It’s said that readers fall into one of two camps: Team Austen or Team Brontë. Both the most prolific female writers of the nineteenth-century, if of all time, their writings couldn’t be more contrary. The former, a shrewd observer of human relationships and social decorum in Regency Britain; the latter, a trio of sisters who pierced the psychology, passions and instincts of human nature. There’s no doubting the timeless brilliance of either author – but with a uniqueness that continues to beguile and shock readers, no small feat in the modern age, my affinity is firmly with the Brontës.
This year marks the bicentennial anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, and seems a good time to celebrate the extraordinary legacy she shares with her siblings, Anne and Emily. All born between 1816 and 1820, they were raised in the remote village of Haworth, where their father was the local priest. It seems incredible that from this sheltered upbringing they became responsible for some of the most vivid and insightful novels in the history of English Literature: Charlotte for Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853); Anne for Agnes Gray (1848) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848); and Emily for Wuthering Heights (1847).
It isn’t an overstatement to claim that these novels revolutionised the art, the purpose and the potential of fiction. The darkly romantic Wuthering Heights was referred to as ‘a fiend of a book, an incredible monster’, both for its depiction of mental and physical cruelty and its subversion of strict Victorian ideals. The internalised action of Jane Eyre gave novels the scope for private consciousness, a style that was previously the realm of poetry. The individualistic personalities of all their heroines were seen as shockingly modern, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is sometimes championed as the first feminist novel.
The depth of the Brontës’ imaginative vision manifested itself early in childhood. In 1826 their father bought them a set of twelve toy wooden soldiers, around whom the siblings began to devise fantasy worlds, complete with characters and narratives. Charlotte and her older brother Branwell founded Angria, a fictitious African empire; Emily and Anne, often pushed to inferior positions when they were each playing, rebelled by establishing their own kingdom of Gondal. Absorbed within their imaginary worlds, they each began to write poetry and increasingly complex stories, slowly honing their creative abilities.
This passion for character, story and invention is what characterises their mature work. Each of the novels are invested with heightened intensity and visceral power; the characters of Jane and Rochester, Cathy and Heathcliff and the madwoman in the attic have haunted and enriched the minds of readers for generations since. Humanity is depicted in all its glory and depravity, and I think they’re among the first novelists to convincingly illustrate the fine boundary between the emotions of love and hate. Wuthering Heights was recently voted the greatest love story of all time, but it’s a tale laden with violence, abuse and cruelty.
Their experimentation with the novel form also transformed the skill of story-telling itself. Their use of first-person narrative created a greater sense of intimacy between reader and writer. But they also stretched the possibilities of this form, laying bare how narrators can deceive readers and distort the entire fabric of their story: Jane’s revelation, ‘Reader, I married him’, that she has been married to Rochester through her entire story; Wuthering Heights’ ‘Russian doll’ narrative structure; or the superbly evasive Lucy Snowe of Villette, who breaks all of the rules of narrative by consciously concealing facts from the reader.
The transformative power of these novels has touched not just readers but writers. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Kazuo Ishiguro are among the authors whose work has been inspired by the Brontës. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca evokes clear shades of Jane Eyre, while Jean Rhys’ award-winning Wide Sargasso Sea is written as a prequel and response to the same novel. It’s no surprise that the sisters are often regarded as having been ahead of their time, and the forerunners of modern literature and beyond.
Indeed, some novels, however much they’re still read and admired, simply age. Yet the Brontës’ work remains ever-alive, still fertile with ideas and insights unmatched anywhere else in literature. Jane, Rochester and Heathcliff have received a near-mythical status in modern culture, but not so much as the authors themselves: the trio of private sisters whose imaginations lived to captivate the world for two centuries, and will long continue to do so.