SOPHIE FRANKLIN: I wasn’t always a fan of the Brontës. For a while I only really cared for Charlotte.
As a teenager, I harboured a bit of an obsession with Jane Eyre and it was one which remained with me through university. I couldn’t understand how anyone could love the weird, chaotic world of Wuthering Heights. I understood even less how anyone could call it a “love story”. As for Anne? She was, as she is for so many, an after-thought.
Thankfully, I grew out of pitting the three Brontë sisters against one another. Nowadays, it’s not only Charlotte’s writing that I return to, but the whole Brontë family – their books, poems and letters. Researching both my PhD, on violence in the Brontës’ fiction, and writing my book Charlotte Brontë Revisited have both placed the family at the centre of my day-to-day life. Yet I’m still often stumped when anyone asks me: “Why the Brontës?”
I don’t have a neat answer, but I think it’s their paradoxes that I’m drawn to the most. As a family, they are an anomaly: there’s no one quite like them. But they’re also of their time. Contrary to popular belief, they were not isolated loners; they lived in the midst of huge cultural and industrial change. They are romance writers and also the authors of some of the cruellest passages in English literature. They are commonplace and extraordinary. They are never just one thing – and that’s why our fascination with their fiction, and their lives, endures.
• Charlotte Brontë Revisited, Saraband, £9.99.
Jane Eyre is easy to love. I first read it when I was 15, and it kept me up until dawn, consuming page after page. It has taken me longer to admire Wuthering Heights. But that love runs deeper, its roots inextricably bound up with my sense of self.
Jane Eyre is an angry, put-upon girl who fights hard and gets everything she wants. What young woman wouldn’t fall for her? But Catherine Earnshaw spoils everything around her with her selfish, raw heart – her brutal ways. Girls aren’t supposed to be like that, even today.
Rochester has the upper hand with Jane, at least for most of the novel. But Catherine holds the whip over Heathcliff; she makes the decisions, even the wrong ones. She decides to die, and then she does.
While we can read the hundreds of letters Charlotte wrote to her best friend Ellen Nussey, little is known of Emily. Most of her writing and personal papers were destroyed. This makes her dark heart even darker. Somehow she allows our own passions and desires to flourish, in the space she has left.
Wuthering Heights remains one of the thorniest, boldest novels ever written. No wonder most Victorians felt hostile toward it, with its experimental structure, its fever-dream narrative. For me, it’s a novel that can never be forgotten or dismissed. It stands like a monument – almost impenetrable and always on the horizon.
• The Brontë Cabinet – Three Lives in Nine Objects, Norton, £10.99.
Charlotte Brontë is the one I feel a true connection with, and she has meant different things at various points in my life.
When I was young, Jane Eyre was the first romantic novel that ever inspired me. I must have encountered Jane and Mr Rochester at exactly the right time, because I adored them – everything that was unspoken and yearning and poetic. I must have read the line about the “little string” between their ribs a thousand times.
Later, when I studied Charlotte’s life and understood what she went through, I admired the way she wove abuse into art so unapologetically. She didn’t write a sad harpsichord song or embroider a poem about the death of her sisters –she took the real Cowan Bridge school and turned it into Lowood, courageously and in public, and created an enormous literary sensation. To her detractors, she wrote: “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.” She was a firebrand.
Now, as a feminist who sees the flaws in Mr Rochester’s character and knows it isn’t ever right to verbally threaten a woman, I love the independence Brontë gave to Jane. She takes no half-measures and will risk everything to get precisely what she wants. In a way, it seems as if Charlotte’s courage and honesty became Jane’s, and aren’t all authors to be found lurking within their own characters?
• Jane Steele, billed as a Gothic retelling of Jane Eyre, GP Putnam’s Sons, £7.99.
When, in 1966, at the age of seven, I moved from Keighley to Haworth I felt I had time-travelled into the past: the sooty stone walls; the mills still in full production, the clog makers, the moors, the churchyard and main street; and of course the Brontë sisters, it felt like they had never left.
Haworth Primary hadn’t changed much either. On my first day I was sent to the headmaster’s office to fetch ink for the inkwells. Not long after that our teacher gave three older boys the ruler and then, as an encore, climbed onto her desk and began to tear out clumps of her grey hair – we never saw her again. Another teacher took umbrage at my poster paint rendition of the moors. She pulled me out of my chair by the hair and kneed me painfully around the classroom chanting “Clouds… aren’t…BLUE!”
