Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre might be a rite of passage for first-year English students at VIU. I’ve seen the university edition being read on the number 40 bus and in the hallways of building 345 before classes start. There are upwards of five copies sitting on the bookswap shelves in the Student Union building—it’s hard for to avoid that nineteenth century governess.
I read all the Brontë sisters’ novels as a pretentious preteen. Flash-forward a few years and I felt like I knew what I was getting into when Jane Eyre was assigned in my ENGL 135 class. I was wrong in the most wonderful way.
Jane Eyre quickly became my new favourite book. As I cried over the final chapters in a university hallway, I couldn’t have told you why I was so affected. I still can’t.
Maybe I saw something of myself in Jane—an outsider full of her own thoughts and opinions that no one really got to us (except her “Reader(s)”). When she was able to connect with people, she loved them hard, and their meeting felt like it was meant to be. While I acknowledge the more problematic and outdated aspects of the novel (see: Bertha Mason), perhaps I was comforted by its themes of second chances, with Jane ultimately being rewarded for doing the right thing. The book just makes me so happy.
After my experience with Jane Eyre, I wondered what other complexities I’d missed from the Brontë sisters’ work at age 10. This past summer, I re-read all seven of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë’s novels, and discovered some new favourites and some new heroines to connect with despite the two hundred-ish years separating us.
Charlotte Brontë impressed me again with Shirley, this time with her mastery of language. Every line was so poetic. Her words conveyed such vivid imagery of the characters’ emotions and frustrations that remain relatable today. If I had highlighted every quote that stuck with me, the entire text would be bright yellow.
Villette told a bittersweet story, perfectly capturing the feeling of misplaced loneliness while watching everyone else lead fulfilling lives.
The Professor is an interesting look at Brontë’s earliest written novel and bears semblance to Villette.
Re-reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights made me realize how much it had influenced my love for generational drama in my own writing. What’s fascinating is that all the characters and the things they do dip into melodrama, but it’s not a melodrama, because it’s narrated by Nelly Dean, the down-to-earth family servant. She’s almost outside of the story, judging the other characters alongside the reader. It’s Emily Brontë’s only novel, but she did it with style. To give a sense of Wuthering Heights’ romance, passion, and dramatic flair, one character quite literally dug another up from the grave to embrace their cold, dead body. Great book.
It is a crime that Anne Brontë’s novels are so overshadowed by her sisters’. In her introduction to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Brontë acknowledges the critics of her first novel, Agnes Grey, wondering if their criticism stemmed from her being a woman, and if so, why she couldn’t write about what men could without censor. Anne Brontë was calling out brands of sexism in 1848 that women still experience today.
In addition, Tenant tells the story of a woman who escapes her abusive husband. This was no small feat for the time period, and controversial subject matter for a novel. Both Tenant and Agnes Grey feature breathtaking descriptions of natural landscapes and beautiful love stories that beg for high budget film adaptations.
While daunting in their age and academic reputation, the stories and themes of the Brontë sisters’ work can still strike an emotional connection in the twenty-first century. If wondering about, or assigned to venture into the Brontë literary landscape, feel free to make use of my personal ranking and recommendations.
1. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
This may be the Brontë book for you if: you like pious, but outspoken and fiery governesses, problematic, but passionate love interests, and soulmate tropes.
2. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
This may be the Brontë book for you if: you are a messy bookworm who reads for the drama.
3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
This may be the Brontë book for you if: you are a feminist and/or like male love interests who are hopelessly and idiotically in love.
4. Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë
This may be the Brontë book for you if: you want gorgeous prose and close female friendships.
5. Villette, by Charlotte Bronte
This may be the Brontë book for you if: you feel down and want to wallow in said feeling.
6. Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë
This may be the Brontë book for you if: you’re a fan of morally correct governesses, not so morally correct employers, and/or romantic settings for proposals.
7. The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë
This may be the Brontë book for you if: you want to see Brontë’s preferred teacher/student romantic dynamic in its earliest format.