Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Brontë family creative writing workshop

I don't have any particularly interest in all of that Brontë stuff. Like being able to see the drawer full of Brontë socks at their house.* The whole terrible Brontë family saga.

But I am interested in how writers write, and the Brontës wrote most of their novels under unusual circumstances. Imagine, in that house on the moors in 1846, all three sisters are writing their first novel at the same time. They would read their work to each other, and criticize each other. It doesn't sound to me like it was a collaborative process, but they must have responded to each other in some way.

The strangest thing may have been that while Charlotte and Anne were writing ordinary first novels, Emily was producing a real masterpiece. Did they know the difference? Charlotte later wrote that she was aware, the first time she read Emily's poetry, that Emily was the only real poet in the family. Charlotte also said that both Emily and Anne had trouble accepting constructive criticism abut their writing, which is delightfully self-serving.

I should admit that I have not read and have no plans to read The Professor, Charlotte's first novel. Agnes Grey, Anne's first, I have read, and it's basically a dud. There's some cute stuff about badly behaving children, but otherwise, it's thin. It's hard to imagine that it was published in a set with Wuthering Heights. The reader who turned directly from Emily's madness on the moors to pale, sensible Agnes must have been startled. Or relieved.

Here's what I think is really great about the Brontë workshop. Whatever the source of her creativity, Emily wrote a truly original book while the other two sisters did not. Charlotte's response was to almost immediately write a masterpiece of her own. Reading the books so close to each other, it's easy to see how many aspects of Jane Eyre respond directly to Wuthering Heights.

Look, for example, at the fairy-and-ogre business in Jane Eyre, that I wrote about here. This now looks to me like a deliberate parody of Emily. Heathcliff and Catherine are monsters, a step removed from human experience. Rochester and Jane play with the idea, but don't really mean it. They're both human, all the way through.

Look at how Charlotte splits Heathcliff in two - Rochester's the wild man, while St. John is the bully, the real monster. Look at how each sister plays around in innovative ways with the first person narrator. I can think of a half dozen more items. It's all very impressive.

Then a little later, Anne produced her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a shocker with a Heathcliff-like alcoholic. I have not read this one yet, but I will. If only the sisters had been able to carry on the conversation. The things they might have dreamed up.

* You apparently have to be a serious researcher to be allowed to see the socks. Pity the non-scholarly Brontë fan.


  1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is up there with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I'll be interested to read your thoughts when you read it.

  2. I said it earlier but I do wish Emily had been allowed to grow as a writer - if Wuthering Heights was her first offering, I cannot imagine what she might have been able to accomplish later.

    I like the connection here between WH and JE, I never pay atttention to pub dates and things like that unless I'm looking for something specifically and its clear that JE was a response or an attempt to invoke the same kind of powerful story as WH.

    Just imagine if Emily had been able to enter back into that conversation.

    Will be very interested to see what you think of the Tenant...I read it for the first time last year or the year before. I wouldn't necessarily put it on the same level with JE and WH, but it may need a second and third reading.

  3. After reading Agnes Grey, my enthusiam for trying The Tenant of Wildfell Hall plummeted. Various people, including Emily Brontë, have made me reconsider. It's back on the list.

    I may pay a little too much attention to publishing dates. But these sorts fo connections are the rewards.

  4. I like the connection you make between the sister's writing. Like Verbivore, I never paid much attention to publication date. But I like the idea of the books being in conversation with each other. It is too bad they didn't get the chance to keep it up.

  5. It's really too sad to think too much about the books the B. sisters could have written.