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Charlotte Bronte (Photo by Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Smells like teen spirit: the Brontë women and me

Essay | 16 minute read
The plain Janes, lonely singletons and outsider women who took the road less travelled gave comfort to one writer in her teens, and saved her at a sensitive junction in her life

‘The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely’ – Charlotte Brontë

‘She’s such a Brontë heroine,’ I said to a friend, while reading Gail Honeyman’s Costa award-winning novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I had seen something of my teen heroines in the protagonist, an eccentric young woman who lives a solitary life. ‘You think everything is about the Brontës!’ my friend replied, which made me laugh.

Eleanor, who self-medicates with vodka, The Archers and an adolescent crush on a musician on Twitter, may seem a world away from those rural curate’s daughters, but the curious thing is, two hundred years later, so much of popular fiction is still about the Brontës. True, these novels don’t all take place in Yorkshire, land of wild, windswept moors. But they offer powerful treatises on loneliness, class and identity – just as Charlotte, Anne and Emily did.

I’d even argue that the best of modern pop-lit (Sarah Perry, Paula Hawkins, Sally Rooney) follows a distinct Brontë tradition. From women like Rachel in The Girl on the Train (the ‘barren, divorced, soon-to-be-homeless alcoholic’) to Frances, the self-involved twenty-one-year-old in Conversations With Friends, who flirts with being the other woman, there is in these Brontëan stories always a healthy dose of self-pity along with a sassy independent heroine (very Villette).

The jobs have changed, of course. The main character is no longer a downtrodden governess or companion (Jane Eyre, Villette, Agnes Grey); now the modern Brontë heroine is more likely to be a sub-editor (Harriet Lane’s Alys, Always, Rachel Cusk’s Saving Agnes) or else working in IT or accounts (Eleanor Oliphant) – jobs that provide a basic income but keep them firmly on the sidelines while the pretty people vault up the ladder.

I’m hopelessly biased of course. The Brontës meant everything to me growing up – they still do, actually. Their heroines face impossible odds, but remain thinking, feeling women who crave love. These women got me through a tortured adolescence in the West Midlands where I felt plain, sensitive, and bookish (it’s never easy being the daughter of teachers, especially when your mother teaches at your school). I took courage from the Brontë heroines who were neither beautiful nor rich. They had to work for a living. Often psychologically flawed, they demanded the right to a rich interior life, and they refused to accept a fate that had been laid down for them. Amen to that.

Wincing slightly at my friend’s retort about my Brontë obsession, I carried on reading Honeyman’s novel. Was I really imagining it? Then bang. On page sixty, we are given the case notes from Eleanor’s social worker. Her foster carers ‘Mr and Mrs Reed’ find the young Eleanor insolent and rude. She refuses to light the fires or clean out the ashes. The relationship with the Reed children, ‘John’, ‘Eliza’ and ‘Georgie’ has broken down. Mrs Reed disciplines her, locks her in her bedroom where Eleanor, terrified of the dark, sobs hysterically.

It is, of course, a thinly veiled reference to Jane Eyre’s childhood with the Reed family and there are recurring clues and parallels along the way: the book may be located in modern-day Glasgow, a city of Tesco Metros and thrash metal gigs, but like Jane Eyre, it features a devastating house fire, a madwoman in the attic (‘Mummy’ shares many of the characteristics of the first Mrs Rochester) and a scarred protagonist.

It is there in the names of characters and finer detail too: the head of the Children and Families Social Work Department, in charge of the orphaned Eleanor, is called ‘Mr Brocklehurst’: the supervisor of the boarding school for orphaned girls, Lowood Institute, where Jane Eyre is sent after her time with the Reeds. ‘Rebecca Scatcherd’, the name of Eleanor’s case worker, is reminiscent of Miss Scatcherd, the teacher who bullies Jane’s friend, Helen Burns, who dies in the school infirmary at Lowood. Eleanor’s therapist – who teases out what really happened in her childhood – is called Maria Temple (the teacher at Lowood who defends the girls and tries to alleviate the harsh conditions).

