Parts of this review first appeared in two longer review articles in the Times Literary Supplement: "No Coward Soul was Hers" discussing new books about Emily Brontë, and "Hiding a Warrior's Heart," discussing new books about Anne Brontë (20 January 2020).
he Brontë industry shows no sign of slowing down. New bursts of critical work marked the bicentenaries of each of the sisters: Charlotte's in 2016, Emily's in 2018, and Anne's in 2020. There have been readjustments to their reputations: for some critics, for instance, Charlotte's has been damaged by her lack of sympathy for the first Mrs Rochester (see Tange 46-47). On the other hand, Anne's boldness in confronting the issue of emotional abuse in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is noted approvingly by contemporary critics (see Hay 206 ff.). As further proof of the sisters' continuing relevance, they continue to inspire not only critics, but novelists in a wide variety of genres. Here are just three novels in three different genres. They illustrate both the broad and continuing appeal of the Brontës, and the ways in which their lives and work are being subtly (or not so subtly) rewritten to suit the new generation of readers that contemporary critics represent.
Among categories of Brontë-inspired fiction, the romantic or courtship novel, with its predictably happy ending ("Reader, I married him"), probably comes to mind first. In the hands of a good writer — and the very greatest have turned their hands to novels that fit this category — there need be nothing formulaic about the plot. Suspense is generated by characters, situations and events even when readers suspect, and indeed trust, that everything will turn out well in the end. Then, too, these elements may be treated in new ways — ways that challenge conventional views, through role reversal, for example; or uncover issues that may have remained largely unexamined, if not completely unacknowledged, in the past.
Mimi Matthews is an immensely popular writer, whose historical romances are based on a thorough knowledge of the Victorian period: she has written non-fiction works about the period, and has contributed to this website. But she is not inhibited by her research, and dares to address very present-day concerns in her novels. In Fair as a Star, for example, a Library Journal Best Romance of 2020, the heroine Beryl Burnham suffers bouts of depression so severe that she has needed to be wafted away from home for over a year, spending time in Paris with her aunt on a supposed "pleasure trip." Beryl warns her future husband, at the end, that her instability might pose challenges. He responds by talking about the semi-precious beryl stone after which she was named: "it's the imperfections — the impurities — that give a beryl its colour," he explains gently, undeterred.
As its title suggests, Matthews's latest romance, John Eyre, takes much of its inspiration from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. It does much more than remind us of Victorians' interest in mineralogy, or inject into their thinking a more enlightened view of mental health. The title gives part of her gender-bending game away: instead of Charlotte Brontë's plain Jane, she presents the reader with honest John, whose background has been similarly unhappy. He has a certain advantage over his predecessor: since this is a romance, he is allowed to possess reasonably good looks, as well as integrity. He also has a strong sense of responsibility, which manifests itself at first in guilt over a past relationship with a tragic outcome — although his behaviour had, in fact, been irreproachable. As tutor at Thornfield Hall, where he has taken up a new post, John fulfils his difficult role conscientiously and with a growing affection for his two young charges, who present unusual challenges. His relationship with them is much more important than Jane Eyre's with Adela, and anyone who has worked with traumatised children will find this one of the most rewarding parts of the novel.
Role reversal here involves outright gender-bending. It follows a predictable course: John has been hired by a Mrs Bertha Rochester, a woman with Matthews's trademark balance between independent views and vulnerability. About the occupant of the attic, and the carer who watches over the captive, suffice it to say here that episodes from the original novel are recalled, but with more than enough difference to alarm and even shock the reader. Most cleverly, issues with the captive's background and treatment are neatly avoided by drawing on another Victorian novel altogether, and lifting this strand of it, even more dramatically than the original, into another genre — the one indicated on the publishers' website, where the book comes under the heading of "Supernatural Gothic Romance." Coming after disturbingly gruesome events, the resolution is all the more welcome. Like the ending of Fair as a Star, this ending avoids unrealistic promises about the ever-after. However, says John confidently, should evil ever confront them again, they "will face it together" — and overcome it.
