The Brontës are often dismissed as up-market Mills & Boon. But with the release of two films this autumn, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, they look set to rival even Jane Austen in the public’s affections.
Ours is supposed to be the age of instantaneity, where books can be downloaded in a few seconds and reputations created overnight. But the Victorians could be speedy, too, and there’s no more striking example of instant celebrity than Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë posted the manuscript to Messrs Smith and Elder on 24 August 1847, two weeks after the publisher had expressed an interest in seeing her new novel while turning down her first. Within a fortnight, a deal had been struck (Charlotte was paid £100) and proofs were being worked on. In the 21st century a first novel can wait two years between acceptance and publication. Jane Eyre was out in eight weeks, on 17 October, with Thackeray and Leigh Hunt among its early admirers. By early December, with the first edition shortly to sell out, Charlotte was preparing a preface for the second. By February a stage play based on the book had opened at the Victoria Theatre in London.
It was the story that gripped people – Lowood school, Jane’s governessing, Mr Rochester, the mad woman in the attic, destitution, rescue and happy redemption (“Reader, I married him”). But the word-of-mouth success was also hastened by Charlotte’s use of a pseudonym: Currer Bell. Speculation about the mysterious author’s identity and gender began at once, and reached fever pitch in December with the publication of works by Ellis and Acton Bell – Wuthering Heightsand Agnes Grey respectively, novels accepted by a different publisher a year earlier but which had been gathering dust until the success of Jane Eyre spurred him into action. With all three books out, Charlotte broke the news of her authorship to her clergyman-father, Patrick. Elizabeth Gaskell‘s biography records the following conversation:
“Papa, I’ve been writing a book.”
“Have you, my dear?”
“Yes, and I want you to read it.”
“I’m afraid it will try my eyes too much.”
“But it is not in manuscript: it is printed.”
“My dear! You’ve never thought of the expense…!”
As suspicion grew that Currer, Ellis and Acton were really one man writing under different names, Charlotte decided to come clean to her London publisher and, with Anne accompanying her, walked through a rainstorm to Keighley to catch a night train (with a change at Leeds) to London, where she made her dramatic revelation next morning: “We are three sisters.” Emily, who had stayed at home, was outraged: she had wanted to remain invisible and felt betrayed by Charlotte. Meanwhile, their brother Branwell was drinking himself to death after the collapse of his love affair with an older woman called (a gift of a name) Mrs Robinson. He died in September 1848. Emily followed three months later and Anne five months after that.
Charlotte liked to pretend that nothing much happened to her and her family, speaking of “the torpid retirement where we live like dormice”. And it’s true that not every year was as eventful as that which followed the publication of Jane Eyre. But there was nothing torpid about the Brontës’ approach to writing (night after night, once their father had wound the clock and retired to bed, they scribbled away at the dining table) or about their determination to succeed. They worked hard, read widely, taught, travelled, looked after their savings (investing some of it in the railways), and were independent-minded in their ideas about society and politics, not least about the place of women. “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” the poet laureate Robert Southey told Charlotte when she sent him her poems, but she and her sisters efficiently made it their business. The morbid caricature that developed in the wake of 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 (most of the surviving ones Charlotte’s) are sharp and sometimes funny. Their novels, caricatured as romances set on rugged moors, are full of insights into the social conditions of the day. And their lives, though short and touched with tragedy, were fascinating.
The public were enthralled from the start. Curious visitors began turning up in Haworth once the truth about Jane Eyre’s authorship got out, and the numbers grew with the publication of Gaskell’s biography two years after Charlotte’s death in 1855. Some came from as far as America. Local shops cashed in, selling photos of the family. Patrick took to cutting up Charlotte’s letters into snippets, to meet the many requests for samples of her handwriting. Charlotte was the sister everyone wanted a piece of; the reputations of Anne and Emily took longer to develop. But the books kept selling and groupies kept coming to gawp. By 1893 aBrontë Society had been formed, and a small museum opened two years later.
To Henry James, trying to make sense of the continuing popularity of the Brontës 50 years after Charlotte’s death, this “beguiled infatuation” with their lives was an unfortunate distraction. The story of their “dreary” existence (“their tragic history, their loneliness and poverty of life”) had, he said, supplanted the achievement of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The flames of Brontëphilia, set alight by Gaskell and fanned by adoring admirers, had destroyed critical appreciation of the books themselves. FR Leavis seemed to prove James’s point, when he excluded the Brontës from his Great Tradition, on the grounds that Charlotte’s was only “a permanent interest of a minor kind” and thatWuthering Heights, though “astonishing”, was “a kind of sport”. To a certain kind of male critic, the Brontës’ fiction was little more than upmarket Mills & Boon.