It’s there in the language, too. Eleanor studied Classics at university (her diction is sometimes reminiscent of a nineteenth-century heroine) and for a long time she was passed between schools and foster parents. The need for money and independence is a constant preoccupation. As she observes: ‘If I were to run out of funds, find myself indebted, there is no one, not a single soul, on whom I could call to bail me out. I’d be destitute. I have no anonymous benefactor to pay my rent, no family members or friends who could kindly lend me the money … It was important that I did not allow myself to forget that.’

It is a sentiment that could easily have flowed from the pen of Jane Eyre or Villette’s Lucy Snowe.

I sometimes think you can chart where we are in society now according to how the Brontës are received. When I was seventeen, Kate Bush appeared on Top of the Pops, all gypsy hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, singing ‘Wuthering Heights’ (‘Heathcliff, it’s me I’m Cathy, I’ve come home’), and suddenly everyone wanted to read Emily’s tale of doomed love.

Kate Bush, 1980 (Photo by Lichfield/Getty Images)

Later I moved on to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, marvelling at a modern plot-line where a headstrong heroine falls for an abusive alcoholic, then plans her escape (probably the most sane, achieved Brontë novel of the lot). But it is Charlotte Brontë who will always hold my heart. Dark, tiny, unfashionable Charlotte, who feared from early on that she was destined to be an ‘old maid’. In her writing, the fear of madness, of going blind, of being invisible and loveless is palpable.

As the eldest of three girls myself, I identified with Charlotte’s need to be seen. As for her un-beautiful appearance, I understood this female self-torment. Even Elizabeth Gaskell described her friend thus: ‘her features were plain, large, and ill set’.

No wonder Jane Eyre is catnip for depressed teenage girls with a mirror complex. After a row my with my parents, or bullying at school (my peer group was often a puzzle), I’d retreat to my room and read the scene where Jane is humiliated by Blanche Ingram and her mother as they discuss the stupidity and incompetence of governesses.

Jane escapes the room only for Mr Rochester to ask why she is depressed. He guesses she is close to tears – ‘There they are now, shining and swimming; and a bead has slipped from the lash and fallen on to the flag,’ he teases – but a defiant Jane refuses to give him her pain. Even now when I read that chapter, I get the same whoosh of emotion, it’s like tapping into the mother lode. Looking back there was a quasi-erotic thrill to my unhappiness (so much of Jane Eyre is unashamedly erotic). But after I’d sobbed my heart out, I’d have to go back out into the world and make my way just as plain, resilient Jane does. Sadder but wiser.

As I revised for my A Levels, I began to collect outsider heroines: brainy Marian in The Woman in White (with a trace of down on her upper lip), Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, Hilda in Eustace and Hilda. Women who made mistakes and had to take the road less travelled.

In between filling in university application forms and attending the Mormon disco (seriously the most interesting night out in my West Midlands town), I devoured other poetesses of isolation: Stevie Smith, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop. I learned Bishop’s poem, ‘One Art’, by heart; ‘Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture/I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’ When they reproduced it on the London tube a few years ago, I felt slightly sick that my secret was out.

The late-1970s was also a time of second-wave feminist revolt. When a friend lent me a copy of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literacy Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, it was like a bomb going off in my school bag. The authors argue that the imprisoned Bella Mason is Jane’s dark avatar, symbolic of the rage she has had to repress since childhood. And that she acts out Jane’s secret fantasies – destroying the bridal veil, burning down the house – for Jane.

I became slight obsessed by the return of the repressed in nineteenth-century literature. Plain girls who have to sit on their feelings do feel genuine fury at times. I, of all people, knew that.

Not all of my role models were plain, though. Some were far more beautiful than my gawky teenage self: Isabel Archer in The Portrait of A Lady, Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, most of Jean Rhys’s spiky narcissists.

But they too got burned by life; because of vanity or genteel poverty, or a poorly chosen marriage. You wanted to shake them and say, ‘Don’t do it!’ But they did it anyway, and were forced to take a different route from the one imagined for themselves.

I particularly loved tales of older sisters, eclipsed by gorgeous younger siblings, who made a late or unexpected marriage: Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, or Margaret Schlegel in Howards End (the recent BBC adaptation with Hayley Atwell as Margaret was three hours of painful joy for me).

