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‘The shock and thrill of discovering this book, aged 13, continues to run in my veins’ … On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, writers and artists reflect on her greatest creation:
Sarah Waters, Tessa Hadley, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Drabble, Esther Freud, Andrew Motion, Maggie O'Farrell, Polly Samson, Helen Dunmore, Blake Morrison, Julie Myerson, Cornelia Parker, John Mullan, Helen Simpson, Polly Teale, Samantha Ellis, Mick Jackson, Joanna Briscoe, Linda Grant and Sarah Perry.
Like many people, I first read Jane Eyre in my early teens, in the first flush of excitement at swapping my children’s library card for an adult one. The back cover promised a thrilling love story between a poor, plain girl and a brooding, troubled landowner. Later that night, I found myself wrong-footed. What, I wondered, was this neglect and abuse of an orphan child? Whose was this frank, unwavering voice? By the time Jane was locked by her heartless aunt into the terrifying red room, I had forgotten all about the promised love story. I pressed on, late into the night, straight into Lowood and the deprivations at the hands of religious fanatics.Sarah Freeman from The Yorkshire Post asks the authors of several of the new Brontë books what the Brontës mean to them: Sophie Franklin (Charlotte Brontë Revisited), Deborah Lutz (The Brontë Cabinet), Lyndsay Faye (Jane Steele), Mick Manning (The Brontës – Children of the Moors: A Picture Book), Tracy Chevalier (Reader, I Married Him), Jolien Janzing (Charlotte Brontë's Secret Love), Nick Holland (In Search of Anne Brontë). Quoting from Lyndsay's Faye's eulogy of Jane Eyre:
I had, in short, never read anything like it. The shock and thrill of discovering this book, aged 13, continues to run in my veins. I read it without a single preconception; I knew nothing about it. I was as unprepared as those first Victorian readers for Rochester, for the fire, for the stalled marriage, for the lunatic locked away in the attic.
If Jane Eyre taught me anything as an astonished 13-year-old, it was to strive, to push my reach beyond my grasp, not to settle for compromise. When we studied the book at university, Brontë’s words were filtered for me through various frameworks of academic theory. Jane Eyre is a feminist novel, I was told. Or it is the link between the epistolary and the gothic novel. It is the precursor to all stream-of-consciousness writing. It is a psychological tract about doubles and doppelgangers, addressing levels of human consciousness. It is all these things and yet none of them. One of the reasons Jane Eyre continues to provoke so much discussion and theorising is that, like Jane herself, it eludes definition. It does one thing with its right hand while doing quite another with its left.
Thirty years on, I still haven’t read anything like it. Jane Eyre remains the book I return to the most. I read it every couple of years. Parts I know off by heart, yet each time I come away with something different. It is my datum, my pole star, the novel by which all others shall be measured.
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.John Sutherland in The Evening Standard tries to be honest with Jane Eyre and Charlote Brontë;
This is the year of Charlotte Brontë: her bicentennial. Let’s resolve, by way of celebration, to read her honestly: not prettify her and the fiction she has left us. Brontë is, above all, an uncompromisingly honest novelist. Honest about herself, honest about her sex and honest about the inherently embattled relationship of the sexes. A main part of Brontëan honesty is that she confronts, as few novelists do, the fact that most women are not beautiful — they never have been and never will be. Ditto men. (...)John Sutherland also signs a review in The Times of the new paperback edition of Juliet Barker's The Bontës. A Life in Letters.
The publisher who first recognised her worth, George Smith, declared bluntly that Miss Brontë was not pretty — but he had never met a woman who wanted more to be so. Charlotte made Smith’s firm a pot of money. He paid her half what he paid his male star authors but was generous in other ways.
He commissioned George Richmond, the leading portraitist of the day, with the secret instruction to create the pretty Charlotte she wished to be and wasn’t. It was a noble thing of Smith to do. The portrait will hang in room 24 of the National Portrait Gallery for ever, eternalising the pretty (not the plain) Charlotte Brontë.
We’ll see a lot of that portrait this year. Maybe even on a five-pound note and first-class stamp. It is essentially dishonest but most of us have, hidden in the secret attic of our minds, a prettified portrait of ourselves. (...)
Reading Charlotte Brontë honestly is not easy. Particularly for male readers. They have an easier time with the man-pleasing Jane Austen. Austen is a novelist who flatters the male gaze. Every one of her six heroines could be played on-screen by Gwyneth Paltrow as a demure, inherently passive object of male desire. The Austen heroine does what her world tells her to do. Brontë’s heroines (particularly plain Jane) are something else.
