It’s safe to say that I’ve read an awful lot of Brontë related books this year, some good and some disappointing, but fortunately the former have outweighed the latter. To round off the year (how are we in December already?) I’ve compiled a list of the Best Brontë Books of 2018. The books don’t need to have been published in 2018 to make the list; they’re just the titles that I have discovered in the last 12 months. The following list includes texts about, inspired by, or written by the Brontës that I came across for the first time this year in no particular order. I have already reviewed some of these in more detail so I’ll post links to them in each section if you want to explore them further (spoilers will be marked). I’ve read and enjoyed a lot this year, but these are the best of the best and you could do worse than tracking these down in 2019. Reader, enjoy.
The Jane and Bertha in Me by Rita Maria Martinez
Ok, confession time; I know I said that these books are in no particular order of preference, but the reason that I’m featuring The Jane and Bertha in Me first is because it’s my favourite of all the Brontë inspired texts I’ve read this year. Martinez’s collection of poetry is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece, Jane Eyre (1847), and was published in 2016. I’m always a bit wary of re-tellings of Jane Eyre as it’s my favourite novel of all time, but Martinez has created some truly remarkable poems that slot together to make up an outstanding and intriguing collection of Brontë inspired poetry.
Split into three parts (Femme Covert, The Gothic Grotesque, and Promiscuous Reading) the collection is not a re-telling of Jane Eyre in a traditional sense. I see each poem as an homage to different aspects of both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s prequel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Martinez successfully embodies the spirits of various characters from Brontë’s novel but rather interestingly does not restrict herself to the narrative. Her poems may be inspired by all things Jane but they are the product of a different age, and take place in very different settings from those we know and love. The Gothic/romantic sensibility and sense of English restraint found in Jane Eyre combines with modern day America to make this collection a fascinating and original read.
Martinez’s poems explore themes both timeless and contemporary, and offer a refreshing interpretation of a story and characters readers and Brontëites think they know so well. The collection also touches upon Martinez’s own experience with Charlotte’s novel. The contrast between Jane and Bertha, between the governess and the madwoman, the angel and the whore, is a theme from Jane Eyre that is still much debated, and it features prominently in Martinez’s collection. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the beautiful artwork provides readers with a clue regarding the major theme of the collection, as does the title itself. I’ve never really been a fan of the theory regarding Bertha being Jane’s dark double (I personally think Branwell wasn’t far from Charlotte’s mind during Bertha’s creation), but Martinez presents the contrast between two very different women beautifully. The collection also examines the way these two women were brought together, the influence and behaviour of Mr. Rochester (nicknamed “Eddie” in some poems), and the restrictions of femininity. It certainly challenges the romantic, rose-tinted view many have of Brontë’s novel, although as a proud member of Team Rochester, I feel Eddie gets a rough ride here.
Martinez has created a beautiful, lively, and eclectic mix of poems inspired by a Brontë classic. It’s a refreshing yet comforting read to Brontëites as it mixes the familiar with the new and I’d certainly recommend this one to fans of Jane, Charlotte, Anne, or Emily. Click here to read my full, spoiler-free review of The Jane and Bertha in Me.
Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley
Here’s another text from 2016. My interest in Worlds of Ink and Shadow was sparked by my obsession with the Brontë juvenilia. Although the text is classed as Young Adult Fiction, it is also Historical Fiction, and there is so much for different age groups to enjoy. Readers familiar with the Brontë juvenilia will appreciate what Coakley does with her narrative slightly more, but prior knowledge of these texts is not necessary. The novel is set in the real world of the Brontës’ Haworth, and the fictional settings of Verdopolis and Gondal, the former from Charlotte and Branwell’s works, and the latter from Anne and Emily’s. Although no date is explicitly mentioned, from my calculations I believe that Coakley’s text is set in 1834, making Charlotte 17, Branwell 16, Emily 15, and Anne 14.
The novel begins with Charlotte and Branwell not merely writing about their world, but writing it into existence, and transporting themselves into the action in Verdopolis. Anne and Emily have previously crossed over with their siblings, but are now restricted to sneaking around in the children’s study in Haworth, trying to read the narratives their siblings are living in their fantasy world. However, unbeknown to the youngest siblings, crossing over into this world comes at a steep price, something Charlotte is desperately trying to protect them from. When Charlotte announces her intention to abandon Verdopolis, her siblings are horrified, but she is desperate to lessen the damage from the bargain she has made which allows her to cross over.