James might be surprised to find that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heightsare both widely read and critically esteemed today. There’s been no let-up, either, in attempts to translate them into different media: theEnthusiast’s Guide to Jane Eyre Adaptations website lists 25 since the 1980s. New film versions of both novels are appearing this autumn: Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (with a screenplay by Moira Buffini) was released on Friday, and Andrea Arnold’s version of Wuthering Heights will follow in November. Still, the issue James raised back in 1905 remains pertinent. Is our infatuation with the Brontës more to do with their lives than with their work? How to explain their enduring popularity?
The fact there were three of them may be part of it. It’s not just that the phenomenon of three siblings who all published poetry and fiction seems extraordinary (which other family can boast as much: the Sitwells?), but the number itself has a mythic or folkloric appeal: the three Fates, the three Furies, the three witches in Macbeth, the three daughters of Lear, the three bears. For some, the idea of these “three weird sisters” (as Ted Hughes called them, borrowing from Shakespeare) weaving their magic together is sinister in its resonance – the stuff of Grimm fairytales. For others, their encouragement of each other is as inspiring an image of sorority as the Sister Sledge song: “We are family, I got all my sisters with me.” (Though they hadn’t, Maria and Elizabeth having died in childhood).
More important is that the Brontë story remains unfinished; they may have been dead for more than a century and a half, but important new discoveries are still being made. Juliet Barker‘s magisterial 1994 biography ran to 1,000 pages. The revised edition, recently published in paperback, adds 150 more, in order to include finds such as a letter from Charlotte describing her wedding dress (“white I had to buy and did buy to my own amazement – but I took care to get it in cheap material … If I must make a fool of myself – it shall be on an economical plan”). An authoritative edition of Charlotte’s letters has also appeared in recent years, and the extent to which she edited her sisters’ poems – censoring and rewriting them – has begun to be understood. The holy grail for Brontëites would be the discovery of the manuscript that Emily might or might not have been working on when she died.
In its absence, some have suggested that Charlotte wilfully destroyed it, either from embarrassment at its sensational content or envy of its power. This looks no more plausible than the theory (first aired in the 1860s) that Branwell was the real author of Wuthering Heights. Prolonged exposure to Brontëana can cause Brontëmania, it seems. Certainly Brontë scholars have been prone to flights of fancy down the years, and Lucasta Miller, in her book The Brontë Myth, has fun with their wilder ruminations. In 1936, Virginia Moore misread the handwritten title of Emily’s poem “Love’s Farewell” as “Louis Parensell”, and developed the theory that Louis was Emily’s secret lover. For good measure, she threw in the claim that Emily was also lesbian, an idea later developed by Camille Paglia. A less whimsical hypothesis is offered by Katherine Frank, whose biography Emily Brontë: A Chainless Soulattributes Emily’s alleged mysticism to “what, in reality, was her anorexia nervosa” (“By refusing to eat she seized control of the only thing which was malleable: her own body”). Such theories are impossible to prove, but they’re part of the fun of the game. And they’re another reason for the classic status of the Brontës, as writers whose lives and work are ever open to new readings.
Hardcore fans need solid bricks as well as airy postulations, and Brontë enthusiasts are fortunate in this respect: they have the Parsonage. Virginia Woolf visited it in the days when it was privately owned, noting the upright gravestones in the churchyard “like an army of silent soldiers”, and when it opened to the public in 1928, thousands clamoured to get in. An average of 70,000 visitors come each year – in 1974, after Christopher Fry’s television play The Brontës of Haworth, the figure reached 200,000. The relics and artefacts on display include the sofa on which Emily died, the cloth pouch in which Patrick kept his pistol, a lock of Anne’s hair from when she was 13, Branwell’s paintings, the collars of the two family dogs, Keeper and Flossie, and assorted items belonging to Charlotte – a black lace veil, curling tongs, hair clips, stockings and tiny boots.
