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Getting Graphic with the Brontës
Engaging a pop medium helps to tell the origin stories of these enduring literary icons for new audiences.
You’re reading a PopPoetry guest post by Jane Satterfield. Jane’s most recent book is Apocalypse Mix, which was awarded the Autumn House Poetry Prize selected by David St. John. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship, the 49th Parallel Award for Poetry from Bellingham Review, the Ledbury Poetry Festival Prize, and more. Recent poetry and essays appear in DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Literary Matters, The Missouri Review, Orion, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is married to poet Ned Balbo and lives in Baltimore, where she is a professor of writing at Loyola University Maryland. More about Jane’s work and the Brontës is available in a new podcast at The Common.
In the ebb and flow of popular culture inspired by classic literature, the Brontë sisters are never far away. From Kate Bush’s hit song “Wuthering Heights,” the inspiration for multiple flash mob re-enactments, to internet quizzes that help you align the sisters’ profiles with your own, to Emily, Frances O’Connor’s 2022 biopic that brings a passionately rebellious Emily to life as played by Sex Education’s Emma Mackey, Heathcliff and Catherine, Jane Eyre and Rochester, the dark winds of the moors never entirely disappear.
Bookish daughters of an Irish-born clergyman, the Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, raised in Haworth, an industrial town at the edge of the Yorkshire Moors—seemed destined to become governesses or teachers, not renowned writers whose work would resonate far beyond the Victorian era of their origin. The success of Sally Wainright’s recent film, To Walk Invisible, reminds us not only of the sisters’ iconic status as literary writers, but also that their biographies remain sources of fascination for the general reading public.
The sisters’ imprint on pop culture springs from their wildly popular novels—Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall—spellbinding tales of gothic flair that follow the struggles of proto-feminist protagonists who resist the social expectations of their time and navigate romantic drama as they attempt to carve out an independent life. Yet because the real lives of the sisters hold dramatic plot twists of their own, the sisters’ biographies continue to inspire interest, even obsession. Despite suffering more than their share of tragedy, their tenacity in the face of a restricting culture is astonishing. Two recent graphic editions bring their origin story to life.
Isabel Greenberg’s Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës (Abrams Comic Arts, 2020) gets straight to the heart of the Brontë origin story’s most fascinating aspect: those first sparks of childhood imagination. By this point, the four siblings (more about their brother Branwell in a moment) had survived several tragedies: their mother’s death, possibly due to long-term complications following Anne’s birth, and the deaths of elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth, exposed to typhus and TB while boarding at the Clergy Daughters’ School, immortalized in Jane Eyre as Lowood School, run by merciless pedagogues and rife with disease.
The Parsonage where the Brontë siblings grew up was located next to a graveyard and perched between an industrial town and the wilds of the moors—as Greenberg pictures it, the house must have seemed a literal beacon, its windows “the only light before a great and infinite blackness.” The three sisters’ posthumous success stands in dramatic counterpoint to the decline of their hard-drinking brother whose literary achievement was derailed by addiction but poetically resurrected for the 21st century by England’s Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. Because his fall from grace was so spectacular, it’s easy to overlook Branwell’s role in sparking their creative genius. Their father’s gift of twelve toy soldiers to his son prompted the inventive spirits of all four children: they created names for each of “The Twelve” and over the course of months and years, developed and recorded tales that captured the social and political history of a complex imaginary universe they called Glass Town—a world based on stories of exploration and intrigue they encountered from reading in their father’s copies of Blackwood’s Magazine.
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Greenberg’s brightly colored illustrations are the perfect vehicle for immersing us in the intrigues of Glass Town and its later spin-off Gondal—elaborate paracosms reflecting the delight in childhood storytelling that, in the absence of films or records we can actually witness, were recorded in tiny handmade books, like those I saw in the Parsonage Museum’s exhibit case one late December afternoon in the ’90s. Their minute script is an utter marvel—a clever, microscopic facsimile of newsprint.
Greenberg’s panels are magical renditions that bring to life the playful elements of world-building familiar to children and creative artists anywhere: the siblings hover—larger-than-life creators—over real and imagined landscapes, each new tale resurrecting battle-felled heroes and heroines whose lives and adventures would resume anew in an endless continuing saga. In Glass Town’s pages, we meet the suffragettes, poets, explorers, revolutionaries, and rulers the siblings imagined themselves to be—characters vital and magnetic enough to serve as the templates for their later poetry and prose. Glass Town offers a poignant glimpse into the creative life and the interlinked genius of the four siblings.
Given their status as novelists, it’s easy to forget that the sisters’ literary identity pivots around poetry.
