“Let me in—let me in! … I’m come home: I’d lost my way on the moor!” Readers meet Cathy when she appears as a ghost at the window. The story of Cathy and the poor orphan who loves her, Heathcliff, is a gothic masterpiece set on the Yorkshire moors. The two are childhood playmates who develop passionate feelings for one another. Their love is thwarted by social customs that forbid marriage between classes, and, as recent critics have argued, it’s likely that Emily intended for Heathcliff to be a Black man. In addition to the central romance, however, are subplots about arranged marriages, extramarital affairs, and kidnapping. And readers may be surprised to see how both Cathy and Heathcliff use anorexia in response to their unhappiness.
Jane Eyre opens with a great injustice: Jane is assaulted by her cousin, and when she fights back, her guardian, the hateful Mrs. Reed, sends her away to a boarding school for girls that’s run like a reformatory. Jane leaves the school as an adult and travels to Thornfield to become governess to Mr. Rochester’s ward, Adele. Jane considers herself plain and humble, and while she’s intrigued by Rochester, she never imagines that he would be interested in her. But what Jane doesn’t know is that Rochester is hiding an ugly secret, and its revelation leads to destruction and tragedy. The debate about Rochester’s secret and the resolution of the novel continues to be lively. Despite the over 20 filmed versions of the story, reading the novel is still an experience not to be missed.
The story of Lucy Snowe, a young woman who allows life to happen to her, but whose life is changed when she takes a position as a teacher in the fictional Belgium city of Villette. At first, she’s put off by the irascible, arrogant Monsieur Emanuel, who patronizes her in their exchanges. The pair develop feelings, but their differences in faith—she’s a Protestant, he Catholic—creates a seemingly impenetrable barrier that’s shored up by the cast of characters at the school who all seem to have nothing better to do than to busy themselves with interfering in Lucy’s life. By the time the ghost shows up, readers will find themselves immersed in Charlotte’s gorgeous prose in this gothic classic.
Charlotte began writing this novel in 1848, when a wave of revolutions moved across Europe with barricades in the streets of Paris, and other major cities seemed to portend momentous changes. Charlotte seems to have been inspired by these events to write about the years of 1811–1812, when the Napoleonic Wars continued to rage, and social unrest at home contributed to social tensions. Here, she sets two separate love stories. In addition to the romances are also her keen observations about the lives of women, and topics that feel relevant today. “Misery generates hate,” she wrote, and noted that people were so hungry that “for a morsel of meat they would have sold their birthright.”
Anne worked as a governess for five years, and her sister Emily said this novel reflects Anne’s feelings and experiences of that period of her life. The novel begins when 18-year old Agnes and her family suffer a huge financial setback after a disastrous investment by her father. Determined to help support her family, she takes a position as a governess with the Bloomfields. But the three Bloomfield children turn out to be brats uninterested in learning and who derive great pleasure from tormenting Agnes and getting her into trouble. Eventually, Agnes leaves their employ and goes to work for a family where she experiences an emotional awakening. Anne’s bildungsroman depicted the life of the governess as one where poor but educated women took positions where they had no protection from cruel employers and ghastly work conditions.
This is Charlotte’s first novel, in which she assumes the voice of William Crimsworth. The novel is regarded as an early version of what would eventually become Villette, but this shorter novel differs substantially due to its narration in a male voice. William is forthright about his desires and pursues them at the school where he teaches; he even ardently pursues the directress of the school. The remarkable aspect of The Professor is how action-based William’s narrative is. While women’s actions were curtailed in society at this time, his freedom serves to point out to its contemporary readers just how limited women’s lives were.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
When the mysterious Mrs. Graham takes up residence in the long-empty Wildfell Hall, the local gossip network roars into action. Every neighbor seems to have an opinion about the woman and her small son who live there. But Mrs. Graham likes her privacy, and she resists telling anyone much about her past. Gilbert Markham is smitten, however, and becomes quite relentless in querying Mrs. Graham. The story she reveals shocked readers with its fearless depiction of the denigration of a married woman and the domestic abuse she endures in order to protect her son. A novel that could have been written today, Anne was fearless in her discussion of the ways that boys were raised to sublimate their feelings into violence, and girls were raised to bear it all.