Jane Austen’s Persuasion gave me brief hope. If Anne Elliot, left on the shelf (at twenty-eight!) after a broken engagement, could restore her bloom, then so could I. I just needed to factor in more cliff walks and be ready to save the day if a lovely young rival fell off the Cobb at Lyme Regis.

‘I particularly loved tales of older sisters, eclipsed by gorgeous younger siblings, who made a late or unexpected marriage’; screen adaptation of ‘Sense and Sensibility” (Photo by Liaison Agency)

Then, in my first year at university, wildly excited to be away from home, but out of my depth socially (it was a very Sloaney London college) I encountered the shattering primal force that is Charlotte Brontës Villette. Written after the death of Anne and Emily – when the worst had already happened – the novel draws on her time as a student-teacher in Brussels and her one-sided love for a married man.

The husband of the headmistress of the school, Constantin Heger, was kind to her and like many lonely, infatuated girls she built it up into a 3D relationship (ahem, guilty as charged). After she left, she wrote hundreds of letters to which he never replied.

Villette’s protagonist, Lucy Snowe, who possesses ‘no attractive accomplishments … no beauty,’ is an essay in loneliness. We guess her parents must have died and lost all their money before doing so (she never tells). Silent, watchful, she is also absurdly brave. Penniless she takes herself off, first to London, then to Villette (a fictionalised Brussels), to earn her living as a teacher.

For anyone who has had to make a pact with aloneness, Villette is devastatingly accurate. The central section where Lucy is left alone at school for the long vacation and falls into a near-hallucinatory state, still haunts me. As a student in London, I remember trying to get through long weekends solo – sleeping until 2 p.m., walking miles to distract myself from the pretty people getting ready for Saturday night parties.

And yet I can’t decide if Lucy is a classic self-saboteur. Even when something hopeful happens – a visit to the theatre, a promised letter – she drills herself not to become happy or complacent. These things are not for you, the harsh voice of reason instructs her. I know that painful inner critic well.

But Villette also gave me a blueprint for pain. You can turn the most humiliating incident into copy. Lucy can be pompous, sardonic, but this is a woman with strong passions. She responds physically to men – first the empathetic Dr John (sadly destined for a younger, prettier lover) and then the combative M. Paul Emmanuel.

It’s hardly a classic ‘meet-cute’ relationship. She spends very little time thinking about Paul until Book Three. But clearly he thinks about her a lot (something to gladden the heart of any modern wallflower). While friends and colleagues see Lucy as a quiet, inoffensive bluestocking, he believes her to be a coquettish, volatile, over-keen on fashion.

The scene where he begs her, voice choking, not to set such a store by physical beauty, still moves me. A man – however confident – is asking to be seen in spite of his looks. The writing feels impossibly radical to me today.

I remember my male university tutors were not fond of the Brontës, considering them too populist, morbid, hysterical. Male friends teased me for my middlebrow tastes. Did I really think all literature was autobiography? When clever contemporaries were reading Conrad and Solzhenitsyn, I was still in the attic with the chicks. But interestingly, twenty years later, we’ve come full circle. The bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth last year saw an outpouring of  TV docudramas, radio programmes, plays, biographies and exhibitions. The #MeToo generation have embraced the Brontës wholeheartedly.

And, in 2018, a century after women over thirty years of age won the vote, I still feel proud of those books. Writing collectively under a pseudonym (so as to be able to write novels in a medium and era dominated by men), the Brontë sisters kicked it out of the park.

‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be,’ the poet laureate, Robert Southey, pompously advised Charlotte when she sent him her poems. She proved him wrong. As Claire Harman reminds us in her biography, Charlotte Brontë: A Life, nothing like Jane Eyre had been seen before. ‘No one had ever diarised the injustices of childhood so vividly; no one had thought to do so as “an autobiography” (the novel’s subtitle) – Jane Eyre was in fact the very first novel to use a first-person child narrator. Jane’s anger and bewilderment and pain therefore were like dispatches from a new frontier, a territory that everyone knew about but that until then had no maps or coordinates.’