However, the creations of Charlotte and Branwell are not ready to be abandoned, and sinisterly begin to intrude on their everyday life. They make a pact to travel to Verdopolis one final time in order to destroy it and save themselves and their younger sisters. When Anne and Emily make the same bargain and arrive in Verdopolis to help, their fictional characters realise that their creators are there to destroy them, and turn on them. The Brontës must work together to avoid becoming trapped in Verdopolis forever, and leaving behind the home in Haworth they love so much.
This is a delightfully playful and clever text with layers of storytelling which question the nature of reality, issues of control, and who is really pulling the strings: character or author? There are some Brontë stereotypes thrown in for good measure (Anne is quiet, Branwell is obnoxious, Charlotte is bossy, and Emily is a loner), but stick around until the end and you’ll see a different side to each sibling. I especially liked Anne’s hidden strength, and Coakley’s depiction of Branwell which explores his role as an author and a brother, rather than the wastrel he is normally portrayed as, although there is a sad hint of what is to come for the Brontë brother in Coakley’s text. I also particularly loved all of the nods to the Brontë juvenilia. Click here to read my full, spoiler free review of Worlds of Ink and Shadow and then go out and buy it.
The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente
The Glass Town Game is a 2017 children’s novel by Catherynne M. Valente which is based on the Brontë juvenilia. I wasn’t familiar with Valente’s work before stumbling across a mention of The Glass Town Game somewhere in the depths of book reviews on WordPress, so I didn’t really know what to expect. In fact, in my excitement at finding a book based on the childhood tales of the Brontës, I’d neglected to find out any other information about the text, so I was slightly surprised after opening the first page of the hefty 531 page volume, that it is in fact a children’s book. However, don’t let that put you off as this is an absolute delight.
Like Worlds of Ink and Shadow, Valente’s text takes place both in the Brontës’ real world of Haworth and their fictional Glass Town as the siblings cross over into their fantasy world and cross paths with their own creations. The adventure rally begins when the siblings are whisked away to Glass Town via a magical train staffed by their own creations. In addition to this they also encounter the mysterious Magazine Man. Issues of power and control regarding creation and creator also rear their head in Valente’s narrative as the siblings find that this Glass Town isn’t quite the same one they invented back in Haworth. This gives Valente free reign to embellish aspects of the Brontë juvenilia with her own creations, and they’re ones the siblings would have been proud of such as the enchanting Port Ruby. One of the main themes running throughout the narrative though is the siblings’ fear of separation through either a trip to school, or something much worse.
To say any more would be adding spoilers to what I promised would be a spoiler free zone. You can click here to read my full review of The Glass Town Game, but it does contain spoilers. You have been warned. I would highly recommend this book to anybody interested in the early life of the Brontës as there is much to enjoy and some wonderful references to their juvenilia and adult works. Valente is a wonderful author (Click here to read my review of her fantastic Science Fiction novel, Radiance) and if you haven’t done already, read The Glass Town Game!
The Heights by Juliet Bell
To put it bluntly, Juliet Bell’s The Heights was an unexpected delight; an update of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that loses none of the intensity of the original and actually succeeds in fleshing out a few well-known characters. I stumbled upon The Heights unexpectedly after seeing fellow Brontëites plugging it on Twitter ahead of its release earlier this year, and since then this Brontëite has done all she can to promote this fabulous re-telling. I was intrigued by the idea of an update of such a complex tale which follows its characters from Thatcher’s Britain into the 21st century. Add extreme poverty, drugs, council estates, and the fallout from the 1984 Miners’ Strike into the mix of gender roles and expectations, passion, jealousy, unhealthy and unearthly obsessions, and of course, the ever mysterious figure of Heathcliff, and you’ve got all the elements of a modern classic.
