Reading the Brontes: The BookNerd’s Official Guide

Reading the Brontes: The BookNerd’s Official Guide

I loathe Wuthering Heights. I should probably tell you that right up front. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I had to read Emily Bronte’s (so-called) classic first in high school and hated every ridiculous humorless violent hateful brooding moment of it. Being a person who typically enjoys nineteenth century classic literature, though, I figured that it probably was my fault, so I tried it again in college, and once again despised every ridiculous humorless violent etc. moment. I gave it one last try a few years later and finally decided, nope, it’s not me. Wuthering Heights is indeed an terrible garbage fire of a book. (Except for all those people who inexplicably love it. I promise not to judge you if you’re one of those people. I mean, you’re clearly wrong, but we can still be friends.) 

That said, I’ve been a big fan of Charlotte Bronte’ s Jane Eyre since the very first time I read it, around age 13 or so. As I’ve reread it over the years I’ve found that I particularly enjoy different parts of it—my first time though, I was obsessed with Jane’s experiences at Lowood, the Boarding School From Hell, but during later reads I’ve been more interested in Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester, or the strength of will she finds to run away from Thornfield Hall. 

Recently, I had a wonderful time doing Jane Eyre as a read-aloud with my daughter, and that experience set me off on a reread through Bronte works, Bronte history, and Bronte miscellany. From that, I’ve come up with this list for anyone - homeschool student, homeschool parent, or interested bystander - who’d like to take a deep dive into the world of the Brontes. I’m happy to present: 

The BookNerd’s Official Guide to Reading the Brontes
(NOTE: Wuthering Heights NOT Included) 

1. Read Jane Eyre. If you’ve already done that, reread Jane Eyre. Better yet, find a 13-year-old (or thereabouts) girl to read it with you, so that the two of you can enjoy Jane’s near-constant fury at the circumstances of her life (not to mention her occasional snarkiness) together. I’ve found that 13-year-old young women in particular have a real connection to Jane’s anger. Plus you’ll need someone to talk with about how St. John is THE WORST. 

2. Read a biography of the Brontes. The lives of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and supposed-to-be-the-Golden-Boy-but-never-got-his-act-together brother Branwell are at least as fascinating as their most famous novels. Claire Harman’s Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart and Rebecca Fraser’s The Brontes: Charlotte Bronte and Her Family are both very good. Spoiler: Branwell is THE WORST. 

3. Read more Charlotte. Both of her other major novels, Shirley and Villette, are good reads, though I’ve found that Villette stays with me longer and has more of an impact. Plus, after reading Villette, you can join in the great literary game of gossiping with your 13-year-old about what exactly happened in Belgium between Charlotte and her mentor, Constantin Heger. 

4. Read some Anne. Poor Anne. Poor neglected Anne. Posterity seems to have entirely forgotten about Anne, which is utterly unfair. Plus, if this To Hark a Vagrant strip is historically accurate (IT IS and I refuse to entertain any discussion to the contrary), she was the most awesome sister of all. I’ve enjoyed both Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but if you only read one, make it Tenant, which—with its plot of a woman escaping an abusive husband with her child, not to mention all the arrogant entitled would-be suitors of the heroine, who get really really angry with her when she chooses not to love them back—feels (sadly) contemporary at times. 

5. Read some fanfic. In this case, by fanfic, I mean some of the professionally published retellings of and homages to Bronte works that have appeared over the years. From Jean Rhys’ classic Wide Sargasso Sea (which tells the story of Bertha Rochester pre-attic), to Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair (set in a world where people can jump in and out of books to change the narrative), to my new favorite, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele (“Reader, I murdered him”), there are plenty to choose from. 

6. Finally, as a reward for all that reading—not to mention all those moors and all that brooding—read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, in which a very sensible young woman visits the broody family Starkadder on their gloomy farm in deepest, darkest Sussex and proceeds to set everything right with a few common-sensical changes. I strongly suspect that Charlotte and Emily would have loathed this book (not Anne though, because she’s awesome), but it is enormously funny and one of my top-ten comfort book rereads. As a bonus, it was made into a wonderful movie with Kate Beckinsale as the heroine (and Stephen Fry as a delightfully smarmy Branwell fan). 

EXTRA CREDIT  This past year I finally got around to reading The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar . This book is a classic work of feminist literary criticism, first published in the 1970s, so I was a bit intimidated, but even as a layman I found it a fascinating read. I’m not exaggerating to say that it has changed the way I read novels written by women. But if that sounds a bit too much to tackle at the moment, you can pick up (the much shorter and much funnier) Texts From Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg for your homeschool (sample here ), secure in the knowledge that anyone who gets all the references in this book—conversations in text from literary figures including Medea, Hamlet, Lord Byron, Jo March, and Nancy Drew—can definitely consider themselves a well-read student of Western literature. 

Happy reading, everyone!