Genius & Tragedy


First Sip:

The austere setting of the Bronte’s home at
Haworth Parsonage in West Yorkshire, England.
It is now the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
photo credit: Adrian McKinty1

Slice of Cake:

When Charlotte Brontë was 10 years old,
her father returned from a short trip,
bringing a present of twelve wooden soldiers.

The toys were for Charlotte’s brother, Branwell
But she and her two younger sisters immediately swooped in,
each choosing a favorite soldier.

Their family had recently suffered a wave of tragedy.
It’d been less than a year since the two oldest sisters had died of tuberculosis.3
It’d been only four years since they lost their mother to cancer.4

Somehow, the simple wooden figures of this new toy inspired
a secret, imaginative, and highly creative society for the four surviving siblings.

Over the next decade, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne created
and elaborately populated several fantasy worlds for their toy soldiers.6

Five matchbook-size volumes
by the Brontë children
are now on display in the Brontë Parsonage Museum8
(photo credit: Nicola at Brontë Babe Blog)9

And… why do we know about these childhood games?
Because they wrote them down
recorded in the most minute handwriting, and
bound in tiny, hand-stitched books.
(The children wanted the books to be small enough
for their dolls to read.)

Modern-day Brontë scholars have
rummaged through these childhood stories
searching for ideas and images that had later turned up
in the Brontë sisters’ novels
A fire set on some bed curtains, for example,
is similar to a scene in Jane Eyre.)7

As the children became young adults,
Branwell left home to work as tutor.
His sisters tried working as governesses:
Charlotte had little success at this; Anne did a bit better.
Emily was completely hopeless and quickly gave up .

Finally, the three sisters tried their hand at writing...

They paid to have a volume of their poetry published.
It appeared in 1846 with the simple title Poems.
They used male-sounding pen names: Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.5

The poetry book sold only a few copies.
Yet the young writers felt encouraged to continue—
and each of the three sisters began writing a novel.

When all three novels were complete,
the Brontës began submitting them to publishers—again using their pen names.14

Three Novels Submitted for Publication
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Professor by Currer Bell …(aka Charlotte)
Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell …(aka Emily)
Agnes Grey by Acton Bell …(aka Anne)

In time, Anne’s and Emily’s novels were accepted—
while Charlotte’s novel was repeatedly rejected.4,10

Charlotte kept trying until one publisher
though he also rejected itsent her two-pages of notes,
filled with writing advice and praise.
What’s more, he encouraged her to try again with a longer work.5

Within months, Charlotte had submitted a second novel: Jane Eyre.

This one was quickly accepted

(by the publisher who’d sent the ‘courteous’ letter).

Jane Eyre was an immediate success.
It received lots of attention—and mixed critical review.
It sold extremely well, making money for Charlotte…
Something like 25 times what she made as a governess.11

Charlotte’s success prompted Emily and Anne’s editors
who had been dragging their feet about publishing—
to quickly bring out their novels as well.

Which is why…
Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, and Wuthering Heights
were all published in the same year: 1847.

The very next year,
Anne published her second novel: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
There is some evidence that Emily was either writing a second novel—
or planning to. But nothing of this novel has ever been found. 4
Meanwhile, Charlotte was half-way done with her third novel: Shirley.

Then came the second wave of tragedy for the Bronte family.
In less than a year—between September 1848 and May 1849
first their brother Branwell, then Emily, then Anne died
of bronchitis and tuberculosis.

The pen, laid down when there were
three sisters living and loving,
was taken up when one alone remained.

Well might she call the first chapter
that she wrote after this:
‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death.’

– from The Life of Charlotte Brontë
Elizabeth Gaskell2

Once a child with five siblings, Charlotte Brontë was now,
at age 33, a woman living alone with her widowed father.

Yet she wrote on.
Within the next year, Charlotte finished Shirley
and saw it published.

And, yes, there is a chapter called ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death.’
But in fiction, the illness passes, and the heroes of her story
persevere and even triumph.

What I find particularly poignant is how Charlotte writes
about joy, and contrasts it with sorrow:
She writes of worries that proved needless—but evocatively details the worries;
she writes of tragedy that was narrowly avoided—but meticulously describes
the tragedy which—in her fiction—doesn’t happen.

In other words, Charlotte Brontë found a way to express some of her pain
and her tragic experiences without writing a tragic story.