DCI Lockwood (yes, Lockwood!) investigates the discovery of a boy’s body in the Yorkshire town of Gimmerton, a town he has a history with, and which is home to the notorious Earnshaw family who once again draw him into their story, despite his reluctance, during his investigation into events both old and new. The plot is faithful to the original, with a few tweaks here and there, but these are more than enough to keep things fresh and original for those familiar with the original. One of the most brilliant aspects of Wuthering Heights is the complex narrative layering which leaves the reader to make sense of the often radically different perspectives of characters, and consequently forces us to constantly shift our sympathies from character to character. Whilst the narrative style of The Heights switches between characters and time periods (the late 1970s to 2008), it is not as complex as Emily Brontë’s original. However, The Heights is still successful in transferring our sympathies from character to character and is arguably more accessible than its parent novel. In fact, it allowed me to get to grips with a pivotal character from the story that I’d never really understood or enjoyed: Cathy Earnshaw. Cathy is a difficult character to get your head around and as a spoilt, headstrong, and manipulative girl/woman her motivations for pretty much everything she does are selfish and designed to hurt others. I’ve never felt even a shred of sympathy for her. Transfer this character to a rundown, broken, and poverty stricken family during the Miners’ Strike and her motivations, although still selfish, become clearer, and my sympathies stronger.
The Lintons are also fleshed out and feel more like fully rounded characters here. However, Lockwood will always be Lockwood despite his position of authority, and Heathcliff is just as enigmatic, brooding, and hard to pin down as ever. The Heights is an edgy and compelling read with just enough narrative originality to differentiate it from its parent novel, but without alienating Wuthering Heights devotees. The setting creates an atmosphere of desperation and understanding, that for all its brilliance, is absent from the original. This is a great read for fans of Emily Brontë’s masterpiece and could also be a good introduction to the Brontës for those who have always been a bit daunted by the prospect of reading classic and complex novels such as Wuthering Heights. Click here to read my full review of The Heights. There is one small spoiler, but it’s clearly marked.
The Last Brontë by S.R. Whitehead
Don’t be fooled by the title, The Last Brontë: The intimate memoir of Arthur Bell Nicholls (2017) is not a work of non-fiction. Instead it is a fictional look at the life of the husband of Charlotte Brontë, who after the deaths of Patrick Brontë in 1861 really was the last Brontë. It seems strange that back in May I included this on my list of 30 of the Best Books About the Brontës and yet I haven’t written a full review of it yet. The novel explores not only the relationship between Arthur and Charlotte, but also his relationships with the other Brontës, and their reactions to him. His relationship with Anne in particular is intriguing and leaves the reader wondering what could have been (although I’m an Anne-Weightman shipper personally).
Nicholls doesn’t get much attention from biographers, and although The Last Brontë 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. I’ll save a more detailed post for my full review which I’m determined to finish in the new year. Nicholls is portrayed as a likeable, dedicated, and loyal man, something he probably was, and yet most Brontëites still don’t view him in this light. Whitehead also does a fantastic job of bringing the Brontës we love to life, and once again succeeds in humanising figures we think we know so well from history books, correspondence, and anecdotes. The depiction of Branwell’s friendship with Nicholls and descent is handled sensitively, showing the man behind the demons. I don’t want to write too much about this one just yet. Take my word for it though, it’s a great read which offers a unique view into the lives of our beloved Brontës.
In Search of Anne Brontë by Nick Holland
Nick Holland’s brilliant 2016 biography of the youngest Brontë, Anne, is another text that made my list of 30 of the Best Books About the Brontës but for some reason doesn’t have a full review on Brontë Babe Blog. I’ll aim to correct that in the new year (so many resolutions already!). I’ll save a more detailed post for then. Although Holland has released two Brontë books this year (Emily Brontë: A Life in 20 Poems and Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy), I’m selecting this one due to the fact it brings the overlooked Brontë out of the shadows of her sisters and brother. For the record, A Life in 20 Poems is fantastic and I’d certainly recommend it; it was a great text to discover in the year of the Emily 200 celebrations, and I’m yet to read Aunt Branwell although I suspect Santa will be leaving it under the tree for me this year. So more reviews to come!
Holland presents Anne’s hidden strength and courage in the face of adversity whilst shedding light on her fascinating relationship with Charlotte. The account of her final days in Scarborough is particularly moving and poignant. It’s always hard to read biographies that draw you in so completely when you know the tragedy it will end with. The text is incredibly detailed and an absolute joy to read due to Holland’s balance between knowledge of and passion for his subject. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about William Weightman, a figure who is also often overlooked in the Brontë story, but one who had an influence on the whole family. It’s a wonderful tribute not only to Anne Brontë the author, but Anne Brontë the woman.
