reader.
1) Jane Eyre – The most famous of her novels, and for good reason. This is told from Jane’s perspective in the far future so the author can cheat a bit with narrative convention. Jane is poor, plain, pious, and abused, and eventually takes up a job as a governess with the plain-looking but mysterious Mr. Rochester. In time, they fall in love, but they are split apart when Jane learns his dark secret. She runs away, eventually returns to him, and even though he’s maimed, they get a happy ending. This novel is melodramatic. It’s meant to be, though, and Jane’s seriousness and innocence is a good foil for the dark, mysterious nature of Mr. Rochester. This is my personal favorite, and I’d recommend it to anyone; granted, some of the language is a bit dry, but the melodramatic elements help balance that.
Emily – poor Emily only published one novel in her short lifetime.
Wuthering Heights – Despite this being her only novel, it has become famous for the destructive love story between the two main characters. Often overlooked is the fact one main character is dead about 1/3 of the way into the story. Anyway, it’s told in a sort of second-person narrator style from the point of view of a maid who lived through the whole mess. It is dark and melodramatic, and I certainly see why it was so popular. I’d recommend it, and any readers of my blog won’t be surprised that the story focuses a good deal more on the aftermath of the doomed love story than the love story itself.
Anne – she managed to publish two novels in her short lifetime. The second was so scandalous (and most likely based on their brother Branwell) Charlotte refused to release it to another print run after her sister’s death.
2) Agnes Grey – Which could also just be called “Anne Brontë.” This first person story is about Agnes Grey, a plain, clergyman’s daughter, who leaves home to work as a governess. The family is rich and haughty, the children (two teenage girls and a younger boy) are thoroughly spoiled in different ways, and Agnes suffers constant verbal and emotional abuse from her employers and young charges. Eventually her piety and strength lead her to leave the bad situation and she gets a happy ending marrying a young clergyman. All of the drama is quiet and personal, although it is an interesting window into class-ism in Britain at the time. I’d recommend this to people who might be interested in a low-key soap opera.
1) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – The story is bookended with first-person narration from a discontented son of a gentleman farmer who wants little to do with the family business but has pretty much no choice but to inherit it. He meets a mysterious widow (the titular tenant) and falls in love, but she pushes him aside at every turn. Finally he convinces her to tell him what’s going on, and then it switches to her story as read from her diary. It turns out she married the Bad Boy her aunt warned her against marrying and that pretty much ruined her life because the Bad Boy didn’t get better (what a shock) and by the laws of her day, she has zero autonomy from her husband. Eventually the Bad Boy meets a bad end, and the tenant and farmer can live happily ever after. This one is dramatic, but some of the actions of the farmer indicate he’s got some of the same tendencies as the Bad Boy, so it’s hard for me to root for him to get the girl because I see red flags. Dramatic, yes, recommended, well, yes, but be forewarned the happy ending has somewhat of a bitter taste (at least to me).
Other notes – as stated above, the sisters originally published under male pseudonyms. The only reason the world found out otherwise was because their publishing company was convinced Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell were actually the same person. Charlotte and Anne had to make a trip to London to set them straight before they sold the novel rights to another company. Suddenly their writing, which had been generally well-received, garnered a lot of criticism for being too harsh or not feminine enough. Anne had an interesting essay on this as her forward for the second edition of “Tenant.”
There’s debate in the academic community on which sister is the most talented/unique/deserving of praise. Charlotte’s work got a lot more notoriety simply because she published the most. Emily’s single novel was a huge hit (obviously), and Anne’s second novel was as well. In the forward of the edition of “Tenant” that I read, the biographer was of the opinion Anne’s writing was inferior to her sisters, which made me wonder who allowed that biographer to write that forward (because nothing says, “Read this book,” like a person commenting, “It’s really not as good as all that”). There are obvious similarities in the writing style and in many of the themes (and even inspiration). I really don’t see as major a difference between the sisters’ writing as I do in Charlotte’s alone.
I think it’s a real pity the Brontë children didn’t live longer. The world never knew what Maria and Elizabeth were capable of, and the others died young. But seven novels is seven more than none, and I’m glad I decided to read all of them, even if I didn’t like all of them.