The temporary exhibition space is currently devoted to Patrick, and the gift shop offers the usual fare – mugs, coasters, keyrings and fridge magnets. In town Ye Old Brontë Tea-Rooms vie for custom with a café called Villette. Beyond, well signposted, is the walk to Top Withens, said to have inspired the setting of Wuthering Heights, a stiff uphill hike of three and half miles. Emily might not care for the wind turbine in the distance, and when I walked there last month there were men shooting grouse, which as a lover of birds and animals she might not have cared for either. But there are few more exhilarating literary treks.
More academic-minded devotees have the journal Brontë Studies, which has been running since 1895 and has just increased its output to four issues a year “in response to the mushrooming global fascination with the Brontës’s work and all aspects of their lives”. The country most often cited as evidence of this global fascination is Japan. Jane Eyre andWuthering Heights are taught at school; the new film version of the former has a Japanese-American director, and adaptations of the latter include a 1988 Yoshishige Yoshida movie set in the Tokugawa period. After the earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster in March this year, the Parsonage suffered a decline in Japanese visitors but they’re now beginning to return. I’ve heard it suggested that, as a population used to small living spaces, they feel at home in the Parsonage (as they wouldn’t at Knole or Newstead Abbey), and find nothing implausible in Charlotte’s plan to set up a school with six boarders within its modest confines. Whatever the reason, of British cultural icons, only David Beckham and Shakespeare are better known in Japan.
Not that there’s anything new about the Brontës’ global reach. Within a year of Charlotte’s death, Die Waise von Lowood (The Orphan of Lowood, a German version of Jane Eyre), was being staged in New York. The French have always been fascinated, too (a 1970s film Les Soeurs Brontë starred the Isabelles Adjani and Huppert). And then there’s Chekhov: according to his biographer, Donald Rayfield, Chekhov read about the Brontës in a biography by Olga Peterson (probably a Russian married to an Englishman), and almost certainly had it in mind while writing The Three Sisters a few years later. When Katie Mitchelldirected the play a few years ago, she highlighted the connections, the most overt being the presence of a wayward brother (Andrei/Branwell). For a new adaptation for Northern Broadsides I’ve pushed the parallels further by setting the play in Haworth – a wacky venture, you may think, except that many of the themes of Chekhov’s play (work, education, marriage, the role of women, the rival claims of country and city) were ones that also preoccupied the Brontës.
The roll-call of writers who have re-imagined their lives or their work is staggering: Aldous Huxley (who worked on the screenplay of the 1944 film of Jane Eyre, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine), Daphne du Maurier, May Sinclair, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Lynn Reid Banks, Fay Weldon, Emma Tennant and many more. Then there are the film directors (Buñuel and Zeffirelli) and the actors (Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, Raph Fiennes, Susannah York, Juliette Binoche). Monty Python came up with a semaphore version of Wuthering Heights, the novel that also gave Kate Bush her debut single. Operas and ballets have flourished, too. When Howard Goodall and I collaborated on a musical ofWuthering Heights in the 1980s, four other versions were doing the rounds; Tim Rice’s Heathcliff, starring Cliff Richard (a spectacular piece of miscasting), was the one that got staged.
This ceaseless activity around Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights shows that Henry James needn’t have worried over their neglect; on the contrary, they’ve hogged attention that might productively be given to other Brontë novels, not least Villette. His idea that the Brontës’ lives were uniformly “dreary” also seems ridiculous now that individual biographies of the family have multiplied. To Gaskell, her “dear friend” Charlotte was the heroine, with the rest of the family – eccentric Patrick, masochistic Branwell, pious Anne and violently mystical Emily – left in her shadow. But for latter-day Brontëites, the story isn’t of one genius, or even three, but five, with Aunt Branwell and the long-suffering servant Tabby in supporting roles.
Branwell remains the hardest to warm to: the poems and paintings reveal no great talent, the drinking and sponging make him look like a Dylan Thomas prototype, and even in his misery he sounds theatrical. His lasting significance is as a rough model for Heathcliff, for Arthur Huntingdon (in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), and even perhaps for Rochester. His sisters took great pains to hide their publications from him; when in his cups Branwell had a loose tongue, and they didn’t want the secret getting out. There was a kindly motive, too, a wish to spare him upset and jealousy: as the indulged only son, the would-be poet who once sent his verses to Wordsworth, he would have been crushed to find his sisters succeeding where he had failed. But did they spare him? Letters and packages from publishers were sent to Charlotte at the Parsonage. At least one of them was already open when it reached her. Might his downward spiral have been hastened by learning what they had achieved?
