Those Brilliant Brontës

Reading Time: 5-10 mins

I don’t have a Netflix account, so I’ve not actually seen its neo-Regency hit, Bridgerton. I know about it, though, from reading around on the Internet. The hype has been hard to miss. Like many exposed to the ‘Bridgerton effect’, I, too, escaped last year’s lockdown by visiting the past – just with help from a certain Anglo-Irish literary family.

The Brontë Society is coming to the end of its five-year celebration of various family bicentenaries. Well, it was meant to be five years. 2019 commemorated 200 years since Patrick was invited to become Perpetual Curate of Haworth, the Yorkshire village where it (mostly) all happened. The other years were birthdays: Charlotte in 2016, Branwell in 2017, Emily in 2018, and, because everything seems to happen to Anne, hers was 2020. Five years became six as the Society gave Acton’s legacy more time to shine in an extended exhibition.

Very much in a Brontë mood, then, I decided to read something of theirs I never had before. Since 2020 was Anne’s year, I chose Agnes Grey, and… well, I just wish I’d found the time to read it before then. To keep this blog post shorter, I’ll pick only one thing to discuss. I mentioned Bridgerton at the start of this post – in the case of Agnes Grey, the connection isn’t only because they’re both set in the past! There was a lot of love online for Violet Bridgerton. I initially found this really jarring since I know Ruth Gemmell’s work best as Tracy Beaker’s crappy mother…

I’ve started learning calligraphy – these are my first steps in creating (Brontë-inspired) monograms!

But I digress. The point of it all was to mark how rare it is to see a positive mother figure in period fiction. They’re usually either dead, with their children left to form their own standards from other, usually negative examples (like Jane Eyre vs Aunt Reed), or alive, flapping around trying to marry them all off (exhibit A: Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice).

Anne Brontë wrote in this same, rare vein. Her greatest exploration of motherhood is in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, where Helen Graham goes against almost every social standard of her time doing everything she can to help her child grow up to be a good person. In Agnes Grey, the earlier novel, there’s Alice, our protagonist’s progressive mother. She has her flaws, too – unconscious bias, overprotective of the family ‘baby’ – but she’s not dead, nor is she a marriage-meddler. She’s just… well-rounded. With Violet, these mothers are stand-out characters in their respective stories.

There is so much more I could say about this novel. I really could. Actually, my lockdown brain went a bit obsessive. I re-started Agnes Grey pretty much as soon as I finished it the first time. I’ve babbled about it to random visitors at my house and got all the funny looks I usually get when I’m overexcited about something. I found Brontë blogs to follow so I can get regular reads.

I shall always be #TeamBrontë, but am personally, now… thoroughly… #TeamAnne.

Brontë Babe Blog

This is one of the blogs I follow. Run by a lady called Nicola, it explores any and every piece of work that’s to do with the Brontës. This includes the family’s lesser-known works, with a focus on the juvenilia. Like many readers and writers, the children started off with fantasy fiction. Gondal and Angria could have rivalled Westeros and Middle Earth for detail alone.

But equally, I never know whether or not to read these stories – after all, the Brontës never published these private paracosms in their lifetimes – but then, they have left them behind for curators to treasure. It’s a fascinating insight into creative worldbuilding, and the complex situation that arises when those creatives, er, leave the material world behind. Then, there are also reviews. The last one I saw was on a gender-swapped Jane Eyre. Nicola explores it all.

Age Rating: 12+. Brontë juvenilia can get surprisingly adult – Cersei Lannister would not be out of place in high-society Gondal and/or Angria – but this is early nineteenth-century literature. It’s not really that graphic. Nicola summarises everything, anyway.

Read: online.

Find Me Elsewhere

Recently, the Brontë Babe discovered 30-word micro-fiction, and sent out a request to compile a collection of these oh-so-short stories for her blog. All they had to be was about a connection to the Brontës and/or our experience of them. (There is one exception to this rule, but it’s understandable once you read it.) For my contribution, well… I’ve not read much of Branwell’s or Rev. Patrick’s works, so my focus is on each of the sisters who made it to adulthood: Charlotte, Emily, Anne.

Charlotte became Charlotte Brontë Nicholls on her marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s assistant curate, in 1854 🙂

‘Why shouldn’t I, one day?’

‘Childhood Struggles’ is about Jane Eyre, how it’s such a beloved book because so many people have found something to relate to, something to aspire to when following Jane’s story. I’m even reading a YA dystopia at the moment and I’ve just got to a bit where one of the characters has it as her comfort book. She goes so far as to say that the novel taught her how to be a woman, that this means sticking to your principles even though you’ll lose parts of yourself you’ve been clinging to and this separation will be heartbreaking.

Everyone, regardless of their identity, has to face this at some point in life. It’s part of why Jane Eyre is the Brontë canon’s ultimate crowd-pleaser. Currer helps show us the way.

‘Within our own divinely dreary landscape…’

So begins ‘Seventeen’, referencing a quote from Wuthering Heights. This story is probably the most personal, since Emily’s only novel is the first work I ever read in the entire family canon. Cumbria isn’t Brontë country, of course, but some of what Ellis wrote about her moors can definitely apply to my fells.

I did the novel for school, twice. I am that strange person who actually enjoyed reading books for literature class – because, in the case of texts like Wuthering Heights, sometimes you need to study something to fully appreciate what it does, rather than just read it for pleasure.

All Sweethearts

Finally, ‘After I Finished Reading’ references the opening to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but is more about Agnes Grey (see my above enthusiasm). I’m thrilled that my work closes the collection (apart from Theo’s epilogue, which is, of course, no problem. Steam trains are beautiful trains 🙂 ).

Read the full collection here.

Images by E.A. Colquitt. The sticky tape, doodled on and around, is from The Literary Gift Company

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