Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Brilliant Brontës: Brontë Fanfic

Anne Brontë (1820-1849), Emily Brontë (Thornton, 1818 - Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Brontë (Thornton, 1816 - Haworth, 1855), English writers, Oil on canvas by Patrick Branwell Brontë (1817-1848), ca 1834. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 19 Dec 2015.

Fanfiction is very popular these days - "If you love something, write a fanfic about it," an article from Entertainment Weekly enthused recently (actually about Beyoncé's new album). So, it's no surprise that there have been many stories inspired by the Brontës, online and in print. (Not quite as many novels as those inspired by Jane Austen, but a healthy amount.) Perhaps it doesn't hurt that there are so few books written by the Brontë sisters - one by Emily, two by Anne, and only three published by Charlotte in her lifetime (The Professor, written before Jane Eyre, was rejected by several publishing houses and only published posthumously) - and that many people (myself included) find their short lives endlessly fascinating, so there is a lot left to the imagination.

I read two books inspired by the Brontës for this post: The Brontë Project: A Novel of Passion, Desire, and Good PR by Jennifer Vandever and The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell. Both are fictionalized accounts of Brontë studies in academia. In both books, the protagonists are in crisis, but for different reasons. In The Brontë Project, Sara Frost is a junior scholar at a New York University; in The Madwoman Upstairs, Samantha Whipple, who happens to be the last remaining descendant of the Brontës, has just matriculated at Oxford. Sara's story begins when Claire, a Princess Diana expert, comes to campus and sends Sara's life spinning out of control with one comment at a cocktail party. In Samantha's case, she's come to university following the death of her father, a famous writer and Brontë scholar whose  untimely death has caused her to turn her back on literature and her famous heritage. Instead of wholeheartedly pursuing her studies, she finds herself the subject of articles in the school newspaper which she describes as "verbal vomit"; entangled with her father's nemesis; and receiving mysterious copies of Brontë novels, annotated in her father's handwriting.

Both novels have a wry sense of humor. In The Brontë Project, we find that

[Sara's] parents, both therapists, tried to snap her out of it. "Now, how could Cathy and Heathcliff resolve this problem by communicating their feelings before it leads to a fatality? What about the ending disturbs you? How could you change that? Could Heathcliff have worn a warmer coat? How about Cathy paying more attention to her health?" 

In The Madwoman Upstairs, Samantha has a drily sarcastic voice when narrating her own foibles, tending to tongue-in-cheek descriptions: "We entered a vast, bottomless silence. I scrambled for better conversation topics. This would all have been far less stressful in the movie version of our lives. The long silences would have been edited out."

Both novels are unafraid to discuss literary history and theory. In The Madwoman Upstairs, during Samantha's sessions with her tutor (and remembered discussions with her father), many theories are tossed into the mix, from how to discuss literature (authorial intent versus textual analysis) to the possibility that Catherine and Heathcliff are actually half-siblings to accusations that Charlotte Brontë stole Anne's story when she wrote Jane Eyre. The Brontë Project has its own theories, including one that connects the sisters to Princess Diana:

"Obviously, emotional states, even telepathy, were elevated to a place of prime significance in the works of all the Brontës," she said. "There is a kind of psychological intensity that was particularly disturbing and exciting to audiences of that time and today as well, I think. What's more, even though their works were dismissed as 'unladylike', they did focus a lot of literary attention on those aspects that have been stereotypically associated with the feminine - intuition, emotions, affairs of the heart - and made them central, and, in fact, the elements that defined a life more acutely than the day-to-day reality that existed on the surface... Likewise, I think Diana called a lot of attention to these same things - in today's parlance, self-esteem, bulimia, whatever. She was really continuing the tradition that the Brontës pioneered of accepting and using her emotional life as the point of engagement with the rest of the world."

Despite discussions of literary theory, both books are entertaining reads, though I preferred the more lively The Madwoman UpstairsThe Brontë Project lost the plot a bit in Part Two, though I did enjoy the way it employed quotes by Charlotte Brontë as chapter headings, perhaps to help readers to see the connections between "the mythology of romance [and] the reality of modern love," as the book blurb claims.

Would you like to try some Brontë fanfic for yourself? We've compiled a list of some other fictions inspired by the Brontës in the library catalog, whether you'd prefer to read fanfic based on their lives, their works, or beyond.

Lives of the Brontës

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler 

Emily's Ghost: A Novel of the Brontë Sisters by Denise Giardina 

The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë by Laura Joh Rowland 

Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael  [eAudioBook]

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë by Syrie James [eBook]
Based on the Books

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys 

The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips 

Jane Slayre: The Literary Classic - With a Blood-Sucking Twist by Charlotte Brontë and Sherri Browning Erwin [eAudioBook] 

Jane Eyrotica by Charlotte Brontë and Karena Rose 

Emma Brown by Clare Boyland and Charlotte Brontë 


Mrs Rochester by Hilary Bailey [eBook]

Jane Eyre's Daughter by Elizabeth Newark [eBook] 


The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde 

*This post is part of our year-long Brilliant Brontës challenge! To see more posts, search for the labels "Brontë, challenge" in the blog sidebar.  


Anonymous said...

Listening to a couple of therapists dissect Cathy and Heathcliff's relationship would really upset me. However, I put a hold on Emily's Ghost. Emily is my favorite Bronte.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this article! I am re-inspired to check out Bronte books. I tend to be lazy and let the BBC deliver literary experiences to me, but I'm going to go look for The Madwoman Upstairs.

Thank you!!