Matthews's retelling is for a popular rather than an academic readership, but it still serves as a critique of its original source. Above all, it provides us with a new Bertha Rochester. Jane's humanity, resilience, resourcefulness, courage and capacity to love are all transferred to her rather than John. Yet he has his own share of all these, and, unlike Charlotte Brontë's maimed and blinded Mr Rochester, he has not been unmanned at the end. He takes on his unusual ready-made family with aplomb. Like Jane Eyre herself, he has, as it were, come home. The cost of all this to others has been small: in this retelling the "thing" in the attic becomes truly inhuman, demonstrably so. No one can be blamed for what happens to it.
The Vanished Bride, by Rowan Coleman, writing under the Brontë-inspired pen-name of Bella Ellis, is also for a popular readership. Here, the inspiration comes from the Brontës' lives, not their writing: the three sisters, sometimes accompanied by their recalcitrant and rarely sober brother Branwell, are on a mission to discover what happened to a local woman who disappeared under highly suspicious circumstances. The challenge may be entirely fictional, but the inevitable and recurring references to Brontë biographies provoke reflection, and, again, some degree of rebalancing, and evidence of reappraisal.
Ellis's narrator is right on trend when she says, "Anne Brontë might look angelic, ... but within her chest beat the heart of a fierce warrior" (115). This is an Anne who is no longer committed to writing about the imaginary world which she shared with Emily in childhood (see Hay on Anne's movement away from the juvenilia, 48-49). Yet she continues to join her in it, out of kindness. Sharing centre stage equally with her sisters, this youngest “detector” is not simply aware of social realities, but empathetic, and this very quality proves useful. For example, she elicits information from Kitty, a wary Cockney girl, after Charlotte's more forceful tactics have failed. "Something Anne said clicked with the girl, who held on to her fingers a moment longer, before pulling her down until her ear was next to the girl's lips" (276). The whispered words will be key to solving the mystery. Anne’s social conscience comes out well in this episode. But above all, and perhaps most surprisingly, Ellis communicates something else that has surfaced in recent Brontë biographies, including Hay’s — the sisters’ sense of humour, as they tease, taunt and support each other in their pursuit of the truth. Readers need not be Brontë aficionados to enjoy the characterisation and context, the deft twists, turns and Gothic touches of the plot, and the strong feminist streak that emerges most triumphantly at the end. But Brontë readers will enjoy the avoidance of critical partisanship, and warm more than most to what Charlotte says at the end. She speaks for all three sisters when she asks: "why might our words not have just as much meaning and force upon the world of literature as those of any man? We are just as brave, just as bold, just as determined as any one of them" (336).
The narrative trajectory of a detective novel is similar to that of a romance. In both genres, there may be casualties along the way, but truth inevitably emerges, and everyone of any importance gets his or her just deserts. In genre fiction generally, the invitation to consider larger, more universal questions may be limited. But it is there for the thoughtful. In The Vanished Bride such readers will note that Anne has come into her own now; and, more generally, that women's progress has been helped by the quieter efforts of such women, as well as by the high passions of their more radical sisters.
Among the flurry of new books published to coincide with the bicentenary of Emily's birth were a matching pair of hardbacks, also priced for the popular market, from the HarperCollins imprint HQ: a new edition of Wuthering Heights, together with Michael Stewart's Ill Will: The Untold Story of Heathcliff. Stewart pulls no punches, either in his brief foreword to the former, or in his own spin-off from it. In the foreword, having acknowledged at once that the work engages with and subverts various other tropes, he is careful to present it as a "classic gothic novel" with a small "g." Nevertheless, he sees the story of Heathcliff and Cathy Earnshaw's tortured love primarily as it was first seen in the periodical Atlas, in January 1848, where an anonymous reviewer dismissed all Brontë's characters without exception as "utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible" (231). In fact Stewart goes further, imputing to the author the intention of rubbing our faces in "our own human frailties and hypocrisies," and showing us the "poison at the core" of human nature.