But even at eight years old, I knew clouds existed in all manner of inky blues because I had walked up that cobbled main street to the wild moor beyond and I knew that there anything was possible. When that same year the BBC came to school looking to cast someone for its production of Wuthering Heights (to play the part of a shepherd boy who sees ghosts) I got the part. A few weeks later I found myself on Haworth moor with the likes of Anne Stallybrass and Ian McShane immersed in the raw power of Wuthering Heights.
So last year, when my partner Brita and I were commissioned to produce an illustrated book about these three Yorkshire women who have haunted me since childhood I wanted to top and tail their story with my own. So our book starts and ends with the memory of a lady in full period costume who came to sit next to me as I sheltered out of the wind behind a tumbledown wall. Was she a friendly young actress keeping my spirits up on set, as I nervously waited to go on camera? Or, was she a ghost? As I said on Haworth moor anything is possible.
• The Brontës – Children of the Moors: A Picture Book, Franklin Books, £12.99.
I’m always astonished that one Yorkshire family produced three outstanding, radical writers. Most siblings do very different things from each other. Perhaps, though, that was the nature of the time the Brontës lived in, when middle-class women had few choices open to them: they married, or looked after parents, or taught or became governesses. Charlotte, Emily and Anne were part of a bookish family, and with few other options available, maybe it’s not so surprising that they would all turn to writing.
I love the fact that they wrote in the same room together, and walked around the dining table reading aloud their work and discussing it: a sort of Victorian writing group open only to sisters.
Despite living and working closely together, however, they had very different personalities, and their books were different too. Charlotte was the most conventional – serious and responsible. Emily was the difficult middle child – solitary, no friends outside of family, lover of animals and walks on the moors. Wuthering Heights is fierce and passionate. Quiet Anne wrote a quiet governess novel, Agnes Grey. Then she burst forth with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, about wife abuse – shocking for its time, and a surprise even now. Working at the Haworth Parsonage this last year as a creative partner for Charlotte’s bicentenary, I’ve discovered that people tend to proclaim themselves a “Charlotte” or an “Emily” (though an “Anne” is stealthily creeping up as an honourable alternative). I admit I’m a Charlotte, but I’m glad and thankful that we have the choice.
• Tracey Chevalier is the editor of Reader I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre. Her new novel, At The Edge of the Orchard, is out now.
When I give lectures on the Brontës, people often comment on how sad their life stories are. Patrick Brontë, who lost his whole family to disease. Emily, who never knew her novel Wuthering Heights would be such a success; Branwell with his broken heart. Yes, I reply, their life stories are depressing. But they are also full of wonders. The kind of stories Charlotte, Emily and Anne could have written themselves.
The Brontës are living proof that you can create beauty, even if everything is against you. Charlotte was not pretty and had no fortune to rely on. What’s more, she lost her mother and her elder sisters when she was still a girl. In Brussels she fell in love with her teacher, but the man was married. So much adversity could be sufficient excuse to spend the rest of one’s life grieving in a corner. But Charlotte was not like that. She mourned, but she was able to convert her sorrow into something of exceptional value. She created Jane Eyre. When Branwell, Emily and Anne left her, no one expected that she would ever put pen to paper again. But her tears mixed with ink and she finished Shirley and wrote Villette.
Charlotte taught me what courage is. Emily showed me how you must believe in yourself. And Anne, young Anne, taught me perseverance. I owe them so much.
Last week I saw a girl of about 17 reading Jane Eyre on the train. I wondered where she was going. Perhaps to meet her boyfriend. Certainly on her way to exciting challenges, to joy, but also to pain and bitter disappointment. Because such is life. I was glad to see she was reading Jane Eyre.
• Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Life, World Editions, £7.99.
In my first week at university studying English I was given a list of books to read. At the top was Wuthering Heights. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I picked it up that evening; I had a vague notion that it was a romance and not at all for 18-year-old men. How wrong I was.
I was hooked from page one, and read it three times that week. At the weekend I made my first pilgrimage to the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth, buying a framed picture of Emily and a biography of her by Winifred Gérin.
Since then I have bought every book by or about the Brontës that I could find. As the years progressed it didn’t stop there of course, which is why I’m so proud to now be counted as a Brontë biographer myself, thanks to my new work on my very favourite Brontë sister – the oft neglected Anne.
This is what the Brontës mean to me: the freedom to be who you want to be, the courage to do what you want to do. From an early age I wanted to write, but it was the example of the Brontës that finally made me take up my pen in earnest and turn my dream into reality.
Three ordinary sisters who did extraordinary things. “I’m just going to write because I cannot help it,” Charlotte Brontë wrote, and it’s a rallying cry that I and so many others have taken from the Brontë sisters.
• In Search of Anne Brontë, The History Press, £20.