By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The novels of the Brontë sisters are some of the most important and influential books of the Victorian era. In just a few years, the siblings Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë published seven remarkable full-length novels which continue to be read, enjoyed, and studied by countless people around the world.
Publishing under the androgynous pen names Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell respectively, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë gave us some of the most memorable characters in all of English literature. Heathcliff, Catherine Earnshaw, Mr Rochester, and Jane Eyre have been immortalised on screen by some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
But of course it’s the novels themselves that we should turn to find the most vital avatars of those characters. Below, we introduce the best books by the Brontë sisters, ranking them in order – controversially, perhaps, from ‘least good’ to ‘very best’.
7. Charlotte Brontë, Shirley.
Of the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte (1816-55) was the most prolific, writing four novels which were published between 1847 and 1857 (her final novel was published posthumously). This was the second of her novels to be published, in 1849, after Jane Eyre two years earlier.
The novel is Brontë’s most political novel, and is usually categorised as a ‘social novel’, focusing on the Luddite uprisings in the Brontës’ own county of Yorkshire. The Napoleonic Wars have cost the English purse huge sums of money, and workers in the textile industry find their jobs under threat thanks to new technology.
Robert Moore, a mill-owner, installs new labour-saving machinery in his mill, attracting the ire of the Luddites. The novel’s two main female characters are Caroline Helstone, a passive and rather meek figure, and the titular Shirley Keeldar, a proud heiress.
The novel was so popular that it led to Shirley becoming a woman’s name (the title character was given the name that her father had intended to give a son), when previously it had been a male given name. The novel also contains the first use of the phrase ‘wild west’.
6. Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey.
Anne Brontë wrote just two novels, and this was the first of them, a first-person tale published in 1847 and narrated by the title character, a young woman who takes up work as a governess to help support her family.
Agnes is not as spirited or well-drawn as some of the other Brontë heroines, but this short novel is a pleasant enough romantic tale which draws on Anne’s own experience working as a governess (between 1839 and 1845). The book’s main love interest is a curate, Edward Weston, and the novel contains a ‘will-they-won’t-they’ plot involving him and Agnes.
5. Charlotte Brontë, The Professor.
The first of Charlotte’s four novels to be written, but the last to be published, The Professor was rejected by publishers and only first appeared in print in 1857, two years after her death. Like Agnes Grey it is significantly shorter than the other Brontë novels; also like Agnes Grey, the novel draws on its author’s own experiences (Charlotte lived in Brussels, the setting for the book, for two years in the early 1840s).
William Crimsworth emigrates from England to Brussels, becoming the ‘professor’ (really a teacher at a boarding-school) of the novel’s title. A woman working at another school tries by devious means to seduce him, but he finds himself drawn to Frances Henri, a young pupil who is half-English and half-Swiss.
4. Charlotte Brontë, Villette.
In The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, John Sutherland calls Villette the author’s most revealingly autobiographical novel. Lucy Snowe is the heroine and narrator, who becomes a teacher in a Brussels boarding school (the Villette of the novel’s title is Brontë’s fictional name for the Belgian capital).
Lucy attracts the attention of several suitors, including a professor and the school’s doctor. The novel’s romantic plot recalls the earlier and more famous Jane Eyre in certain details (Villette was published in 1853).
3. Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Of Anne’s two novels, this is the better-known. Published in 1848, the novel was disowned by Anne’s own sister, Charlotte, who thought it had been a mistake to publish it.
It’s one of the most political of all the Brontë novels. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne tried to address the problems of marital law and domestic abuse in the nineteenth century, through the abusive marriage between Arthur Huntingdon and the novel’s protagonist, Helen ‘Graham’, an artist who flees Arthur with her young son.
2. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre.
A summary of the background and plot of this novel might go something like this: in 1847, a novel called Jane Eyre was published; the author was Charlotte Brontë. One of the most famous things about Jane Eyre is that the male love interest, Mr Rochester, has locked his first wife, Bertha Mason, in the attic of his house.
As we discuss in our detailed summary and analysis of the book, the above statement is not entirely accurate. This book, which owes much to the Gothic and to melodrama as well as to the nineteenth-century realist novel, is about the orphaned Jane Eyre and her relationship with Mr Rochester, the owner of Thornfield Hall, the house where Jane goes to work as a governess.
1. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.
Emily Brontë and Kate Bush shared the same birthday (30 July): a fitting fact, since Bush’s first hit single would be a song based on Brontë’s one and only novel.
Of all the Brontë books, Wuthering Heights (1847) has the most complex narrative structure: the story is told through a multi-layered narrative which resembles a Russian doll, as one narrator gives way to another, and we find ourselves being transported back to the time when Heathcliff, a waif from Liverpool, was brought to live at Wuthering Heights by Catherine Linton’s father.
The destructive and all-consuming love story between Heathcliff and Cathy forms the main part of the novel, though the book actually follows three generations in all. It proved to be controversial upon its publication: one reviewer likened finishing the book to coming ‘fresh from a pest-house’, going on to recommend burning the book as the best course of action.
The North British Review simply said that ‘the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read’. Even Charlotte, defending but also criticising her sister’s novel following Emily’s death in 1848, felt the need to apologise for the ‘rude and strange’ nature of the book, which she attributed to her sister’s rural northern upbringing.
Emily died believing her only novel was a critical failure. Instead, it is, for our money, the greatest of all of the books by the Brontë sisters, and an all-time classic.