The Art of the Brontës by Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars
Despite its age, The Art of the Brontës is a must-have for those serious about studying the Brontës. Published in 1995, the text is now unfortunately out of print and although it can be purchased through second hand booksellers, it tends to be quite pricey due to the value of the text to Brontëites, fans, and scholars. This is another text which made my list of 30 of the Best Books About the Brontës but doesn’t have a full review on here yet. It’s essentially a detailed catalogue of all of the drawings and paintings done by the Brontë siblings in childhood and adulthood, their doodles and sketches, and their more intricate and detailed pieces. It’s an impressive book with over 400 pieces of artwork not only listed but pictured for readers to see. The histories and influences of the individual pieces are also documented in addition to the provenance trails of each painting and drawing, which are incredibly fascinating.
The text also contains chapters which focus on each sibling and their work and examines the overlooked relationship between the Brontës’ art and their literature, in addition to exploring how the siblings’ experience of drawing and painting influenced their literary works. The book is an exhaustive source of information and a ground-breaking text in the fields of Brontë studies, 19th century literature, and 19th century art. More recent discoveries such as the doodles and marginalia found inside Maria Brontë’s copy of Robert Southey’s The Remains of Henry Kirke White three years ago obviously do not feature, but the amount of information The Art of the Brontës contains far outweighs the number of discoveries since its publication. You can read more about Maria’s book and the lost juvenilia fragments written by Charlotte which were found inside it by clicking here to read my review of the recently published Charlotte Brontë: The Lost Manuscripts (2018) .If you do decide to track down The Art of the Brontës, rest assured, it’s worth every penny.
Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life into Literature in Jane Eyre by Christine Alexander and Sara L. Pearson.
Here’s yet another book from my 30 of the Best Books About the Brontës list. Published by the Brontë Society to mark the bicentenary of Charlotte in 2016, this wonderful book explores her 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 the thousands of other books written about Charlotte’s masterpiece over the years, 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. Every single chapter is absolutely crammed full of information on so many subjects, and yet it all ties back to Charlotte. There is also a fair bit in there about the juvenilia which I obviously adored.
It’s only when reading this that you realise just how long Jane Eyre was in the making despite the fact it only took Charlotte a few months to write 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. Reading this book is also an experience itself and it’s an amazing tribute to Charlotte the writer. I’m determined to write a full post about this one next year.
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
It might seem odd to see Anne’s Agnes Grey (1847) on this list, but I tried in vain for many years to get through this one and it defeated me until earlier this year. Along with Charlotte’s Shirley (1849), it was never top of my list, but as a devoted Brontëite, I felt ashamed that I’d never made it all the way through Anne’s pioneering, unflinching, feminist novel when I’d polished off Shirley years ago. It didn’t help that I already knew how the novel’s events unfolded, maybe it didn’t help that although Agnes Grey was actually written first, Jane Eyre, another governess narrative, is, in my opinion, perfect, and I never thought Agnes Grey could live up to that. Maybe it’s because after having read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and practically everything written about it, the opening of Agnes Grey just feels a little bit flat, tame, and quite frankly, like a bit of a comedown from the heights and passions of the novels mentioned above. For the record, I did enjoy it, but I still favour Tenant.
Agnes Grey makes the list because it’s actually written by a Brontë, and although I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag, a mixed Brontë bag is still on another level to a lot of other work from the same period. The novel is a bildungsroman following Agnes as she attempts to find a stable position in the world and it documents her trials as she employed as a governess. There is plenty to enjoy and appreciate about Agnes Grey and I’m so glad that I’ve finally made it all the way through. Anne’s (and Agnes’s) stance on animal rights is remarkably ahead of her time, and this is the part which resonated with me the most. The account of life as a governess is far more detailed and realistic than that depicted in Jane Eyre. In fact, Anne’s novel makes me realise just how easy Jane had it with Adele. For a more realistic portrayal of the struggles of the governess, turn to Agnes Grey. I can certainly see why Agnes is viewed as a feminist and a woman to admire. Her courage, morality, honesty, and decency are to be commended, as is her decision to act in order to change her financial circumstances. In many respects, she is not the passive woman so often found in classic literature, but ultimately, she makes her own choices in life. However, Agnes’s mother, Alice stands out as the feminist figure of the novel. Her attitude to life, love, and loss is extraordinary.
