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were sent to school, but Maria and Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis, and died before age 13, so the other girls were withdrawn from school, mostly home-schooled, but eventually sent to a new school that was not riddled with disease; unfortunately all the wells in their home town were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.