I read Jane Eyre for the first time as a teenager. My mum had recommended it to me. At the time, I thought reading 19th-century literature was a bit like eating broccoli. But I fell into the book after the first few pages, when Jane secrets herself on a window seat behind a curtain so she can read in peace and is set upon by her cruel cousin, the loathsome John Reed. And Jane’s assessment of herself, as smart but not pretty, lined up with my own teenaged sense of self. I’ve now read the novel at least three times, and I rarely read any novel more than once. As for the 20-plus film productions, I believe I’ve seen most of them. Timothy Dalton as Edward Rochester in the 1983 mini-series is still my favorite.
Many fans of Jane Eyre have also been fans of Wuthering Heights, the story of the tragic love affair between Cathy and Heathcliff, which continues after death with Cathy’s ghost demanding to be let in. The book also inspired Kate Bush’s ethereal, eponymous song, which has itself inspired annual tributes by mobs of women who perform the song, complete with Bush’s phantasmic choreography.
What may surprise fans of the two novels, however, is that while Emily died shortly after Wuthering Heights was published (at the age of 30 from tuberculosis), Charlotte continued to write and publish novels. And the third sister, Anne Brontë, published two novels that rival the work of her sisters. Both Charlotte and Anne shocked reading audiences with the topics they tackled, with Anne writing in great detail about a marriage in which the woman was abused by her alcoholic husband. The conditions under which women in Great Britain (and much of Europe and America) lived granted them few civil rights. At the time the Brontës were writing, once a woman married, all of her rights were ceded to her husband. Even if she brought money into the marriage, it was not hers to control but was legally recognized as belonging to her husband. Women could not vote, of course, but neither could they claim guardianship of their children. In rare cases of divorce, custody was given to fathers, and mothers had no legal claim to their children, which is one of the reasons that mothers were unwilling to divorce even the worst of men.
That situation is described in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which Helen goes into hiding with her son in order not to be found by her alcoholic husband, whose verbal abuse and threats of violence she has no legal recourse against. Contemporary critics were horrified by the “coarseness” of the first edition of the novel, in which Anne did not accede to Victorian sensibilities in her depiction of the full range of behaviors associated with alcoholism. While her husband never beats Helen, what becomes apparent is that he’s raising his son to behave in ways designed to be cruel to his mother as a way of the husband’s revenge against his wife. It is ugly.
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In addition to Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë wrote a novel that I think rivals it for greatness. I discovered Villette by accident. I was living in Florence, Italy, at the time, fully immersed in improving my Italian language skills while also conducting research. But I also wanted to read for pleasure, so I went to an English-language bookstore to find something. While I was there, I decided that I should take an opportunity to read a classic novel, which was when I chanced upon Villette. Once again, I had that sensation of tumbling into a story that resonated with my own feelings.
The novel mirrored some of Charlotte Brontë’s experiences. When she was 26, she journeyed to Brussels to take a position teaching at a pensionnat (a boarding school). There, she fell in love with one of her fellow teachers, who happened to be married. In Villette, Lucy Snowe, who is 23, leaves her home to take up a teaching position in the French-speaking Belgian town of Villette. She experiences the uneasiness that accompanies dislocation, being a stranger in a community that is not only new, but where daily life takes place in a foreign language. It doesn’t matter how fluent one thinks they are on a first trip to another country; language is a lot more than words, and the cultural nuances of a language are difficult to learn without immersion. It can be alienating, but it’s also exhilarating, and those feelings come through when Charlotte writes about Lucy. Lucy falls in love with one of her fellow teachers, but like Rochester, Monsieur Emanuel is prickly and arrogant. And Lucy, like Jane Eyre, believes herself to be clever but not beautiful, another woman who is unable—or unwilling—to use her appearance as social capital. Villette explores Lucy’s psychology from her early days, when she seems to let life happen to her with little resistance, to her emergence as a woman capable of making choices for herself.
Whether you’re a fan of gothic novels, 19th-century romances, or woman-centered narratives that explore the cultural and social pressures brought to bear on young women, the Brontë sisters’ novels each provide all of these elements and more. Jane Eyre is one of the greatest novels written in the English language, and Wuthering Heights is a near-perfect gothic tale, but these other works also deserve readers’ attention.
Featured Image: Courtesy of BBC