|Charlotte Brontë circa 1840|
Why those subversive Brontë sisters still hypnotise us
The bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth next month has produced a slew of events that highlight the sisters’ appeal to all ages
Sun 27 Mar 2016 00.05 GMT
|Mia Wasikowska in the 2011 film version of Charlotte’s most famous book, Jane Eyre. Photograph: Laurie Sparham|
hey are beloved by everyone from misunderstood teens and fools for love to the serious-minded middle-aged and those of a critical bent. Now the Brontë sisters are taking centre stage again as the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth next month brings a host of events at their Yorkshire home and elsewhere.
At Haworth parsonage on the bleakly beautiful Yorkshire moors, where Charlotte and her sisters Emily and Anne lived and wrote and now home to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the bicentenary will be marked by a full programme from the Brontë Society. Highlights include Charlotte Great and Small, an exhibition curated by the novelist Tracy Chevalier, which combines new art works with existing pieces, and the launch of Reader, I Married Him, a collection of short stories.
But it’s not just the Brontë Society that is succumbing to Brontëmania. The National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition, Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: 1816-1855, which will display personal items including previously unseen paintings, letters and journals from the parsonage museum alongside portraits from the gallery’s collection. BBC Radio 3 recently paid homage to Charlotte with the series I Am Yours Sincerely, in which a number of her letters were read, and Radio 4 has been dramatising Jane Eyre in 15-minute slots on Woman’s Hour this month.
On Saturday night, BBC2 screened Being the Brontës, in which presenter Martha Kearney, journalist Lucy Mangan and novelist Helen Oyeyemi debated their favourite sister and examined their continuing appeal. Claire Harman’s well-reviewed biography of Charlotte is published in paperback next month, while three new novels will also consider the Brontë legacy: Catherine Lowell’s much praised debut The Madwoman Upstairs, which centres on a young woman who is the Brontë family’s last living descendant; Sam Baker’s hugely anticipated thriller, The Woman Who Ran, a modern-day retelling of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; and Lyndsay Faye’s “satirical romance” Jane Steele, which riffs on Jane Eyre for its tale of a Victorian female serial killer. Later this year Sally Wainwright will follow her crime series Happy Valley with To Walk Invisible, a two-hour drama focusing on the Brontës’ lives between 1845 and 1848 “when they were all either drawn or forced back to the family home”.
So why exactly do the Brontë sisters, these rural curate’s daughters with only a handful of novels between them, continue to fascinate us? From the moment Jane Eyre was published in 1847 they have exerted an almost hypnotic pull: where other literary sensations flash bright, then fade to earth, the Brontës endure, their stories adapted again and again for both stage and screenJane Eyreand Wuthering Heights.
“I think a lot of it is that we’re fascinated by the idea that these three women living in a cold, cramped house in Yorkshire wrote these extraordinary novels about the most intense human experiences,” says author and playwright Samantha Ellis, whose book, Take Courage, about Anne Brontë, will be published early next year.
“There’s something very appealing about the idea that they pushed back against the limits of their world. There are lots of neater, better planned books, but the Brontë novels work because they’re open-ended. We don’t know what Anne, Emily and Charlotte really wanted us to think and that means we take away something new each time.”
Certainly it’s true that there’s something almost mythical about the Brontë creation story, the idea of these three isolated young women writing so desperately that the words were almost flung on to the page. Ted Hughes called them the “three weird sisters”, intentionally summoning Macbeth’s blasted heath to Haworth parsonage. To his wife Sylvia Plath, who paid homage in a poem named Wuthering Heights, they “wrote … in a house redolent with ghosts”. Daphne du Maurier was so obsessed that she paid homage twice – to Jane Eyre with the sharp-edged and haunting Rebecca and to Wuthering Heights with the wild menace of Jamaica Inn – and writers from Jean Rhys and Muriel Spark to Emma Tennant and Fay Weldon have reimagined their lives and work.
