Listen up kids, I frickin’ love Jane Eyre. I love the Brontës. I love Charlotte Brontë in particular. Last Thursday was her birthday and in belated honor of that, I’m going to talk about BRONTË THINGS. Particularly, Brontë books you probably haven’t read and maybe should.
Lots of people have read Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Some of you might even know that there was a third Brontë sister who wrote stuff. But there’s more to Brontë than the madwoman in the attic and freaking Heathcliff, okay? Here’s my top three (moderately) obscure Brontë reads:
1: Shirley by Charlotte Brontë
If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.
Obscure is a relative term — in its day, this book was such a huge hit that it led to the popularization of Shirley as a girl’s name. It’s part Sense and Sensibility, part North and South: set against a backdrop of worker unrest during an industrial depression, and featuring a difficult female friendship between the quiet, introverted Caroline and the vibrant and imperfect Shirley. There’s pining, and moors, and a woman’s struggle for independence and individuality in a world that mostly wanted her to cut that shit right out. That is some grade A 100% pure Brontë magic.
2: Villette by Charlotte Brontë
No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure.
Villette is an odd one, I grant you. But if you’re looking for spookiness and lots of subtle internal conflict, this is going to be your jam. I love this book, guys. The narrator is unreliable, the setting is full of culture clash and Gothic Drama™, and that ambiguous ending haunts me to this day. Plenty of people (including Virginia Woolf) thought that Villette, not Jane Eyre, was Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece. Also, it contains the immortal line “HAPPINESS IS NOT A POTATO” which I want to have tattooed on my body.
3: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
‘You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others. Now I would have both so to benefit by the experience of others, and the precepts of a higher authority, that they should know beforehand to refuse the evil and choose the good, and require no experimental proofs to teach them the evil of transgression.’
This is probably the least Brontëish of the three, but it also taught me to love the severely under-appreciated Anne Brontë. By modern standards, it’s pretty tame, but when this book was published, it was declared to be “utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls.” Even Charlotte screw-you-and-the-patriarchy-you-rode-in-on Brontë didn’t think it was really “appropriate.”
Anne’s writing is unrelentingly pragmatic and logical, especially in comparison to her sisters. She has No Time for your Gothic nonsense, your sexist double standards, or your pointless melodrama. She would have told Mr. Rochester to get his shit together and be a decent human being. She would have told Heathcliff to fuck off for being an abusive shithead. And I love her for it. Also, this book strikes me as a serious role reversal, with a young single mother playing the role of Byronic Hero with a Troubled Past, and a strapping farmer playing the role of Starry-Eyed Ingénue.
In Sum yo: READ MORE BRONTË.