In his own novel, Ill Will, Stewart attempts to supply some of the details that Brontë so effectively but tantalisingly omitted in hers. He has done his research well, and is able to complement his dark reading of her work with details that both reference and support it. The result is neither a prequel nor a sequel, but a "midquel." He takes up Heathcliff's story after he has overheard Cathy declare that it would degrade her to marry him, and that she intends to marry the insipid Edgar Linton instead. With this apparent betrayal ringing in his ears, he sets out across the moors, at first simply hoping to find work in Manchester. His early encounters recall the kind of abuse that he had endured as a boy. Calling himself William Lee, he sees "hostile faces, white faces" (16), people enjoying themselves in a village dance in a way he never could, as a "black shadow of a man, barred from life's feast" (23). But he is not just an outcast on racial grounds: he is the archetypal outsider.
This is a figure championed in previous fictional responses to Wuthering Heights, like Caryl Phillips's The Lost Child (2015), and there are times when Stewart's version of it elicits sympathy too, because William Lee does register social injustice and also has enough of a bond with nature to respond to the details of the countryside around him. But, in an account addressed throughout to Cathy, he pours out a heart full of bitterness towards those who have mistreated him, particularly her brother Hindley, and those who cross him now. Overflowing with feelings of vengeance, he easily outdoes the original Heathcliff both in his use of obscenities and in his brutality. The obscenities mingle oddly in the dialogue with dialect words and anachronisms ("I could murder a beer" (146), for instance), and the brutality is described in particularly graphic and stomach-churning detail. There is also a new slyness in his character, as he veers between con-man and remorseless murderer during his travels. Stewart must have felt that he needed to go much further in these respects if he was to disturb his readers as powerfully as Emily Brontë once disturbed hers. In the end, then, his "midquel" is a comment on our own age as much as on the Victorian period itself. Here indeed, and to the reader's discomfiture, is a Wuthering Heights for our times.
The novels discussed here have added interest because they draw inspiration from such well-known sources. They quite naturally reflect present trends in Brontë criticism, and current thinking in general. But they are also engaging in their own right. Each is likely to appeal to a certain well-defined readership, according to its balance of certain shared elements — romantic interests, mysteries to unravel and Gothic episodes. This balance inevitably determines how each is marketed and selected. As it happens, none of the novels crosses established categories to the extent that it escapes the umbrella category of "genre fiction," in the way that, for example, Jean Rhys's celebrated Brontëan fiction, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) does. But literature, like the visual arts, in now undergoing a gradual democratisation. As Jess Nevins puts it: "Twenty-first-century critics increasingly see mainstream fiction not as the default standard for literature — the centuries-old critical and academic position — but as simply another genre, no better or worse than the other genres" (xiv). Good genre fiction is good fiction, however it is labelled.
- Nineteenth-century fortune-telling: from the drawing-room to the court room (by Mimi Matthews)
- Penny dreadfuls, juvenile crime, and late-Victorian moral panic (by Mimi Matthews)
Note: Books under review are marked with an asterisk.
*Ellis, Bella. The Vanished Bride. The Brontë Mysteries. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2019. Hardcover. 341 pp. £14.99. ISBN: 978-1529388985
"From an unsigned review, Atlas. Rpt. The Brontës: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Miriam Allot. London: Routledge, 2013. 230-232.
Hay, Adelle. Ann Brontë Reimagined: A View from the Twenty-First Century. Salford: Saraband, 2020.
Matthews, Mimi. Fair as a Star. Perfectly Proper Press, 2020.
*____. John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow. Perfectly Proper Press, 2021. 312 pp. Hardback. £22.99. ISBN: 978-1736080207 (Kindle Edition £2.99 at time of writing).
Nevins, Jess. Horror Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Exploring Literature's MostChilling Genre. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2020.
*Stewart, Michael. Ill Will: The Untold Story of Heathcliff. London: HarperCollins, 2018. 336 pp. Hardcover. £12.99. ISBN: 978-0008248154
Tange, Andrea Kasten. "Identifying a Reader: On Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë." My Victorian Novel: Critical Essays in the Personal Voice. Ed. Annette R. Frederico. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2020. 35-53.
Created 26 May 2021