As literature lovers, we have endless lists of books we’d like to read, books we should have read, books we just couldn’t read, and those we just couldn’t put down. Our shelves are full of priceless treasures, nightmares, and guilty pleasures. Personally, I believe you can read someone’s character (excuse the pun) by taking a look at their bookshelf and exploring their literary tastes. Whenever I have the chance to sneak a look at an unfamiliar bookshelf, my eyes seek nineteenth century authors such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker. I am always delighted to find these authors, however, the writers I seek the most are of course, the Brontës. I can understand the absence of the Glass Town, Angrian, and Gondal writings of the siblings, however, I am perplexed, and a little angry if I find either a metaphorical or a physical gap where the adult works of the Brontë sisters should stand. Then I get slightly desperate to introduce the writings of the sisters to whoever is unfortunate enough to:
A. Not have the works of the Brontë sisters on their bookshelf
B. Let me see that they do not have the works of the Brontë sisters on their bookshelf
Although I adore the writings of all of the Brontë siblings (including Branwell), Charlotte is “my Brontë”, the sibling that I identify with the most and the one whose works I return to endlessly. I am not unique in this respect; every Brontë devotee has a sibling that they, for whatever reason, have claimed as their own. I admire Charlotte’s dedication to her craft, and her determination to succeed. I enjoy her strong characters and realism (which I admit is tinged slightly with the Gothic) in her adult works, and her playfulness and experimental narrative styles in her early works and juvenilia.
Whilst Charlotte is “my Brontë” I cannot ignore or neglect the works of her siblings. The internet is full of discussions on the writings and lives of this remarkable literary family which include reviews, speculation, theories, lists of favourites, and reasons for our choices. One thing is certain, there is something about the writings of this family which speaks to us across the centuries. Here is a list of my Brontë books. Reader, I wonder, who is your Brontë, and what are your own Brontë books?
The Brontë Book I wish I had written: Jane Eyre. This is without a doubt Charlotte’s masterpiece and I’ve read it more times than I can count. I love following Jane’s journey from headstrong and neglected child orphan to headstrong, proud, and respected woman. I admire her sense of morality and her ability to rule with her head rather than her heart in times of desperation. I can’t help adoring Mr. Rochester either, the teasing, tormenting, and tortured eventual husband of Jane. The narrative style is neither complex nor demanding, enabling the reader to fully immerse themselves in Jane’s world.
The Brontë Book I couldn’t finish: Anne’s Agnes Grey defeated me for a long time. I picked it up and put it down again countless times but could never really get into the story and past the opening pages. Maybe it didn’t help that I already knew how the events unfolded, maybe it didn’t help that although this novel was actually written first, Jane Eyre, another narrative about a governess by Anne’s sister Charlotte is an absolute slice of perfection and I never thought it could live up to that. It turns out that it didn’t. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Agnes Grey and Anne’s rather more grim and probably truthful account of the life of a governess. However, very little actually happens over the course of the narrative and the only real conflict is resolved at the beginning of the novel with the financial troubles of the Grey family and Anne’s dismissal from the Bloomfield’s, who although are an absolutely appalling family, are infinitely more interesting than Agnes’s next employers, the Murrays. It’s true that Mr. Weston has his charms, however, to me, the novel, and its characters felt slightly underdeveloped. I only wish we could have seen a bit more of Alice Grey’s sass. What a woman.
The Brontë Book I’d like to give: Caroline Vernon is a novelette written by Charlotte in 1839. It was never submitted for publication and is the final narrative in her Angrian saga. The tale is a coming of age story in which the teenage protagonist Caroline Vernon either seduces or is seduced by an older man, Zamorna. The tale maps her journey over the threshold from adolescence to adulthood, and from innocence to experience. But whether you read this as an exercise in male power, or , like myself, the testing of boundaries and the portrayal of a young woman boldly taking control of her own sexuality, it is one of the more engaging Angrian narratives which can be read, understood, and interpreted in isolation.