I love those dispatches from a new frontier. If women don’t get to flourish just as men do, society loses so much talent.

The problem with reading the world according to Brontë, however, is that it gives you a rather unrealistic view of romantic love. The message is: romantic passion will conquer all. However plain or diminished you may feel, the Byronic hero will eventually find you. As the daughter of French teachers with no brothers, I had a very unrealistic take on male desire.

I realise now these beloved novels gave me dreadful advice. I grew up waiting to be a chosen (met?) by a man who can see beyond looks to claim you as his equal. Naively, I believed men would seek out bluestockings (who hid a passionate nature beneath a bookish exterior). And dear reader, this was before the age of dating apps and internet porn.

Arguably it was Charlotte’s fault. When I talk to dramatist Sally Wainwright, who wrote and directed 2016’s wonderful one-off BBC drama, To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters, she thinks Emily and Anne were far more clear-sighted about men than Charlotte. ‘I love the way that in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that the main male character is a real bastard and a half, and Anne Brontë doesn’t try and make him into a romantic figure in the way that Charlotte does in Jane Eyre. And equally, with Heathcliff, Emily Brontë didn’t write the romantic figure that we all think of him these days – that came about because of the 1939 film with Laurence Oliver. In Wuthering Heights he’s a domestic abuser, a really horrible man.’

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

So yes, Charlotte wasn’t the best agony aunt. Her advice – a diet of hard work, fresh air and modest dressing – doesn’t always work, I find. Especially if you sometimes find the admin of relationships agonising. Charlotte did make her own sensible marriage in the end – to Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate, at the age of thirty-six – only to die of pneumonia (and extreme morning sickness) two years later along with with her unborn child. But what she did give me was a lesson in resilience. And a love of outsider heroines. As Paula Hawkins observed recently, sometimes women have to behave badly to save their lives.

The Brontës saved my life at a particularly sensitive juncture. And I’ll always be grateful. The thought of these three women in the damp Haworth parsonage, writing all their lives in tiny fairy handwriting, living in their heads, while a narcissistic father and indulged brother took centre stage, makes me weep. But out of that tiny, circumscribed world, they fashioned books that made them global literary superstars.

And Brontë-esque fiction still makes money. In 2016, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent almost singlehanded rescued the book trade. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine looks on course to do the same this year. Honeyman is not the first to weave a Brontëan subtext into her novel. There are shelves of fan fiction about madwomen in attics, women who ran and female Victorian serial killers (only Jane Austen seems to invite as many spin-offs). But Eleanor feels like the real deal. Populist, yes, but heartfelt too. It’s brave for pop-lit to tackle grinding loneliness.

Honeyman says her heroine grew out of a newspaper article where a woman in her twenties confessed that after leaving work on a Friday night she often wouldn’t talk to anyone until she returned on Monday morning. ‘I started to think how could that be the case, and I realised there were lots of ways people could end up leading that sort of life through no fault of their own.’

As Eleanor herself puts it, in a rare moment of self-pity: ‘These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted.’

Lucy Snowe could have written those exact words. However, Oliphant skews the Brontë model in her depiction of her anti-hero, Raymond, who rescues Eleanor with small, patient acts of kindness. There is no great Byronic hero in the mould of Heathcliff and Rochester here. We can call off the search. As Honeyman observes: ‘I think there are a lot of Raymonds in the world: he’s the sort of ordinary, kind, decent man who doesn’t often get featured in fiction.’ For me the most important thing about Honeyman’s novel is this is not quite a love story, it’s a celebration of friendship. The Brontës’ novels are rich in friendship (sometimes as a compensation for lost love) and it’s an honourable tradition.

They say everyone has their favourite Brontë. Sometimes, many years on, I disloyally wish mine wasn’t Charlotte. It’s almost as if my shaky romantic life was mapped out from the start. As Lucy Snowe claims: ‘Loverless and inexpectant of love, I was as safe from spies in my heart-poverty, as the beggar from thieves in his destitution of purse.’

But that’s the thing about Charlotte. Such original, intoxicating language makes the taboo act of feeling lonely sound so damn interesting. And, on the whole, I can live with that. And so can my inner teen.