Time has been kinder to Patrick. If his early journey – from a two-room cabin in County Down to St John’s College Cambridge – was remarkable, so was his career in Haworth, where he campaigned fiercely for better education, health and working conditions for the poor. Sanitation was a particular obsession: with no drains or running water, disease was rife – the average life expectancy in Haworth at that time was 28.5 years. By those standards, Branwell, Emily and Anne (dying at 31, 30 and 29 respectively) did well, and Charlotte (38) even better. Patrick, whose health had been a constant worry to his children, survived them all, living on into his 80s.
Anne, too, has come out of her shadow. Agnes Grey may be a slight work (albeit one with a memorable passage on the power of poetry to promote empathy), but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is bold in its use of a twin narrative and ahead of its time in portraying a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. It’s miraculous how Anne, single and in her 20s, could intuit so much about the burdens of wifehood (“to wait upon her husband and amuse him and minister to his comfort in every possible way”) and you wonder how much else in life she would have been wise to, given longer. Accounts of the Brontës’ deaths emphasise their stoicism, but Anne’s thoughts on the subject – written shortly before she died in Scarborough – are notable for frustration as well as acceptance: “I long to do some good in the world before I leave it. I have many schemes in my head … [and] should not like them all to come to nothing, and myself to have lived to so little purpose.”
In the end, whatever Anne’s achievement, we come back to Charlotte and Emily. Choosing between them is one of those standard questions – like “Cat or dog?” or “Lennon or McCartney?” – which is supposed to be revealing of one’s personality. At present Emily is the more revered, and to say that Wuthering Heights is structurally flawed, or that Cathy’s “I am Heathcliff” sounds melodramatic compared with Jane’s claim to be Rochester’s equal, is to risk accusations of heresy. But are the differences between Emily and Charlotte as wide as they appear? True, it’s doubtful whether Emily would have said (as Charlotte did to her friend Ellen Nussey) that respecting someone before marriage is more important than loving them, and that passion “is no desirable feeling”. But Charlotte’s fiction didn’t agree with these sentiments either: Jane respects St John Rivers but because there’s no passion she won’t marry him. Equally, though the sadistic violence in Wuthering Heights is more extravagant (with Heathcliff – “a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man” – the abused child turned abuser), Jane Eyre is also full of cruelty, with Jane mistreated by her aunt and at school and then tormented by Rochester, who takes pleasure in rousing her jealousy – a trait somewhat underplayed in the new film.
What’s easily forgotten is how radical both women seemed to their contemporaries. Wuthering Heights drew the more vehement reviews, prompting one critic to wonder, “How a human being could have attempted such a book without committing suicide” and another to complain: “There is not in the entire dramatis personae a single character which is not utterly hateful.” But Jane Eyre was also attacked for its “coarseness of taste”, “total ignorance of the habits of society”, “heathenish doctrine of religion” and possible links to the Chartist rebellions and revolutions in Europe.
In reality, Charlotte’s politics were far from revolutionary: “Insurrections and battles are the acute diseases of nations,” she said. But she was scornful of “the standard heroes and heroines of novels” and unimpressed by Jane Austen, dismissing Pride and Prejudice as “a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but … no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck”. It’s spirited stuff, like a boxer mouthing off before a big fight. But Charlotte’s purpose wasn’t to attack Austen so much as draw attention to their differences. And though there’s currently a view, prompted by movie adaptations, that Charlotte and/or Emily are about to replace Jane Austen in public affection, there’s surely room in the world for all of them.
What is pleasing about the new films is that they highlight overlooked aspects of the novels. No one goes to the Brontës for humour, for example, but it’s there in the banter between Jane and Rochester, andMoira Buffini‘s screenplay brings it out. Still, excitable talk of a Brontë revival is beside the point, because the Brontës have never gone away. Elizabeth Gaskell has a memorable image of the three of them circling the Parsonage dining table at night, reading and discussing their work. They stopped their circling a century and a half ago, but the readings and discussion will never stop.
Jane Eyre is on general release in the UK. Wuthering Heights will be released on November 11. Blake Morrison’s We Are Three Sistersopened at the Viaduct Theatre, Dean Clough, Halifax, and tours throughout the autumn: details at www.northern-broadsides.co.uk