Your basic Dwarf+Giant Overview is a comprehensive survey of an author or series. It is not an in-depth analysis, nor is it a summary. Think of it as a buying or reading guide, telling you what’s out there, what’s essential, what to avoid and so forth.
The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles might be as far away as you can get from the remote and unfamiliar landscape of the tempestuous Yorkshire moors which serve as the literary landscape for the Brontë sisters’ novels. As I consider the Brontë sisters from the sun drenched City of Angels, I immediately conjure up images of blustery winds, rolling wet hills, dark clouds and that feeling you get of being chilled to the bone. Maybe your nose is a bit sniffly too; maybe you’re heartsick and hungry and the skirts of your long dress and many petticoats drag through the wet grass and marshes. Maybe you can’t sleep at night because of the strange noises and shadowy figures that creep and flicker in your mind’s eye. Life is cold and hard, and it’s even harder because you’ve committed the unforgivable crime of being born a woman. At night alone, as you write by candlelight, you might wonder how to use these hardships to fuel your creative spark and conceive a future of your own design.
Once upon a time, there were five Brontë sisters (and a Brontë brother named Branwell), but the two oldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth died in childhood. Due to either typhoid or tuberculosis, an epidemic broke out at the wretched boarding school Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte attended. Tuberculosis would eventually kill off most of the isolated Brontë clan. None of the family members lived past the age forty except for their father who would live until the ripe old age of 84. Their lives were short, but the Bronte children would achieve immortality with the stories and poetry they left behind. Their words continue to enchant and influence the imaginations of readers and romantic idealists alike.
PART I: CHARLOTTE
Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) Charlotte was the oldest of the sisters who lived beyond girlhood and also the most prolific writer and written-about Brontë sister. Charlotte would be the only Brontë to escape the curse of tuberculosis, and she would die last in 1855 due to pregnancy complications. A good device that I use to keep the sisters straight is to associate the novel Jane Eyre, written by CHAR-lotte, with the fires that play an integral part in the plot of the novel, and the fact that in the end all that’s left of Thornfield Hall is it’s CHAR-red, burned out remains.
1. Jane Eyre (1847) – Published under the pseudonym Currer Bell and undoubtedly Charlotte’s masterpiece, Jane Eyre is the coming of age story of an orphaned governess who is mistreated, neglected and unloved but who ultimately finds happiness with her employer, the brooding Mr. Rochester. It’s hard for me to choose between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as my favorite Brontë story, but ultimately I’d have to go with Jane Eyre, maybe because where Wuthering Heights is heart wrenching and romantic, Jane Eyre is mysterious and unearthly. Some bibliophiles might prefer Mr. Darcy (from Pride and Prejudice) as the ultimate romantic hero, but I’ve always been a Mr. Rochester type of girl. I love his brooding cruelty and hidden secrets way more than Darcy’s general uptightness – not to mention that as a girl I had a crazy crush on Timothy Dalton as Rochester in the 1983 BBC adaptation of the novel…which you can check out here.
2. Shirley (1849) – When Charlotte began writing the novel that would become Shirley three of her siblings were alive. By the time of it’s completion in 1849 all three of her remaining siblings had died leaving her alone, the last of the six Brontë children. Shirley is a compelling novel about two very different women and the social classes and oppression that separate them. It’s through the character of Shirley that Charlotte Brontë would create a new type of literary heroine, who is a combination of independent means and intellect…a truly free woman.
3. Villette (1853) – In Villette, Charlotte’s final novel, she would continue her development of a new type of heroine and create perhaps one of the first truly feminist novels ever written. Set in the fictitious French town of Villette, Charlotte brings to life Lucy Snow, a character with not only a great name, but also a fiercely independent spirit that was very progressive for the time in which it was written. Villette is probably my second favorite novel of Charlotte’s and one I just reread and enjoyed in creating this overview.
4. The Professor (1857) – The Professor was Charlotte’s first manuscript but was not published until 1857, two years after her death. An orphan with cruel relatives (sounds familiar right?) becomes a professor at an all girls school and ultimately finds happiness with one of his students. Not a bad read but nowhere near as good as Jane Eyre or Villette.
5. Tales of Angria (1839) – A collaboration between Charlotte and Brontë brother Branwell, Tales of Angria is a collection of five novellas written between 1834-1839 and set in the imaginary African kingdom of Angria. The series was originally created as a set of tiny handwritten and handmade books which must be incredible artifacts if they’re still around. The stories are exotic and slightly racy in nature and center around a handsome and aristocratic beau who is a perfect example of Lord Byron’s influence on the young Brontë children. The novellas included in Tales of Angria are “Mina Laury”, “Stancliffe’s Hotel”, “The Duke of Zamorna”, “Henry Hastings”, “Caroline Vernon”, and “The Roe Head Journal Fragments”. There also exists a similar collection with some of the same stories in it called Charlotte Bronte’s High Life in Verdopolis: A Story from the Glass Town Saga which is illustrated with facsimiles of Charlotte’s own illustrations.
6. Unfinished Novels – Charlotte began several novels which she never finished. Unfinished Novels includes fragments and ideas for “The Story of Willie Ellin”, “Ashworth”, “The Moores”, and “Emma” (not to be confused with the novel of the same name by Jane Austen).