Silent Rage – In my quest to torture myself by watching bad movies, I stumbled across this Chuck Norris vehicle. I assumed there would be a little talking and a lot of kicking. I was actually disappointed. I feel this was originally written as a straight-up horror movie (featuring a scientifically enhanced serial killer) but when Chuck Norris ended up the lead, some parts were changed to try to make the movie more, well, Chuck Norris-like. There’s a scene where Chuck beats up a whole bar full of bikers in a way that has nothing to do with the main plot (stopping the super-suped up previously dead serial killer) but everything to do with Chuck taking on a bunch of thugs one by one. I don’t suggest it even as a bad movie.
Once Upon a Time – Speaking of things that are not what I thought, I did try this show out a couple of times. Really, this is nothing more than a soap opera with fairy tale characters. I feel like this could be a lot more interesting if the writing didn’t fall into the same clichéd tropes – good turns evil, evil turns good, evil turns evil again, etc. It’s also disconcerting to me to watch these Disney princesses (and princes) treated like soap opera characters. I know fairy tales are supposed to be short and simplistic, and I know there is material to be mined in treating those characters in a more fully realized way, but somehow this adaptation just doesn’t work for me.
The Last Airbender – Speaking of adaptations that don’t work out, I have heard rumors that this movie that put a hole in my soul and did have a sequel lead-in may actually get a sequel. I just can’t even begin to understand how this could happen. Yes, the source material is great. Yes, I can’t think of how a sequel could possibly be worse than the first movie, but on the other hand, I couldn’t imagine how what seemed like such a slam dunk adaptation could be screwed up so very, very badly. I would really prefer it if the studios just didn’t go there.
Beetlejuice – Speaking of sequels no one wanted or asked for, there is indeed a sequel listed as in pre-production for Beetlejuice. I am very sad. For those who haven’t seen this, or are only acquainted with the insane cartoon, see this movie (and forget what you think you know from the cartoon; I honestly don’t know how the jump from PG-13 dark comedy to children-friendly cartoon was made; also, don’t believe the PG rating IMDb cites; the title character drops at least one obvious f-bomb). Back when Tim Burton’s work was new and different and before it was inseparably connected to Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp (but after he connected with Danny Elfman), this movie was released. It’s about a couple who dies and finds out the afterlife is not at all what they expected. The character Betelgeuse is actually not in the movie very much (although one does understand why people were upset when Michael Keaton was cast as Batman). It’s good; I recommend it, and it is only one of the many, many movies that doesn’t need a sequel (or prequel), and not for the reasons of The Last Airbender. Granted, the special effects are somewhat dated, but this movie is nearly perfect the way it is. No more story is necessary, nothing else is required, do not mess with what is already good. This pretty much never, ever turns out well…
I’m going to weep now.
Many modern TV shows have lousy introductions. I understand that as the demand to add more commercials to every hour of TV has increased, some parts of the actual show itself need to be decreased. But the introduction is important to pull potential audiences into the show. Older shows had elaborate intros and slick theme songs. More modern ones have a 30-second bit of music and some relevant shots. Kind of lame. If the premise is a bit odd, I think an intro should try to inform the audience of that premise. And if the premise is pretty typical (like yet another sitcom), then the intro should at least be memorable.
Cartoons in general have not forgotten the importance of a good intro. This may be because a lot of cartoon producers think children are stupid and/or easily drawn to bright flashy lights. Even if the reason may be condescending, some of those intros still stick with me.
Honorable mention – Sailor Moon. I’m going to stick with traditional Western animated shows for the rest of this list because anime has its own introduction conventions. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention this because “Moonlight Densetsu” as performed for “Sailor Moon S” (third intro) is my favorite introduction(s) (this song had a lot of iterations). While I had a lot of issues with “Sailor Moon Crystal,” I did like “Moon Pride” a lot as well. I am a sucker for electric guitar.
10) Thundercats – This show is in the unique position of not only having a kick-ass introduction, but having an introduction that is ten times better than the show ever was. Like many shows of the ’80s, the production values of the opening animation were better than that of the show. With a rapid ’80s backbeat, we are introduced to each character via a few seconds of seeing them in action and see some of the villains. Gets the blood pumping for the show, which sadly could not live up to the intro.