The Brontë Book that was an unexpected pleasure: The Green Dwarf by Charlotte. This was the text which ignited the spark of my juvenilia passion back in 2011. A former boyfriend picked it up in his local library and presented it to me knowing I loved the Brontë sisters. I had never heard of it so I was puzzled as I took it from him, but I have never looked back. I couldn’t believe this was the same Charlotte that was responsible for the very serious Jane Eyre. The narrative is a short Gothic Romance which is easy to read and a lot of fun. Some prior knowledge of Glass Town and the Brontë juvenilia makes you appreciate this more, as I soon found out, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable short read, and a good place to start if you’re considering delving into Charlotte’s early work.
The Brontë Book I made a point of reading: Anne’s Agnes Grey and Charlotte’s Shirley. However, as I have already discussed the former above, it’s time to look at Shirley. This was never top of my list, so I left it until last after I had read Charlotte’s other adult novels. It seemed a bit dull, and despite the difference in setting was associated with The Professor in my mind. It isn’t perfect, and one can only speculate as to why Caroline Helstone survives her illness, however, there is plenty to make up for this. Shirley herself is an engaging and bold literary heroine, and the Moore brothers do have a certain charm to them. It is perhaps the novel in which Charlotte’s sense of realism is at its greatest, and there is a sense of history to the novel which is not present in her other adult works.
The Brontë Book I wish I hadn’t bothered with: The Brontë book that disappointed me the most was Charlotte’s The Professor which I read after Jane Eyre. This is not a bad novel, but after the dizzying heights of Jane and Rochester, I can understand why this book was initially rejected for publication. It’s a stripped back and bare tale which does admittedly lack any real conflict, or action, similarly to Anne’s Agnes Grey, however, over the years I have grown to appreciate it for what it is. Perhaps it is the fact that I now read the novel as an extension of her juvenilia after coming across a convincing critical argument on the subject. Although Charlotte reuses names and character relationships, it is not set in Angria, and does not feature the same characters, and should instead be considered alongside Ashworth, her unfinished novel which retains many features of her juvenilia.
The Brontë Book that changed my life: Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Wow. Just Wow. I couldn’t put it down, I wanted to pick it straight back up when I had, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. The power of Emily’s words and characters, the passion and the torment she so perfectly captures on the page, and of course, Heathcliff, her own mysterious Byronic hero. Cathy’s bold nature and spirit enthralled me, as did *SPOILER ALERT – LOOK AWAY NOW IF YOU DON’T KNOW* her shocking death about halfway. As different as it is from Charlotte’s own adult works, the supernatural and Gothic element links the sisters’ books, and the forceful and domineering characters connect it to Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Although humour is not traditionally discussed with regards to Wuthering Heights, there is actually a lot of comedy in the narrative, mainly thanks to the rather ridiculous figure of Lockwood. His interactions with Heathcliff make me cringe and howl with laughter; I can quite clearly picture Heathcliff rolling his eyes at his tenant. In fact, I think Lockwood is the most underrated character in the Brontë canon.
The Brontë Book everyone should read: Villette is Charlotte’s underrated and magnificent masterpiece. Set in Belgium, the novel is arguably a re-working and fleshed out version of The Professor featuring Lucy Snowe, a heroine who seems meek and mild, but is gritty, courageous, determined, but remarkably human, as is demonstrated when she falls in love. It has the conflict that The Professor lacks and the heroine that Shirley cannot quite conjure, in addition to a romantic relationship which feels as authentic as that of Jane and Rochester. The ambiguous and jaw-dropping ending (depending on your own interpretation of events) also gives the reader plenty of food for thought long after the final page has been turned.
My guilty pleasure: Charlotte and Branwell’s earliest works. Sure, they’re not literary masterpieces, but they’re never dull and it is fascinating to see how not only the relationship between their respective characters play out on the page, but also that of the two siblings. One of my favourite early works of Charlotte’s is her short play The Poetaster in which she ridicules not only her brother, but Branwell’s own literary creations (which were based on himself), and I particularly enjoy tales such as The Pirate and The Politics of Verdopolis by Branwell.
Everyone has their own Brontë, and everyone will have their own Brontë books. Some readers may shake their heads and fists at my comments, others may agree with me, for where we love, we are biased, and both love and literature provoke strong reactions.
By Nicola Friar a.k.a. The Brontë Babe
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Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @NicolaFriar where I tweet about books, the Brontës and lost dogs. A lot.