To celebrate my 30 years on this planet this week, I’ve been compiling a few blogs featuring 30 things for my readers to think about and have fun with. This post is a list of 30 books about the Brontës which have been particularly useful or enlightening during my research on the family over the years. To qualify the books simply had to be entirely about the Brontës (there is one exception which you can read about below) and I’ve included several fictional texts on the basis that they do provide information about the siblings’ early writings and lives. If you’re serious about the Brontës you could do worse than investing in a few of these titles. Sadly, some of these texts are now out of print, but can easily be purchased through second hand booksellers.
If there is anything you think I’ve missed or feel should be included, feel free to let me know in the comments below.
The Brontës (1994) by Juliet Barker. The definitive Brontë biography contains information on just about every aspect of their lives. To put it bluntly, you can’t know the Brontës without this book, and you’d be a fool not to invest in it.
The Brontës: A Life in Letters (1997) edited by Juliet Barker. A selection of letters written by and to the Brontës. It’s basically the Brontës in their own words, stripped of all the mythology that surrounds the family to this day. An honourable mention must go to Selected Letters edited by Margaret Smith.
In Search of Anne Brontë (2016) by Nick Holland. This brilliant biography of the youngest sibling presents the strength and courage of Anne and also sheds light on her relationship with Charlotte. It’s incredibly detailed, a joy to read due to Holland’s balance between knowledge of and passion for his subject, and more importantly, it brings Anne out of the shadows of her sisters.
The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects (2015) by Deborah Lutz. This is a fascinating little book; a biography of the Brontës that doesn’t actually feel like one (in a good way). Lutz traces the history of the family through some of the objects they owned and created. It’s also got a fantastic chapter on the Brontë juvenilia, beginning with their famous tiny books.
Patrick Brontë: Father of Genius (2008) by Dudley Green. An incredibly detailed biography of the remarkable father of the Brontës covering everything from his Irish origins to his death in Haworth. A more sympathetic portrayal than that which features in older biographies of the family; this book rights a few wrongs regarding Patrick’s true nature.
The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1960) by Daphne Du Maurier. My biggest issue with this book is that it reads more like a novel than a biography. Although this a brilliant book written by a brilliant author, it is written by one best known for fiction, and consequently, it contributes greatly to the Brontë myth that persists even in the 21st century. It’s still unique in the sense that it’s focused on Branwell rather than his sisters, but although it’s full of information, it casts Branwell into the shadows rather than allowing him to step out of the those of his sisters. Still, anyone curious about the Brontë brother would be unwise to give this is a miss when piecing together the bigger picture of the Brontë family.
Mansions in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of Branwell Brontë (2017) by Ann Dinsdale and Simon Armitage. This is actually the exhibition catalogue from the Brontë Parsonage’s celebration of Branwell’s bicentenary. It makes the list due its brief but more honest depiction of Branwell. Yes, he was incredibly troubled, but he was also incredibly talented, something which really shines through in this more balanced representation of the Brontë brother. Let’s hope this is the way forward. It also features several new poems by Armitage which channel the spirit of Branwell and were inspired by his life and work.
Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius (1967) by Winifred Gérin. This prize-winning biography is a good one for those interested in Charlotte’s early fiction as renowned Brontë scholar Gérin explores the development of Charlotte’s talents over the years, and the influences on her work.
Emily Brontë: A Biography (1971) by Winifred Gérin. It’s still remarkably difficult to find decent biographies of the most mysterious Brontë, but this one still holds up. The parts that interested me the most were obviously the parts detailing Emily’s own fantasy world of Gondal, a creation just as enigmatic as the author herself. I must note that Gérin wrote biographies on all four surviving Brontë siblings, which are all worth a read, however, I didn’t want to clutter the list up with too many entries from one author where I could help it.
The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) by Elizabeth Gaskell. This biography was authorised by Patrick Brontë himself shortly after Charlotte’s death. Anyone reading and writing about the Brontës can’t ignore the existence of this work, but it has always frustrated me slightly due to the fact that Gaskell does not let facts get in the way of a good story, spawning the Brontë mythology that continues to this day.
Charlotte Brontë’s World of Death (1979) by Robert Keefe. This text examines how Charlotte’s writing is a creative response to the deaths of close family members in her childhood. Keefe traces Charlotte’s preoccupation with issues of death, loss, and separation from her juvenilia through to her adult novels, and how her relationship with these issues matures over the years.
Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived (1976) by Helen Moglen. Moglen’s biography explores Charlotte’s notion of selfhood, and how facts and fiction intertwine in order to represent this self on the page. Moglen examines Charlotte’s sense of duality and the connection between literature and the life of the author and traces the development of her psyche from the juvenilia to her later novels.
The Brontës in Brussels (2014) by Helen MacEwan. An account of Charlotte and Emily’s time spent in Brussels from 1842-43, this book retraces the footsteps of the sisters using words, photographs, and illustrations. There is also plenty of information on the object of Charlotte’s affection, teacher Constantin Héger, who had a profound effect on her. Information on life after Brussels can also be found in addition to plot summaries of Charlotte’s The Professor and Villette, novels set in Brussels.
The Oxford Companion to the Brontës (2003) by Margaret Smith and Christine Alexander. An A-Z of everything Brontë related, this book looks at everything from characters and settings in their works to the family’s reputation and the personal lives of the individual family members. That really doesn’t do it justice. Like Barker’s The Brontës, it’s just full of information on just about everything.
Everyman’s Companion to the Brontës (1982) by Barbara and Gareth Lloyd Evans. Whilst considerably shorter than its Oxford cousin, this one gets the nod over the Cambridge Companion due to its incredible detail on the Brontë juvenilia, featuring glossaries on both Glass Town/Angria and Gondal, in addition to a very useful chronology of Glass Town events. I wish I’d discovered this whilst writing my MA dissertation a couple of years ago. It really would have helped to sort the saga’s events out in my mind. It’s always worth double checking facts about the Brontë juvenilia in older texts such as this due to the discovery of lost manuscripts which have the potential to alter timelines and developing plot lines.
Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (1996) by Sally Shuttleworth. This one is great for students and academics as it places Charlotte’s work firmly within the Victorian era and the debates and issues of the day, covering social, economic, and psychological discourse. It may seem a strange idea, but it’s only when you read this text that you realise the how common the tendency to analyse Charlotte’s work from a more modern perspective really is. Unsurprisingly there are some interesting ideas about Charlotte’s juvenilia to be found in here, in addition to ideas about the self and power, but the greater part of the material explores Charlotte’s adult novels.
Charlotte Brontë and the Storyteller’s Audience (1992) by Carol Bock. This one differs from most other biographies by suggesting that Charlotte’s writing was not unconsciously confessional and examining the role of the reader/audience in her storytelling. Bock enables the reader to understand Charlotte’s ability as a narrative artist, and her understanding of storytelling, beginning with her childhood in Haworth and exploring her relationship with her siblings, who were of course the first witnesses to Charlotte’s storytelling.
The Brontës at Haworth (2016) by Ann Dinsdale. Few people know the Brontës as well as the current curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Ann Dinsdale. This book is packed full of information about all aspects of the Brontës’ lives in addition to beautiful colour photographs of items relating to their lives and works. Each family member gets a chapter and the background of the family is explored in addition to the sisters’ works and legacy.
The Art of the Brontës (1995) by Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars. This is an absolute gem of a book. It contains what its title suggests, providing not only photographs of just about every single work of art produced by the siblings, but also detailed information about their origins, composition, and provenance over the years. Unfortunately, it’s out of print and still on the pricey side if you can track it down, but it’s well worth every penny you’ll pay for it.
Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life into Literature in Jane Eyre (2016) by Christine Alexander and Sara L. Pearson. Published to mark the bicentenary of Charlotte, this wonderful book explores Brontë’s transformation of life into literature, and the depiction of her own experience on the page in Jane Eyre. If it sounds dull and a bit like other pieces on Charlotte’s masterpiece, it isn’t; this book is simply unlike any other book about the Brontës. Alexander and Pearson provide information, detailed commentaries, photographs of items from Charlotte’s life, and even recipes. It’s only when reading this that you realise just how long Jane Eyre was in the making despite the fact it took Charlotte just months to actually pen it. I didn’t think I could love Jane Eyre (and Mr. Rochester) any more until this book came along and made me appreciate it on a whole new level.
The Brontës’ Web of Childhood (1941) by Fannie Ratchford. The first critical study of the Brontë juvenilia written by a pioneer in Brontë and juvenilia studies. This is included due to the biographical information on the siblings’ early lives rather than the actual content itself. If the Brontës left behind a legacy, then so did Ratchford when she did what others (including Elizabeth Gaskell) failed to do by championing the importance of these early works of four precocious children. Although some factual information needs double-checking due to the age of the text, if you’re serious about the Brontë juvenilia, you absolutely need to read this.