9) Scooby Doo, Where are You? – Anyone who didn’t see this entry coming is obviously new to my blog, so welcome! While this show has had several iterations as well, I prefer the original song from the original show (Season 1 and 2 both work for me; incidentally, the video of all intros is a trip through musical history as well). I didn’t welcome having Shaggy sing parts of the intro in later versions, and “Scooby Doo Movies” had little going for the intro anyway. But I like the peppy ’60s pop beat and the fast-paced montage of series scenes which at least gave some idea of what was going on (although not the most thorough explanation of the premise).
8) The Real Ghostbusters – This intro benefits from the cinematic theme song sung by Ray Parker. It’s ’80s pop but damn catchy. The first intro of the series (my favorite) briefly shows a day in the life of the Ghostbusters: Janine gets the phone call, rings the bell, Slimer is obnoxious, and the guys get to show off the relevant parts of the show (Ecto 1, the packs, the traps, and a whole bunch of ghosts).
7) Beetlejuice – I don’t know who thought this movie was something to adapt to a kids show, but it was the ’80s and this seemed to be a popular thing to do. This is another that benefits from using the movie’s theme (by Danny Elfman) as the music. I like both intros, because they are both absolutely insane. The idea of Lydia being taken on this wild rollercoaster ride/crazy circus tour through the afterlife is conveyed perfectly and the characters are quickly introduced as part of this crazy ride. It sure builds up energy and makes the viewer excited to see the show.
6) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – The original ’80s intro. Like Thundercats, the animation of the intro was much smoother and better than the show itself. With fast ’80s pop and a frentic pace, the lyrics introduced the turtles and Splinter by name and with a little description before closing on that synthetic and oddly catchy “Heroes in a Half-Shell” tagline. Unlike the Thundercats, the actual show was as good as its introduction except for the animation quality. For those who are curious about the answer to life’s most important question, I’m Raphael. This should surprise nobody.
5) X-men – Fox wasn’t about to miss out on opportunities to sell kids stuff they didn’t need in the afternoons, so they tried a bit of a superhero line-up (and once upon a time, Fox handled its Marvel properties pretty well). This was my first introduction to comic books, no pun intended. The way the intro ramped up and increased pace combined with the name of each character and a quick demonstration of their power all leading up to a confrontation with all the bad guys was just really well done. I had no clue what this show was about, but I knew I definitely wanted to find out.
4) Ducktales – When Disney decided to get back into the afternoon animation game, Disney did not pull its punches. This theme is insanely catchy (whoo-ooo!). The intro features mostly scenes from the five pilot episodes (which are a much better Indiana Jones-esque romp than “Crystal Skull“) but also shows other scenes from the show including Scrooge leaping into the Money Bin and some of the villains that would plague them. Whoo-ooo indeed.
3) Tiny Toon Adventures – Disney’s competition for the afternoon animation game came from Warner Brothers, who attempted to revive their classic cartoon characters with younger characters that were similar but not quite the same. Babs and Buster Bunny (no relation) sing the introduction song which explains not only the premise (they are in school learning from the original characters) but also introduces pretty much every character that shows up. In a bit of a meta-twist, it’s clear the characters know they’re singing the theme song to their own show.
2) Animaniacs – Perhaps the best WB cartoon to come out in the modern age. The amount of talent assembled was fantastic. “Tiny Toons” was good, to be sure, but by the time this show came around, the good from “Tiny Toons” was made better and the bad (not that there was much) had been worked out. Like “Tiny Toons,” the introduction of Animaniacs explains the premise (via a narrator; which I cannot find a clip of), introduces the main characters, and then goes into the actual song, which introduces many of the other characters. And again, because the creative teams likes meta-humor, at one point the Warners look directly into the camera and sing, “and now you know the plot.”
1) Batman: the Animated Series – This one is kind of a ringer because the theme music is taken directly from Danny Elfman’s cinematic composition. But the animation helps make this theme so memorable. The intro is essentially a night in Gotham City; it’s dark, it’s gritty, it introduces the main character, captures the essence of the show and Batman perfectly, and not a word is spoken. Amazing. This is absolutely my favorite intro.
Of course, there may be other amazing introductions in the future. I hope so. Some of the cartoons are getting a bit lackluster in the introduction department as well. But I hold out hope there will be more investment in the part of the show specifically designed to draw viewers in.