Emily Brontë‘s drawing of her constant companion, Keeper10

Charlotte Brontë’s biographer writes that the character of
Shirley Keeldar is based on how Charlotte imagined
her sister Emily Brontë might have turned out
if Emily had had the benefits of health, wealth, and privilege.2

One definite connection between Shirley and Emily is that
in the novel, Shirley has a big dog named Tartar,
(“rather large, strong, and fierce-looking…
a breed between mastiff and bulldog.”)

who sounds a lot like Emily’s real dog, Keeper.

(I’ll talk more about Shirley below…)

Linger Awhile:

I’ve been thinking this week about why some books
are read and loved—while other, equally good books are not.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is almost universally read—
and regularly debated.
Shirley, which is also by Charlotte Brontë, is rarely read.
Why? Why is one so often loved, while the other is so often overlooked?

Shirley is a wonderful book.
Not better than Jane Eyre, but different—
touching on more wide-ranging social and economic issues.

But before I talk about Shirley (and get into spoiler territory)
how about I give you some spoiler-free recommendations?

Just a handy (and very brief!) guide to take away with you—
in case you’re dashing off to your nearest public library…

For more about the other Brontë novels—
and a lot more about of Shirley
read on…

Spoiler Warning


Despite the novel’s title, the main character is Caroline Helstone
not Shirley Keeldar.

Caroline was brought up by her uncle,
and, since she is only 18, he’s still her legal guardian.
She describes him as “neither tyrannical nor hypocritical,”
but neither is he interested in or affectionate with her.

Yet, it is this inattentive uncle, the Reverend Matthew Helstone,
who introduces Caroline to a new friend: Shirley.

The friendship which slowly grows between Shirley and Caroline
is my favorite thing about this novel.

Shirley also has an uncle,
a Mr Sympson. He was her guardian—
but Shirley is now 21. A legal adult.

Yet, Mr Sympson still firmly believes that
he has power over Shirley—
especially when it comes to choosing a husband for her.

Shirley listens to her uncle for a while,
but she sticks to her own decisions.

And if you enjoy this,
wait till you hear how Shirley talks to her suitor!

One thing that can be frustrating in classic novels
is how people never seem to say how they really feel.

That’s why I was surprised at the refreshing honesty
in conversations between Caroline and Robert—
two young, unmarried characters in Shirley.

Jane Eyre was so popular,
Readers naturally wanted more of the same.
Instead, Charlotte Brontë’s next novel was… something else.

Shirley is not told in the first person,
it does not stick with just one character’s point of view,
and it is not a romance

(Although… when Brontë warns us that this novel is going to be
as “unromantic as a Monday morning,” she’s not being entirely honest…)

There is quite a bit of romance in Shirley.
But it’s not like Jane Eyre—where romance
and moral development are main themes.

Instead, Shirley has a big cast of characters. (All those curates. All those Yorkes.)
It shows us people clashing over economic hardships and labor disputes.
This book is where I learned who the original Luddites were—
what they wanted, and what they did when they couldn’t get it!

Readers wanting a novel more like Jane Eyre,
might like Agnes Grey or Villette or even The Tenant of Wildfell Hall better.

But I think the real reason that people don’t read Shirley,
is how slowly it gets started.

Reading those opening chapters for the first time
chapters mostly about very minor characters—can be a very slow trudge.

Shirley doesn’t even come in until Chapter Eleven!
However, we do get to meet Caroline
she enters “in haste” about half-way through Chapter 5.
And then… we’re into it!

Now, if you’d like some hints on how to skip this slow start
and instead start where it’s getting good
I’ve got that mapped out for you here.

“Half Cup More”

3 sisters. 7 novels.
Let’s take a short tour
Starting with 2 novels by the youngest Brontë, Anne.

I was charmed by the opening chapters of Agnes Grey.
It talks of a family of sisters at home—and how the
youngest sister, Agnes (our main character), feels that she
is treated too much like a child—
and isn’t appreciated for what she could contribute.

Do you think that maybe Anne, as the youngest Brontë sister—
telling this story of a character feeling underrated—
might have been writing from experience?

After a struggle to convince her family to allow her to go,
Agnes leaves home to work as a governess.
First with one family, then later with another.

The first job is rough for Agnes
and rough for us readers, too.
(Especially if you’re an animal lover.
Or if you don’t believe in physical punishment for children…)

Job #2 is much better, though still difficult.
I enjoyed the characters and relationships Agnes is able to build
in these new surroundings of her second job.

Honestly, when I re-read Agnes Grey
which I very much enjoy doing—
I skip over the parts (chapters 3-5) that describe her first governess job.