The reason it took me so long to get into the novel is that nothing much happens over the course of the narrative, and what does is fairly predictable. I have read reviews comparing Agnes Grey unfavourably with Jane Eyre, but this is unfair. Rather than being the poor man’s Jane, I think Anne’s novel has more in common with Charlotte’s The Professor. Both novels are slightly underdeveloped, as are their characters, their events a little too predictable, their protagonists a little dull, and any real conflict is resolved in the first part of the narrative. The parts I liked the most about Agnes Grey were actually the sections which foreshadowed what was to come in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It sounds like I’m being overly negative here, but I did enjoy Anne’s novel and I look forward to re-reading it in the new year and re-visiting Mr. Weston in particular. You can read my full post, The Other Brontë: Anne, Agnes, and Me by clicking here, but it does contain spoilers.
The Pirate by Branwell Brontë
The final text on my list is actually a narrative I read prior to 2018, however, it makes the list due to the wonderful new edition published by the Juvenilia Press earlier this year edited by Christine Alexander, Joetta Harty, and Benjamin Drexler. The Pirate is tale from the Brontës’ Glass Town saga written by 16 year old Branwell Brontë. It centres on his favourite character and pseudonym from the juvenilia, Alexander Rougue/Rogue who later evolved into Alexander Percy, Earl of Northangerland and Lord Elrington. The “author” of this tale within Glass Town is another of Branwell’s pseudonyms from the juvenilia, Captain John Flower, however, the narrator is actually a character named John Everard Bellingham who narrates the tale.
In this tale, Rogue is a ruthless pirate who kidnaps Bellingham in order to prevent him from testifying against him. Bellingham is taken aboard Rogue’s pirate ship, The Red Rover, where he meets with conflict, brutality, and death. The tale is basic, however, there are plenty of nods to the pirate literature of the day which influenced Branwell. Although there are other editions available, the Juvenilia Press edition of The Pirate is a fascinating and valuable addition to any Brontëite’s collection, containing both a clear edition and a diplomatic edition. The clear edition is the edited version which has slight changes that have been deemed necessary such as the insertion of paragraphs in order to present a clear reading text, however, the alterations have been kept to a minimum and some of Branwell’s “errors” have even been retained to avoid altering the feel of the text too much.
The diplomatic edition aims to replicate the text as Branwell wrote it for readers interested in the original form of the tale which tells us a lot about the Brontë boy and his writing style. Whilst the diplomatic version is more difficult to read, I personally enjoy reading the juvenilia in their original form and I am well used to encountering Branwell’s work this way, and I’ve handled and studied Branwell’s original manuscript of The Pirate at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Presenting the two versions of the text gives the reader a rare and easy opportunity of comparing different versions, and an insight into the difficulties of editing.
The introduction is also impressive, covering Branwell’s early life, the origins of the Glass Town stories and the famous tiny books, in addition to a history of Rogue’s evolution over the years. There are also sections on historical piracy and its influence on literature, and on Branwell specifically. It’s great introduction to not only the often confusing character and timeline of Rogue/Elrington/Percy, but also to the Glass Town saga more generally. Click here to read my full review of this edition (there is a full summary of the plot).
I’ve already got a long list of Brontë related resolutions for the new year including finally making the trek up to Top Withens and visiting the siblings’ birthplace in Thornton. By compiling this list, I’ve suddenly got a lot more blogging related ones. And it goes without saying that I have a long list of Brontë inspired literature to get through, the top spots being occupied jointly by Nick Holland’s Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy and DM Denton’s Without the Veil Between: Anne Brontë, A Fine and Subtle Spirit. Reader, I hope you have enjoyed this look back at the Best Brontë Books of 2018. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to visit my site this year and I hope you have enjoyed your 2018. I’d love it if you joined me once again in 2019.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @BronteBabeBlog where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights, or on my Brontë Babe Blog Facebook page. Look me up on Goodreads too. I also have a side project where I blog about my love of Classic Crime Fiction over at The Classic Crime Chonicle. I’d love it if you joined me there.
I’d also 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”.
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