Last month marked 200 years since the birth of Charlotte Bronte, the eldest of the three Bronte sisters. These women produced some of the greatest works of literature not only of the nineteenth century, but of the history of the English language, and did so at a time when they could only be published under pseudonyms concealing their gender. Writing from their father’s parsonage in the small village of Howarth on the North Yorkshire Moors, their works are both insular and expansive, horrifying and romantic, subdued and explosive, and are as startling and affecting to read now as they were over a century ago.
My introduction to The Bronte sisters began in my A level classroom. We were set to read Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, and at first I was dismayed – for some reason, I expected insipid, soppy faux-gothic romance, a kind of precursor to the ‘Twilight’ series. What I found instead was an intense, tightly wound domestic horror, a sharp social critique and an unflinching character study of some of the cruellest and most fascinating figures in Western Literature. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is only ‘romantic’ in the artistic sense; it is dramatic and overpowering, as raw and spine-tingling as John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings. It is true that it is a love story, but it is the story of a love between two of the most horrible, most wildly intense, most fascinating people ever committed to fiction.
In my spare time I then devoured the sisters’ other iconic work, Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre’. Published in 1847, it was essentially a feminist text before the term had even been coined. Growing up poor, plain and female in the hyper-patriarchal Victorian class system, the headstrong Jane somehow navigates a world dead-set against her without compromising her fierce morals. ‘Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!’ exclaims Jane to the rich Mr Rochester, perfectly skewing the Victorian ideas of women as objects and the working class as unfeeling hooligans. The gothic underbelly of Victorian creeps through, first in Jane’s account of the death of one of her boarding school classmates as they sleep in the same bed, and then in the reveal of the ‘madwoman in the attic’, Mr Rochester’s ‘insane’ wife Bertha Mason.
Modern critics have quite rightly dissected the problematic aspects of her portrayal, from the potentially racist overtones of her ’madness’ and ‘savagery’ (Rochester married her in the Caribbean; she is described ambiguously as ‘creole’, and her madness apparently runs in the family) to the demonization of female sexuality. However, the plot twist remains as dramatic and masterfully plotted even now that it is cultural common knowledge; the image of Bertha’s hellish confinement and her desperate violence is still as creeping and horrific as it was in the 19th century.
Anne is often seen as the underdog of the sisters – the least read, least iconic. While she didn’t share her sister’s passion for supernatural horrors or Byronic heroes, her novels are sharply witty, sparkling social critiques. Based on her experiences during her five-year career as a governess, ‘Agnes Grey’ follows a young woman in her role as a governess for the spoilt, unruly children of Britain’s social elite. With an eye for hypocrisy as sharp as Dickens’, her personal, semi-autobiographical portrait of women’s work in the 19th century was as valuable and insightful then as it is now.
What amazes me most about the Bronte sisters is that they were not only all talented writers; they chose to pursue and were successful in writing at a time and in a society so patriarchal that they all chose to publish under male pseudonyms in order to be taken seriously. ‘Acton’, ‘Ellis’ and ‘Currer Bell’ published their first novels in quick succession in the mid-1840s, and shocked the Victorian public with their directness and intensity, their portrayals of strong women and their reluctance to shy away from horror and cruelty. One critic of Wuthering Heights remarked ‘how a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors’, with another deciding that ‘the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.’
The Bronte sisters were undeniably before their time, and their raw, unrestrained emotion and uncompromising storytelling still startles new readers to this day. May their headstrong heroines and wild moorland landscapes continue to overwhelm and inspire for another 200 years and beyond.
[Clare Patterson –@clurrpatterson]