Agnes Grey is a slim novel. (My copy is less than 200 pages.)

A lot of people say this is their favorite Brontë novel.
If you like short novels that are very quiet, very realistic,
and are clearly taken from real life experiences—
perhaps Agnes Grey could be your new favorite, too.

Many, many people love this novel.
Honestly, I am not one of them.

I can see the high quality writing and fascinating themes
especially for a book written in the mid-19th century!

My problem with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is that its first narrator
is neither compelling—nor is he a very good guy!
(Look how he treats his old flame, Eliza.
Or what he does to Frederick!)

Later we switch points of view—
and get into a diary written by the main character—
I really hoped I’d like this section better.
But no. In the diary, we watch this young woman
make a very bad mistake—in very slow motion.

I liked the little boy. I liked the dog.
I’m afraid that’s about it.

It seems Charlotte didn’t think much of Anne’s second book, either.
She was horrified that Anne had fictionalized
their brother Branwell’s struggles with alcohol addiction.

Despite my (or her sister’s!) opinions…
If you’d like to try a brave book about difficult subjects,
with a strong female character making tough choices
plus a dog! (a “beautiful black and white setter” named Sancho)
You should give Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a read.

This is the only novel that Emily wrote.
(That we know of…)4

I can see the genius of Wuthering Heights.
But… it’s not for me.
(I don’t like revenge stories and I don’t like cruelty.
And this novel is very full of both.)

Along with the one novel, Emily also wrote poems.
And, of the three sisters, Emily Brontë is the best poet.
Charlotte said so. And history agrees.

Poetry Foundation12a wonderful site for
finding poems online
—currently has 15 poems by Emily Brontë.
But only two poems by Anne Brontë.
And just one by Charlotte.

Here is a poem by Emily Brontë
about not wanting to leave the moors, where she so often walked alone with her
faithful dog, Keeper. The poem is called: The Night is Darkening Round Me.12

There is something about the character of Jane Eyre:
How deeply we get to know her.
How complex are her strengths and faults.
And just how hard-won are those moral stands she takes.

This is Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece.
Much as I love Shirley—I’ll honestly say,
if you’re going to pick up one and only one Brontë book—
Jane Eyre is the one you’ll want to read and re-read.

It reads like a page out of one’s own life…
It is soul speaking to soul.

– critic George Henry Lewes in 1847
about Jane Eyre4,10

Honestly, now when I re-read Jane Eyre,
I tend to skip the first cruel chapters about her hard childhood,
(I like to start reading at Chapter 10, when Jane as an adult.)

Charlotte takes her characters and explores
their inside lives,
what’s going on in their minds

the way they think about themselves
and the way they feel.

– Lucy Powrie13
November 2018

Controversially, there’s one character in Jane Eyre
whom we don’t get to know.
But a 1996 novel by Jean Rhys gives this silent character her own voice.

I heard her quarrelling
I knew it was about my marriage

“It’s shameful. You are handing over
everything the child owns to a perfect stranger.
She should be protected, legally.”

“You are talking about an honourable gentleman
She’s damn lucky to get him, all things considered.
I would trust him with my life.”

“You are trusting him with
her life,
not yours.”

I’ve already said how much I love this novel—
other than its slooow beginning!

If you want an easy way in to this story,
here’s how to skip a bit—and start in on the good parts.
(With the idea you’ll come back later to pick up those first few chapters.)

To start with,
the main character’s name is Lucy Snowe, not Villette.

Villette is a fictional town in Europe.
(The setting seems to be based on a real school in Brussels
where Charlotte both taught and took classes—just like her fictional Lucy does.)

What I enjoy about Villette is getting to know Lucy…
To hear everything she went through, and everything she felt.
About her travel experiences: good and bad;
About self-reliance and depression;
About both enjoying solitude and feeling deeply lonely.

Here’s Lucy’s Travel: Good

And her Travel: Good then Bad

Her Independence: Good

And her Independence: Lonely

Of Charlotte Brontë’s four novels,
The Professor
was written first—but published last.

After nine publishers soundly rejected The Professor during 1846,
Charlotte put it away in a cupboard.4

Some five years later—after success with both Jane Eyre and Shirley
Charlotte began reworking many of the ideas and themes from The Professor
to create a new novel, Villette.

I’ve sometimes heard The Professor described as a rough draft for Villette.
(Honestly, I’ve not read The Professor, and I probably never will.)

The Professor was finally published
but not until two years after Charoltte had died.15


Take-Away Box

Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

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