The Brontës also compiled a number of their poems into a collection of poetry called Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, the aliases that were used by the sisters to disguise their true feminine identities.
PART II: EMILY
Emily Brontë (1818-1848) Emily was the middle child of the remaining three sisters and had the shortest literary career. When I think of Emily Brontë, I try to associate her with the character of Emily the Strange (who is often drawn with her cats) and Heathcliff (a famous orange cartoon cat who is also the name of a main character in Wuthering Heights).
Wuthering Heights (1847) – Published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, Wuthering Heights is Emily Brontë’s only novel, but it’s an incredible work with a somewhat tragic history since poor Emily died just one year after its publication. The story of unrequited love, social class, and revenge, Wuthering Heights gives us another dark and brooding Brontë hero/villain in the character of Heathcliff who would later be immortalized by English songbird Kate Bush. It’s hard for me to even consider this novel without the image of teenage Kate Bush spinning in her red dress in the “Wuthering Heights” video as she sings
Out on the wiley, windy moors
We’d roll and fall in green
You had a temper like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you, I loved you, too
Bad dreams in the night
They told me I was going to lose the fight
Leave behind my wuthering, wuthering
Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy
Come home, I’m so cold!
Let me in-a-your window
You can watch Kate’s epic video here.
PART III: ANNE
Anne Brontë: (1820-1849) – Anne was the baby of the Brontë family and the least famous of the three whose work was the most autobiographical in nature. Sadly, I have no mnemonic device to distinguish Anne from her sisters and can only use the process of elimination to remember little Anne.
1. Agnes Grey (1847) – Published under the pseudonym Acton Bell in the same year as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but in no way as scandalous as her two older sisters’ novels, Agnes Grey is another coming of age governess story but with a very different tone. Agnes Grey lacks the violent and brooding Byronic heroes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and opts instead for a kinder and gentler hero. The prose is also gentler and kinder, but that doesn’t detract from the story in any way. Agnes Grey is an essential piece in the Brontë puzzle and definitely recommended.
2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) – Also published under her pseudonym, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is my favorite of the two Anne Brontë novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story told through a series of letters between two friends which describes the narrator’s relationship with the mysterious and independent Helen Graham. Helen is one the strongest of all the Brontë characters, a woman who defies her abusive husband, leaving him to save herself and her son. Although the story ends with a wedding, you’re left with the feeling that Helen marries for love and not social position, money or revenge.
PART IV: BIOGRAPHIES AND SPIN-OFFS
1. The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell (1857) – The first biography of Charlotte ever written includes many of Charlotte’s personal letters and does a great job of capturing the feelings of isolation, grief and depression that Charlotte experienced as she watched her family die out around her. Where it’s interesting to read a biography written by one of her contemporaries, and by someone who actually knew and was friends with Charlotte, I can’t help but be left with the awareness that maybe Gaskell left out some of the more scandalous parts of Charlotte’s life, like her love affairs with married men, and the true cause of the death of the eldest Brontë girls.
2. Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman (2016) – The most recent of all Brontë bios and one of the more interesting literary biographers I’ve read in a long while. Harman delves into the history that Gaskell seemed to leave out, like Charlotte’s passionate and obsessive love for the husband of the headmistress at the boarding school where Charlotte and Emily taught and of brother Branwell’s destructive and hedonistic lifestyle.
Essential Spin-Offs + Retellings
There are literally dozens and dozens of different adaptations, spin-offs and retellings related to the Brontës. I’ve read a bunch of them and these are my four favorites, which happen to be based on Jane Eyre. I have read others which are inspired by Wuthering Heights, but it seems as if the Jane Eyre ones are always better.
1. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) – I first read Rebecca as a young girl much before I discovered the Brontës’ novels and it was only fairly recently I realized that the story of the second Mrs. de Winter is essentially a retelling of Jane Eyre. Rebecca is an atmospheric mystery that captures that unearthly feeling that also resonates through Jane Eyre.
2. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966) – A lush story about the life of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, the beautiful West Indian woman Antoinette (known as Bertha in Jane Eyre), who is portrayed in Jane Eyre as the madwoman kept locked away in the attic. Jean Rhys is a terrific writer, and this prequel novel to Jane Eyre is definitely the best of all Brontë sister spin-offs and a classic in it’s own right.
3. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (2001) – Not only is The Eyre Affair a great summer read, but it’s also part of the Staff Picks table this month at The Last Bookstore! Set in a bizarro version of Great Britain circa 1985, The Eyre Affair is the first in a series about a time traveling Special Ops literary detective named Thursday Next. Thursday becomes involved with a cast of various literary characters after Jane Eyre is kidnapped, causing all the copies of Jane Eyre (the book) to end abruptly. I read this book when it first came out and loved it… very different from the other titles on this list, but lots of fun!
4. Jane Slayre by Sherri Browning (2010) – Charlotte Brontë meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer! In the new tradition of modern classics like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Sense & Sensibillity & Sea Monsters, Jane Slayre portrays Jane’s family as cruel vampires and Mr. Rochester’s first wife as a violent werewolf. While this might not be the best recommendation for Brontë purists, it’s great for fans of paranormal fiction or the genre I like to refer to as “strange and unusual”.