“I think their tragic real-life experiences [the deaths of their mother and older sisters and later of their brother Branwell] undoubtedly give added appeal to readers,” says Kearney. “It’s amazing to think that Jane Eyreand Wuthering Heights are still so popular. I think it’s the sheer power of the storytelling – who can forget the madwoman in the attic or Heathcliff?”
Lowell agrees. “One of the things I most love about the Brontës is that they give the lie to the notion that to be a great writer you have to have epic life experiences – that whole Ernest Hemingway, Jack London thing,” she says. “Emily never left her home, but she wrote Wuthering Heights. To be a great writer you just have to be a great observer. There’s also a real nugget of truth in all the books. Jane Eyre is a great lesson in authenticity and being true to yourself which still resonates in an era when women are still told so much how they should dress and act.”
Yet it is also true that the Brontë myth can confuse more than enlighten. Writing in the Guardian in 2011, Blake Morrison astutely noted that “the morbid caricature that developed in the wake of [Elizabeth] Gaskell’s biography – with Haworth depicted as a remote and sinister spot and the parsonage as a gloomy hideout for a trio of unworldly spinsters – is largely nonsense. The Brontë letters … are sharp and sometimes funny. Their novels … full of insights into the social conditions of the day.”
Indeed, the most striking thing about the Brontë novels is how subversive they are. On the surface these might seem like tales of love lost and won, of happy endings and reader, I married him, but they are also strange and spiky tales. “There’s a lot of wanting and yearning, not all of it romantic,” says Ellis. “These are difficult books to contain. They’re over-egged and weird and often troubling.” Thus Jane takes Rochester once he has been crippled and blinded, unable to exert his male power. Wuthering Heights is less the story of wild romantic love as much as a tale of abuse, madness and unfettered rage, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is more concerned with the act that frees Helen, her slamming of the door against her drunken husband, than it is with her conventional end. “There’s a clear line from Rochester to Heathcliff to Arthur Huntingdon,” says Baker. “All three male leads are really abusive.”
Nor does the uncomfortable subject matter stop there. While Wuthering Heights stands apart simply by dint of its strangeness – like it or loathe it, there is nothing else quite like it in literature – Charlotte and Anne were tackling subjects that women did not normally write about: the need to find your own place in the world; the tribulations of having to do soul-sapping, back-breaking, mind-numbing work simply to survive; the problems of being trapped in an abusive marriage. “I think of the Brontës as outsider authors,” says Baker. “Charlotte and Anne in particular are really radical and because of that their stories transcend their time. The themes feel just as relevant today.”
Nor is it just women who respond to their work. “I know lots of men who love the Brontës,” says Ellis. “There’s a bit of myth that they’re writers for women, that it’s all about Heathcliff and Rochester, but more men read them than you’d think.”
Yet whoever is reading them, they’ll always have one sister they think of as “theirs”. “Definitely,” says Ellis. “You’re either Charlotte, Emily or Anne and you can tell a lot by which book someone claims as their own. I was doing a reading in London last year about Jane Eyre versus Wuthering Heights and a teenage girl came up to me afterwards and said to me, ‘I will never give up Cathy and Heathcliff, not now, not when I am 40.’ And that’s how it should be. Your passions are your own.”
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell is published by Quercus Press, £14.99; The Woman Who Ran, by Sam Baker, is published by Harper Press, £7.99; Being the Brontës is available on BBC iPlayer
WATCH OUT FOR …
■ Charlotte Great and Small – exhibition curated by novelist Tracy Chevalier exploring the contrast between the tiny things in life and Charlotte’s huge desires. Includes items that belonged to Charlotte and new works commissioned by Chevalier and made for the bicentenary. Runs at Brontë Parsonage Museum until next January.
■ The Brontë Festival of Women’s Writing (9-11 September) includes The Magic of the Miniature where Jessie Burton, Grace McCleen and Tracy Chevalier discuss the psychology of the miniature, featuring readings from Burton’s and McCleen’s work.
■ Grace McCleen is writer in residence at the Brontë Parsonage Museum during 2016. The work produced during this time will be shared in 2017.
■ Children’s author and former children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson is an ambassador for Charlotte Brontë during the bicentenary year.