Do you have a favourite Bronte novel? If not, go read some of their stuff. It’s okay, I’ll wait.
The perceptive Rory at Fourth Street Review suggests that many readers identify strongly with either Jane Eyre (Charlotte) or Wuthering Heights (Emily), but not both. I’ve been a Wuthering Heights girl since I read it 17 years ago, but I’ve broadened my Bronte horizons of late: I read my first Anne book, Agnes Grey last fall, I read Charlotte’s Villette last month, and just recently saw a play based on the Bronte’s lives. I’m still Team Emily, but it’s time for me to give Charlotte her due: Villette is her masterpiece (sorry Jane fans) and she’s the most interesting of the siblings.
I didn’t even get around to reviewing Agnes Grey last year. It definitely had it’s moments, but the biggest impression it left was my wonder at how things were so different in Anne’s time; mostly in terms of the qualifications needed to educate children (be female, be unmarried, have a pulse?) Villette made me wonder about this stuff too, but I also felt the universality of Lucy’s situation. She could be anyone, at any time, not just a 19th century teacher, whereas Agnes was trapped in time. Indeed, if you have ever loved someone more than they love you, you’ll identify with Lucy Snowe.
Villette reminded me of a smaller-scope Middlemarch. Both novels are named for a city and are about the divisions between classes and sexes and have wonderful feminist perspectives. Middlemarch has much more going for it, from politics to academia to satire – so much, in fact, that I’m paralyzed to write a proper review. Villette is more of a character study – a convincing portrait of Lucy and her world. It’s a tragedy, and at times gothic and romantic. It’s odd in its construction – a straightforward narrative most of the time, but then, BAM, there’s a stream of consciousness account of Lucy’s severe depression. Or a delerious description of Lucy tripping out after being drugged. An anti-Catholic rant. A ghost nun. And so on.
Jane Eyre is great, but it just wasn’t this ambitious or this awesome. I made the mistake of finishing Villette over lunch time at work, and spent that afternoon in a state of bewilderment. I may have said “oh no she DIDN’T” aloud. It’s pretty much the opposite of the satisfying “Reader, I married him,” but to me, the ending was more satisfying for being so ambiguous.
Villette was the perfect preparation for seeing A Bronte Burlesque, a production of local theatre company Send in the Girls. Charlotte is the star, and we first meet her on her deathbed, her siblings having all died years earlier. Villette is never mentioned, and not often referenced (it’s all about Jane Eyre) but dying Charlotte, bitter and alone, put me in mind of Lucy Snow immediately.
In real life, Charlotte was newlywed and pregnant at her death, though this is never mentioned in the play. So, the story is manipulated, but what story isn’t? A Bronte Burlesque is confined to the insular world of the four Bronte siblings: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell, the underachiever brother who I didn’t even know about till I saw the play.
It’s about exposing (get it?) the real Charlotte, how her ambition drove her to betray her siblings. She’s successful, but haunted by the past. Emily and Anne are laid bare as well – Anne and her jealousy, Emily and her depravity.
I had always wondered about Emily: how did she write so convincingly about obsession and loss, living such a short and isolated life? This play suggests that there was some Flowers in the Attic action going on up at Haworth, which made me question my teenage obsession with Wuthering Heights for a second before realizing this is a work of fiction about another work of fiction and every interpretation is as valid as the next – icky or not.
The burlesque element was fun, and worked well on a metaphorical level – you know, exposure, identity, femininity -but sometimes I would remember that they were supposed to be related and it got a a little weird. Or a lot weird. Seeing Emily throw herself at her own brother to the strains of Radiohead’s “Creep” was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life. This play was not exactly date night material.
The set, music and costumes were gorgeous. I was entertained and I gained a serious appreciation for Charlotte Bronte. And I simply love the fact that there’s a local theatre company doing something like this with literature and history! I never read biographies, but now I’m on the lookout for a good one – maybe Elizabeth Gaskell’s on Charlotte, or Daphne Du Maurier’s on Branwell.
Tell me, are you Team Emily or Team Charlotte? Is there a Team Anne? Branwell??