However connected by their early lives and experience, the Brontë sisters remained highly individual, women with distinct temperaments, personalities, and gifts. It’s the reason, perhaps, that some readers gravitate toward one Brontë or another, seeking the sister with whose work or character they feel the most affinity. Emily was the irascible, passionate nature-lover who would have rather spent time with wild creatures like her trained hawk Nero or out walking alone on the heath than enduring the suffocating social niceties forced on unmarried women. Anne was devout and duty-driven, a woman who found the roles of teacher and governess rewarding and would explore the drawbacks of womanhood in novels that offered both keen social critique and a then-radical vision of female empowerment. Charlotte, who would lose Branwell, Emily, and Anne in quick succession to the ravages of tuberculosis, would become a best-selling success and find joy in her marriage to Arthur Bell, her father’s curate.
Given their status as novelists, it’s easy to forget that the sisters’ literary identity pivots around poetry—fangirls of Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley, they were committed practitioners of the art. Indeed, their first serious joint effort in publishing was poetry, and they’d actually hoped to earn money from this work.
The possibility of earning a living through writing held a special appeal for Charlotte, who found the labors of teaching and serving as a governess exhausting and demoralizing—not really surprising for someone who had always enjoyed free rein in her father’s library and engaged in elaborate world-building games with her siblings. (Charlotte’s “The Teachers Monologue,” a poem I first encountered in a Wom-Po listserv Foremothers Friday post, describes classroom work as the “yoke” she must put on).
Charlotte’s accidental discovery of Emily’s work—poems that Emily had fully intended to keep hidden from prying eyes—set in motion the publishing scheme that would ultimately carry their voices and visions far beyond Haworth Parsonage. The Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (jointly curated by all three sisters who cannily agreed to veil their identities with pseudonyms that cast them as male writers) was published in 1846 by Aylott and Jones at the sisters’ own expense. Though positively reviewed, the collection sold just two copies.
Happily, Emily’s poems, having undergone a reevaluation today, stand out for their visionary scope, environmental acuity, and striking musicality—qualities captured in recent song cycles by recording artists that include Swedish folk singer Sofie Livebrant and The Unthanks, Yorkshire-based folk artists who include sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank; the group’s settings of Emily’s texts were performed on Emily’s piano in the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Taking a different focus than Glass Town, Glynnis Fawkes’s graphic biography, Charlotte Brontë before Jane Eyre (Disney-Hyperion, 2019), opens with a moving introduction by Alison Bechdel, who first encountered the famous novel via a Classics Illustrated edition—those literary works, “boiled down into a format that you could ingest in an hour or two”—ideal sources for a self-declared “overachiever” who hoped to “work her way through the entire literary canon in a week or two.” It wasn’t until later, as an NYC subway commuter in her early twenties that Bechdel re-discovered Jane Eyre, finding herself “lost as anyone reading it in 1847 London,” and swept up in “[t]he struggle of a young woman trying to hang onto her sense of self in a hostile world.” Part of the novel’s power, Bechdel suggests, “derives from the fact that Charlotte Brontë was drawing so directly from her own experience.”
This aspect forms the center of Fawkes’ take on Brontë’s life—a strategic choice that makes Charlotte Brontë before Jane Eyre an intimate and touching portrayal of the creative spirit behind the beloved novels. Fawkes’ book is rich with reminders about the work of literary production—frames show the sisters walking through a rugged landscape, thunderheads gathering as they conspire and debate. Elsewhere, pages lift off from the desk and flutter in the air as Charlotte writes, the rejected manuscript of Jane Eyre wrapped in parcel paper resting on a nearby table, returned again and again by post. Fawkes’ vision of the sisters, refreshing and witty, reveals the interplay between their daily routines and intensely vivid inner lives. A brief discussion of real-life events as they link to specific panels offers helpful context that connects individual scenes to documented material in Brontë biographies and other sources, making this a must-read for both Brontë fans and anyone else who is Brontë-curious.
The opening pages of Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre draw on a decisive moment when twenty-one-year-old Charlotte—immersed in teaching duties at Roe Head School—receives a letter from Poet Laureate Robert Southey in response to her fan letter requesting literary advice. The result? A demoralizing reminder that “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.” In a page of eight subtly framed and shaded panels, Fawkes creates a window into Charlotte’s inner world, tracking the range of her expressions from mild dismay to irritation, anger, and defiance as Southey’s words hover above her head. It’s a powerful way to engage the reader, and, at the same time, foreground the steely ambition at the core of Charlotte’s character—one of many qualities shared by Emily and Anne that allowed the sisters to create work that transcends its time and place and win new generations of readers, many of whom have found a way of making a life in the arts.