The classic status of ‘Jane Eyre’ can obscure just how shocking its radical ideas were at the time. (...)Bustle lists several things about Charlotte Brontë you may not know about:
In 1847 it shocked people considerably: the author, known only by the name that appeared on the title page, “Currer Bell”, seemed like a dangerous revolutionary, challenging social and sexual norms with his story of the servant who claims to be the spiritual equal of her master. For “Currer Bell” had to be a man, surely? No woman would have the worldly knowledge that the plot implied, or the shamelessness to express it.
Alarm bells rang in the ears of critics who read Jane’s cries of “Unjust! Unjust!”, like those of “any other rebel slave”. What was all this about equality, insubordination, this denunciation of clerics as hypocrites and authority figures as questionable? “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will”, was a statement as incendiary as any to be found in the subversive socialist pamphlets of the day (or in Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, published the year after Jane Eyre); Currer Bell’s girl-rebel seemed to be encouraging all oppressed people to join her when she extolled “the strangest sense of freedom” that comes from making a stand — “it seemed as if an invisible bond had burst”. Published just months before the outbreak of bloody revolutions in Italy, Hungary, France and Germany, the novel could hardly be read as politically innocent, despite the fact that it was ostensibly just a love story, and about a girl. “There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor,” the Quarterly warned, “which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God’s appointment — there is a proud and perpetual assertion of the rights of man, for which we find no authority either in God’s word or in God’s providence. We do not hesitate to say that the tone of the mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.” (...)
As we celebrate the secure place Charlotte Brontë has in our hearts and our literary heritage, it might be as well to remind ourselves who we’re remembering. The realisation that it’s someone who might not just want to surprise you with the power of her writing, but shake you by the shoulders with her ideas, is perhaps more peculiar than pleasing.
I was named after Charlotte Brontë, so it's lucky that I was a huge Jane Eyre fan growing up. My mother read it to me when I was too young to understand repressed desire and the appeal of sexy, brooding assholes. But I still loved the Gothic intensity of the novel. I loved the raw emotion, the windswept moors, the madwoman in the attic, and I loved Jane.Although Charlotte preventing Emily Brontë's second unfinished novel from being published is not something you may not know, but something with no base whatsoever.
When I read the book myself, years later, it was a very different experience. I had opinions on the postcolonial implications of poor Bertha in the attic, and on that terribly run boarding school, and on Rochester and how he's pretty much a (sexy) jerk. But most of all, I was shocked at how real Jane feels. Two centuries later, her angst and her love and her gritty independence are just as relevant as ever. Jane, like Charlotte, is all roiling emotions hidden underneath a nice girl facade. And Charlotte, like Jane, changed the world of English literature forever.
But who was Charlotte Brontë? She's more than than "one of the two Brontë sisters" (poor Anne Brontë, no one talks about her), and she's more than that female writer from the 1800s who's not Jane Austen. Here are some facts that might give you an idea of the woman behind Jane Eyre. (Charlotte Ahlin)
“Villette! Villette! Have you read it?” exclaimed author George Eliot when Charlotte Brontë’s final novel was published in 1853. “It is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power.”The Yorkshire Evening Post has a fashion article featuring clothes and accessories from Next around Haworth (including the Brontë Parsonage and The Old School Room):
But 200 years after her birth, the eldest Brontë sister to reach adulthood is still remembered for her first novel Jane Eyre, credited to Curer Bell when published in 1847.
Like governess Jane Eyre, Brontë’s final protagonist Lucy Snowe was alone in the world, without family or fortune, when she arrived in cosmopolitan Villette to work as a teacher at a French boarding school.
Given Brontë’s conviction that art was most convincing when drawn from personal experience, it is unsurprising Jane Eyre and Villette won popular and critical acclaim. (Marea Donnelly)
Stephanie Smith celebrates Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre through modern interpretations of its fashion. Photos by James Hardisty.The Yorkshire Post has an article about Ponden Hall:
Brontë fans travel from all over the world to stay in Ponden Hall which provided inspiration for one of the most famous scenes in literary history.Keighley News has an alert for the London Brontë Society members:
Years of benign neglect followed by loving care and a grade two star listing have combined to protect Ponden Hall’s historic features. Charlotte and Emily, who knew it well, would certainly still recognise the property, near Haworth, which has escaped the ravages of excessive modernisation.
The old front door, the mullions, beams and the fireplaces are still there, along with the extra wide staircase that led to the sisters’ favourite room – “the finest library in the West Riding” full of the best books money could buy, including a Shakespeare first folio. The box bed next to the tiny east gable window, said to have inspired one of the most famous scenes in literary history, is there too. It is not the original but a faithful replica, crafted by cabinet maker Andrew Feather for Ponden Hall’s owners Julie Akhurst and Steve Brown.