Five Novelettes (1971) by Winifred Gérin. Again, this one is included due to the detailed background information provided by the author rather than the content. The book consists of five of Charlotte’s Angrian novelettes (a term actually coined by Brontë herself in a letter) from the later part of her literary saga, but the information Gérin provides is useful to any serious students of the Brontë juvenilia. Like Ratchford’s text, take care to double-check facts including dates of composition etc., and be careful when discussing the novelettes as some have been edited and consequently are very different to the versions found in modern day anthologies of the juvenilia such as the entry below.
Tales of Angria, Glass Town, and Gondal (2010) edited by Christine Alexander. A modern anthology of works by all four surviving siblings in which Alexander provides detailed and up to date information on the history of the saga and the nature of juvenilia in her introduction.
The Works of Branwell Brontë (reprinted 2016) edited by Victor Neufeldt. There are actually several volumes of works edited by Neufeldt but I’m including them under one entry as they share a title. Neufeldt provides unbiased information on Branwell’s life, creativity, and legacy in an introductions that build up a mini but detailed biography of the Brontë brother. It’s absolutely invaluable for those seeking the truth about Branwell’s literary efforts.
The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf (2005) edited by Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster. Although this is an anthology of essays on juvenilia and juvenilia studies, there are several chapters devoted to the Brontës early fiction, their origins, and literary apprenticeship. If you’re not interested in their Glass Town/Angrian/Gondal works then this isn’t for you. It was a lifeline for me when writing my MA dissertation on Charlotte’s early works several years ago and if your interest has been sparked by my blog, I highly recommended it.
The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë (1983) by Christine Alexander. This book does what it says on the cover, and it’s a fascinating and helpful read despite its age. It’s the first comprehensive study of Charlotte’s early fiction which traces the history of Glass Town, and the rise and fall of Angria. Alexander looks at Charlotte’s influences both within and without the family, her collaboration with Branwell, and the development of her writing style over the years. It features Charlotte’s artwork and depictions of her beloved characters in addition to helpful notes and a list of characters. Again, as the text is a good few decades old, double-check any facts, but this still holds up as one of the best sources of information on the Brontë juvenilia. It’s surprisingly easy to read for the more casual reader intrigued by characters such as Zamorna, Charles Wellesley, and Mina Laury, but without the time to wade through the saga itself. You really should do one day though.
The Glass Town Game (2017) by Catherynne M. Valente. A 2017 children’s book by an American author arguably best known for fantasy and science fiction may seem like a strange choice but the book is based on the childhood games played by the siblings, and is largely set in Glass Town, their own fantasy world. Whilst there is a lot of new material created specifically for this book, it has enough information on the Brontës’ early works and characters to warrant its inclusion on this list. You really can learn a lot from it.
The Last Brontë: The Intimate Memoir of Arthur Bell Nicholls (2017) by S.R. Whitehead. This is an interesting entry due to its focus on Charlotte’s husband rather than the Brontës themselves. However, as the title suggests, Nicholls was also a Brontë, and the one who lived to endure the deaths of Branwell, Emily, Anne, Charlotte, his unborn child, and finally, Patrick. Nicholls doesn’t get much attention from biographers, and although this is fiction, it’s a forcible reminder of his own suffering. In short, Whitehead humanises a man most (including myself) have written off as being cold, distant, and uncaring.
Worlds of Ink and Shadow: A Novel of the Brontës (2016) by Lena Coakley. I stumbled upon this one completely by accident, and I’m so glad I did. Although it’s historical fantasy fiction, it features enough information not only about the content of the Brontë juvenilia, but life at Haworth that it warrants a place on this list. Like The Glass Town Game it is based on the early fiction of the Brontës and explores their desire to leave behind the real world in favour of Verdopolis and Gondal, and the consequences they face for doing so.
The Twelve and the Genii (1962) by Pauline Clarke. The final entry is a children’s novel about the twelve toy soldiers given to Branwell Brontë in 1826 by his father, an event which sparked the Glass Town saga into life. Clarke’s novel earns its place for being an early example of Brontë inspired fiction, and for introducing non-academic readers to the Brontë juvenilia. It also gets points for using character names in the title (all hail the four Chief Genii: Talli, Branni, Emmi, and Anni).
Thanks for reading. I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
Tales of the Genii (edited by myself) is now available from The Crow Emporium – click here to buy.
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