Charlotte Brontë’s legacy is often reduced to romance, rugged moorlands, and Mr Rochester. But her literary impact extends far beyond her best-known novel, Jane Eyre (1847), and it can be traced in some of the unlikeliest of places. In the bicentenary of her birth, Sophie Franklin, author of Charlotte Brontë Revisited, suggests the five unexpected ways in which we can see her ongoing influence on and relevance to culture today.
Game of Thrones
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As children, Charlotte Brontë and her siblings – Anne, Branwell, and Emily – created intricate worlds that revolved around war, rivalry, and passion. Their tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, set in a fictionalised West African colony, consumed their early imaginations and honed their writing skills. As Patti Smith pointed out in her Folio Society introduction to Wuthering Heights, the violent conflicts, sexual politics, and narrative complexity that underpin much of the Brontë juvenilia make the siblings’ sagas a natural predecessor of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. The premise of both is similar: various figureheads – some magical, some mortal – vie for power and are willing to use brute force and dark magic to come out on top.
There may be no dragons in Charlotte Brontë’s early writing, but there are plenty of plot twists, supernatural forces, and even the occasional character coming back from the dead.
Fifty Shades of Jane
Many readers have noted the sadomasochistic relationships in Charlotte Brontë’s novels. E. L. James was not the first creator of the ‘red room’ or the darkly mysterious Byronic male ‘hero’. Elaine Showalter reads the famous red room scene in Jane Eyre in terms of Victorian flagellation pornography. And Rochester, as with so many of Brontë’s male love interests, is referred to as ‘master’ by the otherwise obstinate Jane, while she repeatedly masters him in their playful conversations. So, there is little doubt that Brontë can beat Fifty Shades of Grey at its own game. By placing a woman’s needs at the centre of her work, Brontë’s treatment of female sexual desire was ground-breaking for its time. One contemporary reviewer, Edwin Percy Whipple, was so shocked by the ‘animal appetite’ of Jane and Rochester’s courtship that he likened it to that of ‘kangaroos’. Yet the proximity between (non-consensual) sex and violence in Brontë’s novels and, indeed, Fifty Shades is still troubling – particularly as it raises questions about how we think of female sexuality today.
It is difficult to separate the Brontë family from their home in Haworth. Those ‘wuthering’ moors are so embedded in our image of the Brontës partly because the landscape had such an impact on their writing. As a teenager, Charlotte dreamt of being an artist, someone who recreated the intricacies of nature through art. When her artistic hopes were scuppered by poor eyesight, she instead painted vivid scenes of natural beauty with words. Her sensitivity to nature is demonstrated by Elizabeth Gaskell in her Life of Charlotte Brontë, when she notes Charlotte’s intense interest in the sky. For Brontë, the sky became a companion in times of solitude ‘more than any inanimate object on earth, – more than the moors themselves’.
Yet, nature was not merely a source of comfort. Brontë and today’s wildlife writers, such as Kathleen Jamie and Robert Macfarlane, are drawn to writing about nature in order to make sense of the world around them. Brontë grew up in Yorkshire during the Industrial Revolution, when society was changing rapidly and the natural world was under threat from factory smoke and city expansion. So far, the twenty-first century has experienced a global financial crisis and numerous ecological disasters, placing our environment at risk. Both periods are defined by instability and the urgency to act; in response, their respective writers turn to nature.
Due to her father’s small income, Brontë and her sisters had to seek employment beyond the parsonage. For non-wealthy but well-educated women, becoming a governess was often the obvious career choice. Brontë grew up with this fate in mind, but undertook her governess duties reluctantly and sporadically. In Shirley, she voices her dissatisfaction with the limited options available to (middle-class) women through Caroline Helstone, who longs for ‘an occupation’. Of course, Brontë found an occupation in the form of writing, one that involved entering the predominantly male literary sphere. Her novels, though successful, were also criticised for being distinctly unfeminine in style and content. It is true that Brontë viewed women and work from a privileged position – though by no means rich, she was never destitute. To her politically radical friend, Mary Taylor, Brontë’s treatment of the Woman Question was pitiful. But the very fact that Brontë broke away from domestic duties to imagine an alternative path for herself and her sisters proves her willingness to think beyond her situation.
Even today, when young women are repeatedly reminded of their biological clocks, the decision to prioritise a career still generates controversy. In the mid-nineteenth century, Brontë was already defying convention.
The Beauty Myth
Critics continue to obsess over Charlotte Brontë’s appearance. Claire Harman’s recent Brontë biography mentions a possible self-portrait of the author which was less than flattering. Although Harman’s discussion of the image focuses on how Brontë saw herself as a young woman, several reviewers of the biography latched onto her apparent ugliness, with Paula Byrne boldly stating: ‘It can’t be denied: Charlotte Brontë was no beauty’. If such comments were accompanied by an in-depth analysis of the changing cultural ideals of beauty and the ways in which such standards affect how we see ourselves in society, then it might make for an illuminating read. Instead, Charlotte Brontë is reduced to the surface of her life, one at which we are encouraged to laugh or smirk. It is a means of undermining her achievements as a writer, a form of deflection. George Eliot enjoys the same treatment. Yet no one cares whether or not Charles Dickens was a looker. Even for ground-breaking writers like Charlotte Brontë, it seems beauty still takes precedence over brains.