Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Bronte sisters: My happy little obsession

I mentioned in my last postings that the Brontes were my favorite authors, and I thought that the subject deserved some attention.

Without knowing then what I was starting, I first ran across the Bronte sisters in my early teens, when I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. My first impressions were much like those of nineteenth century England: I loved Jane Eyre, but wasn't as fond of Wuthering Heights.

I was reunited with the Brontes again during my senior year of high school, when I was assigned Wuthering Heights for my AP English class. The second time around, I loved Emily Bronte's novel.

After that, I went through a period of detachment from literature, as I took four years off between high school graduation and entering college. My first or second year in college, however, I was reintroduced to the Bronte sisters when I casually plucked them out of a list of term paper topics.

The term paper was a biographical research paper, enabling me to get to know the Bronte sisters - Charlotte, Emily, and Anne - as real people. This was the first time I learned about the vast similarities between Jane Eyre and Charlotte Bronte's life; how Charlotte Bronte had experienced mistreatment at a boarding school that she was sent to with her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, and her younger sister, Emily. (Anne, just a toddler, was at home with their aunt, as their mother had died shortly after Anne was born.) Both Maria and Elizabeth sickened with consumption, but their illness was overlooked during an epidemic of typhoid fever, and they returned home only to die; Maria, remembered through the adoring eyes of a child, later became Charlotte's inspiration for the character of Jane's one friend at school, an older girl by the name of Helen Burns. However, the same experiences that later provided Charlotte with a source of material for her first published book, instilled in Emily a deep-seated fear of leaving home, as at the tender age of five or six years old she'd seen her two older sisters sicken and die while away from home. For the rest of her life, Emily would become so physically homesick whenever she left home, that she rarely ventured forth.

Less than two years later, I chose them as the topic for a paper in Advanced Composition; this paper addressed how the sisters' amazing talent related to their interesting past. I remembered from researching the Bronte sisters previously that they played some rather interesting games among themselves - games that bordered on dysfunction, actually. As children, Charlotte, their brother Branwell, Emily, and Anne created imaginary worlds, and by many reports practically "lived" in these worlds for years. Much of their early writing - poetry and prose that they recorded in tiny books - takes place in these imaginary worlds, and there has been arguments that their games - which they played well into their twenties - provided the inspiration for their published work as well.

Spending so much time researching the Bronte sisters resulted in me knowing much more about them than most of my teachers, and in my last year of college I had plenty of chance to show off that knowledge. I took a class on Women's Fiction of the Nineteenth Century, and as fate would have it, we read books by all three of the Bronte sisters (the first time I had ever read anything by Anne Bronte). We also were required to choose one of the books to do a small presentation on, and of course I chose one of the Bronte sisters' books - the second that we read, so that I could compare Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. My topic for this assignment dealt with the difference of how Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, published at the same time, were received by the public. Wuthering Heights was, of course, anathema to the values of the era, and was criticised for being too violent and too dark. Jane Eyre, however, was very highly regarded - at least, it was until it was revealed that a woman had written it. In fact, the reason why the sisters exposed their identities was because rumors had started that the author of the popular Jane Eyre had also written Wuthering Heights, and simply used different pennames to diguise his true identity as the author of both.

In my final semester, I took a class on the Development of the British Novel, for which we read Jane Eyre. In a sense I came full circle to the first research paper I'd written on the sisters, as my presentation and paper for the class focused on the similarities between Charlotte Bronte's life and Jane Eyre, except that this time I analyzed the topic in greater depth than I did when I first discovered it.

To complete the story of the Brontes, Emily and Anne both died of consumption in their late twenties. Their brother, Branwell, died around the same time, but his death is believed to be due to his alcoholism and opium habit. Although the family had been fairly reclusive up until this time, the deaths of her sisters and brother, all within a year's time, appeared to push Charlotte to be somewhat less reserved. She began to socialize in literary circles, and republished her and her sisters' books; however, she effectively buried the work of her youngest sister, whom she had never considered much more than a child, by refusing to reprint Anne's second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, claiming that the book was a mistake. Charlotte eventually married, but she died the following year, apparently from complications during her pregnancy. After her death, one of her literary friends, Elizabeth Gaskell, wrote a biography in which she tried to protect Charlotte from the rumors about her, blaming her and her sisters' "indecent" writing on their dysfunctional home life (namely, their father), and lying about issues such as Charlotte's unrequited love for her professor during her stay in Brussells, Branwell's opium addiction, and Charlotte's pregnancy at the time of her death. Unfortunately, Gaskell's biography of Charlotte has made it difficult to determine the truth about some of these matters.

So there you have it: the lives of three of my favorite people in literary history. When I first read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I would have said the former was my favorite; later in my teens, I went through a period where the latter became more appealing to me. Since reading Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall almost two years ago, however, I'd have to say that Anne's book is now my favorite. Charlotte writing style make me feel like I've traded places with the narrator of Jane Eyre, a talent which I've always respected; and Emily wove an incredible, impassioned and cyclical plot in Wuthering Heights, a story of love and tragedy and revenge, where everything is connected; but Anne somehow managed to write about purity of love even while she quite calmly and clearly addressed major issues, such as whether or not alcoholism should be overlooked by society. I very much respect Anne's approach to her writing, and a part of me resents Charlotte for discrediting her sister's work out of her overdeveloped sense of propriety.

If you're interested in reading any of the Bronte's work, I highly recommend Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and - in particular - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; Anne's first book, Agnes Grey, would also be interesting to read (I'm assuming; I haven't read it yet), and Charlotte later published Shirley (which I've read; very good) and Villette. After Charlotte's death her husband published The Professor, her first book, which wasn't received well by the publishing houses and never made it into print; and more than a century after her death, The Search After Happiness, one of her childhood stories about their imaginary world, was published.

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