In 2009 I managed to do something I don’t think I ever did before: I completed a New Year’s Resolution. It wasn’t to lose weight or save lots of money or be more organized—I’m not such an optimist—& setting the bar low is probably why I succeeded.
No, I resolved last January to finally do all the Bronte sisters. That is to say, I resolved to read all their major works— Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall & Agnes Grey, & Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. How, I wondered, having gotten through high school, college & a couple of decades thereafter without reading any of these, could I consider myself a true bookworm?
Again, I made it easy on myself: Charlotte wrote a couple of other novels, like Shirley & the posthumously-published The Professor & all three wrote some poetry, but I decided that this stuff didn’t fall into the category of “major works” & stuck with their Top 40 hits. Because I didn’t resolve not to procrastinate, it ended up a race against time, but early in the afternoon of December 31 I polished off the last page of Jane Eyre, & took a psychic victory lap.
My conclusion? Them gals could write.
Those of you who read these books back when you were supposed to must excuse my belated gush, but what an astounding experience it was to take them in one big year-long gulp. All three authors were geniuses, so unmistakably related in their voices, & yet so different and idiosyncratic, each with her own stylistic strengths (& weaknesses).
This made it impossible for me to pick a favorite. My favorite was whichever one I was reading at the time. Wuthering Heights amazed & humbled me. There were passages of the prose of such grandeur & flowing beauty that they made me feel foolish for ever having tried to write anything—like the only dignified thing to do would be to just simply give up.
But...I couldn't help it, I also found it funny. Not from ineptitude, far from it; the book's a great work of authentic art, & I'm sure it shows bad character on my part, but the characters are all so relentless in their ferocious spite that it kept cracking me up. And then, when Heathcliff's weakling son Linton showed up, I lost it completely—I kept hearing all of his dialogue in the voice of Prince Herbert from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Heights did contain my single favorite sentence from any of the books, however: Nelly Dean describes the religious-fanatic servant Joseph thusly: “He was, and is yet most likely, the wearisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbors.”
Jane Eyre was probably the most accessible & exciting of the Bronte tales, with its tough, smart, observant, likable heroine & the eccentric object of her unsimpering adoration, Rochester, & with its wild gothic backstory, so expertly revealed. But masterly as her more famous sisters unquestionably were, I’d like to put in a good word for Anne.
I gather that she’s long been regarded as sort of the Stephen Baldwin of the Bronte clan, but I found Anne’s two books—especially Wildfell Hall, her yarn of a serious-minded young woman’s ill-advised marriage to a handsome, selfish debauchee—convincing & gripping, with a psychological acuity worthy, almost, of George Eliot. Though her style is more low-key, Anne seems to me to have had chops every bit as strong as her sisters.