Question of the Month: What Was Your Brontë Gateway Drug?

I am puzzled by the fascination of pop culture tabloids – the racy, muddled archives of cinema and celebrity.   

Our own pop culture archives are less extensive: we delve into old books and reflect on them.  Lately I’ve been reading  the Brontës, and since we Brontë  devotees are less cultish than Jane Austen fans, I’ve been wondering: “What is the Brontë gateway drug? Does everyone start with Jane Eyre?” One dark Brontë book leads to another, and soon you’ve read the complete oeuvre – and then what?  There’s always the secondary literature!

CHARLOTTE IS MY GATEWAY DRUG

My gateway drug, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, is not necessarily the best of the Brontës’ books. That would be Villette, Charlotte’s mature autobiographical masterpiece. 

But almost every reader starts with Jane Eyre,  her brilliant bildungsroman about an orphan’s upbringing, work, and thorny love affair.

Passion and madness dominate Jane Eyre, which can be read as a psychological autobiography. After a rocky childhood and education at a poorly-run charity school (Charlotte attended such a school),  Jane becomes a governess and falls in love with Mr. Rochester, the master of Thornfield Hall.  He is adorable, in a sarcastic, teasing way, but there are strange doings at night at the hall.  Jane saves Mr. Rochester’s life when a strange woman sets his draperies on fire in the dead of night.   

Say what you might, you cannot marry a man who keeps a mad wife in the attic. (Rochester’s wife set the fire.)  But after Jane leaves, the novel becomes even darker:  St. John Rivers, a fanatical minister, tries to mesmerize her into marrying him and accompanying him to India, where Jane, who is not strong, would die, as his sisters, Diana and Mary, tell them both. I believe that St. John is every bit as mad and destructive as Rochester’s wife.

Some read Jane Eyre as a Gothic novel. Others read it as psychological voodoo.  Here is how the psycho stuff works. If Jane is  Charlotte, then Rochester is her moody, alcoholic brother, Branwell, and Jane’s friends, Diana and Mary Rivers, have to be Emily and Anne.  Does that make sense?  Maybe if you’re on a gateway drug! 

No, I’m joking. It does make sense.

Branwell Brontë’s portrait of his sisters.

THE LORE OF THE Brontës 

I am fascinated by the lore of the Brontës.

The lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë  have been transformed into myth over the years. And I can’t help but think I’ve got some of it wrong myself. Did I really read that, in her governess days, Anne once tied her unruly charges to the legs of a table so she could write? It seems most improbable.

Biographers and critics, too, delve into their archives with varying reliability and appeal. Juliet Barker’s biography, The Brontës, is fascinating and scholarly, and worth dipping into even if you can’t face all 1,000 pages. But my favorite is Mrs. Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, because Gaskell is a spellbinding storyteller. Critics grumble about her inaccuracies and mythologizing, but she had the advantage of a close friendship with Charlotte.

We readers visualize Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as prototypes of their fictional characters, walking on the windy moors, falling in love with brutes (some of their dissipated heroes, like Emily’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, were probably modeled on their alcoholic, drug-taking brother Branwell),  and struggling to survive as poor, genteel women, working as governesses and teachers.

The Brontës, who lived most of their lives at Haworth Parsonage, published seven of the most exciting and controversial novels of the 19th century – under men’s names.  All three wrote explosive narratives about dark love and separation, though their personal experiences of romance were limited. Emily in particular was reclusive and did not thrive outside the home; both Anne and Emily worked briefly as teachers or governesses, but were too sickly to survive in the workplace.  

Charlotte, the most robust sister, drew on her experience in Brussels as well as on her home life and imagination.  Charlotte studied languages in Brussels with Emily in 1842. Then she herself returned in 1843 and  taught there.  She fell in love with M. Heger, the married owner of the school. (Her mature autobiographical novel, Villette, is based partly on these experiences.) 

Charlotte was the only sister who married.  She married her father’s curate, Rev. A. B. Nicholls, in 1854, and died the next year of an illness contracted during her pregnancy.

In their novels, they were ambivalent about marriage, and it does seem that Charlotte’s marriage killed her.

I love all of the Brontës. I am a great fan of Emily, the wildest and most poetic of the three , though I don’t admire Wuthering Heights as much as I used to. And Anne, who is in vogue now, is my least favorite. But however you rate them , they are three of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century.

2 thoughts on “Question of the Month: What Was Your Brontë Gateway Drug?”

  1. Excellent blog. I began the Brontes with Jane Eyre, which I have reread many times. Nowadays I much prefer Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey to Charlotte’s other books. I find Wuthering Heights very troubling with its endorsement of male violence. It now seems to me crude. But the great poet is Emily. The lack of true serious recognition of Gaskell’s biographical achievement I put down to the refusal of the world to respect women writers — it’s the equivalent of Bosewell’s Life of Johnson. I recommend among modern books Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte and Maria Frawley’s study of Anne Bronte.

    There you go ….

    1. It’s great that their work is so accessible nowadays. B&N now stocks all the Brontes, but I didn’t find Anne’s books in a bookstore till my twenties. She was out of fashion..

      Fascinating idea about Gaskell’s biography being like Boswell’s! I never have understood the fuss people make about it – I even read an essay complaining about it in The Guardian a few years ago. People are hopping-mad at Gaskell, whose book is so alive and wonderful that we probably get a better portrait of C’s life there than anywhere else.

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