Juliet Barker's landmark biography, The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family, has just received an update--making the feat of chronicling literature's most famous family even more heroic, and making the 1,200 page volume even more comprehensive. Barker, the former curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Howarth, ranked the books of the sisters for Tip Sheet.
Ranking Jane Austen’s novels may cause controversy – but it’s a storm in a tea-cup compared to the elemental forces unleashed when asked to choose between the Brontë novels. The three weird sisters of Haworth arouse passions like no other writers: Austen has fans but the Brontës have devotees and, believe me, there’s a very big difference – criticising Pride and Prejudice doesn’tprovoke a baying lynch-mob in quite the same way as hinting that all is not perfection in Wuthering Heights.
Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have consistently spent decades in the top five best-selling and most popular novels of all time, so doesn’t that make them the obvious candidates for joint first? But I’d like to make the case for...
1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne is the also-ran of the Brontë family yet The Tenant shares all the virtues of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – powerful writing, gripping storyline, dramatic tension and passionate authorial involvement – whilst remaining firmly rooted in reality (no Rochester fooling his guests by disguising himself as a gypsy-woman or Heathcliff digging up his lover’s corpse). It’s the only Brontë novel not to feature orphans and/or dysfunctional families and it’s steeped with quiet humour. But its heroine, Helen Huntingdon, is a woman who flouts every convention by leaving her husband to save their child whom he is corrupting, earning her own independent living and eventually herself proposing marriage to the man she loves. Forget Jane Eyre – this really is Victorian feminism at its most radical!
2. Jane Eyre - Who could fail to identify with Charlotte’s brave little orphan who refuses to be crushed by her bullying cousins, her sadistic head-master, or even the domineering man she loves. ‘Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?’ she demands of Rochester. ‘I am a free human being, with an independent will’, she tells him and how we cheer as she goes on to prove it, refusing to be his mistress rather than his wife and rejecting the passionless St John Rivers. Jane Eyre doesn’t win first place because it has its silly moments (as in the gypsy-woman episode) but mainly because it was an unnecessary and cowardly cop-out to give Jane a newly discovered family and fortune before she returns to Rochester.
3. Wuthering Heights - What can you say about the world’s greatest love-story, beloved of millions of hormonal teenagers and the silver screen? Except that it most definitely is not a love story. A tale of thwarted passions, obsession and revenge indeed – but not of genuine love. Heathcliff and Cathy are two sides of the same coin: ‘I am Heathcliff!’ says Cathy, ‘he’s more myself than I am’. When they cannot have what they want, their mutual response is to destroy each other. There is love in the book, but it’s not the ravings of Heathcliff and Cathy: it’s the blossoming affection between Heathcliff’s innocent victims Hareton and Catherine. There’s no denying the sheer power of Wuthering Heights, nor the cleverness of its structure, but as every film director has discovered, the death of Cathy less than half way through the book, though necessary to the plot, leaves the reader feeling short-changed.
4. Villette - Charlotte’s last completed novel. Exquisitely crafted by an artist at the height of her powers, Villette is a return to the theme of master and pupil. Lucy Snowe’s cold exterior shell hides a passionate Brontë interior: she loses her first love to the pretty and wealthy Paulina, but lands her own true admirer in the sardonic Professor Paul Emanuel. But she doesn’t ‘deserve’ to find happiness and therefore, in a deliberately enigmatic ending, her professor is presumed drowned at sea before they can marry. Stylistically Villette is Charlotte’s most successful novel but its subdued atmosphere and the problematic nature of its central character make it an acquired taste.
5. Agnes Grey - If you thought Charlotte created the first plain heroine in Jane Eyre then think again: it was Anne in this deceptively simple tale of virtue rewarded. Drawing on her own experiences, Anne spares nothing in her portrayal of the miserable existence of the governess: the haughty, unfeeling treatment of her employers, the vicious behaviour of their spoilt children and the helplessness of the poor governess herself, living in a wealthy household but despised and excluded by family and servants alike. Agnes, unlike Anne herself, finds escape in the love of a good man. It’s an unsensational tale but it would be hard to find a more hard-hitting picture of the trials and tribulations of governess-life in the nineteenth century.
6. The Professor - Charlotte’s first novel written for publication but rejected by everyone to whom she submitted it. The reasons are obvious, especially when it’s compared to her later work. The central mistake is in having a male narrator – no one excels in capturing the female voice like Charlotte – but Frances Henri, with whom he falls in love, is one of Charlotte’s most charming female creations. There are glimpses of the brilliance Charlotte would later show as an author, particularly when she draws on her own experiences as a pupil-teacher in Belgium, but The Professor is really a juvenile work – quite literally, since it originated in the Angrian tales she had written since childhood.
7. Shirley - Last, but by no means least. A worthy book, written to highlight the plight of unmarried women, it’s also the only novel Charlotte actually researched, setting it in the period of the Luddite riots and consulting old newspapers ‘in order to understand the spirit of those eventful times’. But Charlotte wasn’t a social reformer or historian – she was quintessentially a novelist of the female heart – and that’s what’s missing from the book. It’s easy to understand why since, in the course of writing it, she lost all three of her siblings. It’s a miracle she wrote it at all – but it feels laboured. So, like the classic school report, its full marks for effort – but could do better.