They commissioned it after turning their idyllic family home into a B&B. Guests can now stay in the Earnshaw room, sleep in the box bed and look out on to the moors through the window. It exactly fits Emily Brontë’s description in Wuthering Heights where Cathy’s ghost scratches furiously at the glass trying to get in. The words of the story’s narrator, Mr Lockwood, still gives readers goosebumps: “I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand.”
“We think that Emily based that scene on this room because old documents relating to the house describe a box bed in a reception room across from the library and you can see where it was bolted to the wall by the window. It is just how it is described in Wuthering Heights,” says Julie, an English literature graduate and former journalist, who has researched Ponden Hall’s Brontë heritage. (Read more) (Sharon Dale)
Brontë Society members are being invited to step out in London on May 14 to remember Charlotte.The Yorker lists five period dramas, including Wuthering Heights 2009:
Members from across the country can join the London and East Group for their spring walk around the capital.
The walk will follow in Charlotte Brontë’s footstep when, with her sister Anne, she walked from St Paul’s Cathedral to the publishing house of George Smith in Cornhill.
The walk, which begins at the Monument at 11am, will finish at 1.30pm on the site of the London Bridge Wharf.
This is the place where in her book Villette, Charlotte described boarding the packet steamer for Ostend. (David Knights)
Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley star as Emily Brontë’s tormented lovers in this gritty, gothic adaptation. If you’re expecting something light and fluffy, you’re looking in the wrong place – Wuthering Heights is passionate and twisted in equal measure, and for a long time a happy ending seems unreachable. Boasting a stellar cast including Andrew Lincoln and Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley), this reworking of Brontë’s 1847 novel is definitely one of the most faithful to the text. The eponymous house is well and truly brought to life with an intensity so vivid that its walls feel almost touchable. Compelling viewing from the outset, Wuthering Heights is without a doubt one of the best period dramas produced in recent years. (Catherine Coleman)An interesting article in Palatinate:
I worry for the fourteen year old that reads Jane Eyre and idolises Rochester; for the girl that picks up Pride and Prejudice and dreams for a Darcy. Aware of the contexts and literary debate surrounding such novels, armed with a copy of Madwoman in the Attic, these texts are fruitful, meaningful insights into womanhood in the nineteenth century. Picked from a library shelf by impressionable teenagers, they are problematic.The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reviews Jane Steele:
Yet Jane Eyre has, for a long time, been my go-to favourite book, and I cannot imagine my teenage years without it. It is about self-discovery, about staying true to yourself, about education and growing up. And it is no more damaging than a Hollywood rom-com oozing with unattainable beauty standards. Or a modern young adult novel like Twilight, in which a girl’s life doesn’t really start until a really quite dangerous male vampire falls in love with her. Perhaps in picking my fight with literature, I am failing to recognise that I am taking on the whole of culture.
But literature is where we expect standards. As teenagers, we felt intelligent (if quite a bit nerdy) clutching our copy of The Great Gatsby instead of collapsing in front of the TV. We expected to learn something. We didn’t turn off – we absorbed.
There are, of course, plenty of strong female role models in classic literature, and these were in the books I gravitated towards. I enjoyed the Jane Eyres and the Jo Marches. I liked how they stood out as something different, something I could identify with. I also wasn’t stupid. I knew these books were set in different periods, when it meant something different to be a woman. (...) Unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution is. We cannot reissue Jane Eyre emblazoned with the warning ‘Danger: Contains overtones of patriarchy’, but we can increase the visibility of contemporary novels about strong healthy women who don’t gnaw down trees. (Ellie Scorah)
Flushed with humour and humors, this novel is a hoot. I laughed not only at Jane's audacity as a character — "No weeping," she reminds herself during a crisis, "thinking is better than weeping" — but also the author's accomplishments skillfully mashing up a modern serial killer novel with a 19th-century novel of manners. The notion of such a thing isn't making you lightheaded, is it? (Carole E. Barrowman)The Irish Times on the importance of place in literature:
Consider where Wuthering Heights might be now if Heathcliff hadn’t had those wild, desolate moors to storm around in. Long consigned to a dusty shelf? The mysterious moors are not only as much part of Wuthering Heights as the characters and plot, they are intrinsic to the story and mirror Heathcliff’s inner turbulence. (Zoë Miller)Parenting advice in the Arizona Daily Star:
A good novel can go beyond reality; it can take us into the minds of other people. When I was a girl I felt I really “knew” Jane Eyre and Jo March of “Little Women.” (Marilyn Heins)The Herald interviews the author Sarah Sheridan:
While as a teenager Sheridan fell in love with crime writers Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh (and owned a well-thumbed copy of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë as a 10-year-old), it is Swiss author Johanna Spyri's famed Heidi that can lay claim to being her most beloved childhood book. (Susan Swarbrick)The Daily Mail talks about the plans for an itinerant Great Exhibition of the North, to be launch in 2018:
Ministers have ploughed money into the Great Exhibition of the North, which will launch in 2018 to show off the best the North has to offer. (...)The Halifax Courier publishes the Calderdale Major diary for next week, including:
Highlighting ten great cultural icons from across northern England - including the Bronte Sisters from North Yorkshire, Leeds playwright Alan Bennett and Manchester's Factory Records - he wants to use the region's rich cultural history to inspire a new generation to make the North proud again. (...)
The Great Exhibition of the North will celebrate an eclectic mix of culture over the last two centuries.
It will show off literary classics from the Bronte Sisters - the famous poets and novelists from West Riding of Yorkshire village of Haworth who charmed, inspired, and even shocked readers in the 19th century. (Matt Dathan)
Wednesday, April 205.30 pm: Mayor to officially open Splendid Shreds of Silk and Satin – A Celebration of Charlotte Brontë in Quilts exhibition at Bankfield Museum.Gloucester Citizen describes the sound of the band British Sea Power as
The Age doesn't like Germaine Greer's opinions on a recent Australian TV show:
And it was especially depressing to see a woman questioner criticise women for "poor partner choices" – and for Germaine Greer to essentially agree with her.The Neue Bürcher Zeitung (Switzerland) reviews the National Portrait Gallery's Charlotte Brontë exhibition:
Re-reading the Bronte novels recently had persuaded Greer that women "are always on the lookout for men who are exciting, taciturn, difficult and potentially violent".
How pathetic for a feminist scholar like Greer to provide a "romantic" justification for violence by implying that 21st century women who, unlike the Brontë heroines, can vote, own property and legally control their own lives, yet deep down seek to be dominated by a Heathcliff or a Rochester. (Anne Summers)
Bescheidene FeierAsturias24 (Spain) discovers Charlotte Brontë to Spanish readers who may not know her:
Kein Wunder, dass deren Leserschaft sich Lebendigeres wünschte. Als im vergangenen Jahr eine Foto aus der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts auftauchte, die angeblich die drei Brontë-Frauen zeigte, wurde diese Möglichkeit in englischen Zeitungen heiss diskutiert. Leider kamen Fachleute zu einem Negativ-Befund. Und auch die nur einen Raum füllende, in einem Winkel der National Portrait Gallery versteckte Ausstellung fördert keine bahnbrechenden Neuigkeiten über Charlotte Brontë zutage: zu spärlich und disparat sind die Gegenstände, Briefe und Bücher dieser bescheidenen Feier der Dichterin, die uns dann doch wieder auf die Literatur zurückwirft. Was ja nicht das Schlechteste ist. (Marion Löndorf) (Translation)
Jane Eyre es una joya de la literatura, pero no sólo por su calidad artística, representa un valor mucho más importante que la armonía estética. Supone un testimonio del pensamiento feminista cuando el movimiento aun carecía de nombre y de identidad como tal. Jane es un personaje de ficción que no se puede considerar representativo del conjunto de la sociedad del momento pero con cuyos comportamientos y reacciones se sentirían identificadas la mayor parte de las mujeres de hoy. (Eva Del Fresno) (Translation)La Razón (Spain) describes Wuthering Heights as
la obra maestra de las venganzas rebuscadas e indirectas. (Carlos Sala) (Translation)Regarder en Coulisse (France) interviews the composer Jill Santoriello who remembers how
Mon premier musical était une adaptation, pas très très bonne, des Hauts de Hurlevent. j’ai arrêté après la première version et j’ai commencé à chercher une autre histoire à mettre en musique et ce fut A Tale of Two Cities. (Stéphane Ly-Cuong) (Translation)NewsChannel6 mentions a local writer, Jamie Turner, who writes under pseudonym, like the Brontës. Optima Magazine (Italy) would like to see Emma Watson as a Brontë sister; the Express & Star and Shropshire Star Weekend Magazine has an article about literary journey to the homes and birthplaces of authors, including the Brontës and Haworth. Noteablepad reviews Yuki Chan in Brontë Country. The World of my Green Heart reviews Charlotte Brontë's The Spell. Milady's Boudoir follows the Jane Eyre Hathersage and Trail. Vorrei Essere un Personaggio Austeniano (in Italian) reviews Shirley.
next big project is a film about the Brontë sisters,' Gill [Rawlings] reveals. 'Beyond that, who knows? The sky's the limit. I just wait for the next call.' (Sarah Rainey)We suppose Barley will be Grasper in the upcoming To Walk Invisible.